[Author’s Note: I experienced horrible postpartum depression during Julian’s first months of life and my first months as a mother. No one can say for sure whether this affected our ability to bond, and whether it further affected his ability to form secure attachments with others. But my layperson’s guess is: probably. There are many other factors and experiences that played into Julian’s ability (or lack of ability) to cope with his reality, but I often wonder what role our difficult beginning played. If you are experiencing postpartum depression, reach out for support. Go to: http://www.postpartum.net.]
Journal Entry: January 1990, Boston
I already have a history of depression, so I figure, “this is just the postpartum version; why wouldn’t I be going through this?” At the age of 11, the onset of puberty sent my neurotransmitters into a monthly maelstrom. Approximately ten days every month (if you do the math, that’s four months out of the year, people) I’m at the mercy of my hormones, and not very pleasant to be around. Yes, that’s a euphemism for: I-can-be-a-total-bitch. I don’t even like being around me! In my mid-20s I finally made the connection between hormonal shifts and emotional ones. I’m not saying it’s an excuse for a bad attitude, but it’s part of my reality.
In addition to the dramatic and unpredictable emotional rollercoaster, I am burdened with all the other symptoms of PMS: the abdominal bloating, the cramping, the tender breasts, the lower back pain, the acne, the achy joints, the migraines, the food cravings, the spike in clumsiness, the easy bruising, the inability to make a decision or concentrate or remember. Seriously. All the symptoms.
But my monthly horror show was a walk in the park compared to this first month of being a Mom. Even so, the postpartum depression all by itself might be manageable if other forces were not conspiring against me. (Did I mention paranoia as one of the symptoms?)
First of all, my colicky baby cries incessantly. I wonder how something so small can make such an ear-splitting racket. He cries so hard his tiny body trembles as if it’s being electrocuted. I check him for the usual suspects: dirty diaper, hunger, too cold, too hot. None of that seems to be the problem. I change him, nurse him, burp him, hold him, rock him, sing to him…all useless.
It‘s more than the incessant crying though; it is the ungodly pitch of his screams that sets my entire nervous system on edge. My fight/flight/freeze response is constantly switched “on.” No wonder I feel stressed out!
I also feel alone. Although Phil stayed home for the first two weeks, and my mother came from New York to help for the third (thank God!), as week four begins, my son and I are on our own. It feels like I have no one to turn to for help. Nothing could have prepared me for the isolation I’m feeling. Where is my village? You know, the village it takes to raise a child?
I am still exhausted, possibly even more exhausted, than I was those first moments after Julian’s premiere. His eating schedule requires that I bare my breasts with annoying frequency, playing the role of milk machine every two hours around the clock. The thought of Phil coming anywhere near my boobs is downright repulsive to me now. The one part of my body that had been this amazing source of sexual arousal, pleasure and satisfaction, has turned me into a cow. I don’t think we’re ever having sex again. My son is going to be an only child.
When Julian sleeps, I try to take advantage and get some shut-eye. One look in the mirror makes it crystal clear that I am sleep-deprived. I look like hell. I didn’t have dark circles like this under my eyes even when I was in law school pulling all-nighters.
I haven’t had the pleasure of sleeping through the night since before Thanksgiving. Jesus, that’s three months! I was either peeing every hour or I couldn’t get horizontal in bed because of horrible heartburn. Towards the end of the pregnancy, when all my organs were being squished upwards in my torso by the growing alien inside of me, I resorted to carrying a bottle of Pepto-Bismol in my purse, chugging from it like a shameless alcoholic taking swigs out of a paper bag, just to keep the contents of my stomach from exiting through my head.
Sometimes I fret about how my mood might be affecting Julian, but I don’t know how to get relief – other than to sleep, and there never seems to be enough time for that. With his feeding schedule, I’m prevented from achieving that deep sleep one needs to feel truly restored and recharged. I also read somewhere that sleep deprivation can lead to psychosis. Isn’t that just perfect?
When I am able to sleep, I dream of daycare sites decorated in soft pastels, playing gentle New Age lullabies, where I can drop Julian off. No questions asked. No judgment. Just blissful, mother-earth, hippie types with flowers in their hair, long skirts and Birkenstocks. They welcome my baby into their arms and tell me to go do whatever it is I need or want to do. My baby will be well cared for and gleeful upon my return. It’s a recurring dream that delivers a powerful message: I am the one in need of mothering.
My life can be reduced to an equation: (Sleep deprivation + roller-coastering hormones) x (colicky baby + New England winter) = crazed mother. There are moments when I am so emotionally frayed I wonder who will survive the day: me or this little creature I made? By nightfall, I am surprised (and grateful) we are both still breathing. Feeling and thinking this way is beginning to scare me.
I hate to admit (it actually horrifies me) that my predominant emotional state towards my innocent infant is flagrant resentment. If I didn’t have a baby I could sleep. If I didn’t have a baby I could wash my hair. If I didn’t have a baby I could go see a movie. If I didn’t have a baby I could go back to the job I hate. Which, honest to God, seems appealing.
How has it come to this? How can I feel this way about my own flesh and blood? What kind of monster am I? Who can I share this with, without running the risk of being locked up and having my baby taken away from me, or at least being harshly judged by others? I don’t believe I’ve ever been this depressed, and the lack of sleep has driven me to the point of cuckoo. I’m alone all day (no, the baby doesn’t count as “company”), and I’m a prisoner in my own home because it is so flipping cold outside.
I’ve managed to come up with some odd coping skills: I bundle us both up, put Julian in the stroller, and walk him through the neighborhood in freezing temperatures. The icy air on my face has the effect of mainlined caffeine. It is the only thing that helps me to feel awake. The little old ladies of the neighborhood pass us and give me accusing looks as if to say, “Is she trying to kill her baby by exposing it to this cold?” (Didn’t I mention we are both bundled up?)
Alternatively, I lay Julian in his crib, wrap myself in coat, cap, gloves, scarf, and walk out to the porch, shutting the front door of the house firmly behind me. I stand out there doing nothing for as long as I can tolerate the cold. Our home is well insulated and this provides me a temporary reprieve from Julian’s screaming.
I worry the police are going to show up on our doorstep, alerted by the neighbors that a baby is being harmed in a home close by. All I want, really, is a break from his crying. But it won’t stop. I imagine this is how mothers become alcoholics.
We just inherited a little wind-up crib that swings for a maximum period of twenty minutes. Twenty precious minutes. Long enough to take a guilt-free shower. Prior to the arrival of this ingenious Mommy-saver, I showered to the accompaniment of Julian howling. Showering in silence for 20 minutes is like a week at the spa.
I discovered a baby shower gift in the back of the coat closet: one of those snuggly things you can carry your baby around in, while allowing your arms the freedom to function as an adult. It took me hours to figure out how to strap it on. I was terrified I’d crisscross the straps incorrectly and Julian would suddenly slip through one of the holes, landing head first on our hardwood floor. Once I decipher the “Secrets of the Snuggly,” I load him in front of me, his eyes peering out towards the world (he fusses if I face him towards my chest). This allows me to get things done (exciting stuff like: cooking, laundry, going to the bathroom) while we move through the house attached to one another. It’s the motion and change of scenery he seems to appreciate the most, as if the ennui of having to stare at the same patch of ceiling for more than a few seconds from the confinement of his crib is downright insulting.
We go for drives to nowhere in particular. As long as my foot is on the gas, he’s a silent, angelic cherub. I’ve had to learn all the routes that avoid red lights, because the second I step on the brakes, he starts wailing again. I refer to this as the “Red Light Blues.” I wish I had the talent to write a song about it. I’m sure it would make me rich.
Phil came home from work the other night after 8:00 p.m. I was still in my bathrobe and hadn’t bathed. He made the mistake of asking me what I had done all day. A reasonable question from a man who was awake before the crack of dawn, had done a full day’s work, and had commuted back home in the same time it had taken me to do absolutely nothing by the looks of things. Why wasn’t I showered and dressed? He didn’t actually ask, but the perplexed expression on his face said it all: “You’re a loser, an incompetent mother, and possibly a danger to our child.” I cried in the bathroom for half an hour, while Phil tried to comfort me from the other side of the locked door.
This is not the blissful motherhood I imagined or was promised. Julian and I have our moments: the closeness of nursing him, watching him sleep, making eye contact with him and seeing his recognition of me in his face. I torture myself with the belief that his little brain is experiencing his primary caretaker – me – as rejecting. And I feel mountains of guilt about that. I fear the insidious long-term damage that can be caused by such an unstable attachment.
I admit this is probably not the typical postpartum experience, and I could probably benefit from the attention and care of specialists. I’d bet money this is severe postpartum depression, aggravated by a high-strung infant, prolonged exhaustion, and a seasonal spike in my garden-variety depression. But when I mention it to anyone, Julian’s pediatrician for instance, he simply assures me my baby’s colic and my depression will soon pass.
The idea of waiting it out doesn’t help. What the hell am I supposed to do in the meantime? At times my desperation is so intense, I find myself contemplating either (dare I say it?) suicide or homicide. This is not a safe mental space for a sleep-deprived, hormonally whacked new mother at home alone with a colicky infant.
A part of me understands the stories in the news about mothers drowning their own babies. I know how abhorrent that sounds. I take no pride in saying I have any empathy for these women. But I’m smarter than the average bear, our life is materially very comfortable, I have just one baby to care for (not many clamoring little ones), and my husband is a saint. My life is blessed. These indicted women have none of my advantages. So I get it; I understand how a mother could simply SNAP! Just like that. Crossing even that line to make the madness stop.
Yesterday was hell. Phil had already left for work when I awoke with a migraine headache. The moment I opened my eyes I experienced a sharp pain in my left temple. I made the mistake of looking out the window. The sky was perfectly clear and the sun’s reflection off the snow was blinding. I closed my eyes as a wave of dizziness struck. The urge to vomit followed. I stumbled down the hall to the bathroom like a blind woman, feeling my way with my hands so as not to open my eyes. I tripped on the threshold of the bathroom doorway, falling onto the hard tile floor, temporarily replacing the pain behind my eyes with the pain in my knees, and preempting – for the moment – the need to throw up. I remained motionless on the cold tile and bawled. The crying caused my sinuses to swell, sending a throbbing pain to the center of my face and forehead. I was unable to move without generating the sensation of spikes being driven into the left side and base of my skull. I could barely breathe. I wanted to die, expeditiously, on the bathroom floor.
And then, because apparently my morning wasn’t awful enough already, Julian awoke…screaming bloody murder. I felt myself wishing his ability to take in oxygen would cease. “Please God, no more,” I whispered to no one. The nausea returned, and I threw up on the bathroom floor.
I am appalled by the thoughts that are taking up residence in my brain. “Yes, killing myself will end the torture, but what will be the fallout for my baby and his father and everyone who knows and loves us? Yes, placing a pillow over my baby’s bawling mouth will stop the noise, but I don’t really need for him to stop breathing!” My remaining shred of sanity manages to keep me on the right side of that fine line between having it and losing it.
I flirt with that line almost daily. I put on an act in the presence of others. But when I’m alone, I take deep breaths. I pray. I count backwards from 100 in multiples of 7 to keep my mind focused on something other than wanting to end a life. I scream into a pillow.
I don’t dare tell anyone. As difficult as it is at times to feel as if I am bonding with my baby, the last thing I want is for someone to take him from me and put me behind the bars of a mental or correctional institution. That would surely be worse, adding insult to injury. I would be devastated. And I’m convinced this will be the outcome if I reveal my dirty little secret.
Somehow Julian manages to thrive. He has hit all his developmental milestones on time or early. Like all new mothers, I’m convinced (in spite of my seriously deficient care of him) my baby is a little genius.
It took months (too many months in my opinion), but the day came when I was able to look back at my postpartum hell with a healthier perspective. Probably because I finally got some sleep. I took a huge risk by not reaching out for help. I could feel myself losing my mind, losing touch with reality, losing the ability to imagine that things would ever get better. That pediatrician was right, but at the time I needed and wanted so much more than, “It’s going to get better.” I needed to be checking in with someone on a daily basis, or taking meds and not nursing Julian, or something, anything besides free-falling into a vortex and believing I was failing miserably as a mother.
We were lucky. The truth is: I could easily have become a statistic, even a headline. But the sun started to linger above the horizon longer. Julian’s nervous and gastrointestinal systems began to settle. He smiled and even laughed, which were joyous wonders to behold. He slept for four hours at a time. I grew accustomed to this new rhythm of our lives. I began to feel more competent and confident. Mostly, I was relieved, believing the worst was over. I finally felt secure in the knowledge that, in spite of our rough start, he and I, mother and son, were going to make it.