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I was pregnant with my first child, Miles, in 2005, when we moved from El Paso to Houston, TX. I was 6 months pregnant, and my husband and I found ourselves in a new city without any friends or family. I joked that this was "a recipe for postpartum depression", but I was a midwife-- this wouldn't happen to me, I didn't need to worry. I knew all the warning signs. I knew some mamas got the Baby Blues, and some got really sick. But it wouldn't happen to me. I was planning a homebirth and would have my sister to help me for the first month. My husband, Gilbert, had two full weeks with us since Miles was born on December 27th and was easily able to take the time off because of the holidays. It was all going to be so perfect. Then the peaceful, candle-lit homebirth I planned went down the toilet. I ended up in the hospital with nearly every intervention you can imagine. It was a traumatic experience for me and my family.
Breastfeeding started out painful, difficult and full of tears. By a few days postpartum I was in tears that my husband got to go to the pharmacy while I was stuck at home and "would probably never get to leave the house again". I was being irrational, and I knew it-- but I just thought I was having the baby blues. Over the next few months I spent full days weeping with my baby in arms and escaping to playgroups and malls so that I wouldn't be able to cry. After all I wouldn't cry in front of other people, so being in public was the perfect cure. Turns out it was only a band-aid (plaster). On my good days we would get up, play, go for a walk and I would bake cookies and prep for dinner. I would be feeling good, hopeful, and my husband would be happily suprised to find me so well-composed when he came home-- instead of throwing the baby at him and locking myself in the bathroom to cry. On my bad days I had thoughts of suicide and infanticide. At the time I thought I had a high-needs baby. And maybe I did. But upon reflection it's quite possible that my baby wasn't just a "difficult baby", perhaps he was just reacting to my emotional and mental state of mind. Or was I reacting to what seemed like his incessant crying and neediness?
He was only happy in the sling, so I spent whole days "wearing him" on me in the heat & humidity that Houston is famous for. We had dismal air-con in our small rental house, so having him so close was torture in more ways than one. On days that I felt all he did was cry, I thought that if I threw him against the wall hard enough, the crying would stop. Sadly, it probably would. I would escape the confines of the house with the baby and imagine just pushing the stroller into oncoming traffic. I felt that, surely, this would put me out of my misery. I would watch my husband with Miles-- he was so gentle and patient. He could get the baby to take a pacifier, and he could get the baby to stop crying. What was I doing wrong? This ultimately led me to believe that Gilbert was a better mother than I could ever hope to be, and that they would be better off without me. I figured if I just killed myself, they would get along better and we would all be happy. Or, I thought, maybe I could just take off-- pack my bags and start a new life. I would be happy then, wouldn't I?
God, I was so depressed I couldn't see straight. How I kept this a secret, I have no idea. I did try to reach out on some levels. I tried to drop hints. But I guess I was pretty good at hiding it, or perhaps my friends and family didn't want to see it? My relationships were mostly long-distance, and the friends I had made in town were all new friends. So it was easy to keep it to myself. After all, I didn't want to admit that I wasn't the perfect mother, did I? Everyone said when I was pregnant, "Oh you'll be the best mom, Vanessa!" I didn't want to disappoint anyone. I also had so many friends that were about to start families, and I didn't want to scare any of them. They would come to visit and tell me that I made it look so easy. If only they knew. I asked my mom if she cried all day after she had her babies-- she told me that she dealt with it differently, but thought that she probably had PPD as well. She was, after all, a poor single mom. Which made me think: my circumstances are so different! I have a supportive husband with a good job, no worries about money. I was healthy, and didn't end up with a c-section, so why on earth was I so depressed?
On one memorable occasion, while at the mall with Miles & Gilbert, the barista at Starbucks made my coffee wrong and I went into a spiral of rage and depression. I told Gilbert I was going to the bathroom. I tossed my untouched coffee in the trash and sat in the bathroom lounge silently crying for two hours. Gilbert thought we had missed eachother at the meeting point and spent hours searching the mall for me. All I wanted to do was walk out a side door and hitch a ride home, pack my bags and not even say goodbye. Remember, I thought they would be better off without me.
I was uninterested in taking pharmaceuticals (and didn't have health insurance anyway, so it wouldn't have been covered), so I started researching and trying all kinds of different natural remedies-- St. John's Wort, 5-HTP, mega doses of Vitamin B, etc. And they worked-- for about a month. I was happy, elated, humming and loving my family-- and then BAM, I was back to the sobbing and insomnia again. When Miles was 5 months my mom (a psychotherapist) visited and got to see a particularly bad episode which is when she finally said, "She needs meds. Now." I put her off for another month and then finally gave in. I started on a low dose of anti-depressants and within weeks was feeling like my old self again. The first time I really noticed my recovery was after a middle-of-the-night feed. Before, I would count the minutes until he was done nursing so I could roll away and get some sleep (we co-sleep). I couldn't wait to get away. Now I enjoyed our time together, stroking his cheek and running my fingers through his hair-- and when he was done, instead of rolling away, I scootched down so we were face to face and feel asleep with my arm around him. It was delicious. I was back. My son had his mama again, and Gilbert had his wife.
I cry again as I write this-- thank goodness I never went through with any of the psychotic thoughts I was having. But I tell you what-- I don't judge people like I used to. You hear about a wife who left her husband and kids and think, "how selfish!". Think again-- maybe she was clinically depressed and didn't know how or where to get help. You read in horror about a mother who has just drowned her six children. Perhaps she needed just one person to reach out to her. You watch your neighbor and her new baby stay inside for the first six months and are annoyed that she is being so unsocial. Maybe she's so filled with anxiety she can't manage to get out without heart palpatations. After I tell some people about my experience, I hear, "Wow. You are the only person I know who has had PPD.". Wrong, I say-- I am the only one you know about. Mamas with PPD are everywhere. She is your sister. She is your best friend. She is your mother, your aunt and your neighbor.
Up to 80% of new mothers feel stressed or cry easily in the first two weeks after the birth of their baby-- this is called the Baby Blues. It doesn't feel good, but it's common and it goes away.
PPD (or postnatal depression, PND) is more accurately termed Perinatal Mood Disorders. PMD can affect any woman who is pregnant, recently (within the past year) had a baby, has ended a pregnancy or miscarried, or has stopped breastfeeding. The following comes from author Helen Jones:
"The range of disorders includes: anxiety disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, panic disorder, and posttraumatic stress disorder. Each of these disorders may occur in conjunction with symptoms of depression."
The warning signs you and your family need to keep an eye out for:
Difficulty sleeping, even when the baby is sleeping
Sleeping too much
Feeling irritable, angry, or nervous
Lack of ability to enjoy life as much as in the past
Lack of interest in the baby
Lack of interest in friends and family
Lack of interest in sex or even being touched
Feeling guilty or worthless
Crying for “no reason”
Feeling as if you are a bad mother
Difficulty concentrating or focusing
Thoughts of harming self or the baby
Postpartum Pcychosis usually has a sudden onset and includes symptoms such as: delusions, hallucinations, significant mood changes, hyperactivity, poor judgement in making decisions, irritated, unable to sleep. Google: Andrea Yates and you'll see what this means.
As you would expect, the internet has an abundance of resources if you suspect that you or someone you know is exhibiting troubling signs. Start with Postpartum Support International at www.postpartum.net
. It's possible that some of the local hospitals may offer support groups but I have not been able to confirm this. My doctor told me there was an expat who ran a support group once until she left for a new posting. If there is an interest I would be happy to lead a group, from the perspective of a mama who has been there. Feel free to get in touch with me if you have concerns. And mamas, if you are suffering remember THIS IS NOT YOUR FAULT AND IT WILL END. firstname.lastname@example.org