I’ve been trying to write about my struggle with postpartum depression for many weeks. I begin to write. Stop. Begin again. The truth is, I’m afraid to write these words. I’m afraid to have even felt these feelings. Never before has my façade of “having it together” crumbled so obviously all around me. I’m afraid of being judged, of being perceived as weak. Though I don’t believe it’s true, an underlying fear remains that, somehow, the feelings I’ve had make me a “bad mother.”
But that’s why so many of us struggle alone, isn’t it? In a culture where the darker side of motherhood is denied, it’s terrifying to feel anything but adoration and utter joy toward the little person you love more dearly than any other in the world. Despite the admirable efforts of many organizations to support new mothers, the dominant message from our culture is still loud and clear—“good mothers” are self-sacrificial, always putting the needs of their children before their own, and without ever feeling frustration, resentment, or anger while doing so.
In reality, these feelings are part of every mother’s experience. But we’re told that they’re unacceptable. It’s no wonder that so many of us struggle alone.
A mother in my community recently harmed her three young children, a toddler and six-month old twins. The details are horrific, and I won’t repeat them here. But, like so many mothers, she had been struggling with mental illness. This story is not new. And that’s precisely the problem.
These women are often demonized in our culture. Truthfully, it’s hard not to condemn someone who harms innocent children, especially her own. But haven’t many of us experienced similar emotions, albeit, for most of us, to a much lesser degree? Sleep deprivation can literally change who you are, making you unrecognizable even to yourself. Emotions from your own childhood, emotions you didn’t even know existed, can be triggered when you become a mother yourself. New motherhood’s joy can be overcome by feelings of hopelessness, helplessness, shame, and guilt.
In no way do I intend to minimize the horrific acts committed against infants and children. But I do wonder whether we demonize women who commit these acts as a way to distance ourselves, to create space between “us” and “them.” Perhaps we seek to reassure ourselves that, despite our own difficult emotions, we could never be capable of such horrific acts. And for most of us, thankfully, that’s true. But the feelings of overwhelm and desperation behind these acts are much more common than we often admit.
When my son was just becoming a toddler, there was a stretch of time when he wasn’t sleeping well. He woke every hour to nurse. I literally got no more than 45 minutes of sleep at a time for a week. I had been struggling with undiagnosed postpartum depression for many months, but I was trying to be strong, trying to keep it together as I’d always been able to do during the rough patches in my life. There were good days interspersed with the bad. I thought I was doing okay.
On one of these endless nights, my son awoke, crying out. It was 11:00 p.m. I had been in bed for only two hours, and already he had awoken four times. After many days of severe sleep deprivation, I just lost it. I felt rage toward the little person I love most in the world. I left him crying in our bed because I was afraid of what would happen otherwise.
My husband, who had been sleeping on the couch, woke to me sobbing hysterically, incoherent. My memory of that night is fuzzy, but I remember telling him, “We won’t both make it. We can’t both survive this. One of us has to go.” In my severely sleep-deprived, emotionally overwhelmed state, I truly believed that my son and I could not both make it through what was happening. I was horrified at my words; I didn’t even feel that they were mine. I had no plans to harm either of us, but even so, some distorted part of me believed that I would have to go so that he could stay.
It became clear that I was not okay.
I consider deleting these words as soon as they appear on the page. I feel compelled to follow this story with exhortations of love for my son, to tell you that, really, I promise, I am a good mother. So strong is our culture’s message that we, as mothers, should be able to endure the exhaustion and emotional overwhelm while feeling nothing but absolute love. That, if we feel anything but, we’re not “good mothers.”
I fear judgment, both yours and my own. But I fear even more being part of the silence that perpetuates our culture’s unrealistic imaginings of motherhood, that leads so many of us to wrestle silently with shame and guilt. If we don’t speak out, don’t tell our own stories, we remain alone in our struggles. This is healthy for neither us nor our children. And so I resist the urge to delete these words.
Know that, whatever you’re feeling, you are not alone. Your emotions do not make you a bad mother. And admitting that you need help is a much stronger act than continuing to struggle alone. When I was in my darkest days, another mother shared with me words that I will never forget. She said, “This is something you’re going through right now. It’s not who you are. You will be yourself again.”
She was right.