I saw the dark-haired mom seated on the other sofa in the gathering room. Her hair was smooth and fell neatly to her shoulders. Her three-month-old daughter looked up at her from her knee, dressed in a spotless blue one-piece. Next to her sat another mom. Short hair, obviously clean, as were her clothes. In her lap, a cooing infant, he was fresh and shining, I was sure he had been bathed just that morning.
Everywhere I looked, I saw put-together and neat as a pin mothers. In unstained clothing with faces dewy and bright from their morning shower. I couldn’t bear to look up and meet their sparkling eyes. Neither could I bear to look down, into my stained three-day-old T-shirt. My baby, my life, really, nursed blissfully in my arms. Alec was always clean, so beautifully well taken care of by me. But that’s all I could manage to do during these first days of new motherhood, just tend to this precious child of mine.
I was in the throes of newly diagnosed postpartum depression and anxiety. Alec was four months old, and my therapist had recommended that I get out of my house at least once a day. And that’s how I came to be at this morning’s Diaper Bag Club at a local hospital. From my end of the sofa, I saw no one like me there. Stringy hair, with the same clothes as yesterday and without a shower since the Sunday before when my husband had been home to hold the baby.
Alec, my precious baby boy, screamed anytime that he left my arms. I had grown so used to his cries, that even when he napped, I still heard them. I adored this child, but he was all-encompassing, and with the days without sleep piling one on top of another, even thinking felt difficult and impossible.
The gathering room on this Wednesday morning was filled with women who could do what I couldn’t do. That’s what I believed, and what I told myself. They were who I compared myself to. Women who looked together with babies who barely sniffled. I sat in the middle of this group of nine women, and my eyes began to fill with tears.
I couldn’t even mother.
What I was doing, was one of the worst, and yet, most common things that we do as postpartum mood disorder moms: we compare. We compare ourselves to mothers who are living in a different world than we are. But I didn’t know that, and I didn’t understand it enough to help myself. It was my therapist who helped me see my way out of this dangerous unproductive mindset.
“What you are doing, thinking that you should be right where others are now, and comparing yourself to them, is apples and oranges,” she explained to me at a therapy session later that week. “You haven’t even started the recovery phase and yet you want to live in another land without crossing the bridge to get there.” She talked to me firmly, but not brusquely. She explained how I was still on this side of the world, with my goal being to get across the ocean to get to that side of the world, and that our sessions, my medication, along with support of family and friends, would be part of the bridge over those waters that would get me there.
She took a pencil and drew on a piece of paper. There was me, an “x” over here, and then a dotted bridge, with my destination, me, another “x” over on the other side. I folded this paper and carried it with me. I thought about the “x” of me thinking I could do what the other women on the other side were doing when I didn’t even have one foot on the bridge yet.
Comparison to others will always engulf us. When you have postpartum depression, postpartum anxiety, or any other mood disorder at this time, you’re not at the same starting point as those without. Some of the women I sat with that morning entered into motherhood with their feet set and ready to go. They had no postpartum repercussions. Add to that, many had “easy” babies. Some had husbands who worked out of the home and were there with them during the day to combat the loneliness and some even had mothers or mothers-in-law, friends or siblings who came at least once,maybe more, during the week.
It was a vastly different world from mine, and yet… I held myself up to the same standards and results that they had. I thought I should be marching along in their identical unencumbered rhythm.
What my therapist did for me was help me feel pride in all that I was doing, and overcoming. When I said to her with tears in my eyes, “But these women are better mothers than me!” She laughed softly and asked back, “Really? Let’s see what happens when I try and hand Alec off to one of them.”
When I said that these women looked so good and that I looked so disheveled, she countered with, “Problem solved. Put on a fresh shirt before you leave home.” That sounded so easy, and yet? I never thought of doing it. I know it’s hard to understand, but with postpartum depression and anxiety, along with fatigue and a colicky baby, you can’t see your way out of the simple things.
No matter what I volleyed at her, my therapist smiled at me warmly and helped me to see that I was the best mother at this time with what I was surviving. Her comforting reassurance of how Alec seemed to be in love with who his mother was brought me to grateful, gushing tears.
My baby loved me, I could see that. And all I had to do was tell myself that I could get to the world I hoped for me and my baby. With small things to help me along the way, like a change into a fresh shirt before I left home and with big things to help me, like our continuing therapy. My therapist had me check my reality. And more important than anything, she gave me a map, one I could look at and envision the me on this side, on the way to the me on the other side, and to be patient with the bridge that would get me there.