I wish someone had written a letter like this to me after the birth of my son (now 8) and daughter (now 4). Right now, it may feel as though you are trapped in someone else’s body, mourning the version of yourself that existed before your baby was born. You have every right to feel like a stranger to yourself—in some ways, you are exactly that. After my son was born, I woke up one morning and said, “I can’t be his mother.” I was under the illusion that I had given up some fabulous life, shocked by the weight I had gained, and sat in the house every single day during my maternity leave, crying most days and numb others. I didn’t understand how other women could enjoy their babies, which made me feel worse: why couldn’t I love my baby boy? Why did I feel like running away? Even when I returned to work, I was barely able to hold it together most days. I didn’t go out with my friends for a year, choosing solitude over conversation. I sought out help in the form of Goldie, an old school therapist who never once mentioned postpartum depression. I don’t remember much from that time in my life because I worked so hard to get past it. I do remember that as my son grew, I felt more comfortable in my mommy skin. And then…
I got pregnant again. The day I found out, I was stunned. At the time, my OBGYN had said my chances of getting pregnant were slim to none because I had suffered a miscarriage the prior year and it had damaged my fallopian tubes. When the same OBGYN confirmed the pregnancy, all I could do was cry. I didn’t want another baby; I was terrified of going through such a deep postpartum depression again. It was not an easy pregnancy: I felt tense most of the time, and experienced a full range of emotions (anger, sadness, anxiety … the list goes on). By this time, we had moved to a new town and I began seeing an OBGYN who took postpartum depression very seriously. When, in my 30th week, I finally mentioned what happened after my son was born, he said: “I will not let anything happen to you.”
On February 4, 2008, my daughter was born. She was, and is, beautiful. During my hospital stay, a nurse would evaluate me for signs of PPD. My hormones were still in flux, so I was calm. I was cautiously optimistic that maybe, just maybe, the postpartum depression storm would pass me by this time. It didn’t.
When my daughter was two weeks old, I would succumb to outbursts of anger when I had to wake up and feed her. Afterward, I felt so guilty that I’d cry. It was a vicious cycle that would only get worse as the weeks went on. I’d sit on the floor in the shower so no one would hear me crying uncontrollably, saying, “Why is this happening to me?” over and over. I had visions of going into the kitchen, taking a steak knife, and slitting my wrists. The suicidal thoughts became more powerful, and at my six-week postpartum exam, I was inconsolable. After years refusing to take antidepressants, I was now in a place where I needed them and it was non-negotiable. After my OBGYN wrote a prescription for Wellbutrin and gave me the phone number of an amazing therapist whom I still see, he hugged me and told me everything would be okay. He saved my life.
After I returned to work, I started to get into a better groove of being a mother of two. As time went on, though, my job became more stressful and I didn’t realize just how much postpartum depression affected me—even 8-9 months after I gave birth. I rarely felt happy, and I was (and still am) very hard on myself for not being more upbeat. I began experiencing severe depressive episodes, but I still managed to get out of bed every day and function as if nothing was wrong. I didn’t want even my closest friends to know that I still had suicidal thoughts, or that I would get so angry at myself for having depression that I’d throw bottles of medication at the wall. I was hiding behind a mask, and it hurt more than it helped.
I still have good days and bad days, but I cope with them much better. I feel more connected to people because of Twitter, and I am on a combination of medication that works well for me. Don’t get me wrong—every day is a struggle, but I won’t go down without a fight. Nor should you.
I’ve learned a thing or two along the way, and I hope these little tidbits help:
-Don’t feel terrible if you decide not to breastfeed your baby. I didn’t breastfeed my daughter; in fact, my pediatrician told me to go with formula. She knew I was in a bad place, and told me I needed to get rest.
-Ask for help. Some days, it may feel like you can’t open your mouth to form words or have the energy to text someone—but please do it. There are many women who can help, and we are all ears. If you need to seek professional help, there are plenty of resources to do so.
-Know that you are not alone. I am proof that even the darkest hours pass and bright spots reappear in your life.
-You don’t have to be perfect. I still have trouble with this—I constantly compare myself to other women, and often don’t feel “good enough.” Life is messy, kids are messy, and your very best is probably better than just being good enough. Give yourself a break.
-Find a routine that works for you and your baby. Just because mommy #1’s baby sleeps through the night doesn’t mean yours will. Nor does it mean you’re doing anything wrong. Every baby is different, and yes, some moms will brag about their kids sleeping, eating, pooping and what have you. Here’s the thing: they’re not you.
-Be kind to yourself. I don’t mean to sound preachy, but a dear friend of mine convinced me to try hot yoga last year and I have been sold on it ever since. I am a runner, and the idea of yoga made me roll my eyes. But having found a way to be in touch with my body has enabled me to better cope with difficult days. Find something that helps you do the same thing, even if it is outside of your comfort zone.
-The dishes can wait. So can the laundry, the dry cleaners, the grocery shopping, and anything else that overwhelms you. Give yourself permission to not worry about the little things, even if only for a half hour.
-Don’t be afraid to take medication. I was terrified that antidepressants would somehow strip away who I was, but they have done the exact opposite. The medication makes me aware of who I am and helps me see things in a more rational way. I still have “down” days, but they aren’t that bad. It may seem like a scary proposition to start a regime of antidepressants, but just as any other disease, if you knew medication would help, you’d take it.
I’m proud of you, new mom. You are here and your baby loves you, and tomorrow is never all that far away.
I dedicate this to my husband, whose strength is my soul, and my children, who are the rays of light in my life.
Kathleen Schmidt is the CEO of KMSPR, a boutique publicity firm that specializes in all aspects of media campaigns, marketing, and branding for authors, book/magazine publishers, public affairs/non-profit, hospitality/entertainment, and internet/technology. She lives in Northern New Jersey with her husband and two children.
The 4th Annual Mother’s Day Rally for Moms’ Mental Health is presented by Postpartum Progress, a national nonprofit 501c3 that raises awareness & advocates for more and better services for women who have postpartum depression and all other mental illnesses related to pregnancy and childbirth. Please consider making a donation today, on Mother’s Day, to help us continue to spread the word and support the mental health of new mothers.