I am honored to introduce my friend Susan Goldberg who is courageously sharing her story of postpartum depression for the first time. Susan’s discussion of how parenting books exacerbated her struggle resonated with me in a way I hadn’t anticipated. That’s the power in sharing our stories here isn’t it? No matter how long I’ve been reading or writing about PPD, a new “me too” always leaves me feeling just a bit more healed. Thank you, Susan, for trusting Postpartum Progress with your story.
This is a problem. The writer in me knows that I need to open with a strong image, and, ideally, that I should close with that image, making — no pun intended — a tidy loop of a narrative, tidying up (forgive me) all the loose ends.
But what I keep returning to is the nightly ritual of flossing. I’ve been a model flosser for decades, a dentist’s dream, scraping away at the grit between my teeth even on nights when I’d had a few drinks, even when I was exhausted, even when the tedium of dental hygiene was the only thing between me and my bed and my bed was so, so attractive. I flossed out of a sense of obligation, because it felt good, but most of all because I had long taken it as a bellwether of my own mental health: no matter how bad things are, I’d always figured, if I was still managing to floss, things couldn’t be dire. There was still hope. I mean, no one on the brink of madness, of utter collapse, says to the guys in the white suits, “I’ll be with you in a second — I just need to floss my teeth.”
Or do they?
Probably you knew I was going to say this, but for the record: in retrospect, I’m not sure that flossing was such a good bellwether.
I’m pretty sure didn’t floss for the first few nights after my first son, Rowan, was born, a little over 10 years ago. I’d had a C-section (he was breech) and that first week in the hospital, with its midnight shift changes and baby weigh-ins, 2 AM lactation consultations, was a blur of day and night, pain medication and sweet exhaustion. But by the time we got home, I was ready for routine, a clear demarcation between day and night, rest and wakefulness.
The problem was, there was very little routine, very little demarcation between day and night. There was very little rest. There was lots of wakefulness, though: hours and hours of it, those hours punctuated by increasingly fitful moments of sleep and, eventually, no sleep at all, even when the baby slept. Months passed, with my partner, Rachel, and I juggling the nights in which our son woke as often as every 45 minutes, soothed back to sleep only by breast-feeding or, if we were lucky, with a pacifier. We slept in shifts — Rachel going to bed by nine to take over at 2 AM with bottles of pumped milk, me shuffling about the house with the baby sleeping against my chest in the sling, hoping to ease him into bed and catch a couple of hours of sleep (after flossing) before I could surrender responsibility.
It wasn’t just sleep, obviously. It was so many things that to list them here quickly, in one paragraph, is almost laughable, but for the sake of narrative and expediency I will: my mother had died six months earlier. We’d just moved to a new city and I knew practically no one. Rowan had been born at the end of November and the weather had turned bitterly cold — getting out of the house involved shoveling, warming up the plugged-in car and scraping the frost off the inside windows with my credit card. And I had nowhere to go, anyway, so I didn’t leave the house. Instead, I read books about infant sleep and paced the house, day and night, with my baby.
Those books: Marc Weissbluth and Dr. Richard Ferber and baby whisperer Tracy Hogg and the Searses and Katie Allison Granju with her tome on attachment parenting. They nearly killed me. There’s a picture of me, in the early days, sitting on the sofa with my laptop on my lap, the baby sleeping next to me on the couch. It’s a simple enough shot of modern life with baby while mom catches up on e-mail. But if you could read the thought bubble above my head, it would have been filled with warring impulses: What kind of mother are you, letting your baby sleep on the couch — on his stomach, no less? He could die. In my head, Hogg hissed at me to Start as I meant to continue: if I wanted my baby to sleep regularly, in his crib, through the night, then what kind of asshole was I being by letting him sleep on the couch? And then Granju would chime in: What kind of monster are you for staring at your computer instead of staring lovingly your child? Why is he sleeping on the cold, unloving couch cushion when he could be nestled against your chest, the rhythm of your beating heart in sync with his? You’ll break him, you know. You already have.
They never stopped, those voices. They kept me company in the day, kept me awake in the middle of the night. (Somewhat ironically, I was ghostwriting a parenting book of my own during my son’s first few months, pretending on paper to know exactly what I was doing. And I’m ashamed to admit it here, but here’s just how far gone I was: when Hogg later died of cancer, and when Granju’s son died of a drug overdose, my bitterness toward these two utter strangers overshadowed any empathy I felt for them. My apologies to them both.)
These were the pre-Facebook days, and I longed for something like Facebook — like this website — to replace them, some kind of beacon in the night where I could commune with other parents as I rocked and paced with my baby: Who’s awake? Who’s scared? Who’s lost in grieving? Who else can no longer recognize herself? Who else is desperately looking for someone to help her feel less alone, to make sense of these feelings, to tell her that it’s going to be okay — or, more to the point, to say, You’re not okay. What you’re going through is real, and even common, but you’re not okay. You need help.
No one did. Friends nodded and clucked sympathetically, offered to come over for an hour or two so that I could nap, but of course I couldn’t nap, so what was the point? My doctor never asked. “I’m having a hard time,” I finally said one day on the phone to my father. “I know,” he said. “I know.” But the conversation never went further. No one mentioned postpartum depression, suggested that maybe I should see someone. At one point, I phoned the District Health Unit to ask if they had any services that would help us sleep-train the baby, because I was so tired. They phoned back and berated me for even considering letting him cry it out. What kind of asshole are you?
Eventually, the baby slept: first in five-hour chunks and then, after marathons of sleep training that nearly killed me and Rachel (and during which we nearly killed each other), through the night. Eventually, I took a Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction course, got some perspective. Eventually, spring came, and then summer. Eventually, things got a bit better, then a lot better. We had a second baby.
“What sleep philosophy will we use?” I asked Rachel, justifiably terrified.
“Whatever gets everyone the most sleep,” she answered, and we threw out all the books and went with what worked for us.
Through it all, I flossed. And I survived.
But I’m scarred. I talked about those times with a good friend a few weeks ago, one of those no-holds-barred conversations that goes immediately — no small talk — to the painful core of things. “No one said anything,” I said, and was suddenly racked with tears I didn’t know were still there. We talked about the respectful, uncomfortable silences each of us had maintained at different points in our friendship, when both of us knew something was wrong, but didn’t want to overstep, didn’t want to intrude, even though the hurt and the pain and the damage were obvious. And we made a vow to each other to speak up, to be the friend who says, “I think something’s wrong.”
On so many levels, we need to learn how to have these conversations with each other, to find ways to speak up about our own pain and acknowledge each other’s. New parents need education about postpartum mood disorders well before their babies are born — and not just light references to the “baby blues.” Our midwives and obstetricians and family doctors need to check in regularly. We need to establish circles of safe friends and family members who can intervene, gently, to say, “I think something’s wrong. Can I help you get some help?” We need conversations — not just with the warring voices in our heads, but with each other and with the people who can help. We need websites like Postpartum Progress, and ways to make sure people know about it and resources like it.
I still floss regularly, but every so often, even just a few times a year, I skip a night. I skip it for all the usual reasons: too tired, up until 2 AM dancing, just don’t feel like it. But I also skip it to remind myself that sometimes, it’s okay to take a break. I skip to remind myself that my sanity, my well-being, are much too complex and complicated to be reduced to a single, arbitrary ritual of self-care. In other words, sometimes, flossing is just flossing — not the single, tenuous thread holding me together, keeping me from falling into the brink.
photo credit: Susan Goldberg
Susan Goldberg is a writer, editor, essayist and blogger, and coeditor of the award-winning anthology And Baby Makes More: Known Donors, Queer Parents and Our Unexpected Families (Insomniac Press, 2009). Her personal essays have been featured in Ms., Lilith, Today’s Parent and Stealing Time magazines, as well as in several anthologies and collections. She is a contributing blogger for VillageQ.com and Today’s Parent, where she blogs regularly as The Other Mother. In 2012, Susan was chosen as one of BlogHer’s Voices of the Year community keynote speakers, and has twice been a VOTY honouree. She is one of approximately 30 Jews in Thunder Bay, Ontario, where she lives with her partner and their two sons. Read more at www.susanlgoldberg.com and www.mamanongrata.com.