Postpartum depression (or, hey, let’s do some oversharing!)

22 Aug

I wanted to start this post off with something very dramatic like, when Theo was six weeks old, I was contemplating suicide. That has a nice ring to it, doesn’t it? Edgy, yet thoughtful. The problem is, it would be a lie – by the time Theo was six weeks old, I’d gone way past contemplation and was firmly into planning territory. It’s just that “planning” doesn’t have quite the same literary panache as “contemplating”, you know?

It would be pills, I decided: the percocets I had left over after my c-section, and some sleeping pills that’d been sitting around since before my pregnancy. I would have to do it while Matt was at work, but close enough to the end of the day that Theo wouldn’t have to be alone with his dead mother for too long. I would get some formula, I decided, and sterilize some bottles – that way Matt could feed him immediately, because Theo would likely be hungry by the time I was found. I would write a note, a good one.

Planning things out step by step like this made me feel better; it made it seem as if I had some kind of control over my life.

I didn’t want to die because I hated Theo. In fact, I loved him ferociously. I wanted to die because I knew that I was totally and utterly incapable as a mother. I wanted to die because I knew that if I lived, if I had to continue to be Theo’s primary caregiver, then I would continue to fuck things up horribly. I wanted to die because if I did, someone else would have to step in as his mother, and whoever it was would surely be more competent than me.

At that moment I sincerely believed that even random people I passed on the street were more qualified to raise my son than I was.

I tried to tell people how I felt, tried to convince them that I was an unfit parent, but no one seemed to believe me. They dismissed my worries as normal, and told me that every first-time mother felt the same way. I knew that what I was feeling was far from normal, but I didn’t know what to do about it. I thought about running away, packing a suitcase full of warm weather clothes and boarding a plane, but that seemed crazy. Suicide, however, seemed totally logical.

Although I’m referring to what I went through as postpartum depression, my anxiety and fear had been around for most of my pregnancy. Here I’d gone 27 years only having to take care of myself (and often doing a pretty poor job of it), and now suddenly I was 100% responsible for this tiny life inside of me. It seemed like that should be enough to drive anyone around the bend.

Was I eating enough, I wondered? Was I eating the right things? Did I need more iron? Was I getting enough omega 3 to ensure healthy brain development? I started carrying around a list of fish, rated from highest mercury content to lowest. I would whip this list out at restaurants and do a few quick calculations in my head – had I already ingested any potentially mercury-laced fish this week? How big of a portion could I have? It didn’t seem fair that Matt didn’t have to change his life at all while his son gestated, but I had to watch every bite that went into my mouth.

And then there was the alcohol. See, I hadn’t known I was pregnant for the first few weeks, and I’d had maybe two or three glasses of wine, total, in that time. Midway through my pregnancy I became convinced that my child was going to have fetal alcohol syndrome. I hadn’t even given birth yet, and I’d already ruined my child’s life. How could I be such a selfish, terrible person?

By the end of my pregnancy I’d become incredibly paranoid about everything, so it was almost with a sense of relief that I greeted the news that, at 34 weeks, I had to be hospitalized and put on bed rest. Here I would be in a place where I was eating a doctor-approved diet, where I would be hooked up to a big, clunky machine twice a day in order to monitor my son’s heart rate, and nurses were only the press of a button away. After months of fretting over taking care of myself and the baby, suddenly I could put myself in someone else’s hands.

And then Theo was born, at 36 weeks, via c-section. I’d thought that once he was out of me, once I could hold him in my arms and know for certain at any given moment that he was alive and well, things would be better. It wasn’t like that, though. I held him briefly in the operating room while they stitched me back up, but then they whisked him away, concerned about the grunting he was doing (a sign of laboured breathing, they said). Matt went with him, and my mother went off to call my grandmothers and aunts and uncles. I sat alone in the recovery room and waited, wanting only to hold my son.

They brought Theo back to me and let me try to nurse him, but he wouldn’t, or couldn’t. He started grunting again, so they took him away again, this time across the street to Sick Kids for an x-ray of his lungs. You need to prepare yourself for the fact that he might end up in the NICU, the nurse told me. I knew that wasn’t the end of the world, but still, it was scary. On top of that I’d read so many things about how the first few hours of a baby’s life are critical for bonding and creating a breastfeeding relationship – would missing this time with him have an effect on the bond we had?

The thing was, I was already having doubts about our mother-son bond, even that early in the game. When I’d been pregnant, I’d felt like Theo and I had intuitively understood each other. He would kick, and I would ascribe meaning to those kicks. I would rub his feet as they poked my ribs, and I felt like he just knew that my actions meant, baby, I love you. But once Theo was born, I realized that he was a total stranger. I didn’t know what he thought or wanted at all, and he didn’t give a shit about my feelings.

That first week things went from bad to worse. I couldn’t get Theo to latch, and every attempted nursing session was a nightmare. His weight dropped down to 4 lb 12 oz, which, while still within the range of normal, seemed frighteningly low. I felt like I’d failed at having the birth I wanted, had failed at properly bonding with my son, and was now failing at providing him with even the most basic necessities, like food. I couldn’t believe that they actually trusted me enough to let me take my kid home a few days after his birth.

There was something else, too. During my c-section, I heard my doctor say to his intern, look at this, here’s why he was breech. I asked him what he’d found, and he told me that I have a bicornuate uterus (like a cat! he said brightly). This means that instead of having one large chamber, my uterus has two smaller ones. Theo’s head had been stuck in one of the chambers and he’d been unable to flip into the proper position.

Of course, as soon as I could, I googled bicornuate uterus. Wikipedia had the following to say:

Pregnancies in a bicornuate uterus are usually considered high-risk and require extra monitoring because of association with poor reproduction potential.

A bicornuate uterus is associated with increased adverse reproductive outcomes like:

  • Recurrent pregnancy loss: the reproductive potential of a bicornuate uterus is usually measured by live birth rate (also called fetal survival rate).
  • Preterm birth: with a 15 to 25% rate of preterm delivery. The reason that a pregnancy may not reach full-term in a bicornuate uterus often happens when the baby begins to grow in either of the protrusions at the top. A short cervical length seems to be a good predicter of preterm delivery in women with a bicornuate uterus.
  • Malpresentation (breech birth or transverse presentation): a breech presentation occurs in 40-50% pregnancies with a partial bicornuate uterus and not at all (0%) in a complete bicornuate uterus.
  • Deformity: Offspring of mothers with a bicornuate uterus are at high risk for “deformities and disruptions” and “malformations.”

So here I’d been worrying about stupid things like omega 3 and iron while, deep in the dark recesses of my body, my own uterus was secretly working against me. This whole time I’d been afraid of the wrong thing – I was like France, setting up the Maginot Line, while all along the Germans were planning to attack from the opposite direction.

I was clearly (biologically, even) not meant to be anybody’s mother.

The first few weeks of Theo’s life were awful. I’d always been a bad sleeper, and now it was worse. Theo wriggled and grunted in his sleep, and it kept me awake. Every little sound that came out of him made all of my muscles tense up, making rest nearly impossible. Whenever I complained about how tired I was, people would say, sleep when the baby sleeps, as if that was some great revelation. As if it was something that I couldn’t come up with on my own. Breastfeeding continued to suck, and I began to dread feeding time. I would push it back by 5, 10 or 15 minutes, as if that made any difference. My days were lonely, boring and frustrating.

It was the carrier that finally pushed me over the edge. See, we live on the third floor and our building doesn’t have an elevator. I’m not strong enough to drag our stroller up and down the stairs. So, whenever we went out, I used a carrier for Theo. And whenever he fell asleep in the carrier, he grunted with every breath.

I asked everyone about the grunting – my mother, my sister-in-law, friends with kids. Everyone assured me that it seemed totally normal. Then, while obsessively googling “grunting” “breathing” and “baby carrier”, I found one lone site that said that grunting was a sign of laboured breathing (which I already knew), and prolonged grunting could mean that the baby’s blood oxygen level was low. Which could lead to many health complications, including brain damage.

The thing is, I’d known something was wrong. I’d known. I’d asked everyone and yes, they’d reassured me, but why hadn’t I trusted my own instincts? Because I stupidly and selfishly wanted to be able to leave the house, that’s why. If I was any kind of good mother, I would have stopped using the carrier as soon as he started grunting. I would have stayed home until Theo was old enough for the grunting to fix itself. But I wasn’t a good mother. I was a terrible mother. Not only that, but I was a clear danger to my child.

When I read that part about the brain damage, I handed my sleeping son to my visiting mother-in-law, went into the bedroom and cried for three hours. How could I ever undo this? How could it ever be fixed? It wasn’t as if I could just have a new kid and start fresh, having learned from my mistakes. A baby wasn’t like a paper that you could crumple up and toss in the garbage. I was stuck with my sad, damaged kid, and would be stuck with him for the rest of my life. He would be a constant reminder of what a terrible person I was.

If I’d been home alone at that moment, I likely would have killed myself then and there. But I wasn’t alone, so instead I confessed everything to my mother-in-law, hoping she would call the CAS and have Theo taken into protective custody (or, at the very least, have me arrested). Instead, she convinced me to go to the doctor.

And I did go to the doctor, and joined a program at Women’s College Hospital specifically for women with PPD, and I went on medication, and saw a therapist. All of that helped, but I think what helped the most was seeing Theo grow up and realize that no, in fact, he wassn’t brain damaged. He’s a totally normal, lovely, happy kid. And these days I’m mostly a totally normal, lovely, happy mom. And we have a pretty decent bond, I would say.

I still have my moments of fear and paranoia. I still occasionally freak out over little things (just ask Matt – I make him do all my baby-related googling now). I will probably always be a somewhat high-strung parent, but I can live with that.

What makes me sad is that I will never get those first few weeks of Theo’s life back. They will always exist for me in this cold, dark haze. I will never be able to think of Theo as a newborn without associating his early babyhood with that terrible time in my life. And that sucks. It sucks big time.

What also sucks is that I feel like I can’t talk about my experience with PPD. I often dance around the issue, saying “I had a tough time at the beginning,” or, “things were really hard for me”. I’ve never said, “being a new mother made me suicidal”. Well, not until now.

But I want to talk about it. I want to share my experience so that maybe someone else will think, hmmm, maybe I’m not bonkers and/or a terrible mother, maybe it’s my hormones. I want to feel like I’m not the only one who went through this, and I also want other women to feel like they’re not alone. I want them to know that things will get better, that they should talk to their doctor, or call a suicide hotline.

Most of all I want them to know that they are, in all likelihood, fantastic mothers.

Theo and I a few hours after his birth

For anyone who is in a state of mental health crisis, here is a link to the Mental Health Crisis line. You can also call Telehealth, if you’re in Ontario. If you are experiencing any kind of depression or are having suicidal thoughts, please, please call one of the numbers above, or else contact your doctor or local mental health crisis line.

35 Responses to “Postpartum depression (or, hey, let’s do some oversharing!)”

  1. torontonanny August 22, 2012 at 2:55 am #

    And so are you. 🙂 I’m honoured to know you and Theo.

    • bellejarblog August 22, 2012 at 2:08 pm #

      ❤ Thank you so much for being in our lives!

  2. transparentguy August 22, 2012 at 3:49 am #

    This couldn’t have been easy to relive as you wrote, but thank you for sharing it.

    • bellejarblog August 22, 2012 at 2:47 pm #

      Although I felt pretty crummy while writing this out, and sharing it was pretty dang scary, I now feel weirdly relieved. ❤

  3. Marcy Axness August 22, 2012 at 5:06 am #

    Thank you for your unflinching honesty about the details. Many will be helped through your grit in sharing. Here are a couple posts in which I’ve also shared about my PPD many years retrospectively:

    Marcy Axness
    “Parenting for Peace: Raising the Next Generation of Peacemakers”

    • bellejarblog August 22, 2012 at 2:46 pm #

      Whoa amazing! It’s incredible that you’re willing to step up and share your experience so many years after the fact. And thank you for introducing me to your blog, it’s wonderful!

  4. TO Doula August 22, 2012 at 5:18 am #

    Thank you so much for writing this. I’m glad you survived such a terrifying time. {{{hugs}}} from a stranger if you’ll have them.

    • bellejarblog August 22, 2012 at 2:08 pm #

      Thank you! I feel lucky that I had a good support system and access to the resources I needed. And I will totally take hugs from an internet stranger! I did not mean for that to sound as creepy as it maybe did.

  5. Emilee August 22, 2012 at 2:10 pm #

    WOW! Thank you for sharing your story… I know that it couldn’t have been easy to do but it was certainly harder to live through and live with…
    When my son was born last year I too dealt with PPD a much less severe case but difficult none the less, I remember looking at him and thinking he wasn’t my child, that it just didn’t feel right, that he wasn’t the baby I was expecting…
    It is so easy to blame ourselves and let it tear us apart.
    I’m so glad that you did get help and that you have had the courage to write about it!

    • bellejarblog August 22, 2012 at 2:49 pm #

      It’s interesting how everyone’s experience with PPD is so different – I think that fact helps mask how common it really is. I also definitely had that feeling of “whose kid is this and why is he living in my house now?”

      Thank you for sharing your experience ❤

  6. HeatherB. August 22, 2012 at 6:23 pm #

    I completely relate to your story and your sadness at losing the beauty of the first few weeks of Theo’s life – I had a horrendous labor and delivery with much damage, in addition to PPD and the same kind of disconnect that you describe. It’s so common, yet no one talks about it, or if they do, you’re guilted into not “loving every minute” and “enjoying every moment” of them as newborns. I’m thankful that I got on medication finally, which made a huge difference, and was fully healed by five months. I’m so glad to hear that you came through it okay – thank you for sharing and being so honest.

    • bellejarblog August 23, 2012 at 8:00 pm #

      I’m so sorry to hear that you had such a difficult experience! I also found that medication helped quite a lot.

      And I hear you about people making you feel like you should be loving every minute. I also heard a lot of “you think it’s hard now, just wait until he’s a toddler!” which for sure wasn’t what I needed to hear. And it turns out that I enjoy the toddler phase much more than the infant phase!

  7. theyellowblanket August 22, 2012 at 8:49 pm #

    What a wonderful post! Perinatal Mood and Anxiety Disorders is one of my obsessions/passions. I’m a specialist in the field, and I work with dozens of mamas who are going through what you have so succinctly and beautifully described about this joy-killing experience. I am so glad you sought help, because so many women do not. I also hope that in your Goo.gling you came across Best PPMD resource out there, IMO. Glad I found your wonderful blog. Honesty is a wonderful thing that can liberate others, and your honesty is such a lovely gift.

    • bellejarblog August 23, 2012 at 8:03 pm #

      Oh amazing! I had no idea you did that for a living! Thank you for the link, I actually hadn’t seen that before.

      And, of course, thank you for your lovely comment ❤

  8. katery August 23, 2012 at 9:08 pm #

    you are so not alone, i can 100% relate to your story.

    • bellejarblog August 29, 2012 at 1:45 am #

      Oh man, I’m sorry you had to go through something similar. It was the worst. I hope things are better for you now ❤

  9. empressnasigoreng August 24, 2012 at 3:49 am #

    Thanks for this post. You might be interested in reading up on childbirth related post traumatic stress disorder. I had a horrendous birth with my second which ended up with an emergency c-section. A month later a close friend had an even more horrific birth experience which ended up with her son severely brain damaged. While I didn’t suffer from depression, I did find myself getting quite distressed whenever I came up something like a childbirth scene on tv or even a pregnant woman at the shopping centre. I stumbled upon something on PTSD on the internet once time and it rang lots of bells for me. I didn’t get any professional help and it faded in time. Also fortunately this was my last baby so I didn’t have to deal with getting pregnant myself again.

    • bellejarblog August 29, 2012 at 1:46 am #

      Oh interesting! I wrote a little more today about my wonky feelings regarding pregnancy and babies – this is definitely something worth looking into. Thank you for the suggestion!

      • empressnasigoreng August 29, 2012 at 10:49 pm #

        You’re welcome. It is not something I had heard about previously.

  10. Pregnant Weeks August 24, 2012 at 4:05 am #

    Fantastic post!! Because many womens facing symptoms due to depression. Sharing plays an important role in reducing the depression.

    • bellejarblog August 29, 2012 at 1:51 am #

      “Sharing plays an important role in reducing the depression.”

      I agree so hard! And I think that it helps hugely to not feel like you are alone in it.

  11. Krisie August 24, 2012 at 6:22 am #

    I had pdd too and it wasn’t diagnosed until my son was 11 months old. I also feel bad when I think back to that beginning time and know it cannot be redone. Thank you for being brave enough to write about this. So many people don’t talk about it that it is often misunderstood. I am very glad you got help and that things are back on track. I’m guessing you turned out to be a terrific mom and I know Theo is lucky to have you (especially when he is learning to be a writer later in school).

    • bellejarblog August 29, 2012 at 1:53 am #

      Oh man, that’s awful. I’m so sorry you had to go through that. 11 months – I can’t even imagine!

      Thank you for your comment and the kind things you said. I hope I am a good mom, or at least an adequate one! ❤

  12. nobodysperfick August 24, 2012 at 12:35 pm #

    Thank you SO MUCH for being brave and spreading awareness about the issue of PPD! Hopefully, it’s people like you coming out about your experiences that lessens stigma and allows others to find hope and healing.

  13. Sara Lanthier August 30, 2012 at 6:06 pm #

    Belle – my friend just sent me the link to your blog. Amazing. We have lived some parallels here…I’m in tears reading this post – I could have written it (althouh my ppd started at 6 weeks). I was at women’s college, drugs, NICU, under 5lb baby… and while I wasn’t going to kill myself – I sure as hell had it planned out that I would give my kid to my friends who were suffering through infertility so I could just go back to my normal life. Like you – I wrote about my experience – and I talk about it – maybe too much. I just want there to be a place and time where there is no stigma. Where people aren’t afraid or ashamed to get help. It was an awful, dark place. I visit it on occasion but not as often anymore. So looking forward to reading more about you and Theo! (love that walking picture!)

    • bellejarblog August 31, 2012 at 3:44 am #

      Whoa weird! You really are my doppelganger! I also feel like I probably talk about my experience too much, but then I try to remind myself that it’s never going to be okay to talk about it unless we force ourselves to, if that makes sense.

      Sometimes I think about having another kid but, honestly, the thought of going back to that place makes it feel nearly impossible. I know it sounds wussy, but I’m not sure I could put myself through that again.

      How was your experience at Women’s College? I thought the program was quite good, except I had one weirdly terrible experience with my psychiatrist where she told me that I should switch Theo to formula, right after I had specifically told her that breastfeeding was literally the only thing I felt like I was doing right. So bizarre!

  14. Lisa T September 18, 2012 at 12:50 am #

    Your blog is amazing, I was sent here by someone, it inspired me to start writing about my postpartum, it made me feel like I wasn’t alone

    • bellejarblog September 19, 2012 at 2:43 am #

      Oh man, I’m so sorry that you are dealing with PPD. It has definitely helped me to write/talk about it – I hope you find the same thing. Big hugs. I ‘m always here if you want to talk about what you’re going through.

  15. DH November 7, 2013 at 3:28 am #

    The weirdest, horrible part of my experience so far (which I’m not sure yet that it is or isn’t PPD) is how this feels infinitely more taboo than the depressive episodes I’ve always had.

    I’d never been afraid to say anything to those closest to me before. Now it feels like if I say my thoughts out loud everyone will hate me and think I am this terrible, ungrateful, despicable person. If I say them out loud it won’t be a secret anymore, and this all becomes real.

    It is so, so hard to ask for help when everyone told me my instincts would kick in and I’d do fine. It’s hard to ask for help when people brush off my small attempts at opening up as “normal.” Instead, I’ve just become an expert at running my paranoid train of thought off the tracks. I feel guilty every time I put the baby down. I am terrified that when I don’t respond to every cry or whimper fast enough…terrified that I am ruining any chance at bonding with my baby.

    But either way, whether I speak up or hold my tongue, I am afraid the baby knows. I am afraid he thinks I resent him. And I don’t – I love him more than anything or anyone. More than I ever thought was possible.

    In fact, I only resent myself for thinking I was capable of being a good parent.

    I’m not looking for a solution here or even sympathy, believe it or not. It just feels like a small relief to finally have a space to put these words. Thank you for that.

  16. robintgalt January 11, 2016 at 8:07 pm #

    I am impressed with your ability to articulate your story. I had a hard time after both of my pregnancies (skating… but think psychosis…). I know I need to write about it, but haven’t gotten there yet as a woman writer on the internet. Your post gives me courage. Found my way here via your feature on WordPress Discover.

  17. Wake38 January 16, 2016 at 5:03 pm #

    I know it’s super late of a response, but I just found your essay via the Editor’s Picks: Too Loud, Too Outspoken, Too Feminist: Anne Theriault Writes Her Truth, so here I am.

    I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to say how touching this is. I have never experienced PPD but I am currently writing about it in a short story. I know a few women that overcame PPD and now I know of 4!

    I want to add the most touching of the post was the end…

    But I want to talk about it. I want to share my experience so that maybe someone else will think, hmmm, maybe I’m not bonkers and/or a terrible mother, maybe it’s my hormones. I want to feel like I’m not the only one who went through this, and I also want other women to feel like they’re not alone. I want them to know that things will get better, that they should talk to their doctor, or call a suicide hotline.

    As you mentioned, often we find comfort in knowing that we aren’t alone when life slams us in a ditch. I feel your sincerity in this and the sweet sense of hope. I believe that your essay will further loosen the reins of PPD for all those women who are feeling alone is their PPD state of mind.

    You are such a blessing. – W38

  18. sasdans January 20, 2016 at 4:08 am #

    Thank you so much for this incredible piece! I have just started blogging and my anxiety is making me double guess whether it’s a good idea. Beautiful art like this is what makes me want to continue writing, continue fighting and continue living! So thank you


  1. One Lovely Blog Award | The Yellow Blanket - September 5, 2012

    […] 1. Thank the person who nominated me. So…Thank you, The Belle Jar! (You must read Belle’s searing account of Postpartum Depression). […]

  2. Too Loud, Too Outspoken, Too Feminist: Anne Thériault Writes Her Truth | The Confused Page - January 11, 2016

    […] the piece that was the most difficult to write and scariest for me to publish was my first essay about postpartum depression. I hadn’t talked much about mental health before that, and I had no clue what the reaction was […]

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