Everyone and everything told me that depression and anxiety would pop up in the first three months after E's birth. I felt prepared to look out for these red flags, which seemed so dramatic and serious, stuff like not wanting to be near your baby, thoughts of harming your baby or yourself, crying all day, being unable to get out of bed or function, feeling like a terrible mother, etc. Textbook stuff.
But after E was born, I felt okay. Exhausted beyond belief, yes. Confused if we were doing anything right, yes. Stressed about healing properly, yes. Overwhelmed by the massive change of being responsible for a tiny human, yes.
All of that seemed kinda normal, though, and while I cried several late nights and early mornings, I survived maternity leave and those first weeks unlike any other. Eventually, I could take walks and get back to yoga, which helped me feel more like myself, and I had the support of friends and family as well as an incredible partner to navigate all these transitions.
Then I went back to work, which I loved. I realize that the shift from being home all day with your new babe to putting him or her in some sort of care facility to go back to work is traumatic for lots of women. I am lucky, too, because A) I could stay home for 12 weeks with job security and a very supportive team, B) a third of my maternity leave was technically unpaid, but my husband and I were able to manage the gap with a combination of my vacation hours and savings, C) I really, really like my job as a content manager for a healthcare company and D) I really, really like the kind woman who watches E in her home every day at an affordable price five minutes from work.
Like I said, super lucky.
I still expected to cry or stress out or miss my son terribly every time I dropped him off and headed to the office, but I didn't. I didn't mind dropping him off, ever. I felt relieved at work, having time to get things done and use my brain. I loved picking him up and hanging out after a long day, seeing his smiling bitty face. I only cried once, when I lost my keys in the walk from the parking lot to the fourth floor.
I share that because it felt a little abnormal to be so okay. That doesn't mean that motherhood felt easy: hell no. I worked full-time, pumped at work in a tiny closet with a refrigerator twice a day while on conference calls and nursed at home up until E was 9 months old. We dealt with the usual difficulties related to teething, sleep strikes and regressions, bonked heads during sitting up and crawling, navigating new foods, traveling with a baby, etc.
So again: everything felt hard, but it also felt okay. And then, all of a sudden, I was not okay.
It started with insomnia: I would put E down, or try to go to bed early while my husband tackled nighttime duty, and just lay there with my mind racing. I couldn't sleep. If I did sleep, even on the blessed nights where I got 8-9 hours at a stretch, I woke up feeling drained. I felt extremely scatterbrained and forgetful, like my head was in the clouds 24/7. I didn't want to talk to anyone or go anywhere. I had no appetite, which was concerning because I had already experienced some weight loss with breastfeeding, and I had been trying to remedy that through extra snacks and fewer workouts. For the first time ever, I did not want to have sex at all.
I felt extremely sensitive and defensive, like I was missing a layer of myself for protection, and anxious, anxious, anxious. Some days, lots of days, I felt resentful: of what, I don't know. I didn't feel like a bad mother; I mean, I was doing all the right things and my best and feeling pretty decent about our choices as parents. It mostly felt like distance and detachment. I would sit and play with my son and feel like I was a million miles away, or like I was watching myself go through the motions from up above.
During this whole time, we were slowly starting to wean, and I thought maybe the hormonal adjustments related to that could be the cause. I also knew that I felt very sad to stop breastfeeding, to lose that quiet piece of physical connection that also serves as an emotional touchpoint with my baby who was slowly becoming less of a baby and more of a little boy.
I mostly wanted to wear sweatpants and watch television and get in the car and disappear. Not in a dramatic way, but in a nice, fuzzy, dream-like easy way. Before parenthood, if I heard about a mother leaving her child, I thought: "How could she?" Now, I got it, as terrible as that is. I understood the urge to be free at any cost.
Despite all of this, not once did it occur to me that I might have postpartum depression. I didn't feel super dark. I remember thinking on my way to my sister's one day, "I can't have postpartum, I only feel down, like, 80% of the time." (Lol. Um, hello.) Never did I feel the urge to harm myself or my son or anyone. Most of my negative thoughts were fleeting, followed by feelings of joy or happiness or just basic normality. I thought it was just a phase, and that I was being a little crazy, and that I was having trouble adjusting to motherhood.
Then I would guilt-trip the hell out of myself. I would think stuff like, "Your life is so great, who are you to complain?" and "Stop being a baby" and "Other moms can do this" and "What is your problem?" and "Ezra is healthy, you have a good marriage, get your shit together." Every time the anxiety rose to the surface with family members, I wanted to shove it down, because I felt like I didn't deserve to be sad or scared or stressed or anxious. I didn't know why I couldn't handle my life, as good as it was. I felt embarrassed to tell anyone that I felt like a washcloth from a hot bath that had been forgotten in the tub, twisted and wrung out and hard as a brick.
These sensations and emotions lasted about three months, and then slowly, I started to ask for help and name my anxiety and swallow the unnecessary shame around being overwhelmed. I'm mostly out of the woods these days, and heading in the right direction, but there was no magic revelation or quick-and-easy fix to get there. I told the truth whenever I could, and can. I stayed home and canceled plans and ate a lot of pasta and took long, hot showers and went to restorative yoga and read books in bed. I played with my son and put my phone down and cuddled with my husband on the couch. I stopped pumping and breastfeeding and that helped immensely; as much as I loved the experience of nourishing my son, it had started to hurt more than help.
It is still hard some days, but it is better. It is not perfect, but the crushing veil of anxiety has lifted. For that, I am grateful.
I share my story openly, with detail, because I want other women, and mothers, to know how sneaky anxiety and depression can be. It often doesn't look how it "should." It can float in and out with no real description. It may not involve therapy or medicine, or maybe it requires both. Overall, I wish I had felt like I could speak up sooner. I wish I had known that I didn't need a serious "reason" to be so anxious and that I didn't have to justify asking for help.
Motherhood can be so frightening, and so overwhelming, and so jarring to one's body, mind and spirit. We have to talk about it, knowing there is a wide range of experiences to share that could help others feel less alone. There is value in naming emotions for what they are, without context or a narrative. My anxiety still doesn't make "sense," but it happened, and it faded, and now here I am: a parent who loves her family, a mother doing her best, a woman who writes, a person who is practicing less giving and more receiving.