This essay is dedicated to all the beautiful, loving mothers who have ever had to walk their hearts through PPD, and for those to come- may the journey be much easier for you. You are all pictures of perfect grace.
A Baby is Born
I just opened my office window for the first time this Spring. My favorite trees, those luscious magnolias, are wild with petals here in Portland, OR, where Spring is epic.
These bright and bloom-filled days remind me of exactly this time two years ago. My son was 8 days old, perfect and just figuring out how to nurse. My husband and mother lovingly tended to me. They planted a new garden that week. Named it “Julian’s garden.” It’s all tulips, daphne, crocus, daffodils.
We had a very smooth and successful home birth. He was born in a birthing tub in our living room, twilight shining softly in as candles flickered nearby and some pleasant music played in the background. My cat stretched out her paws, deep in nap, as Julian came into the world. My mother arrived just in time to witness my husband cut Julian’s cord. After a few hours, the midwives and my mother left us, snuggled quietly in our beds- a family.
Picturesque, my friends. And I am deeply grateful. The first 48 hours or so postpartum were pure emotional heaven, ecstasy even, despite the physical pain.
But as that incredible, natural oxytocin high faded, and my body began to rearrange itself neurologically and hormonally to a postpartum, lactating state, things got real hard.
A Maiden Dies
For the first several weeks postpartum, every morning began with a crushing headache (on the heels, of course, of a nearly sleepless night). I had a big baby and I couldn’t stand erect for nearly two weeks. I had temporarily reverted back to simply homo sapien.
I was bruised, sore, achy, low-down-to-the-earth. My breasts became wildly engorged because Jules had both a tongue and mild lip tie (Read: If your child is having trouble latching make sure you get someone to rule this out! It’s strangely controversial, but there is a 1 minute, nearly painless procedure that can make way for successful breastfeeding!!).
Lactation consultants came to help me. My midwives came by every few days for a few weeks. Friends visited with meals.
I existed in the utmost dreamy fog, slowly discovering this lovely, painful, surreal place of mother. A place I had never visited, yet felt so familiar.
“A strange new room in a house where you’ve always lived,” as artist Sarah Walker put it.
But it wasn’t the physical pain and limited movement that was making it really hard. It was my emotional place. I was so, incredibly emotional, at times crushingly anxious.
Paradoxically, inside of the greatest joy, I experienced the most visceral grief.
How did this show up? Episodes of uncontrollable sobbing. An almost obsessive conviction that I could only have one child. A deep sense of grief over a perceived loss-of-self, an almost terrifying experience of love, beyond any experience of love I had yet had. Gripping fear that something might happen to him (this one sticks).
A persistent questioning of my worth/sanity, moments of deep-hearted worry over the future and providing for my son. A foggy mind, as if I were hung-over every day. Exhaustion so deep and intensive that having a real conversation or making a simple dinner was often out of reach those first 6 months.
This was my picture, but postpartum depression shows up differently for different women. PPD can be broadly explained as any new mother who is really struggling to emotionally rebalance her dear self after having a child.
No less than 1 in 7 women- at the very least- experience postpartum depression. It is very confusing, and we need hands to hold.
A Mother Is Born
Though I had brilliant, strong-spirited midwives and dear friends who were not afraid to discuss this topic, by and large PPD remains grandly misunderstood, underreported, taboo, and terribly painful for any sweet new mother. It's incredibly isolating, and though it has taken me two years to write this, I was always going to write it. Because it’s time to build bridges between the ancient customs of caring for women post-birth and all the modern information, research and tools we now have.
Part of me accepted that heavy emotions were normal at first, and most of them were! But then, the family visits ended and my husband, who had one month left of grad school and a job, returned to school and work.
Suddenly, there I was- all alone with this perfect little being. I think this is where PPD really starts to take hold for many women … just when the initial visits start to dry up.
(If you have lots of on-going help, though, that doesn’t mean you are immune from or wrong to also experience PPD).
I’m the kind of person who thrives being alone- even for days on end. I was hence utterly unprepared to feel more lonely than I had ever felt in those first few months. It was confusing and caused so much guilt because I'd never felt more affection for anything in my life!
I remember the first full day we were together just the two of us. It was like the twilight zone. I couldn’t find my way to peace. I nursed and was gentle and amazed by my beautiful son. I laid him on the sunlit window seat to help clear up his jaundice. I kissed his new cheeks endlessly.
And yet I could not stop crying. I could not find the JOY I felt so often in pregnancy. The joy I thought I should be experiencing, that I’d been told culturally I would experience.
For months, I would lovingly take care of my sweet boy with tears rolling down my cheeks.
Not all the time, but at least once every day for the first several months. My son awoke every 3 hours or less, around the clock, for the first year. I believe that sleep deprivation can deeply exacerbate PPD, and for those who don’t have “sleepers” and have PPD, hear this: It is crucial that you put some things in place to help you. As my counselor said to me during that time, “Sleep deprivation is a viable and oft-used torture tactic.” ‘Nough said.
And mistakenly during those early months, I did not phone a friend. At least not often enough (many thanks to the few friends who listened, checked in, and held deep, abiding space for me). I didn’t call a counselor (until 6 months postpartum). I told the midwives I was “fine.” And because of our nuclear cultural set-up, my phone didn’t ring much either after the first few weeks. This isn’t a blame thing- it’s just a thing in our culture.
It’s an unfortunate thing because, whatever we're going through in life, talking with others is almost always instantly normalizing and grounding. I wish I had talked to more moms about my fears and hopes and experience. Perhaps I could have found a little more patience for the rebirth of self that always comes (I promise). But it is oh so much harder, and more drawn out for the new mother with PPD.
I’ve come to believe that what lay at the core of postpartum depression is a struggle to reconcile one’s former identity with one’s new identity, above and beyond what is generally experienced by the majority of women.
The Space Between Stories*
Modern research on change and transition clearly suggests that there is a difference between changes that we easily adapt to and those that cause a sort of loss or ending. What is more interesting is that these are somewhat unique experiences to each individual. So, for example, moving cross-country could be a change, yes, but not a real experience of loss or anguish for one person and yet be very much so for another.
Likewise, becoming a mother (though always a journey), might be a much smoother transition for one woman, and may be life-shattering, for a time, for another. It all depends on whether the individual experiences an “irretrievable loss of the familiar” (Peter Marris, Loss and Change).
Marris goes on to say that “[d]eath must be acknowledged, so that life may continue,” but it rarely is. If we’re lucky, perhaps we have a Blessing Way (an alternative or compliment to the baby shower which focuses on and honors the mother’s imminent right of passage). Or perhaps throughout our lives someone has led us in the ways of meaningful, thorough change. I was so lucky, again, to having caring friends, family, and midwives- and yet I suffered.
In his seminal book, Transitions (a great, not-so-obvious book for any new parent!), William Bridges points out that we tend to view many changes in life, especially the supposed “good things,” as new beginnings when really, they are first endings.
Only after we move through an ending, wade through a strange “no man’s land,” can we then arrive on the other side and step into a new beginning.
He adds that “we usually have most of the changes in place before we realize we are in the ending.” In other words, only after the baby is born do we realize the magnitude of change that has happened, the weight of the dream-come-true.
Philosopher Charles Eisenstein* calls this liminal zone “the space between stories,” and it is here that all mothers, and especially those with PPD, must be cared for, must be mothered, and it's worth repeating- must mother herself- so that she can arrive safely and joyfully and fully into her new beginning.
Not just for a couple weeks, but for several months and arguably years of self-care and cared-for-ness after birth. Because regardless of your circumstances, the identity shift that happens in entering modern motherhood is unchartered territory. Couple that with an astounding cultural loss of the ways and wisdoms of postpartum care, and one can see why so many mamas are alone, feeling blue, with their babies right now.
I can say now with confidence that I have moved fully through PPD. It took me well over a year to locate myself. Or perhaps more accurately, to weave my past and present threads for a new continuity of self. So I would like to share some insights and resources below, which I hope expecting moms will consider. I was a little rebellious myself to some of this advice- maybe it was the way it was put forth- so I have tried to be loving. Sometimes as expecting moms, we grow tired of all the unsolicited advice. I share this advice from a place of deep respect and humility.
Above all, I wish you strength and joy as you navigate the "space between stories" that is new motherhood. Happy Mother's Day to you, beautiful lady!
Less Obvious Readings for the Sensitive, Intelligent, Curious, and PPD-prone New Mom:
Women Who Run With The Wolves
(In my opinion, the most important book on, about and for women in existence.)
The Parent’s Tao Te Ching
Happiest Baby on the Block
Dr. Harvey Karp
The Wisdom of No Escape
*Also, When Things Fall Apart by Pema
The Art of Happiness
HH The Dalai Lama
Hafiz, Translated by Daniel Ladinsky
Becoming Wise: An Inquiry Into the Mystery and Art of Living
*Also, her podcast, On Being
Podcasts! There is, believe it or not, lots of down time in early motherhood…. Sort of. It’s not easy to be hand’s free, but it’s easy to listen. So load up your devices with your favorite podcasts and find comfort, intelligence, and great conversation there.
Fiction! Lately I've been reading: Isabelle Allende, Paulo Coelho, Chimamanda Adichie, Helen Oyeyemi. Consider a kindle with a light built-in.
Top 10 PPD (and new motherhood in general) Coping Tips
1. Get Help. Alert your spouse, best friend and any other deeply trusted persons in your life that you think you may have PPD. Call your doctor or a trusted counselor and explore with them what you’re feeling.
2. Understand what PPD is. Visit http://www.postpartum.net and point others who love you there to learn more. Remember that PPD has nothing to do with how much you love your baby, or even how well you are able to care for them (though in some cases it can affect baby’s care). I like to think I am a damn great mommy!
3. Wherever possible, sleep when baby sleeps. I heard this advice a lot and I didn’t take it. I was so desperate for some “me time”... to do some dishes, to write in my journal. But I ended up developing insomnia because my body got so used to not sleeping. (I am over that now). Please, please lay down and close your eyes in those early months when that baby does.
4. Take breaks. As a new mama, you are IT for that baby. It’s an honor and a privilege and extremely hard to step away. But leaving for two hours for a pedicure, taking some time to write or read, taking a long nap while others take care of baby is crucial and will help so much. Let. Breaks. Happen. If you're nursing- nurse, then throw some breasts pads in that bra and do whatever will make you feel cared for.
5. Nourish thyself. There is a fabulous website that allows you to set up a meal train easily that friends and family can sign up for. If you have family coming in those first weeks, consider starting the meal train after that, when many of us suddenly find ourselves alone. The visit and the food will help so much.
6. State Your Needs in No Uncertain Terms. Put a sign on your front door with the following instructions: “Welcome! Come on in and please keep voices quiet, visits short, and illness elsewhere.” Or whatever it is you need most. Too many of us women put our needs aside THE MOST when we are at our MOST VULNERABLE!! Consider putting further instructions on your fridge for house guests/longer visit guests. This is your time, and it’s a crazy, beautiful, deeply personal time. If people want to be part of it, they must honor your wishes.
7. Lose Yourself in Motherhood, just for a while. Only you can decide what “a while” looks like, but I promise- everything really, truly can wait. It’ll all be there… work, friendships, deep cleaning, adventures, careers, creativity. One of my regrets (no regrets!) is that I pressured myself so much to get back to “it all.” Not just physically, but mentally. I worried about my bsuiness, house, marriage; I worried about a lot of things. Now, I look back on those tender months, and those sweet, mystical, early days with my boy are over now, and however hard they were, they were precious beyond measure. So melt into motherhood. I promise, you will re-emerge. But being fully present in the beginning with huge trust in your heart will make the whole experience more fun, relaxing, and magical.
8. Slow & Steady: After giving birth, a mother must venture to rebirth herself, all the while caring with all her heart for the most vulnerable, beautiful creature she’s ever seen. I wish that rather than stressing about how to get all the things done, that I would have just really trusted in less is more. For example, to have started to do one small thing toward my business a day. Just one, until enough momentum built up to fully return to work. I would have sought a gentler balance over “all or nothing.” I would have absolutely trusted that there would indeed be a slow and steady, yet comprehensive rebirth into a newer, braver and even more passionate self. (Note: for women without children: motherhood is obviously not the only way to experience radical transformation).
9. Be gentle with yourself. Remember that you’re not alone, and that post-natal care used to be much more comprehensive. In our current culture, we are just supposed to be all love and fluff as new moms. The rollercoaster we actually experience, heightened by PPD, defies that. It scares people, and often, because people have themselves been invalidated for their most deeply-felt emotions, they just don’t understand. We don’t fully know, as a culture, how to show up for the new mother, especially the new mother with PPD.
10. Invite Humor in Like A Dear Friend. The journey is the prize when it comes to parenting (or anything worthwhile for that matter). When we can view it as a journey, and just have some frickin fun with it and laugh at ourselves and our partners’ mistakes and our parent’s “suggestions” and the wild ride of new parenthood, and stop putting so much pressure on ourselves, well it can all get really fun and funny. We all sort of have a little voice that thinks, “I will do it my way.” Or “my kids will never….,” or “We are so not going to do that.” And then we get humbled. Oh boy, do we get so, so humbled. And eventually, we actually do do it our way, and we do some amazing things. In the process, having fun and taking it all with a grain of salt is highly recommended.
With much love & deepsweet gratitude to all my fellow mothers out there!