The early afternoon light is what I remember most. Stripes of sunlight splayed across the living room floor. The sight of the pale, lit floor made my stomach sink. It meant there were still hours to get through until my husband would be home from work. I sat on the couch staring at my baby son, balanced on my thighs. He stared back, his blue-grey eyes fixed on my face.
This was what I’d wanted—to be a mother. And yet, I was miserable.
During my pregnancy, my midwives told me that because I’d struggled with depression and anxiety in the past, I had a higher risk of developing postpartum depression.
Each time I used the bathroom during my visits to my midwives, I saw the sign for the weekly postpartum adjustment group. I also knew that the micro-dose of antidepressants I took during my pregnancy could be upped. I knew to expect “the baby blues”—a period of feeling weepy and emotional during the first week or so after delivery—was typical.
But knowing all of that still couldn’t prepare me for the crush of postpartum depression.
I entered motherhood already in a sleep deficit. After a difficult, prolonged labor, intensified by Pitocin, my body was exhausted and torn. I sleepwalked through the first days in the hospital, but it was after we went home, where there were no nurses to help, that I started to sink.
My son had his days and nights confused and couldn’t put together more than two hours of sleep at a time. Within a few days of being home, I felt the spark drain out of me. I laid in bed nursing my beautiful new baby boy, feeling more overwhelmed and hopeless than I could’ve ever imagined. As the tide of pregnancy hormones shifted steeply, I was soaked in sweat and milk each night. I felt exhausted yet charged with an electric anxiety that left me unable to rest even when my son did.
Had this been a “normal” depression, I would’ve maybe taken to bed with some Netflix, called a therapist, tried to get more exercise and sleep. But this wasn’t the type of depression I was used to. It was like being knocked around by waves of hopelessness—all while charged with the sudden, relentless responsibility of caring for my son.
One of the hallmarks of depression is distorted thinking. At night, when the worst of my thoughts rained down on me, I felt I’d ruined our lives by having a baby. I imagined hurting him or offering him up for adoption. I fantasized about being hospitalized so I could sleep and recover. So I could take a shower without hearing his screams, or pass a few hours without needing to nurse him.
Clearly, this wasn’t just the baby blues.
I scheduled a visit with my midwives, and told them what was going on. They increased my antidepressants to a therapeutic level and gave me names of therapists to call.
Within a few days, the medication kicked in and I no longer felt like my skin was prickling with anxiety. I scheduled an appointment with a therapist. Perhaps most importantly, I started attending the group for women struggling with postpartum adjustment—the one I’d seen the sign for throughout my pregnancy.
Each Wednesday for over a year, I sat in a room with other women—women who looked like normal, good moms—and listened to them talk about their struggles with depression and anxiety. They talked about lack of sleep and what type of medication they’d found helpful. And I talked too. I talked about how overwhelmed I felt, and how I counted the hours until my husband got home each night, and the crippling anxiety. Postpartum depression was one of the most lonely experiences I’d ever had, which was ironic since I was never alone—in those early months, my son was with me night and day. But every Wednesday afternoon at the postpartum support group, I felt a little less lonely.
Between the medication boost and the support from the group and a new therapist, the worst of the depression dropped away within a few weeks. I still felt like I was slogging through the days and nights, but I didn’t feel so hopeless and empty. Weeks and months passed, and incrementally, I adjusted to life as a mom.
My son is seven now. Though those early weeks and months feel like a hazy nightmare, I still remember the sinking, lonely feeling of the afternoon light. I remember the silver flashes of panic in the night when I wondered how I could possibly survive early motherhood.
Expecting postpartum depression didn’t make the experience easier, but it did arm me with resources. As hard as postpartum depression was, I wince when I think of how much longer it could’ve lingered.