Nothing in my life has ever been as important to me as being a mom. Nothing has even come close.
It was the last thing I dreamed would crush me. But the weight of loving someone so much you would die for them, the heaviness of feeling like you are failing them in ways big and small, the burden of guilt, fear and self-loathing, did just that.
Having a child, being a mom to a little person that I carried around inside my body as he grew, was all that I ever wanted. My husband and I planned from day one that I would stay home to raise our children. We both knew it was to be the most important work of my life. I wanted nothing more than to make this dream come true, to make me a mom and him a dad. We started trying to conceive and I diligently took my temperature every morning and charted my cycles, trying to time everything perfectly so we might get pregnant sooner. I was terrified, even early on, that there would be something wrong and that I wouldn't be able to get pregnant. As we approached the one-year mark of trying to conceive, I feared that we would be what the medical establishment calls "infertile" after our unsuccessful attempts. But then, blessedly, after eleven months of trying, I became pregnant. Shortly after, I learned I had miscarried. It was early. That's what people said, trying to be helpful. It wasn't meant to be. Maybe not. But I was devastated, and more riddled with anxiety about not having the opportunity to be a mom than I had ever been before.
Seven months later, we conceived again. I was terrified every day of that pregnancy that it would disappear, just as the last one had. I bled on and off for eleven weeks, each time sure I was miscarrying. After our twenty-week ultrasound when we discovered we were having a baby boy, I finally allowed myself to celebrate being pregnant. The time I had was shorter than I expected. My water broke when I was 34 weeks and I gave birth to a beautiful, healthy baby boy. The weeks following were a whirlwind of happiness, love and overwhelming worry. I knew better, but chalked it up to the stress of pregnancy complications and delivering a baby six weeks earlier than expected. I was a new mom. What new mom didn’t doubt herself? What new mom wasn’t exhausted and frustrated? I struggled through it, but not without consequence. In retrospect, I believe I had PPD.
By the time our son was 2, we started thinking about trying to have another baby. Our desire to get pregnant again was tempered by the realization that if having one child was tiring, two would be exponentially so. Nevertheless, we got pregnant even before we started officially trying. At least the worry over whether or not we would have trouble conceiving again was gone. My pregnancy was mostly uneventful. I did have morning sickness (all-day sickness, that is) throughout the entire first trimester, but it was manageable. We had the concern that I might deliver early again, but no major issues. I delivered our second baby at 38 weeks. Another beautiful, healthy baby boy.
Sadly, the first few months of his life are a blur. He had trouble nursing, as had my first, but this was such a surprise to me because I thought the main reason my first son had trouble was because he was premature. We worked so hard to make it through, with weight checks and lactation consults and anything else I could think of. And we did it! On the outside, everything was fine. He was healthy, mom and dad were understandably tired and big brother was adjusting. But on the inside, I was falling apart. Joy was replaced with anger and the belief that I was just not cut out to be a mom.
The thing about getting what you have always dreamed of is that you feel like you have to live up to the dream.
You have to feel like you deserve what you were blessed with to even begin to enjoy it. All I felt like was a failure. I ceased to be the mother my oldest had known. I was tired, mean, sad, and angry. I had no patience for anything and nothing seemed to ever work the way I needed it to, two things that I'm quite sure were related. My precious husband and family were as supportive as they knew how to be, but I felt trapped and alone. I felt like I had hit bottom. At that time, my youngest was three months old. Every day, I worried I was ruining him, that he would never be able to really be happy because he had never seen me happy. I remember just crying some nights into his sweet, soft neck, and sobbing: “I’m sorry. I’m so, so sorry.” And although I was begging for his forgiveness, I felt like it was futile—not because he was a newborn, but because my offenses were unforgiveable. But every day, that sweet smile would spread across his face and I would believe, just for a moment, that he was accepting my apology.
Feeling unforgiveable, and the shame that came along with it, was the hallmark of my PPD. I had (have) so much guilt over what my children lost when I was struggling with PPD that many times I felt like the experiences, connections, and memories that they missed out on or were tarnished are things that I can’t be forgiven for stealing. I felt like I should be stronger, like I should be able to overcome whatever it was that had hold of me and be who I needed to be for my kids. Ridiculous, of course, especially considering that I am a mental health professional and knew that that was unreasonable. In my pre-mom life I was a therapist. (Technically, I still am.) I was a champion of those with mental illnesses, a firm believer that it is nothing to be ashamed of or hide. I had suffered from clinical depression a few times in my life and felt comfortable telling others when I felt like it would help them give voice to their experience. Then I became a mom. Everything changed. I had never held myself to a higher standard because I had never cared this much about something. I couldn’t reconcile my knowledge that an illness like PPD wasn’t my fault with my feelings that I was very much to blame.
Before long, there was no denying it and no option to ignore it. I knew before I knew that I had PPD. I could look at myself as a clinician and know that I was in deep, but as a nursing mother who just didn’t want to take meds for depression, I tried to ignore the signs. Sadly, my kids and my husband couldn’t ignore them. They were immersed in them every day, in every interaction they had with me. It became clear that my kids were more at risk from being around a depressed, angry and miserable mother than my newborn was from the teeny tiny amount of antidepressant in my breast milk. So I started treatment for my PPD and did start to heal. It didn’t happen overnight, but once that oppressive weight began to lift, I knew I had made the right choice for my family.
My precious babies are now four and a half and one and a half year old little boys who bring so much joy to my life. I tell them often, “I love you so much, I can’t even stand it!” It’s true. It’s an overwhelming, all-encompassing love. I think in the end, it’s what saved me. PPD was ugly, and hard, and soul-crushing, but I would walk down this road a million times more as long as my babies were at the end of it and gave me a chance to be their mama.