I was cleaning a file cabinet last week when I came across the medical records from my first child’s birth. For a moment I was catapulted back to 16 years ago, past all the years of Little League and first days of school. Past the toddler years and first teeth and first haircuts. Past the nights I thought I’d never sleep and sanitized all the binkies.
I was back to where it all began, back to the day I became a mother. And it was kind of a rocky start.
Everything about baby Ford’s arrival was ordinary in the most basic sense. The medical record shows this. His heart rate and mine: normal. His breathing and mine: normal. Labor started at 2 a.m., pushing began at 7:30 a.m., and Ford was born by 9:45 a.m.
Normal, normal, normal.
But then, if you read further down the chart, you see some notes about “mom.” I was refusing solid food. I was crying and anxious. Breastfeeding was not going well. And for some reason I insisted that something was wrong with my throat.
The diagnosis: suspected postpartum depression.
Yes, it happened that fast. Before I was even discharged from the hospital with my brand new baby, I had a diagnosis of postpartum depression. But honestly, the process — or “downward spiral,” as I’ve come to call it since — had begun long before that day. It started when I was eight months pregnant and learned that my Navy husband would start his deployment work-ups within weeks of the birth and then deploy before Ford was 6 months old. In fact, there was no guarantee he would be there for the birth at all.
That’s when the mental fatigue and anxiety began.
I’ve learned since 2000, however, that postpartum depression can have many different factors — some of them physical and hormonal and some of them circumstantial. Often, all of these collide in a perfect storm.
I went into the labor and delivery room with the “circumstantial” part covered: I was already anticipating my husband’s departure. But two days after Ford was born, while I was still in the hospital, something happened inside me. It was as if every last bit of resolve, strength and clarity I possessed disappeared as the pregnancy hormones plummeted and my physical, chemical body returned to “normal.”
This was the physical/hormonal part.
The difference between Day 2 postpartum and Day 3 was dramatic for me. One day I was a bit withdrawn and anxious as the nurses assisted me with breastfeeding; the next day I actually could not stop crying. I also couldn’t sleep or eat. I paced in my hospital room with a horrific sense of doom, like something was wrong with the baby or something was wrong with me and certainly like life would be terrible as soon as they released us.
I remember a nurse coming into the room and telling me, “You need to get it together. You’re all this baby has when your husband deploys.”
Obviously that didn’t help. My anger at her didn’t snap me out of it, either. Instead, I sank further.
At my six-week check-up, I was still struggling. Actually, no, “struggling” is not a strong enough word. I wasn’t functioning at all. I wasn’t showering. I wasn’t eating. I’d stopped breastfeeding. And I could barely hold a conversation. My husband was already gone.
The doctor told me, “You have hit your wall emotionally, physically and hormonally.” Then he gave me a prescription for antidepressants.
This heightened sense of anxiety and, ironically, depression stayed with me until Ford turned 6 months old. And the feeling returned, always on the third day postpartum, with each of my following two pregnancies. It always lasted for about 6 months, and it always felt like my life was falling apart.
But as I sat in my living room last week and read the chart from 16 years ago, I finally realized for the first time how temporary it all had been. It feels all-consuming and permanent when you are in it. And when those plummeting hormones hit postpartum, it feels like a tidal wave, like you will never be the same again.
But I am.
In fact, by year two, I was no longer struggling to function but instead fretting over things that by comparison seemed exceptionally trivial. Is he eating the right things? Should I do a Mommy and Me class? Why doesn’t he have many teeth?
In hindsight, I’m sad that my first few months as a mother began with such despair and darkness. But it didn’t last forever. And 16 years later, it feels like an infinitesimal fraction of the time I’ve spent as Ford’s — and then Owen’s and Lindell’s — mother.
Sometimes I think I’d like to go back and do it again. From the emotionally healthy vantage point of my today, it seems like I could do it “better.” I wouldn’t succumb to the depression. I wouldn’t waste those months being sick.
Yet, I know better. It would always be the same. It’s who I am. It’s how some of us are made.
But we can get through it.
Then one day, it’s just a file in a cabinet that needs cleaning out. But we keep that paper because it’s all part of the story. And it’s a beautiful, complicated, important story.
Maine writer and columnist Sarah Smiley’s writing is syndicated weekly to publications across the country. She may be reached at facebook.com/Sarah.is.Smiley.