The day my son was born was as joyous and full of promise as everyone had told me it would be. My miracle child was healthy and I felt on top of the world. I remember on day 2 postpartum, my mom called me at the hospital and asked how I was handling the sleeplessness resulting from hourly feedings throughout the night and the general endless needs of a newborn baby. I responded, “I love it, it’s really fun!” This would be the last time I felt those emotions for several months. That very same night, the 2nd night of my newborn’s life, something terrible awakened in him. It was a kind of mystery misery that nobody could define. The kind of misery that left my son screaming shrieks of pain 24 hours a day. There were very few periods of wakeful calm – if my son was awake, he was screaming. As there seemed to be no medical reason for his incessant crying, the many pediatricians and other specialists I consulted simply called it “colic”.
The colic persisted for five months and during this time I entered the darkest period of my life. My son had two states of being – sleep and screaming. He would only sleep for thirty minute increments and only if he was being held. In order to keep him asleep for those thirty minutes, he required fairly constant bouncing on a giant exercise ball. He could not be put down even for a moment or he would begin ear-splitting fits of screaming that broke my heart. For the first two weeks of his life, I tried to keep up with this by holding and bouncing him around the clock without much assistance. My husband worked full time during the day, so I took the night shifts. This is how my own battle with insomnia began. After getting no more than 2 hours of sleep a night for two weeks, my family realized that we needed help. We recruited friends and family to come and hold our child five nights a week from 8pm – 3am so that I could get a five-hour chunk of sleep every night. I was extremely lucky to have such supportive and loving people to help me, but unfortunately, my severe anxiety and terrifying thoughts about my son’s health and safety kept me from sleeping even when given the opportunity.
My days and nights were filled with endless hours of holding and bouncing. There was never a moment of rest or time for self care. Nursing did not go well either and despite my efforts to feed my son solely breast milk, at 1.5 months he started to fight and cry on the breast as well. Other than bouncing him, there was no way I could soothe my son. I began to pump my breast milk around the clock, so I could give him what I knew was best. I believe that due to the constant breast pumping and my extreme anxiety, I was burning a tremendous amount of calories. I lost a significant amount of weight and became a husk of my former self. I was terrified of the person I saw in the mirror and had terrible regret that I chose to bring my miserable little boy into the world. Though doctors and well-meaning loved ones told me again and again that my son would grow out of it, I had no conception that this period would be temporary. I hated my life and I hated myself for wishing my baby back into the womb. I felt awful guilt about regretting my son’s birth and shame about my inability to be a good mother and soothe my child.
As my insomnia grew worse and worse, I started to completely lose my ability to think rationally. Mothering was nothing like I expected and I began to think seriously that I wanted to die or be hospitalized. I felt completely trapped. I could see no way out of the intolerable role of mothering this child and would vacillate between terror that there was something really wrong with him and rage that I had been given this extremely high needs child. Though I was a trained mental health therapist, I did not recognize that my uncontrollable sobbing, extreme anxiety, and wish to exit the world could be symptoms of postpartum depression. I was convinced that my mental state was solely a direct result of my son’s “colic”.
At three months postpartum, my family began to put a lot of pressure on me to get professional help and to stop feeding my son my breast milk so that I could take drugs that would quiet my anxiety enough that I could sleep. I had already tried every anti-depressant, anti-anxiety, and sleep-inducing medication that would be safe for my baby to consume. At this point, I began to recognize that I could not be a mother to my child at all if I was not well. I saw a psychiatrist, began taking a powerful anti-anxiety medication, and let go of my obsessive need to feed my baby breast milk. Giving up nursing was probably the most difficult decision I have made in my life, but I do not regret it, as it was what I had to do to be a mother to my son.
Once I began to sleep, my son gradually started to find joy in his life and so did I. Today, he is 2 years old and he is a very happy and healthy toddler! In retrospect, I can’t believe this boy is the same child that could not be soothed just a short time ago. My own recovery has taken some time. I still feel a sense of loss around the trauma of my son’s infancy, but the experience has taught me many powerful lessons about acceptance and letting go. Today, I work to help new moms cope with and overcome the challenges associated with perinatal mood disorders. If I were to have another child, I know I would do things differently. Most importantly, I would reach out sooner to those who understand and relate to my experience. Sharing my story and hearing the stories of other mothers has been instrumental to my own healing process.