One Woman’s Story
By Lucie Walker
From Vancouver Parent, February 1993
When a child is born to a woman, she becomes a mother. But where does the woman go? Motherhood should not be a departure from personhood, yet with months and years of give, give, give, one tends to forget to take once in a while. Or to give to herself.
When my first son was born in 1989, I felt the same feelings of exhilaration, joy, and pride that mothers generally feel. The first few weeks at home were a blur of new responsibilities, well-meaning visitors and sleeplessness. I was thrilled to be with this perfect little person that had miraculously come from my deep, dark insides.
Then, around the time he was nine weeks old, everything I knew, trusted and was familiar with crashed. I spend the next several months trying to collect the pieces and then putting them back together so it would all make sense.
Panic and frightening fantasies were my cold introduction into the seemingly merciless realm of postpartum depression. On an otherwise ordinary day, I was cradling my sleeping infant when a wave of anxiety swept through me while my mind sped with ugly, crazy thoughts of violence towards my baby. Horrified, I tried to push them sharply out of my mind. What kind of mother was I? No “good” mother has such thoughts! I was sure I had gone crazy.
Over the next couple of weeks, I felt myself spiraling downward quickly, until it was all I could do to get up and out of bed every morning. I was convinced that if I told anybody what I was feeling, they would have my baby taken away and lock me up. I’ve never been so scared in my life.
Why was this happening? I loved my son. He was actually a “good” baby. It’s not like he cried excessively. He had even begun to sleep through the night. I did all the things I needed in order to keep him safe, fed, warm, soothed, happy, and stimulated. But it took every ounce of effort in my body. I didn’t feel like doing any of it. I felt like a child myself and desperately wanted someone to step in and take over my responsibilities and to mother me.
Meanwhile, I grieved the loss of my old self. I hated sameness of every day. I used to be something, somebody, and now I felt like a nothing doing nothing. It was a struggle every day to face the endless chores that needed doing but never got done. The push to accomplish at least something in a day was constantly quelled by my overwhelming lack of energy and motivation. Thinking he was helping, my partner would come home from work and start vacuuming or doing dishes. Although well intended, his actions further intensified my feelings of failure, guilt, shame and my growing belief that I could no longer handle even the simplest of tasks.
Watching him leave for work in the mornings was especially painful. I was so lonely and cared to be left alone with the baby. I remember thinking with disgust that I led a pretty pathetic existence of Picking up my partner from work was the highlight of my day. But knowing 6:00 p.m. was bound to come helped me make it through many afternoons.
What did I used to do? Why did it have to be any different now that I had a baby? Was I ever going to get back into life? There had to be more to it than this. There had to be more to me. My career dissolved while I stayed home, unable to get out of my own way, or for that matter, my housecoat.
We had recently moved, so I knew no one close by and felt very isolated. Although there were many other young mothers in my neighborhood, I couldn’t summon up the energy o r the light-heartedness to go out and meet them. My old friends were at as much of a loss over what was happening to me as I was. Besides, I was convinced I was the only mother in the world who felt this way. Others all around me seemed to be handling it and smiling too.
Finally, I phoned my doctor who quickly referred me to a psychiatrist. The antidepressant she prescribed for me left me in a zombie-like state even worse than my usual flat and gray condition, so I stopped taking them. Another failure. I was told that medications worked wonderfully for some people going through depression. so I was left confused and disappointed. There had to be another way for me.
I had to start feeling some of the “right” things instead of the “wrong” things. People would say, “What a beautiful baby” and I would feeling nothing. Nothing but confusion.
I made and appointment with a Public Health Nurse and told her everything. She gave me a little purple book called “Postpartum Depression & Anxiety: A Self-Help Guide for Mothers.” While my son napped that afternoon I began reading and remember holding my breath for a very long time. I saw myself on virtually every page, right down to the identical fantasies. Greatly relieved and encouraged, I phoned the nonprofit society that wrote the book and told my story again. The counselor listened to my sobs and I finally felt heard and truly understood.
I began to attend a support group for postpartum depressed mothers. A facilitator who has gone though a depression and was recovering led it. I saw other women who, just like me, were sad , scared and among other things, wondering where their identity had gone.
As the weeks passed, I slowly regained my sense of self through talking, listening and learning,. I was able to name my mess of feelings and deal with them one issue at a time. My days were still very difficult, but now I had a focus every week. The support was incredible and everybody understood exactly what I was going through. I lost my fear of being judged or shamed or given cheap advise, and got on with the business of telling my story.
I learned to lower my impossibly high expectation of myself and of mothering and to break down overwhelming tasks into small goals. I began to give myself permission to be the kind of ,mother I was, rather then the myth form the compilation of ad, books and movies. I started to take in the notion that I deserved a nice, nurturing break and took as much or as little time as I could for myself each day. None of this happened overnight, just as none of this occurs within a prescribed amount of time for women. After my very first good day, I discovered the hard way why the purple book describes PPD as a “roller-coaster ride.” I thought, “This is great…I seem to be cured!” My next day was worse than ever because of the bitter disappointment the good feelings didn’t last. I was told by my group facilitator to pay attention to the good feelings anyway and, in fact, there is no such event in PPD as a cure. It is a very individual healing process that winds it way like a piece of thread, basting together events and feeling until they make sense. The true healing begins when a women examines and questions her feelings. Often doing so for the first time in her life. A lot of women, like me, discover old patterns of behavior that they are not finding acceptable any longer and choose to continue on with private counseling once they no longer attend the support group.
Still, sometimes the old feelings try to creep back in. With the Knowledge and coping skills I learned in the support group, I’m able to recognize it’s a signal for me to slow down and re-examine to see If I’m getting adequate nurturing breaks, usually not. Its so easy, as a mother to let self-care be the first thing to go , but so important, as a woman, to see myself as deserving.