I had wanted to be a mother for as far back as I can remember; I would play “babies” with all of my dolls, act as camp counsellor to each of my younger cousins at family functions, and baby sat every child under the age of ten in our neighbourhood. Motherhood was an inevitability for me, and I longed for the days when I would sit at a dinner table with my future husband and children.
When I was 25 years old, I met my husband, Michael. We dated for eight months, got engaged, and the rest is history. I don’t think you could have found a luckier woman than I was. At the time that my daughter was born, almost four years ago, I was living what I can only describe as a charmed life: I was 28 years old, with a husband that I would marry ten times over, living in my dream house, and had a career that I loved.
I had my shit together. I was that girl.
Emily was born on February 13, 2012 and that was the day I lost my heart. It was stolen by this child that I had grown to love from the second I found out that we had conceived. Even after 9 months of incessant vomiting, and a 40-hour labour, I couldn’t have been more elated at the time of her birth if I tried. I had heard horror stories from other mothers I had met in passing – stories about women who could not form a connection with their children at birth or women who suffered from terrible bouts of “baby blues”. Having dealt with mild anxiety in the past, I was worried that the shock of labour would throw my emotions for a loop, so imagine my joy when the exact opposite occurred – I was obsessed with my child.
My first few weeks at home with Emily were wonderful. Michael had taken some time off from work to spend with us, I had close relatives come in from out of town, and I had a night nurse with me each evening for the first two weeks, showing me the ropes about how to be a new mom. My night nurse was the only person I knew who could make sore nipples and vagina stitches funny at 3:00am. She was my night angel, who cheered me on when I figured out how to swaddle for the first time, and who mothered me when I was exhausted and needed a hug. My world as a new mommy was blissful.
At the time of my six week check up with my OB, I remember her asking me how I was feeling, and if I was suffering from any anxiety or depression. I knew that the obligatory question was coming as I approached my appointment, and was more than proud to report that I was handling motherhood like a champ. The first six weeks hadn’t come without challenges, mind you… I had come down with a painful bout of mastitis which required me to go on antibiotics (good-bye breast feeding), and my healing process was moving slower than I would have liked. Still, my daughter spent her days eating and sleeping, leaving me to mostly nap or catch up on my favourite tv shows. Life was pretty simple, and every day I thanked the universe for my good luck.
It wasn’t until week nine when I started to notice a subtle change in my emotions; I found myself a bit weepier than normal, and struggled with some nervous energy in the evenings. During this time, my daughter had officially decided that she was finished with naps all together (yes, my nine week old was essentially awake from 8:00am to 8:00pm every day). She had also come down with a wicked case of acid reflux. So naturally, she spent most of her days crying and wanting to be carried. I should also mention that my daughter had developed an unusually young case of night terrors, which caused her to shriek in her sleep uncontrollably, leaving me with nothing to do but hope that she wasn’t one of those possessed babies from all the horror movies I tried not to watch.
It was then that I started to realize how isolated I had become in my life… I had gone from days filled with co-workers, clients or friends, to hours spent alone in my house trying to quiet my screaming newborn, doing endless loads of laundry, and getting used to the scent of spit on my clothes. Still, I trekked through, chalking my misery up to new mommy exhaustion. I attempted to make new friends on several occasions, joining various play groups and going to Gymboree classes. But I quickly found out that a miserable, nap-hating baby really didn’t want to have puppets singing in her face… nor did the happy mommies and happy babies want their play dates disrupted by a wailing child, while they were learning new poems about clowns or ducks or colours, or whatever else happy babies like to learn about. Maybe it was puppies. I don’t know. I didn’t have a happy baby.
To say that things got worse from there would be an understatement. I didn’t just “become depressed” in the following weeks. Instead, I fell into, what I can only describe as, the blackest motherfucking hole of my life. Pardon my French…there’s just no other way to properly define it.
Every day was a struggle. I tried new tot programs regularly, but Emily cried incessantly through each one, so I gave up on any hope of meeting new moms. I was the first in my group of friends to have a child, so there was no one to bond with from that respect. And it was almost impossible to do anything productive in my house other than pee independently once in a while, because the only thing that kept my child half calm was to hold her in the carrier all day. I found myself wandering the house alone in the middle of the night, too anxious to sleep, and spent my days fighting tears back because I never had a moment to myself. By the time Emily was five months old, I no longer knew the person looking back at me in the mirror.
It was at this point that I knew something was wrong with me. Now, I’d like to make a very clear point before I move on with my story: I was not a stranger to the signs and symptoms of postpartum depression. While I was pregnant, I had read articles written by numerous women who were courageous enough to share their experiences on the topic. I had read various scientific journals, memorized the “What to Expect” book, and I was also someone who fully supported and had, in the past, participated in the services of a psychologist. Emotional health issues had never been a taboo topic to me, and I wanted to mentally prepare myself in advance should I experience even a hint of depression. All of that being said, I did not for one second, throughout all of my unhappiness, realize that this was the work of postpartum depression. I cannot emphasize this statement enough, and this is going to be one of the key reasons that I am sharing my story with you.
I have the most distinct memory of sitting down to my computer one and day and typing, “Why do I hate being a mother?” into Google, desperate to find a cure for how I felt. I tried to interact with friends and family as little as possible, because it became too painful to lie when people excitedly came up to me and asked me how much I loved becoming a mom. I would stare at the ceiling in the middle of the night, wondering if it would hurt more to wake up in the morning and face another day, or to run away. I made a packing list on more than one occasion.
My poor husband didn’t know what to do as he watched me slowly crumbling, and undoubtedly spent most of his days wondering what happened to the person he had married. He did anything he could to make me feel better and to assist with Emily, but ultimately any attempt he made was not enough to help me. I knew I needed to tell someone how I was feeling, but at the time, I didn’t know who I could tell or even how to adequately articulate the thoughts that were running through my head. I had been debating calling my gynecologist for advice. He was not my OB, but I had known and trusted the man for years, and surely, if there was anyone who could explain why I was going crazy, it would be him. I had dialed his number and hung up several times, never quite knowing how to even start the conversation, or worried that I would simply just start to cry and never stop.
One night, while I was folding laundry in the basement, the phone rang. I did a double take on the call display, because of all people to be calling my house, it was him. I thought to myself, “This is truly a sign”. My gynecologist had never once called me before in 15 years, and suddenly, during my darkest hour, there was his phone number. Confused, I answered the phone, relieved that I was finally going to have an opportunity to get some help. “I just saw your mother today”, he explained. “She showed me a picture of your daughter and I just had to call and see how you were doing”. I took a deep breath, but when I went to speak, the only words I could manage were the same ones I had been practicing and repeating to everyone else around me: “I’m great thanks! How are you?” We chatted a bit more and then hung up. My opportunity was gone.
I sat down on the floor in the middle of my laundry pile, and simply sobbed. Why was I not able to speak to my own doctor? Why wasn’t I able to share the words that were screaming in my head while I was busy having polite conversation with him? Suddenly I knew why. I knew why I couldn’t speak to him or to anyone else in my life: Shame. Shame of failing as a mother. Shame of wanting to run away and leave it all behind. It was a shame so painful and so powerful, it was silencing me.
By month six, Michael could see that I was drowning. Knowing that we were going to be on the hunt for a nanny within the next few months in preparation for my return to work, he suggested that we start our search earlier. Enter Julie. If my night nurse was my night angel, then Julie was my day angel. I went from having zero help from anyone, to the freedom that every mother dreamed of; I suddenly was showering during daylight hours for longer than my normal three minute window. I had the time to brush my hair and put on makeup that had developed a layer of dust from going untouched for so long. I PEED ALONE. Let me say that again. I PEED ALONE. Without a child on my LAP! This was going to be my salvation – Julie was going to single-handedly repair my sanity. Or so I thought.
A few weeks into Julie’s arrival, I noticed that I was still behaving strangely. I left the house without Emily as much as I could. When I was home, I hid in my room alone. When I saw the two of them playing, I made excuses as to why I couldn’t join them. And when one of my best friends invited me to her bachelorette party in Las Vegas, not only did I jump at the opportunity to go, but I realized that it was the first time I had taken a deep breath in almost six months. I almost cried on the airplane ride back to Toronto. The morning after I returned home from my trip, I called my psychologist. My husband couldn’t fix me. The help that a nanny gave me couldn’t fix me. I was broken. It was time for professional help.
I had seen my psychologist on and off a few times over the past eight years or so. I had never seen her for anything particularly serious – simply put, if I had an issue, I would go in for a “checkup”. So it was safe to say that we knew each other fairly well at this point. That first session back, I sat in her office for the initial fifteen minutes of our appointment, and literally emptied myself of every desperate and disgraceful thought I had been having. When I was finished, she took a pause and then said the words that would be the beginning of my own personal Oprah “Ah ha” moment: “Stephanie. I’ve known you for a long time. This is not you. You have postpartum depression”.
I sat there for a moment in silence, absorbing her comment. I have postpartum depression. There is a REASON that this is happening. You can imagine her shock (and likely concern), when I began to laugh hysterically. And then I cried. I have postpartum depression. I am not crazy. I do not hate my child. And I can fix this. I was flooded with inner peace in the moments that followed during our session. There was a name for my problem and someone was going to help me fix it.
It took over a year of hard work to finally feel like myself, but with the generous spirits of my psychologist, osteopath and GP, I slowly started to find pieces of me that I had been sure I would never find again. The blackness that had taken over slowly dwindled and I began to relearn what life was like without feeling a weight on my chest, or like I had tears constantly stuck in my throat. Most importantly, I reintroduced myself to my daughter. It has been a love affair between the two of us ever since.
I am sharing my story for so many reasons. Of course, spreading both awareness and tolerance on the subject of postpartum depression is now routed in my being. But the truth is, moms need more than simple awareness of the topic. We need advocates. We need family and friends and health professionals who will reach out to us and ask us the hard questions that we may not be capable of asking ourselves in the moment. We need nurses or doctors to not lose sight of us after we pass our six week post-baby checkups. We need pediatricians to not only care for our new children, but to be on the lookout for red flags they might find in us too. We need these kinds of conversations to become the norm. And while there are some services out there that do, in fact, exist with this purpose, there are simply not enough. It is this cause that I aim to both bring notice to, and to pursue.
I often wonder what would have become of me had I not been strong enough to realize that I needed to reach out for help. But more often than that, I wonder how different motherhood would have been for me had someone caught my signs earlier, and reached out to me, instead.