Postpartum Depression: A Survival Guide

I visited with a dear friend last week that is just days - MOMENTS - away from having her first baby. She reads my blog a bit and so knows that I rode the postpartum depression train all the way to crazy town when I had my first child. In between talking about baby names and labor, she asked me if I had any advice about how to deal with the sadness that can accompany the birth of a bright new person. In that moment I couldn't think of anything to say, not really. So much of that time feels removed from me now. Yes, it is a part of the experiences I have gathered, but I don't keep company with it. I have put those months away, a jar of putrid air I keep bottled up on a shelf I can't reach. And so I said all the things that one does say. It doesn't last forever. Be open to medication. Ask for help. Know you are not alone. And that is all true, but she could have learned the same thing by looking up postpartum depression on any website. I didn't give her anything of myself.

I don't feel that there has to be some grand design behind everything we experience on this earth. It seems to me that often good and bad things bump up against us simply because the world is spinning so quickly and my goodness, they have to go somewhere.  The months after my first baby were a fairly bad thing that ran into me with a fairly big bump. And while I can't bring myself to find a reason for it, I suppose I can give it meaning.

I had Margaret in the middle of the day, in the middle of the week, in the middle of a big white hospital. My mom was there when I pushed her out and I still remember the way she said, OH MEGGIE! LOOK AT HER, I LOVE HER. Riley wept when he touched her for the first time. He watched the nurses give her a bath and I could see him taking notes, alright careful of the eyes, a little scrub under the arms, the water not too hot. He was so proud and showed her to anyone that would stop long enough to listen, " This is Margaret. Isn't she beautiful? Look she has her mom's feet and my eyebrows...." I still remember watching him carry her to my dad in the doorway. He cried, too. I watched it all from far away. My eyes were dry. When they handed Margaret back to me my legs were still up and the doctor sat and tugged the stitches through my skin. And I held her because I couldn't get up and find a place to put her down.

The next four months went something like that, everyone else fell in love with that little girl. I had finally started crying, but they weren't tears of joy or really sadness. Just streams of watery nothings. My days were spent feeding her, rocking with her, soothing her, holding her simply because I couldn't find a place to put her down. I was lucky, I never wanted to hurt her or myself. But I also couldn't make myself get dressed in the morning and Riley had to call me from work to see if I had remembered to eat. I once tried to explain it to my sister.

What's wrong?

I don't know. I mean...I have these pictures leaning against the wall and the hammer and nails have been sitting next to them on the shelf for weeks. I keep wanting to want to hang them up but I just don't. I tried to do it today. Picked up a nail and held it against the wall, but the hammer felt heavy in my hands. I was sure I would end up hanging it crookedly. Did I even like this frame? And when I looked closely I saw that the photo inside of it was a little out of focus. Of course I would hang a crooked blurred picture. And then it really seems like something I am upset about only I can't feel the upset anywhere but my head. So I put the hammer and nail back. It is like that. But all of the time.

That hammer and nail got dusty from sitting on the shelf. Until one day, long after her first smile and just a bit after she learned to roll over, I discovered that I loved my little Margaret girl. We were sitting in the rocking chair and I was singing to her because I supposed that was what a mom did. She stretched and cooed and her feet shot out from under the blanket. I looked at her pudgy toes and little nails. And my heavens. Those feet! So perfect, I wanted to gobble them up, teach them to walk and run and dance. It was the first time I felt like a mother, and the feeling coursed through my veins, renewing and healing. The knowledge that I was also something apart from a mother would come later, but for that day, in that moment, what I had been given was enough. By the time Riley came home from work the pictures had been hung. They slanted a bit to one side, it was alright.

There are a few things I wish I had known in the months before that moment.

Go outside. Go for walks, get the mail, sit on y0ur lawn. Margaret and I stayed inside where it felt like the world consisted of just she and me and my sadness. It is difficult to gain perspective in a house full of diapers and bottles and chores undone. Leave it all at least once a day. Get out with your baby, get out with friends, get out by yourself, just get out.

Breastfeeding is a good choice, but it is not the only good choice. I have written about this before. But I think it bears repeating. Be prayerful and open to what is good for you and your new little baby. Whatever you decide is right. Really and truly.

Kiss, hug, sing to, snuggle your baby even if you don't feel like it. The first few weeks, I stayed away from Margaret for much of the day. There were some days when I only took her out of her swing when she cried or needed to be fed. (Don't worry, I had lots of people over and helping. Little bug was not neglected.) But I think this was a time when "fake it til you make it" would have applied beautifully. It is instructive to me that I finally began to feel again when I was holding her. Don't overdo it. Take breaks. Hand your baby over to your husband, mom, that lady behind you in the check out line (just kidding) and walk away as often as you need to. But at least a few times a day hold that baby and give her something she didn't ask for, a song, a kiss, a story. It may be all you can do, and that is enough. I believe the act of serving another has the power to create and maintain love. And my, what a way to serve.

Pray. You are a daughter of the eternal God. He hears you. He loves you. Talk with Him in your quiet, busy, loud, peaceful, happy, sad, chaotic moments. He is your best friend and closest ally. He will not leave you alone.

Get ready every day. I was getting three hours of sleep every night and spent most hours covered in spit up. Doing my hair and makeup had become a science beyond my grasp and it was months before anything but my maternity jeans fit. So I spent the day in sweats with my hair pushed into some sort of devil's pony tail. There is something so depressing about looking depressed. Take a shower. Put on mascara. Find something comfortable that also makes you feel like yourself. This is the perfect time to spend $20 on a maxi at Forever 21. Buy it in the size you are, not the size you will be. The hardest thing about my postpartum depression was the fact that I had lost myself. But I was always there, it was just difficult to find me beneath the oily build up and oversized "Best BBQ West of Texas" T Shirt.

Read. I spent much of the time when Margaret slept watching TV. I watched food competitions (How big CAN they make that Dr. Seuss cake?), 90's re-runs (I want Elaine's whole early nineties wardrobe) and He's Just Not That Into You at least 163 times. Which is all well and good. I am a fan of watching television and worship at the altar of the big screen at least once a day. I needed an escape and those shows provided one. But they also numbed and to some degree, disconnected. To read a good book is to escape, but it is an interactive experience that engages you. And one of the things I needed help with was learning how to engage again. The TV will continue to play if you stop watching, while the story in a book goes silent if you close its covers. A book is all about connections, it brings you to new worlds, new people and connects you to the voice of the author. There is power in the written word. It feeds and sustains. And, perhaps happiest of all, sitting down in a quiet moment with a book is the fastest way to embark on an adventure. Heaven knows, by the third week without sleep, you need to be reminded you can adventure and hope and dream and achieve and LIVE. Oh my goodness, life - good, beautiful, full life - with children? When I was in my depths I did not believe it was possible.

It is and reading helps to remind me.

It doesn't last forever. Be open to medication. Ask for help. Know you are not alone.

I said earlier that I did not know if there was a grand cosmic reason for my experience with postpartum, but that I did believe I could give it meaning. And the meaning, the lesson, I have taken away from it is this: As women we need to acknowledge that our lives are full of mountaintops and valleys. I may never again encounter the kind of depression I experienced after Margaret or it may be waiting just around tomorrow's corner. Most of my time is now spent in joy, but I will always have days when I feel far from my children, or have forgotten who I am or (horror of horrors) don't fit into one darn thing in my closet. The things I wish I had known when I sunk into postpartum depression are really the things I need to remember everyday. And that is okay. Because the time we are given here is worth it. The light is worth the moments of darkness. Motherhood is worth the occasional (constant?) uncertainty.

And you are worth finding and saving, again and again and again.