I sat in the lobby waiting to hear my name. Mismatched clothes, slippers for shoes, bloated and empty belly resting on my striped thighs.
I couldn’t look at the glowing women around me, I wondered what they might see in my face?
Nothing at all
I kept my face down so they, swollen with child and hope, wouldn’t look at me, swollen with IV fluids and despair, and wonder, “Will I end up like her, too?” Keeping my eyes averted felt like compassion. Keeping my post-birth destruction hidden felt like the least I could do for those awaiting their big day.
The pen in my hand reminded me that I was supposed to be doing something. Doing something, doing something, what was I supposed to be doing?
Answering questions, that’s right, answering questions. I was so tired of answering questions.
“Are you able to laugh and see the funny side of things?”
I pondered this question and was surprised to feel a smile spread across my face. But not a joyful smile. Not a smile that meant I could “see the funny side of things.” Not a smile that precedes a joyful explosion of laughter.
Am I able to laugh and see the funny side of things?
Like how it’s funny that my lower half is being held together by dozens of stitches, threatening to give out at any moment?
And how it’s funny that my labor was several days long and full of complications and scares? And the delivery was traumatic and my daughter spent her first days in the NICU instead of at my breast or in my arms?
And how it’s especially hilarious that I can’t soothe my screaming baby at all hours of the night because it hurts to stand, move, and breathe?
Sure. I can laugh and see the funny side of things.
Question number two, “Do you look forward with enjoyment to things?”
Is this a joke? Did they give me the wrong questionnaire? Do they know that a human recently emerged from my body and now screams at me day and night while everyone asks, “Are you happier than you’ve ever been before?” Certainly this couldn’t be the postpartum depression screening.
I chuckled aloud at this point. So maybe I could laugh and see the funny side of things after all.
Back to the question. Do I look forward to things with enjoyment?
Like am I looking forward to several more months of pain? And physical therapy? And all the unknowns of raising a child? And the constant heart palpitations from preeclampsia and anemia? And sleeping three hours per day? And having to buy a new wardrobe because nothing fits? And returning to work, leaving my baby in the arms of a stranger, before I’ve even stopped bleeding from her birth?
Sure. I’m looking forward to things with enjoyment.
Another question. Deep breath, here we go. “Have you been anxious or worried for no good reason?”
For the second time, I laughed aloud and seriously considered changing my answer to number one. “Turns out I can definitely still laugh, but it might be for darker reasons than you find acceptable.”
The wording of the question felt offensive. Is a newborn baby considered “no good reason” to feel anxious and worried? When I’ve never been a mom before? And I’ve never functioned on so little sleep? And my unrecognizable boobs are exploding angrily with milk? And I’m terrified of slipping on my wooden steps while holding the baby? And my whole entire life changed overnight and I’m not sure who I really am in this new life, this new role? And I’m scared at any moment that my unstable blood pressure will spike again and I’ll go back to the hospital or have a seizure? And I’m not sure if the baby’s congestion is an allergy or if she’s sick or if it’s just normal newborn congestion? And SIDS is a thing that exists for some God awful reason? And they discharge you from the hospital like, “Call us if you start hemorrhaging at home or if you feel like you had a pulmonary embolism or if you want to hurt yourself or the baby okay bye!”
Sure. I’m anxious and worried for no good reason.
“Are you sleeping more or less than usual?”
Again, is this a joke? I asked the nurse to clarify because no parent of a newborn is sleeping much at all. She said, “Well, is the lack of sleep due to depression or just the newborn baby?” I told her I didn’t know, how was I supposed to know the answer to that? I had never had a baby before. I had never really been clinically depressed before.
The questionnaire continued like this, each question seeming more ridiculous than the last. But I answered honestly, and subsequently began to wonder which postpartum depression medication the doctor would suggest. I didn’t need the nurse to score the questionnaire for me, I knew which diagnosis was awaiting me on the other side of the door.
The doctor, a new mom herself with a 4-month old at home, was perfect. I looked at her with my tired eyes and wondered how she was doing it, how she was so put together. When I looked at her, I wasn’t capable of having the thought, Wow, maybe I’ll be in a much better place in a few months, too. Instead my thought was, I will never again be put together, I will never feel better, I probably won’t be able to even return to my job like this lucky lady did. [In hindsight, that is classic depressive thinking.]
Something in the way the doctor empathized with me and choked on her words when she said, “It’s really hard but you’re doing a great job” made me wonder if she had been exactly where I was four months prior. If she had also sat in a waiting room full of glowing pregnant women with her ankles swollen and her stretched out tummy resting on her thighs thinking, “Shouldn’t I feel happier?”
No part of this new life and these conflicting emotions I was experiencing made sense in my brain, and that made me feel deeply confused and even guilty. I had my baby, she was perfect and healthy. I was not thriving by any means, but I made it through childbirth and was relatively healthy. I had a wonderful supportive partner, a family helping in every way imaginable. I even had an adorable non-shedding dog and an actual picket fence at home. Some people would give anything for what I had. Why did it feel so overwhelming and impossible? Why did it feel devastating to think about my past, my present, my future?
I had broken open and given birth to my baby and the person I once was. The baby was safely caught into loving arms as she entered this world, experienced hands immediately making sure she was here to stay. But my identity and entire self as I knew her quietly slipped away from my body and the delivery room completely unnoticed. No hands on her making sure she was okay. No arms holding onto her and making sure she would stay with us. She was gone.
I left the doctor’s office that day with a shiny new prescription and strict orders to talk to a therapist about my birth experience. I immediately told my family and close friends about the postpartum depression diagnosis because I needed them to know I was okay, but I also wasn’t okay. Depression can cause some distorted thinking, and I knew how important it would be for my loved ones to be on the lookout for any concerning behaviors or patterns that could appear.
Every morning I was greeted with a glass of orange juice, a handful of pain pills, and a new little white pill with a big job to do. They said the little white pill would help soon.
Would it really help soon? Would it help at all? If it did help, would it turn me into a new, even more unrecognizable version of myself? Or would it simply help me find my way to a new normal? A new normal with pieces of the old me plus a happier, more relaxed, accepting, and joy-filled new me. Mom me.
There wasn’t time to worry about that for too long, the baby’s diaper had to be changed. And so did mine.
And then a few weeks later, just as quickly as I had slipped under water and into the riptide of postpartum depression, I was released from its grip. It wasn’t a slow progression of each day feeling a little better, it almost felt like a Disney movie where I woke up one morning, threw open the curtains, and saw the chirping birds and beauty in the world around me.
I was hurled onto the shore, set free from the riptide’s powerful current and undertow. The shore that I landed on was new and unfamiliar, but my God it was ground I could finally stand on. There was sun above me and ground below me.
I suddenly found myself smiling at my baby during middle of the night feedings. Even as I limped to her bassinet over and over again throughout the night, I looked forward to our little routine. Our big meetings in the small hours that nobody else was invited to or a part of. Those 2 AM feedings where I ate a sandwich and she drank milk, and I couldn’t believe how much I was enjoying being a mom, and her. Even at 2 AM.
I was suddenly making music playlists for my baby, like a teenager lovesick over the new kid in school. I would sing to her all day and all night while she smiled and kicked and happily drooled on my hands, not even caring that I couldn’t sing on key and my husband was probably in the next room giggling. To her, my voice was perfect.
I was suddenly waking up in the morning and my first thought was, “What cute outfit can I put the baby in today?” instead of the previous, “How am I going to get through today? What outfit requires the least amount of effort on my part so we can just get through that part of the morning quickly.”
Instead of feeling overwhelmed by my newborn and wondering how we would fill our day and find our routine, I found myself researching and setting schedules, and enjoying the daily routine we had fallen into. During her awake hours that had previously felt like a brutal combination of very stressful and moderately boring, I now watched her with delight and awe. When she first reached for a toy it felt like she had discovered physics. When she first laughed, it was as though she was conducting a breathtaking symphony. I felt less annoyed by my big, jellied belly because as it turned out, it was the perfect place for the baby to rest her legs as she sat on my legs and made faces at me. One day my jaw was hurting and I realized it was from smiling so big at the baby all day, trying to coax as many smiles out of her as I could before her bedtime.
I thought back to that questionnaire in the doctor’s office several weeks earlier. It felt like an eternity ago. It felt like someone else had inhabited my body and was going through the motions every day. Had that really been me?
“Are you able to laugh and see the funny side of things?” I thought back to dinner the night before, when my husband made me laugh so hard I cried. I thought about how hard I laughed when the baby’s diaper leaked and we had to bathe her for the second time that day. I thought about how much laughter and joy filled my days now.
“Do you look forward with enjoyment to things?” I thought about how often I dreamed of who the baby would grow up to be someday. What types of activities she’d like to do, and if she’d be more of a daddy’s girl or a mama’s girl. I looked forward to walks in the neighborhood, even though I limped through them and had to take extra pain pills at the end of them. I thought about how I missed her when I put her down for naps and was grateful for the break, but was excited for her to wake. I thought about how much I looked forward to each of her milestones, even the minuscule ones that seemed to occur several times per day that nobody other than me or her dad would notice. I looked forward to each day because it brought something new and different than the last.
“Have you been anxious or worried for no good reason?” I thought about that morning, carefully walking down the creaking wooden stairs with the baby. The fear of slipping still entered my mind, but was immediately combatted with the more rational rebuttal, “You’ve never slipped on the stairs before, you likely won’t start slipping now.” I thought about how I still had low, difficult days that felt never-ending, but I was able to recognize that it was a hard day and the next day would likely be a lot better. I was no longer stuck in the “I’m going to be in pain and overwhelmed forever” cycle. I thought about how I slept soundly while my baby slept, not waking up every ten minutes to stare at her chest and make sure she was still breathing. I still had anxiety, but it was met with grace. With logic. With hope.
My hope in writing all of this out is that others dealing with depression, whether the postpartum variety or the regular non-birthing variety, will again hear from one more person: You are not alone in this. You will not feel like this forever, even though your brain and every molecule in your body tells you that you will. It’s a trick, a sneaky depression mind trick.
You don’t have to feel optimistic about the future, don’t put that pressure on yourself. If possible, just try to feel curious about the future, and open to the idea that your future self may be something completely unrecognizable from the person you are now. And unfortunately, it’s impossible to predict who that future version of yourself will be, what they will enjoy, and what they will spend their free time doing. But just know that the future, less depressed version exists. Maybe even a version that finds pleasure, meaning, and joy in the smallest moments of the day.
Maybe a future you exists who can laugh and see the funny side of things all day long, and even at 2 AM. Someone who can look forward to things with enjoyment. Someone who is still anxious and worried at times, but it doesn’t consume their day. And someone who is still sleeping less than usual, but wouldn’t change a thing about it.