The Other Baby Bump
There’s another baby bump besides the big pregnant belly we all know about. It’s the bump that many moms (and some dads) run into after a baby’s born.
At my child’s one-week check-up, a sign in the pediatrician’s office read:
“Many new parents find that the first weeks home with a baby are among the hardest times of their lives…”
The sign was a flyer for a health care professional who counsels new parents. I read the words and thought, “Yeah, that’s the truth!” Then I promptly forgot to write down the phone number.
As the mother of a newborn, I felt physically, emotionally and spiritually depleted. I loved my daughter beyond measure and was determined to ‘buck up’ and count my blessings. I reassured those who expressed concern about me that really, really, I was ok. I had no idea that the undertow of my physiology was carrying me out past the buoys. Not to a place of violence or abandonment, but to a place of isolation and hopelessness.
For several months I resisted terms that sounded foreign and frightening to me, especially if they included the word ‘postpartum.” Even ‘baby blues’ seemed to pulse with ingratitude. My chattering thoughts convinced me that I couldn’t be two things at once: a loving mother and someone suffering from depression or anxiety. So I redoubled my efforts to be a loving mother. Viewing myself through this black-or-white lens kept me stuck in an unending loop of self-analysis and uncertainty.
A little detour in that mental loop came during a conversation with a friend. A mother of four teenagers, she was accustomed to breaking difficult topics into bite-sized pieces. She asked:
Has your life been affected by having a baby?
In good ways?
In some hard ways, too?
Yes. (tears, tissues, tears, tears, tears.)
I share this story because others may struggle, as I did, with terms like ‘postpartum depression.’ There’s been a concerted campaign to raise public awareness about postpartum conditions, which is a good thing. But not even the DSM-IV (the manual used by doctors and mental health professionals to diagnose and code patients) recognizes postpartum depression as a distinct and temporary form of mental anguish caused by the complex cocktail of having a baby. So it’s no wonder many of us wring our hands trying to define what’s ailing us. I couldn’t allow myself to have postpartum depression; it felt like a betrayal of the people I loved. But I could admit that I was affected by what I’d been through, and that I was hurting terribly.
How I became the Coconut Girl
In the weeks following my daughter’s birth in 2003, time felt like the melting clocks in a Salvador Dali painting. Day and night were no longer distinct, but part of a foreign, undifferentiated landscape. I longed for a point on the horizon that I could look towards and rely on each day while everything else in my life resembled a game of 52-pickup. Of all the kind things my friends did for me at that time—the meals, the calls, the gifts—the most helpful were the regular weekly visits. These were the wise offerings of my older friends, ones who had children or had spent a lot of time around new parents. Adrienne came every Wednesday afternoon, fed me snacks, and brought news from the outside world. Amy came every Friday for an hour to spell me. A seasoned mother, she’d nod obediently as I rattled off my highly detailed instructions about how to care for my daughter. I’d pull out of my driveway in tears, and five minutes later feel just a tiny bit free. Amazingly enough my daughter was still alive and well when I rushed home a whole sixty minutes later, my “groceries” about to burst from cutting it close on the nursing slalom.
These two regular appointments on my frozen-tundra postpartum calendar were a lifeline. On days without visitors or specific plans, things went badly. I didn’t know it, but I was slipping into depression. I couldn’t pick up the phone and schedule outings. I was stuck and increasingly isolated.
Each day I tried to outrun, outwit and out-will my feelings of hopelessness and insecurity. Having a baby was a lifelong dream of mine. My husband and I ecstatically welcomed our daughter after years of infertility. It didn’t make sense to me that I could have such a precious baby and a generous, supportive husband and still feel so bereft. But the physical and emotional toll of a surf-n-turf birth (long labor/pushing plus emergency c-section), exhaustion, no local family, an isolated country home, a fussy baby and the loss of my connection to work formed the perfect storm for postpartum depression.
Beat the Cloak
As the weeks crept by, things got worse. At home all day, I was lonely and despondent. My daughter couldn’t nap and cried endlessly when I set her in the crib. The doctors assured me she was fine; we were dealing with colic and it would pass. They, and the books I consulted, offered advice which I followed carefully. Watch for baby’s sleep signs. Don’t let her cry until she’s three months old. Nurse on demand. But nothing improved. By 2:00 every day, I felt like I was outrunning a black cloak that would suffocate me if I stayed another second in the house. I’d load my daughter into the carseat and drive to town, starved for the sight of other people–anybody at a crosswalk, any sign of community and normalcy. I’d look at other drivers and wonder if any of them were on the run, driving out of desperation like me. As 4:00 approached, I’d turn towards home. I knew that the early winter sunset would flip a switch in my tiny daughter’s body and she’d start to scream. I’d look into her red, scrunched, tear-streaked face, her little tongue throbbing from her raspy wails. My God, I’d think. My baby’s in agony and I can’t fix it. What have I done? Will she ever feel joy? Will I?
The screaming would go on, as it did every night for three months, for nine hours. I’d pace the halls with my daughter in the baby Bjorn until my legs would nearly buckle. I’d cover my ears and sing a tune that came to me about being a coconut girl far, far away. I’d picture myself atop a palm tree gazing out over a limitless expanse of blue-green sea. A breeze was blowing, the sun warm on my back. I was alone and at peace. It was the complete opposite of the reality I was living.
Somewhere around 1 a.m. my daughter would abruptly expend her last puff of steam and collapse into my arms, asleep. I’d freeze in whatever position I was in so she’d stay asleep until her next nursing, in two hours.
Where is the love?
As an artist, I was shocked to find so little in popular culture that addressed new parenthood as I was experiencing it. Real parenthood. The kind where babies don’t nap and have colic. Where you’re in pain for weeks from the c-section and where you fear every bite you eat will give your baby more belly pain. The kind of parenthood where taking a shower becomes a you-vs.-me exercise with your partner. Friends would recommend angry mommy memoirs, but with a colicky baby, reading was a far-flung fantasy. I sought out music, films and art to validate the battle that was waging in my head. I loved being a new parent. And I hated being a new parent. Why wasn’t anybody singing about this crazy contradiction? Was I terminally unique?
Becoming a mother was what I’d wanted and worked for. Yet life was unbearable. Can I just say that? Life was barely livable with a newborn, and that was on a good day. Sprinkled on top were a few extra stressors and a bunch of unhelpful advice. I fell down the rabbit hole. People assured me “it gets better at six weeks.” What? I thought. It gets ‘better?’ Weren’t they really saying that they knew it sucked right now? Why wasn’t I warned? And six weeks? That was like saying it would be better in my sixth reincarnation.
I wanted to forgive myself for my ambivalence by seeing that others shared it. To witness that being a freaked-out new parent was part of a normal, functioning world. To have proof that life would keep flashing its funky fuchsia beacon at me even if–no, especially if–I were too sad and overwhelmed to see it. I wanted something funny or poignant or irreverent to speak not just to the new mom I’d become but to the person I’d been before: an architect with a crush on Peter Frampton who wore Dr. Bukks to parties.
At eight weeks postpartum, the black cloak was closing in on me. My husband, who traveled often for work, had been gone for three days. I hadn’t seen another person since he’d left. The impending doom of our daughter’s evening colic loomed ahead and I knew in my bones I was at my wit’s end. I called a counselor I’d seen years before and left a message. Three days went by and I didn’t hear from her (I later learned she was out of town). So I called my ob/gyn and asked for a referral. She gave me a name and number, and I scheduled an appointment. (that’s another story: see “Pricey Therapy” & “Congratulations, You’ve Been Upgraded”).
Slowly I got better. I saw the new person once, then my counselor called to say she’d returned from her trip. We met weekly, sometimes twice a week. We set up a regular schedule for my husband to watch our daughter so I could get out of the house. He temporarily shifted his workday to 7 am-3 pm so I could return to my architecture practice in the afternoons. When my daughter turned three months old, our pediatrician gave us the green light to sleep-train her to fall asleep on her own. Not long after, her colic wound down just as mysteriously as it began. She emerged from that traumatic chapter a smiling, calm baby, just as doctors and friends had promised. My husband and I started looking for a house in town. Five months later we moved to a neighborhood within walking distance of downtown. Coincidentally, our new house was on the same street as the hospital where our baby was born. The place where I first became the Coconut Girl.
Within weeks of our move, life began to return to me. Being back in town was the balm I’d hoped it would be, giving me social contact with neighbors, sidewalks for pushing the stroller, and drop-in visits from nearby friends. I met two wonderful moms with babies my daughter’s age. They, too had struggled mightily with difficult births and colicky babies. Being closer in location to my work colleagues meant I could sneak in meetings or errands in between my daughter’s feedings and quiet times (she remained a non-napper). When our daughter was nine months old, my husband left his job to start his own business and we dovetailed our schedules. I worked from 8 to 11 am; he worked from 11 am to 6 pm. We both made up our workday shortfalls at night, side-by-side at the dining room table at our laptops. We were tired all of the time. But for the moment we were surfing the work-life wave. For me, to be able to care for my daughter for most of the day and still be plugged into the bigger world was truly life-giving. My husband and I knew we were lucky to be cobbling our life together in this way. And that gave us energy to do all that life demanded of us.
When our daughter was twenty months old, I became pregnant again, with a son. I was thrilled; we’d been trying for a second child. But the specter of another bout of postpartum depression hung over me. I called in the troops early. Mid-pregnancy, I began seeing a cranio-sacral therapist who helped me manage stress. My counselor and I met several times and made a plan to recruit family and friends for the first weeks home with my son. Because my daughter’s birth had been an emergency c-section, my son’s delivery was a planned c-section. My husband and I were able to schedule my parents and inlaws to help us for four weeks postpartum. Everyone understood the stakes and gave of themselves generously–cooking, cleaning, and giving attention to our daughter. My husband and I felt supported and loved. It still moves me to tears to think of the help we were given at such a potentially perilous time.
The first few months with our son were the usual newborn rollercoaster of joy, anxiety, exhaustion, and gratitude. But this time, I didn’t fall down the rabbit hole. I got close to the edge a couple of times. At three months postpartum, I felt the cloak closing in again, especially late in the day, as before. One afternoon a friend called to see how I was doing and I heard myself say “ok, but this time of day is really bad.” I burst into tears. It was then that I realized what I was dealing with. My husband and I acted quickly, calling family back to town for another week of reinforcement, and scheduling more counseling sessions. I had to take seriously the reality that the postpartum version of me wasn’t as pliable and resilient as the regular me. Rest and calories had to be a priority. As obvious as that sounds, these essential elements of health can seem optional at such a busy and transitional time. During the day, with two children and work inquiries to field, naps were impossible. But I went to bed early to compensate for sleep lost to night nursings. My husband cooked many of the meals and literally put food in my mouth when I was pinned by a sleeping or feeding infant. All of these measures pulled be from the clutches of another depression. My son was an easy baby as long as I wore him, and he was a champion napper. As a graduate of the College of Colic, I had lots of soothing skills for his fussy times.
Our family made it, one day at a time, to the four-month mark. With both of our children, this was a magical threshold where life started to stabilize. One night around this time, my husband and I were talking about how grateful we were for our healthy children, and about what a crazy ride we’d been on for the last few years. “I think our family’s all done now, don’t you?” he asked. “All done,” I agreed. It was one of those exchanges I’ll always remember for its honesty, humility and humor. We loved each other, we loved our children, and we were at the absolute limit of what we could possibly do well. That’s the upside to being pushed beyond your ability to cope. You learn to know your limits and see them as guideposts to a saner and happier life.
Postscript: Information and support for postpartum depression and other perinatal mood disorders is available here. You are not alone.