My only child was born the summer of 2009. Never, not once, at a baby shower, pre-natal exam or at a birthing class did I hear anyone talk about the anxiety and fear, the despair and the depression, that many women feel during pregnancy.
Luckily, I escaped pre-birth depression. But the physical and emotional exhaustion of giving birth (as healthy and fabulous as it was) knocked me for a loop. Insomnia set in. A symptom of mental illness, insomnia, like a massive weather system, moved all its drama into my head.
I could not sleep because I was so anxious about my baby. Was he hungry? Was he poopy? Was he feeling loved enough? Was he gaining enough weight? Was he going to die from a high fever or SIDS? Was he going to die from an allergic reaction to his immunizations? Was he going to fall off the bed?
Insomnia made my irrational thinking worse. I wanted to be the one caring for my child 158% of the time. No one else could touch my baby. Not even daddy was mommy enough.
At week three of motherhood, cradling my son at my breast, I realized I needed help . Crying in the pediatrician’s office was one sign. Not allowing visitors into the house was another. Feeling disconnected from family and friends was yet another sign.
I reached out for help. I called Minnesota, home of the strongest, most hard working domestic goddess I know…my sister-in-law Julie. I said, “Come. I’ll pay for your ticket. I just need help. I will take care of the baby. But I need help with everything else.”
No questions asked, she came within the week. And the first thing she did? Crack open the newborn baby ink finger and foot printing set. Because in his first weeks of life I couldn’t muster the wherewith all to do it.
Seeing those tiny string bean fingers and button sized little toes framed in calico print hanging on the wall in my son’s nursery reminded me that while I failed at being super-mom, I did even better, I admitted that I was not super-mom.
Julie scrubbed the kitchen floors, vacuumed the carpets, walked the dog every day, cooked hearty meals, washed loads of laundry, and oohed and ahhed over my perfect baby.
She never once judged me. She simply helped me while leaving her two elementary aged sons and husband home alone for one week.
A week saved me from going over the edge. I could sleep. I could not worry about doing everything by myself. I welcomed her laughter and stories about her first baby.
There was one other time besides this that caused me some alarm. My memory is a bit cloudy but I think my son was about three months old. He would not stop crying. I could not stop crying. It was just the two of us. Dad was at work.
I held him so close to my chest. A little too close. I rocked him back and forth, a little too hard. Hugged close, I rocked him vigorously back and forth. For about thirty seconds it released some of my frustration and tension. But then it scared the hell out of me. I thought for a split second of letting go.
It was another wake up call. I needed support. I searched out new mom’s groups and attended them like a religious convert. Going to play dates at the park, bookstore, and birth center helped me feel more connected to the earth.
I know there are lots of hard rocking Mommas out there. I know I’m not the only one with shameful, low moments of motherhood. Yet the shame and stigma tied to admitting to having symptoms of maternal mental illness covers us in an invisible cloak. We are so good at hiding these symptoms, we hide them from our partners, close friends, even ourselves.
Yet it’s in our invisibility and hiding that we risk disappearing forever.
Yesterday I came across a recent study reporting that during pregnancy and the first months of motherhood, “as many as one in five women develop symptoms of depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder or a combination” (June, 15, 2014 “Thinking of Ways to Harm Her,” New York Times). I never considered myself to have suffered from postpartum depression because, well, depression wasn’t exactly the right word for it.
I’ve never felt more crazy than when I was in the early months of motherhood. Yet not once, in all the pre-natal appointments with midwives or baby visits with pediatricians, was I ever screened for mental wellness by any of my care providers.
As is true with mental illness in general, symptoms can be managed and even prevented when detected early. How much more urgent is mental wellness when the mother’s mental health dramatically and directly impacts the well-being and safety (physical and emotional) of the baby?
The high percentage of women with maternal mental illness also underscores the need to ensure adequate maternity leave policies that allow for time and resources to maximize maternal mental wellness.
It’s time to break the silence about motherhood and mental illness. Keeping these stories as secrets steals them of their power to heal us. It’s our stories breaking through the silence that saves us.