*This is a post about motherhood, so let me start by acknowledging that having the experience of pregnancy and childbirth is not the only way to become a mother, just as having a vagina is not what makes someone a woman. But I can only speak to my own experience as a cisgender woman, and this post is specifically about postpartum depression.*
And now… Allow me to say something unpopular and possibly controversial.
When people have babies and they have nothing to share but how blissfully happy and immediately in love with their babies they are, I do not feel happy for them. And now I’ve said it. I will come back to why that is in a few moments, but if you’ll bear with me, I’d like to give you some context and do a small amount of time traveling.
I have been on and off (mostly on) various anti-depressants since I was 16. I was taking one such drug (don’t ask which one, I don’t remember) when I got pregnant with my son in 2009. I spoke with my psychiatrist, whose take was something like: “Yeah, there’s a risk to the baby with anti-depressants, but there hasn’t been that much research done on the topic, so it’s hard to say… plus, there’s also a risk to the baby if the mother is suffering from untreated depression.” What a choice, huh? I could put my baby at risk by taking the medication that helped me keep my head above water, or I could try not taking the medication and risk sinking into a depression that would most certainly affect his health and development.
I decided to try going off-drug. This is much like going off-book if you are a theater person. Except that it has nothing to do with memorizing stuff and can be life-threatening.
I stopped taking medication a couple months into my pregnancy. And guess what, you guys? I felt fine! I mean, mostly fine. Surprisingly emotionally stable would be a better way to put it.
I was all about Dr. Sears and attachment parenting and natural birth and breastfeeding… I am still about those things, by the way, but no longer exclusively and no longer judgmentally. I had an ideal in mind and was working to achieve it. We found a midwifery clinic in Irvine, CA (we were living in Los Angeles at the time), and we decided to have an out-of-hospital birth. We also took a Hypnobabies class because that’s how delusional I was.*
I LOVED our midwives. Our midwives were loving and knowledgable and not prone to panic. They were wonderful. I have never once regretted going with midwives instead of an OBGYN, especially since I did not like any of the OBGYNs I met in LA. The culture in Seattle is much different (thank goodness), but in LA if you mention the word “midwife” to the wrong doctor you’re likely to be shipped to the sanitarium.**
So, I want to be clear that I stand by our choice to have an out-of-hospital birth and have midwives as our primary caregivers. Contrary to what you may hear, out-of-hospital births are statistically just as safe as hospital births for women with low-risk pregnancies. This is a choice that should be available to women for whom it makes sense, and it should be covered by insurance, damn it. Also, choosing to have a hospital birth and get an epidural is a totally valid choice! Who knew both things were possible? Having choices, making choices, and respecting each other’s choices is a feminist issue. Period.
Unfortunately, my birth did not go the way I had envisioned it. I was and still am against telling birth horror stories, especially to expecting mamas, so I won’t go into great detail, but if you are an expecting mama or planning to be, feel free to skip this paragraph. I had a deep fear of childbirth that Hypnobabies had helped me let go of to a certain extent, but not enough to be helpful during the actual labor. With each contraction I became more afraid, dreading what was to come, increasing my stress level and therefore the pain involved.*** I labored for 23 awful hours before finally starting the pushing stage. I pushed for 4 hours. Do you know how long 4 hours is? I sincerely thought I was going to die. Like for real death. I also wanted drugs, real bad. If you’ve ever experienced childbirth, you know that the pushing stage is hard, hard work. It requires the use of every muscle in your body (unless you are one of those lucky people whose babies just sort of slip out into a tub of water while nature sounds play in the background… and if you are one of those people, fuck you. Just kidding, just kidding! All experiences are different and should be shared. But fuck you a tiny bit). I did this for 4 hours. And then, just as I was convinced that this fucking baby would either be stuck in there forever or I was going to get for real dead, he was born. My husband, who was seriously amazing throughout the ordeal, cried with joy, and I kind of collapsed. Relieved that it was over, relieved that my baby was OK, and absolutely spent. They gave me a shot because I was losing too much blood, and then there was still the placenta part, and then I got some stitches on my taint (come on, we need to laugh or we will die), which I cried through, and then, finally, my baby was lying against my skin. I’m sure many women who have had babies can relate to some of this.
We went home a few hours after my son was born (I am still angry that we didn’t get to spend the night–one MAJOR flaw of the birth center we chose). It was raining, hard, which is memorable because it’s so rare in southern California. I remember telling my husband in an apologetic tone once we got in the car that I never wanted to do that again. I was already dreading the possibility of having another child.
It was a strange thing to stare at my newborn son’s face and feel such relief, such love, and simultaneously feel that emotional stability I had attained during pregnancy slipping away from me.
The darkness was immediate. All those pregnancy hormones, the ones that had kept me afloat without my medication, had fled my body when my son fled my body. I did not feel in love with my baby. I loved him, but in a dutiful way. In fact, I think now that the only reason I didn’t attempt or consider suicide was because of the innate duty and devotion I felt to him. This was not what I expected my maternal instinct to feel like.
My aching body (I could barely walk for weeks after labor because every muscle in my body was just, done) belonged to him. My job now was mother. To be mother was to give and give and give of myself. I felt empty. Empty of love and especially empty of light. Well-intentioned people would say things like, “You have a beautiful, healthy baby,” and I would stare at them with a vacant expression. I was aware that I had a beautiful healthy baby. My beautiful healthy baby was the fucking problem. I was aware that everyone in the world knew I should be grateful and happy and joyful. I had friends who had an extremely premature baby 2 days before my son was born. Their son was born at 23 weeks. He was just over one pound. The trauma and pain they were going through was and is unimaginable. Not knowing if their child would live from day to day (spoiler alert: he did! And he is a totally healthy kid now). They were living through hell, and here I was with a beautiful, healthy baby. What a horrible person I must be not to appreciate this.
The nights were awful. I dreaded having to wake up to feed him because breastfeeding was SO painful. The dread was visceral and constant. I sought advice from lactation consultants and midwives, I tried everything I was supposed to try and the pain was not improving. The stress was killing me. And not only did I dread every single feeding due to the pain (made worse when we got thrush), but I was convinced that I was already failing as a mother. If you’re doing it right, it shouldn’t hurt, I had read in my breastfeeding literature. So here was the most basic, most natural part of new motherhood, and I was failing. I remember my dad suggesting that maybe I should just stop breastfeeding since it was so stressful and painful and try formula, and I was livid at the suggestion. Formula?? For my baby?? No. I was going to breastfeed if it killed me. And it almost did.
I ended up in the ER twice in the weeks after my son’s birth. I couldn’t stop vomiting, which they decided was due to extreme postpartum depression and stress. The second time I went in they prescribed me Ativan. Ativan provided me with beautiful relief. It allowed me to sleep. It also meant that I couldn’t breastfeed for about a week. So although I experienced relief, I was not done with the stress and guilt and shame around failing at breastfeeding and having to give my baby formula for a little while so I could rest and get better. (Plus I still had to pump.)
Ultimately, I did stick with breastfeeding and I felt proud of that choice. Eventually it did end up being a lovely bonding experience for my son and me. But although I feel proud of my own decision, I have no judgment left in me about people who just can’t make breastfeeding work. It’s OK. If you’re bonding with your baby, it’s OK. Sure, breastfeeding is the “ideal,” but if you can’t do it, it doesn’t make you a bad mother. It doesn’t mean your child is doomed. And we all need to be more compassionate about this (and so, so many other things). Feminism!
I began anti-depressants about two weeks after my son was born, which meant it took about a month before I could feel anything but nagging emptiness and despair. The first day my husband went back to work I did not leave the bedroom. I sobbed and stared at my child. What the fuck was I supposed to do with him? My mom told me I was doing everything I needed to do right then, which consisted of feeding him, changing his diapers, and holding him. Her words were a small comfort, but along with the comfort were the questions and thoughts eating at me: “So this is all I have to do now? This is all I am? I am barely even a person.” I couldn’t even figure out how to shower or make a sandwich. Which meant I didn’t shower or eat. I didn’t know what to do or who I was. Some days we both just cried all day long. And because I will apparently never be done with feelings of guilt about this period of our lives together, I still wonder how those early weeks with a severely depressed mom affected him and will always affect him. I will never know for sure of course, but I wonder.
Luckily the meds kicked in eventually and my son started smiling and I started opening the blinds and interacting with people and going outside. Where I loved my baby before, I was now in love, in the way I assumed I would be immediately. It took over a month to truly feel that.
My second birth was in a hospital. I cried about the decision because I felt, again, like I hadn’t reached some sort of bullshit “ideal.” I cried when we got to the hospital about all the interventions they did when I got there, all the machines they hooked me up to. But I have no regrets. I even got an epidural, which was botched but still somewhat helpful. And this time I was prepared on the emotional front. I made a plan with my doctor (who was very pro-midwife btw) to start anti-depressants again the DAY my daughter was born, which I did. And I still experienced postpartum depression. My affect was blank. But it was markedly better than the first time. I was better.
All of that is to say this: When people post happy photos and stories about their new babies and only happy photos and stories about their new babies, I don’t feel happy for them. Not because I’m not happy that they’re happy. And not because being happy and in love with their babies immediately is not a valid and beautiful experience that deserves to be shared. Of course it does! I don’t feel happy because it seems that being happy and immediately in love is the only valid experience. The only one that we are allowed to share. The only one that says: I am a good mother.
Well I’m here to say fuck that. Fuck that narrative. For a long time, I thought my personal reaction to people’s expressions of joy (and nothing but joy) just meant I was being petty, or overly sensitive, or some other form of bullshit my brain tries to pull on me. And maybe that’s true. But I think it’s deeper than that, and I think it’s deeper than my own experience. We often leave people out of conversations that need to be more inclusive. Trans women and women of color are often left out of the conversation around womanhood and feminism. Same-sex parents are not treated with the same respect and validity as hetero parents. And while I do NOT claim to understand the oppression faced by trans women and women of color, I do think that women who experience severe postpartum depression are often left out of the conversation about new motherhood. Sure, there have been articles written on the subject and Brooke Shields was open and public about it back in the day, but the bottom line is that many of us who struggle with mental illness, whether on an ongoing basis or strictly related to postpartum issues, do not feel safe to share our experiences of new motherhood if those experiences don’t fit the sun-filled love and gratitude narrative, at least not until well after the fact. And that includes me, here sharing this 8 years later.
I want to apologize for not being more honest in my expression of new motherhood in a public way. I wish I would have had the strength then to share what I was actually going through with a larger audience, because I think it matters. Honesty matters.
If we are going to be feminists, that means acknowledging where people’s identities intersect and valuing all experiences of being female. Motherhood is the epitome of what it means to be a woman for a lot of people (which is problematic as well, because guess what? You don’t have to have children to be a woman! You don’t even have to want children! You are valuable whether you house a fetus in your uterus or not! And as I said above, you don’t even need to have a uterus to be a woman!). Motherhood is an identity. Understandably. It’s important. It’s something to take pride in. It’s beautiful. It’s part of my identity too, and I love my children more than anything. But it’s also terrible for some of us. And it’s terrible for everyone sometimes, so let’s be honest about that. Let’s embrace each other as women and as parents and as feminists by sharing the bad with the good. You can be in love with your baby and also admit that this shit is fucking hard, and some days you don’t know how you can keep going. And maybe some people never feel that way, but I think if we were more cognizant of the ways we express our new motherhood, we could stop contributing to the idea that joy is the only acceptable emotion. We could lift each other out of the dangerous darkness of postpartum depression.
Thank you SO much for reading this. I welcome your feedback.
Also: I originally called this post “why I believe postpartum depression is an issue of intersectional feminism,” but since the term intersectional feminism was coined specifically to refer to women of color I changed that title. But I still think we should all strive to be inclusive and intersectional.
(And now here are my footnotes because I am still learning how to format this blog.)
*I’m being flip here, and mean no offense to Hypnobabies or anyone who teaches or takes the classes. The daily relaxation/meditation/visualization part of it was actually really helpful for me, and I know some people are able to use the techniques during childbirth to great relief. I was not one of those people.
**Flip again. Not to make light of people who are hospitalized for various mental illnesses, but to reference the ways women used to be sent away for being “hysterical,” which we now understand to mean “experiencing human feelings and not being completely fulfilled by housework and motherhood.” Give me a fucking break.
***I have recently come to identify as a highly sensitive person, and childbirth is one of the things I’ve frequently thought about since making this realization. I feel things in a stronger way than most people. Those feelings can be emotions, but can also apply to physical pain. If you understand what I’m saying, perhaps you, too, are highly sensitive.