Meeting Jessica was a gift to me in more than just the obvious ways – her welcoming and generous spirit, her passion as a mother, and her skill at communicating such a harrowing time in her life. These were a bonus, because what I am most thankful for is the opportunity to pay homage to my favorite artist, Mary Cassatt, whose images of mothers and children have inspired me throughout my life, beginning with the print in my grandmother’s house. I just happened to have the perfect subjects to give it a try:
I am more than my postpartum depression. I am a devoted fiancé, a supportive sister, a daughter who adores her parents, and most of all, a deserving mother to a beautiful baby girl.
No woman expects to suffer from PPD, least of all one who had prayed, nearly every day of her adult life, for God to bless her with a child. Least of all a woman, who knew IN HER BONES that motherhood was for her and would come easily and naturally.
My story is not unique and like so many women before me and so many women after me, I did not expect that the emotions and feelings following delivering my daughter would quickly become those of sadness, failure, inadequacy, and even sometimes, grief. These are not the words that are typically associated with bringing a child into this world, but they were my reality. Worst of all, my reality came without explicable reason.
My daughter came into this world “a little stunned.” Verbatim, this is how it was explained to me. The last words I remember hearing before that final push were from my fiancé, Mike… “I can see her, she’s right there, Jess, she’s beautiful.” It was all the encouragement I needed to bring that final hour to a close and push Mila out. Skin-to-skin. This is the standard now…the gold standard in all hospitals and birthing centers across the globe. This is how mom and baby connect, how they bond. I was ready for this, prepared, day-dreamed about this for so long, anxiously and excitedly awaited this moment.
Our moment was short-lived. I felt Mila’s warm, wet skin for just seconds before she was taken from me and given oxygen. She laid on a small Mila-sized table with a mask of oxygen to her face and I laid on the delivery bed just a few feet away, broken both physically and emotionally. There was nothing I could do for her but wait patiently for her to summon the strength to begin breathing on her own. They took her to the Special Care Unit. Mike went with her and I had to stay behind. By the time they made it to Special Care, my girl was breathing on her own and crying her lungs out. Only, I was not there to hear it. The first time I heard Mila cry, was through a video on Mike’s iPhone. The first time I made eye contact with Mila was an hour later when they deemed both her and I strong enough to meet. It’s indescribable, the moment you make eye contact with the child you have been growing and carrying for nine months. I can’t even begin to explain the high you get when your daughter turns to your voice and very clearly shows you just how much she recognizes you. It gives you purpose. It makes everything you ever did in your life seem insignificant, compared to the sole importance of being THERE and familiar for her.
Because of the tough time Mila had when she came into this world, she could not stay in the hospital room with Mike and I, nor could we stay with her in the Special Care Unit. This means that each time she had to eat, which was every two hours or so, I would have to waddle my way to the elevators and go up two floors to feed her. But more importantly, this also meant that when I could not be there because I needed to try and sleep, she could not see me, smell me, or sense that I was there. Almost 11 months later, I still dwell on the fact that like the initial skin-to-skin post-delivery, I feel robbed of the experience of simply reaching over to my bedside to console my woken and crying child to soothe and feed her.
A few days after delivering Mila, we got to take her home. I was exhausted, as all new parents are, and at that point days were simply rolling into each other. But one feeling was very clear. I was happier than I had ever been in all my life. I had a wonderful man by my side, who was now a wonderful father. I had my health and I had a beautiful and healthy baby girl. I had everything I had ever prayed and hoped for and our entire lives ahead of us to enjoy it. I was elated.
And then things began to change. Not one week in, I started to feel disconnected from this new life. I couldn’t bring myself to genuinely smile each time a visitor expressed their delight at seeing our new bundle of joy. Instead, I became what felt like a phony. I smiled and said all the right things, the words that felt rehearsed and dishonest. About how happy I was, how much I felt like a “mother,” how bonded Mila and I already were, how IN LOVE we already were. While deep inside, the truth was unsettling. I was crushing beneath the weight of the fact that I could not bring myself to plug in. I was not bonded to my child. I was not in love with this complete stranger. I was beginning to feel more than just new-mom tired, I was unmotivated, confused, grieving my old self, and even doubting that we did the right thing. I couldn’t hold Mila and would feel immediate relief when anyone else would. Hearing her cry unnerved me. Breastfeeding her made me feel hopeless. I couldn’t do anything without feeling as if my whole world was coming to an end. Everything felt like too much effort, even showering or eating. I cried constantly, and HARD. The sadness was so deep and only growing deeper by the day. I felt like an inadequate failure. To Mike, to my own parents, to Mila – just an absolute failure. The guilt was overwhelming.
By the second week home, Mike returned to work and I was home with Mila. I would call Mike crying, asking him to please come home straight from work so that I could talk to him about how I was feeling. Only, I could never explain why these feelings were happening. I know just how hard he tried to understand but I also know it could not have been easy for him. Here I was, the mother of his new child, someone who boasted about how wonderful these days would be, sobbing at him the moment he walked in the door.
I started to withdraw more. I did not want anyone to come over and I did not want to bring Mila to see my family. I wanted nothing. I desired nothing. I slept nothing. I ate nothing and when I did, it was tasteless and unappealing. Worst of all, I still had not bonded with Mila. I suspected at this point that I was suffering from PPD but from all my research while pregnant, was also overwhelmingly aware and fearful that Mila would not be cared for properly by me, because of my disinterest in life. So, any and all efforts I could muster went to her. I made sure she was fed (at this point I had switched to formula) on a schedule, I made sure she was bathed every other day, I held her as much as I could when nobody else was there to hold her for me, I soothed her when she cried, and I spoke to her. I did all I could because I was determined not to let my sickness impact her first days and weeks. I did all of this while numb, sad, lonely and lethargic.
The beginning of help for the PPD came in the form of Mila’s pediatrician recognizing the signs during Mila’s checkup. She suggested I speak to someone in-office and after I did, I sought further help from my own midwife. It was then that I decided this was bigger than me and that my daughter deserved a better me. I began medication and while it did take a few weeks to properly kick in and fully work for me, the symptoms of relief began a lot sooner, only about a week in. I am no longer on this medication but am so grateful that it was there when I needed it. I wouldn’t be the mother I am today without it.
So, that’s my story. As I said, it’s not unique. Difficult delivery, difficult transition home and into motherhood, continued decline, recognition that there was a problem, and treatment. It’s been told before. What is unique is ME. I was still the girl who cried big huge tears of happy joy when I learned my baby would be a girl. I was still the woman who sat in Mila’s nursery for hours at a time just day-dreaming of when I’d get to see her playing in it herself. I was still the girl who slept deeply and happily beside the man she loved, who she knew she was going to marry one day. I was still ME.
A huge shadow cast over the many wonderful things about me while I was suffering from PPD. My parents momentarily lost their bubbly daughter, my brother momentarily lost his best friend and most trusted confidant, my fiancé painfully questioned what would become of me as a mother, my daughter didn’t get the best of me from the very beginning, and I lost my own sense of self. I hate PPD for the moments it robbed me of and even more, for the moments it robbed my daughter of. But today, I am still me.
I am more than my postpartum depression. I am Mike’s fiancé. Someone who tries to remind him everyday just how wonderful of a man he is and how lucky I am to have him. I melt in his embrace in the early morning hours before he gets up for work, I pinch his bum in public, and I play with his face like it’s my own personal tube of playdoh.
I am more than my postpartum depression. I am a sister and daughter who would do anything for her family. I am the sister who took a 6-mile hike with her brother at just a few months pregnant. I am the daughter who meets her father for lunch and takes her mother shopping for special occasion outfits. I feel important and accomplished when I am around my family.
I am more than my postpartum depression. I am a mother who holds her daughter’s hand every single day as she attempts to make her legs do what her mind thinks she can – WALK! Today, as it should have always been from the beginning, she and I are the definition of BONDED. She and I are madly in love with each other, hands down, head over heels, IN LOVE. Just as I knew I would be before she came into this world, I am a damn good mother; the kind that sings to her daughter every day, smells her hair when she is asleep, tells her how smart and kind she is, and waits patiently for her to figure out how every little aspect of this world works. I am more than my postpartum depression. I am ‘Mama’.
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