There’s something wonderful about good conversation over a cup of coffee! Some of my favorite memories with friends and family are when we sat together, sharing the stories of our lives. Often when a group of women get together, the conversation invariably turns to motherhood. Not long ago, during such a conversation, I realized how much shine we sometimes put on our birth stories and those first few months of new motherhood. Each of us recount the beautiful moments, aglow with the memories of tender love and triumph at a dream realized. It truly is a beautiful time, and one of the most profound experiences ever. Ultimately motherhood changes us in ways we didn’t even know were possible, and the outcome is something amazing to behold.
The thing about pregnancy and motherhood, though, is just how differently we all respond to this potential wrecking ball. Many women I know have slipped effortlessly into motherhood as though it were just the addition of a new pair of yoga pants. Their natural instincts to care for their baby, make us breathless with the beauty of it all. I’ve known quite a few new mothers who seem almost ethereal during and after pregnancy, and their glow pulls us all into the warmth of new love. I always imagine Mary this way, as I sip hot chocolate by the twinkling Christmas tree. But maybe that wasn’t her experience at all. Maybe, like me, she found it challenging to adjust during those first weeks of motherhood.
The devastation and shame that women feel when they find themselves struggling as a new mother is very real. It’s almost tangible. I know what it’s like to panic at the last moment (just before they wheel you into delivery), and say to your partner, “I can’t do this. I’ve changed my mind.” There is an actual human being at the end of the story, and I remember feeling unable to deal with the hard right my life was about to take. I felt the bitter shame of not experiencing instant love and adoration for a child they said has just been born from my actual womb. Sadness and panic came in waves those first few weeks, and I could not get my head above the deluge of “shoulds” in my mind. “You should instantly bond with this child.” “You should know what to do.” “You should be enjoying this.” “You should be able to do this without so much help.” “You should not feel so sad.” “You should be a better mother.”
There is a whole spectrum of feeling those first few months. Normally, (and I know this because I had two very different postpartum experiences) I think we slide around the spectrum, but stay mostly on the “positive feelings side.” Sure, there are moments, hours and days when we feel hopeless and overwhelmed, but overall, we cope through those hard times. Being a new mother is hard, after all.
I remember going to the pediatricians office with my three-week old baby, and the doctor took a hard look at me. The haze of exhaustion and despair had settled over me like a heavy cloak, and I remember having to force myself to lift the corners of my mouth to smile. The doctor said my name several times until I was focused on her, and then she said these life-saving words: “It’s not supposed to be like this. You aren’t supposed to be so sad, and I need you to call your OBGYN today and let her know that you’re struggling.” What did she see? What clue prompted her to throw me that lifeline? When she peeked behind the curtain of my false smile, was she able to see the horror of my thoughts? How did she know that we were not going to make it? That the fear and sadness were so thick that I could hardly breathe? Even now, my heart aches and my eyes tear up at the memory of her seeing me and my distress. She saved us. She gave me a directive, knowing I would never say “I need help.” She stepped in and forced me to take the first step to help myself.
I did call my OBGYN. She put me on a very low dose of Zoloft, and within a week the warmer shades of light began to clear my mind. There was a specific moment when I knew that I was getting better, and that things were going to be ok. I was reading to my month-old baby, and suddenly realized that I was ENJOYING spending time being a mother. It hit me that I had a growing swell of love toward this little person that I was just beginning to know after so many days together. Those tender shoots of hope and love were able to penetrate the fog of sadness, and eventually fill my heart and mind with their beautiful abundance.
New motherhood is not all gloom and doom, dear reader. It is warm, full of joy and drenched in the most profound love. But we must stand beside those who are suffering. We must. Whether that means sitting quietly and being an extra pair of hands to help, or holding a new mother’s face tenderly and declaring that you will not rest until she comes out on the other side, or acting as a champion for change as my pediatrician did, we must do something. We are sisters, and sisters cannot be allowed to suffer alone.
The ugliest truth about postpartum depression is that it is mostly kept a secret. I’ve known many mothers during my life, and not one time did the topic ever come up before I experienced it myself. Sure, the pregnancy books I was reading devoted a whole paragraph to it, but I thought it was for “those losers” who weren’t as strong as me. My arrogance is appalling, isn’t it? Let’s to better. Let’s drag this nasty beast into the light where it belongs. Let’s give it a name, and stand beside our dear friends and sisters when they meet it.
I believe one of the greatest gifts of motherhood is the capacity to grow love in the most challenging of spaces. Whether it’s through adoption, fostering, step-parenting or having a child in what we might call the “traditional way,” mothers are made not in the giving birth, but in the way we lay ourselves down to something bigger. We become sisters when we learn empathy and compassion for mothers who are yet childless and mothers who struggle to thrive. Our stories are important and precious. They allow us to reach out in comfort and support, lending a hand and lifting those who are floundering.
I wrote this post over a month ago, and have left it sitting in my drafts. My hope in sharing is that maybe these words will find their way to someone who needs them, whether it be a struggling new mother, or someone who loves her. The beauty of hard things is that they help grow our empathy and deepen our compassion. Courage, dear sisters.