Beyond post-partum depression: Part 1, Falling down
I’ve suffered post partum depression. This is how I came out on the other end of the tunnel, or at least to a place where I can see the light. This will be a play in 3 acts:
1) Falling down the pit (warning, a bit depressing)
2) Getting on a stepladder (the salvation part, more pragmatic)
3) Get up and stay up (sorry, probably nauseatingly cheerful)
I think it started because of an injury from childbirth. Giving birth is no picknick, people, and don’t you ever judge a woman who went through it if she’s not all happy smiles about it.
It is not for the faint hearted either. I am, a bit. I was scared of pushing a live baby through my vagina, scared to be torn apart basically, and wanted a c-section, but wasn’t allowed one. So I went through breathing exercises and I did really well, until it was time to actually get this baby out.
My son obviously had enough already and decided to try and crawl his way out. Going hand first, then arm, shoulder and head pretty much at the same time next, is a bit crowded you see. Not the appropriate way to do it, really. So I pushed and screamed, the kind of scream that haunted my own nightmares for years. Then I felt the baby outside, he moved and wriggled a bit, what with the nurses fiddling about. In that moment I didn’t want it. Didn’t want to see it. Wanted to fall asleep and hope it was all a nightmare, preferably die when I was at it. That feeling of absolute despair and turning my back on my whole life, also haunted me later.
To me, fortunately, that changed seconds later, when I actually did see the baby. When he was held up to me and looked into my eyes. That look. When life is on the very edge of everything, maybe that is what it feels like. Darkness, light, love and comfort. You see someone looking straight into your soul, from far far beyond and you just know everything is right. Souls connecting at the deepest of levels, far beyond us and reality. This was my son, had always been, and he came straight from heaven. At least that’s what it felt like.
So I completely submitted to motherhood, grabbed hold of the most beautiful baby ever born (in my own humble opinion) and held tight. No one could touch him, not even the nurses. Yes, that was a bit of crazy pouring out, I realize this now. I was fighting off syringes like they were swords, no one was to touch, and the infamous Tiger Mom had risen. I had my baby by my chest, trying to grasp the whole thing while breastfeeding and caring little about what went on in the rest of the world.
Then I was put out.
I was down for surgery, thank God, so I was sound asleep while they did what they had to do with pieces of muscles and flesh being sewn back together, things being reconstructed.
Afterwards I was in pretty bad shape downstairs. The doctor wanted me to see what a nice job they had done, using a mirror and a big smile. I cried out loud. No, giving birth has little to do with dignity, nor does it leave much room for any sense of self preservation. Realizing this, afterwards, made me cry. And I didn’t stop for a long while.
At the bottom of the pit, looking down
One hard part was simply answering the question: “So, how did the delivery go?”
Being an honesty freak, I usually said: “Not very well. I was badly torn, I got surgery, I eat painkillers and now I can’t carry anything heavy anymore. I’ll save you the details.” The absolutely most common, and also worst, reaction I got from people I considered friends was: “Oh, but everything is fine now, isn’t it? You got yourself a baby. And many women get a few stitches…” And I didn’t say anything, for sparing them another waterfall.
I know, we rarely know what to say to people in pain. It’s hard to say the right thing. But we could try to allow them to feel whatever, could we not? Instead of desperately trying to wipe it all away with some random everything-seems-fine-words. I specifically didn’t like it when men said things like that. Men that never need to push anything the size of a coconut out of anywhere. Men that seemed completely oblivious to how those “few stitches” may have felt for the mother in question. Also, I found it harsh to compare a delivery ending with a happy mum getting a couple of stitches, to my major rupture.
It seems to be forbidden to be anything but happy about your baby and delivery. But I was happy about my baby! I know we have a lot to be thankful for, and I was and I am, truly. But not about the delivery specifically.
After 3 months I was formally healed, but still living with regulations.
My doctors advice was to be careful with lifting, nothing heavier than the baby. Careful with exercise, except for the pelvic floor exercises, that I was now allowed to try. Before that I hadn’t been allowed to do them. Any heavy feeling downstairs and I should lie flat on my back. I got heavy from walking a mile at low speed, that’s how bad it was. I needed to lie flat every day and reduce walks to every other day to be able to stand straight. I shouldn’t jump or run. I should definitely have a c-section in case I wanted more children. And really, I probably shouldn’t, at least not more than one.
I was basically a mess. A shadow of me.
I never was a fitness person exactly. I always did exercise as life came along, rarely going to a gym, but it used to work out fine. I did horseback riding and swimming when the possibility arose, bicycling in lack of a car, working physically a lot as an outdoor experience guide. I like adventurous experiences, but rather low impact ones, having tried skiing, windsurfing, diving, rock climbing and bungee jumping – but not being good at any of it and not being any extremist at all.
Now all I could see was a crippled future. I saw myself as an old lady, having done my part. Not even able to carry my son when he grew up. Not able to experience all those fun adventures, or even play catch-me games with him. The whole happy family concept I had wanted, crumbled and fell.
I could not even go back to my old job. How could I carry any logs or chop wood now? How could I even look fun or interesting, me, an old lady?
After childbirth we are tired. It’s like a marathon in exhaustion level, I’ve heard. To me, it was a matter of waking up after 2 hours sleep, by the water breaking, followed by 24 hours of walking around waiting (it’s not always going by the book), then 12 hours of hard work, followed by the very first day of the new baby’s life. When I finally went to sleep, of course, I couldn’t sleep, because the baby needed feeding. And cuddling. And changing. And feeding again.
I was breastfeeding day and night, every other hour the first months. I was doing little less. The baby boy was hungry, or anxious, or had a tummy ache, and all I could think of was to hold him close and breastfeed him for comfort. He didn’t mind. I was so dead tired I couldn’t tell day from night sometimes. I couldn’t tell awake from asleep even, sometimes thinking I was already up and about when in fact I was still asleep, dreaming I was up. I stood in the kitchen and fell asleep while cooking one time. That was no good.
Of course my husband did step in from time to time, but he couldn’t breastfeed. He just couldn’t. I could sleep 1-2 hours at most. So it would go on, for 2 months. Then Baby boy was suddenly full for a few hours in a row, and I started to… yes, work. I had an exam to finish and in this amazingly sharp minded period of life, I used the nights for studies. Figuring I didn’t sleep anyway, I guess.
It didn’t end well. Okay, I did get an exam, and I didn’t leave my baby for long hours, so far so good. But tired beyond belief I was borderline psychotic, half asleep, half zombie. I went back to be a stay at home mother for another while.
Sex was out of the question, for a long time
I didn’t want to think about anything below my navel. Visiting the toilet was horrible. Taking a shower painful. Sitting up very uncomfortable. Wearing trousers impossible. I did get medicines and painkillers to get through the first months, and survived them. But every single thought or simple tickle passing by the downstairs regions made me cramp up. Possibly cry.
Now sex, that shouldn’t bother a mother to a healthy baby, should it? Well, it did.
If I so much as mentioned my worries about an end to my sex life, I got responses like – “That doesn’t matter now, does it? You got your baby, and what did you expect from childbirth anyway?” At the same time, all media indulges in sex advice and how to keep your relationship sparkling with passion. There were articles on how to get going again after a child is born. I read them, and cried.
Honestly, I like sex. I did so very much before childbirth. I missed it after. But not being able to think about that Frankenstein-monster of my former lady parts without acute stomach pain was a bump in the road.
There is also the question of love and keeping the marriage alive. I love my husband. He loves me. No question about it, he could wait. But to keep the loving feeling in the relationship when your days are filled with breastfeeding, wiping, changing, laundry and everything, is a challenge. And without any sex it can feel a bit too much like a working relationship.
Now, I like a good teamwork in marriage. It helps. But you need something more. Intimacy, some fun. Well we had that too. A lot of hugging and talking and proudly watching our baby sleep. A lot of giggling in front of TV shows we like, some wine at times, a few dates on restaurants with the baby coming along. We were a cute little family, even if I felt like an old lady, hopeless and black inside. Appearances count a bit, as long as they help you feel better. And they did, for a while.
We did try some veeery gentle cuddling a couple of times, but I cramped up, it hurt and I just couldn’t go through with it. After six months we could, but still veeery carefully. Of course that’s not where fireworks come from, but it’s a start. Admittedly my sex drive was low by hormones, tiredness and sleep deprivation too. Breastfeeding also changes things, making you less lubricated, so we used a lot of lube. Still, doing it at all felt good and important, even if we didn’t do it much.
Problem was, I still felt like an old lady. Not sexy at all. It’s hard to create fireworks when you’re not feeling good about yourself. In my head, my lady parts looked and felt so bad. I didn’t want him to see, I didn’t want him to touch. I didn’t want to do it myself even. That my friends, is not a great way to embrace your own sexuality.
About a year after birth we could be a bit more relaxed about it. Yes, it actually took that long. My dear husband helped, when he went all therapeutic on me. He put me in a bath, softening up with some bubbles and chocolates, telling me I was beautiful. Very nice of him. I started to cry, again, of course. Still, he hung on. Making me shave (yes, that was hard when not wanting to touch) and have another look in that mirror of horror. I’m not going to say it looked good. But it actually didn’t look like a Frankenstein’s monster anymore. We could start off in a better mood. Well, after the crying.
Every time I looked into my baby’s eyes my own went waterfalls. Every time. For months. Even years after, still when he looks me deep in my eyes it just pushes the button. I love him so, and he knows it. He giggles at my crying: “Do you get all soft again, mum?” he says, petting me kindly.
It’s beautiful to look into your baby’s eyes when you feed them isn’t it? But I never did for long. I cried every time, it all got blurry and I found myself looking at other things and felt bad about it. Looked at him again, cried.
I didn’t realize this could be a sign of depression. I was sure it was hormones, sleep deprivation, big life changes, and responsibility – oh, the responsibility.
I was worrying too. What a horrible world had I sent this angel of a boy into? How could I save him? It didn’t help much that the neighborhood we lived in then, however considered a quite good place to live, still had some trouble, including a horrifying robbery quite close by (later I did hear there were probably connections to the robbers, and drugs involved, making a bit more sense to the story, but it did scare me). How could my family ever be really safe? Where could we go to? An isolated island felt like a reasonable alternative.