I told my son about my postpartum depression
On October 23, 2013 I gave birth to my second child, a little boy, with fuzzy-yellow hair, a dimple in his chin and bright blue eyes. When he was first placed next to me – as I was still open on the Operating Room table during my cesarean section – I sang to him and, I swear, he smiled.
Ten days later I got a text from my husband. It read, “Are you OK? I see the light going out in your eyes.”
I was not OK. I was suffering. I now know that I was facing (fighting) severe postpartum depression. My perinatal distress came as a surprise to me and to my loved ones, as I did not have many of the traditional risk factors for the affliction; I did not have postpartum depression with my daughter; I had not formerly suffered from depression; I had no family history; I had a loving husband, tight knit group of friends and close family.
And yet, in the Winter of 2013, a dark plague took over my life and I am now proud to call myself a survivor.
Now, nearly four years later, I am much healthier in every way, but I do still face some residual effects from my prenatal and postpartum anxiety and depression. I seek help from a psychologist, psychiatrist, dietician (I dropped to an unhealthy weight as a result of my depression), couple’s therapist and all of the members of my tribe. My anxiety, while managed, is something that I have to fight through every day. My depression has abated tremendously; I can find joy, again. I am functional.
But, the one thing that has yet to really go away is probably the most meaningful (and troublesome) of all: The Guilt.
I feel so terribly guilty. I feel guilty that I have spent almost four years as the “identified patient”. I feel guilty for making my loved ones worry. I feel guilty for exhausting them with my woes. I feel guilty about the toll that this has taken on my seven-year-old daughter. I feel guilty about the hard work that we have had to do on our marriage. But, nothing the compares to the guilt that I feel in relation to my son. I was not the same mother to him that I was to my daughter. We did not spend his early days swirling around in tutus or catching snowflakes on our tongues. Rather, we spent his first couple of months in a black hole (figuratively) and in the Emergency Room (literally).
And, there is this other thing. It is the thing that is the hardest to say. I shared it recently on the blog, and so that I do not have to stumble to find the words again, I will say the same thing that I did there. It is so hard:
I do not know what it is like to feel the mad-insane-over-the-moon-enchanted-best-feeling-in-the-world-heart-exploding-love over a newborn baby boy between days 10 and 365 of his life.
I follow many other mom bloggers and influencers on social media, and I see them with their infant sons and they talk about a kind of love that is so strong it crushes one’s heart and they say things like, “Time, please slow down, I want to savor every moment with my little boy,” and “I never thought I would find a love like this and I have never felt happier or more whole in my entire life. He completes us,” and every time I read one of these posts I feel a punch to the gut.
When I am faced with something that evokes a strong emotion in me, I do not compartmentalize, but rather I get it out. And so, that is what I did with my little boy.
The older he gets, the more he hears me talk about my struggles. He knows that I see a “worry doctor” and hears me say things like, “I write about maternal mental health, as I had a really hard time when I had my son.”
I never, ever want him to feel as though it is his fault, or that I love(d) him less or that I would not do it all over again if it meant that it would bring him into my life. I love him intensely.
Let me be extremely clear: from the second he was born I have loved my son and I have loved him every single day of his life, even when times were at their darkest for me, and I have ALWAYS, unwaveringly, been grateful for his existence. I think that he is one of the smartest, sweetest, bravest humans that I have ever known, and his stubborn streak will no doubt serve him well. BUT, after he was born, my life kind of fell apart.
I often wonder how much this has impacted my him. Over the years I have been asked if I think that he feels less close to me because of my postpartum distress. These questions were not intended to be mean, but also not rhetorical. The people were honestly asking if I believe that my son did not bond with me as wholly as an infant and if I think that it has impacted our relationship and if it continues to impact our relationship today.
Earlier this month, my son and I were snuggled up on the living room couch. We don’t get a tremendous amount of time alone together, and I try my best to really make it count. Of course I even feel guilty for that.
We were snuggling and I was staring into his crystal blue eyes and loving on him and the guilt washed over me, almost suffocating me.
I mustered up the courage and, choking on my words, said one of the hardest things that I have ever had to say.
“Can we talk about something?” I asked.
“No,” he said, with a devilish grin.
“Do you know how much I love you?”
“No,” he said again, smiling.
I held his little body close to mine.
“Hey, so when you were born, I loved you so much. And did you know that when you came out you had yellow hair?”
“I don’t know!”
“How did it turn red?”
“I don’t know! I have no idea! It was magic. And when I first held you, when I was still getting surgery, guess what I did? I held you—well, I couldn’t even hold you, but they put you next to my face and I sang ‘Mommy Loves the Baby’ and “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star’ to you.”
“Did you sing ABCs?”
“No. I didn’t. But, I sang and I kissed you. And it looked like you smiled. And then, when I held you the first time, you nursed right away.”
“What color hair did I have when I was growing?”
“And then I had yellow?”
“Yes. But I need to tell you something.”
The world around me stopped. I could barely breathe. But, I fought on.
“When you were born, I loved you so much. So so so much. I loved having you. But, I also had a hard time. I got a little sad. I just wanted to tell you.”
“Why did you get sad?”
“I don’t know, love. But I loved you up to the moon and stars. And then I did some things to make me better.”
And we talked about the worry doctors and my dietician and how I have worked every day to feel better. I had told him about my sadness, and so I wanted to make sure that he understood. I asked him.
“So, now what am I?”
“I guess that’s true! And am I happy?”
I pulled him even closer to me and told him how much I love him.
I asked him if he had any questions. He did not. I asked him if he understood. He said that he did.
I am not sure if this would be considered the right or wrong move in a textbook, but, I will tell you, it was the right move for us. I guess if I am looking for the merit in this talk it is that I showed my son that there was a problem but that there was also a solution. That I had an issue, and I can’t explain why, but that instead of letting it own me or define me I took charge; I sought help; I allowed myself to feel and I allowed myself to heal.
Now, I am NOT saying that I am “all better” and that I am cured from all of my woes. Not even close. But “better” is not the same as “all better” and the former? I am. I am almost years and metaphorical lightyears away from the winter of 2013. I have light in my eyes.
Today, I am many things. I am an author/writer/blogger. I am a mental health and healthcare advocate. I am a singer, a dance-partier, a student & teacher of life.
I am a wife. A daughter. A friend.
A mother. I am not perfect, but I am honest. And, I think that I would take the latter over the former any day. My children are raised in a home where we have normalized feelings, and the fact that not all feelings are happy, but that they are all OK. My kids know that I will always be honest with them, that I work very hard to take care of myself—something which I am trying to model for them—and that they are oh so loved.
Although our journey may not have been the one that I had planned, my son and I forged our own chapters in life’s book. I told him about my postpartum depression, but that is not at all what defines me to him. I am his mommy; the one who will always put on a record and twirl with him; the boo-boo-kisser; his weekly chocolate-chip cookie date; a person who laughs and cries, but then laughs, again.
We suffered, but we survived. We had the happy, and then we had the hard, but now, most of all, we have hope.
Rebecca Fox Starr is a Philadelphia-based author, blogger, podcaster and mental health advocate. She created her internationally-read blog, Mommy, Ever After, in 2010, following the birth of her first child. When she became pregnant with her second child in 2013, Rebecca suffered from prenatal anxiety & depression and subsequent severe postpartum depression. Rebecca writes candidly about her life as a mother, survivor, advocate, singer/songwriter, dance-partier and studded-shoe collector. Her story has been featured in The New York Times, HuffPost, on ABC News and in all forms of media across the world. Her first book, “Beyond the Baby Blues: Anxiety and Depression During and After Pregnancy” is being released by Rowman & Littlefield Publishing House in January, 2018. Rebecca lives and writes with her husband, daughter, son and Yorkie in the suburbs of Philadelphia. More about Rebecca can be found on her website at www.MommyEverAfter.com and on social media outlets @mommyeverafter.