Postpartum Denial: Jackie’s Story

“Honey, do you think I had postpartum depression?”, I asked my husband. Before the words left my mouth, he quickly said “Yes” and walked away. Hmmmmmm…

My next thought…“Was it that bad, and did I miss it??”

My dream has always been to become a mother. When choosing a career, I chose one that I thought would allow flexibility to raise a family and suit my own aspirations. After years of training, I became a mental health therapist. My training prepared me to know stages of development, psychological theories and psychiatric diagnoses; knowledge that would be a bonus when raising a family. I was also very fortunate that my own mother was a good role model for unconditional love, and my husband is loving and kind. I just knew that my body was the temple that would produce a majestic bundle of joy, and I was more than prepared for the next phase in my life.

“I am Mother Earth! Bring on baby!”

Before I knew it, he was here. He was a perfect human being that God had blessed me with. I felt so fortunate and so full of love. I was and still am completely enamored with my son. He was and still is a perfect eating machine; so much so that my body just could not produce enough milk for him. On Day 5 of my son’s life, the pediatrician recommended formula to supplement my breast milk. This was not what I had planned, but it was what he needed.

“I’ve got this.”

“I can do this.”

“Whatever my son needs.”

By week 2 of my son’s life, my husband returned to work. I knew that day would come, but it came too quickly. “I’ve got this…I haven’t got a clue about raising a baby, but I’ve got this.” I just kept telling myself that over and over. However, there is nothing more sobering than being face to face with your first newborn and finally admitting to yourself, “What the hell have I gotten myself into!?”

Enter the downward spiral. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was in the throws of postpartum depression.

I am an only child. As an only child whose parents are from Peru, there is a certain resilience I was forced to gain early on. My mother was a stay-at-home mother, and my father worked long hours leaving all child-rearing to my mother. I only knew that my own mother was able to do it on her own, so I could and WOULD do it on my own. She did it with no family support (they were all in Peru) and no internet as a resource; only a beat up copy of Dr. Spock. Although I did not have my mother here with me when I became a mother, I had my friends, my husband’s mother and Google. I had it far better than my mother ever did. Despite the fact that I tried to reason with myself and convince myself that I could handle the stresses of a newborn, the thought that I should be able to handle it on my own only helped enable me to deny that I was experiencing postpartum depression.

I cried when I was alone with my son.

I cried because I couldn’t produce enough milk for him. Yet I refused to give up breastfeeding because somehow I just knew I could fix it. If I ate enough oatmeal, drank lactation tea, loved my breasts, I would become the “cow” my son needed to quench his thirst. I did everything that Google told me to do. Despite all of the internet knowledge and advice from friends, there just wasn’t a lot of support for those whose bodies are not meant to produce milk. The advice was always “keep trying”. I did keep trying and beat myself up physically and mentally because I could not succeed at giving him what he needed. My perception of what it meant to be “Mother Earth” and my belief that every woman could breastfeed was shattered. “Every woman” did not include me.

As a mental health therapist, I am very good at disguising anything wrong with me if I really want to. Since I thought that I had to be the sacred cow of milk production, I did not want to admit I had depression because I was afraid of being on medication. If I allowed myself to be on medication, I definitely would not be able to breastfeed. I had somehow convinced myself that crying alone with my son was normal and probably just due to hormones. I did not have my mother to turn to and was too embarrassed to ask my mother-in-law for help or to teach me how to be a stay-at-home mom and domestic goddess.

In my mind, I was going to be the perfect old-fashioned 50’s housewife who cooked, cleaned and did laundry all while tending to my newborn. Not once did my husband ever say this was his expectation of me, though. He tried to be supportive and suggested that I nap while the baby napped. He would go to work early and come home to help with the baby. He would take half the night duty with the baby so I could sleep. He told me to go out, take a break, and meet with friends. He said not to worry about the house or cooking because we were in the midst of being new parents. He even told me to stop breastfeeding because he knew I was becoming obsessed with it and it was killing me. None of this was what I wanted to hear. I don’t know what I wanted to hear, but it wasn’t that. What I did hear in my warped interpretation was criticism. What I heard was…

“You aren’t keeping up with the house.”

“You are dull because you have no life other than baby.”

“You are failing at breastfeeding.”

“You are not bonding with the baby.”

Instead of turning to my husband, as I normally do, I turned against him. I decided if he helped more around the house, my “vision” would become my reality. Many times I wanted to take a frying pan and throw it at his head so that he would understand not to leave it in the sink. Why did we buy this wooden cutting board he insisted on having, if it was always dirtied with the remnants of whatever he cut up while making last night’s dinner? I even stabbed the cutting board several times when my husband did not empty out the dishwasher. Despite all of this, I declared myself sane because I did not have thoughts of hurting anyone. I was simply pissed off because the cutting board wasn’t clean.

Did I mention my husband was doing a lot of the cooking at that time?

As my postpartum depression deepened, I was crying one minute and the next minute I was engulfed with rage. It wasn’t until after my first lunch with friends that I realized there may be a problem. A friend texted me days later saying she was worried about me. I questioned why she was worried because I thought I was perfectly fine. I had a beautiful baby boy, a supportive and loving husband, and could stay home to raise our son. So what if my Masters Degree was not being used while I changed poopy diapers? So what if my career was on hold? So what if my stomach still hung as if I were six months pregnant and none of my pre-pregnancy clothes fit? So what if I felt like everyone was watching me and criticizing me as I embarked on motherhood? So what if I missed my mom and had never felt more alone in my life? I was perfectly fine.

It took that statement of “I am worried about you” to spark something other than the steaming cup of crazy constantly brewing inside of me. It was an alarm.

Around that time, I was “lucky” and developed my second bout of mastitis. A male OB/GYN said to me, “My wife suffered with mastitis and she stopped breastfeeding. She’s a great mother. You are a great mother because you are putting your needs aside and thinking in the best interest of your child. He got one month of breast milk, almost two. It’s ok to stop.” With those simple words of validation and encouragement, I stopped breastfeeding. Just like that. Oddly enough, despite everything I was going through, it was easier on my bruised self-esteem to have my doctor tell me to stop, rather than choosing to stop on my own.

Somehow I missed spring and soon we were entering summer. It was if the sun woke me up from this darkness I was in. I started to open up about the fact that I was having a hard time adjusting to not being employed. I opened up to the fact that there were days I felt lost. I admitted I was tired. I admitted I loved my son, but oh holy crap I couldn’t stand the crying when he had reflux! My rage turned into feelings of being a protective wife and mother–granted sometimes a bit extreme. My crying diminished to isolated bouts during the touchy-feely TV commercials.

Looking back, I realize that all I wanted to have a less dysfunctional family than the one I had growing up. I tried so hard to be the mother that I thought I should be. In the end, that was not the path for meant me. I have been down the longest, darkest, most windy road possible, and now I am on a clearer path that was made when I finally acknowledged I had a problem. Now I know that I will be OK, and after all let’s be real, every family is bound to have some dysfunction….

And I’m OK with that, too…

For more information on postpartum depression, click on PPD and baby bluesMarch of Dimes PPD, and PPD in an emergency.