Postpartum stigma and becoming a good capable mom

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“Every mother bonds with her baby in a different way.”
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My son was born three weeks early, at an even six pounds. At sixteen months old, he has since added another fifteen pounds to his weight. And yet, he has never felt as heavy as he did that first time I held him, moments after his birth. Eyes squished closed, with occasional sleepy glances at the ceiling, he found nothing to fret about. Snug in his blanket and December-appropriate cap, he looked like some weird potato. I cried out of relief, out of joy, out of love, and out of fear.

I was only with him for a few moments before he was whisked away by a bulky nurse to give him his first bath. Shortly after (recollecting the exact timeline over those days is absolutely useless), he was given his circumcision and his first physical exam. He bordered the preemie classification, saved only by a few numbers in his jaundice count, which was referred to as bilirubin—a word that sounds like some rare and poisonous fruit.

There was a golden time of ecstatic delirium, which lasted for thirty minutes at most. I was a mother. A mommy. I was the most important and beloved person in somebody’s life — for thirteen more years, at least. And then, the inevitable hammer: a sickening, terracotta dread, a flood of anxieties and an electric state of absolute fear, the likes of which I cannot parallel to anything else I have ever felt. Postpartum had arrived.

I have felt nothing comparable to the hormonal letdown that sought to destroy every fiber of my sanity following childbirth. But it wasn’t depression that bit me. It was postpartum anxiety. After a lifetime of dealing with mental illness, my worst fear of deepening my craziness with postpartum had come true. There was no way I could have prepared for this unwelcome mindset.

My son was born two days before the rumored Mayan Apocalypse (a day which probably yielded an inordinate amount of alcohol consumption), and I began to panic. My insides were filled with unstoppable tremors, and I couldn’t sleep. On one of the top floors of the hospital, I felt completely vulnerable. I couldn’t look out of the window for fear of my gaze breaking the glass, I couldn’t go near the window in case I fell out of the broken window, and I couldn’t tell anyone about the gruesome window because I was afraid they would commit me and take my baby away.

Sleep provided an even more perilous terrain than my waking hours. When I was finally able to rest for more than an hour, my dreams were lurid, dark, and unbearably frightening. I was without respite or any reciprocated understanding. I feared everything from earthquakes to terrorist attacks to cataclysmic wrath from deities I invented. The fragility of the newly hatched being in my arms was beyond heartbreaking — what if this happened, or that?

If you think you are experiencing postpartum symptoms of any kind, get help from your doctor. (Chart from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill)
If you think you are experiencing postpartum symptoms of any kind, get help from your doctor.
(Chart from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill)

Coming home from the hospital, I felt slightly safer. But the what ifs continued to embattle my sleepless brain and confused innards. For the first two weeks of caring for the amalgam of flailing limbs and goat like cries known as a baby, I did not leave the house. Physically, I was still healing and extremely exhausted. Emotionally, I was a disaster. I wept constantly (this was also the first time in my life when I realized the difference between your run of the mill crying, and deep, willowy weeping).

I lost my appetite — and eventually my mind. I proclaimed I would never work another day in my life or leave my baby with anyone, at any time, for any reason. We had a few more visitors for whom I pulled out my game face, and then I melted into misery, allowing myself to indulge in the notion that I would never return to normal … well, my kind of normal (I am of course proud to say that I have never been an actual normal person).

I became petrified of driving a car with my baby, let alone getting on a plane with him. What if he stops breathing in his stroller when we are out walking and I don’t notice? What if an earthquake leaves us stranded for days, and we run out of formula? What if a bigger earthquake carves the state of California right into the ocean? What if he stops breathing in his sleep (seriously, the breathing thing led to me waking up constantly to go check on him)?

All mothers worry. My own mother, a veteran of avoided heart attacks, told me about a quote President Obama mentioned in one of his speeches: having a child means your heart is walking around in the world, quite outside of you (or something to that effect). In my first weeks with Dante, I repeated this to myself like a mantra — I was not alone in my fear.

Eventually — very eventually — I began to crawl out of the thick cocoon I had grown around myself. I have loved Dante since he was a germinal collection of sixty-four cells, but I finally began to enjoy him. I began to smile. I began to wash my hair, and eat healthy foods, and take walks. Aided by medication and some sturdy personal resolve to kick my fear squarely in the grapes, I began to live again.

Dante and I live a happy, healthy life full of spontaneous dancing and bath time games and sharp new teeth. We are entwined in a love-locked spell that will never surrender to anything. We chart our adventures as we see fit, and I am getting to explore the world with him, as new and wholesome as he sees it. No longer beleaguered by madness, I have been able to experience the wonder, fear, hope, and pride of my son’s first year right along with him. And we’re doing pretty good this year, too. The stigma of postpartum mental illness is enormous. It is rarely talked about or understood by anyone who hasn’t experienced it first hand. Those of us who have experienced it have had to earn the enjoyment of motherhood, as it did not come easily to us. And if that isn’t a sign of a good, capable mom, then I don’t know what is.