Having struggled with depression and anxiety my whole life, I remember thinking "I'll know what to do if I get postpartum" when I got pregnant with my son. I was wrong. I would say it hit me like a ton of bricks, except it was more like the lack of a hit that gutted me. I was so ready for that "fall in love at first sight" feeling or that rush of oxytocin when he was born. Instead, he was finally here in the world and I felt …empty. This little creature that I knew I loved so deeply and yet felt nothing for. The first time I cried after he was born was looking out the window as we were getting ready to leave the hospital. The world looked just so scary and he was just so vulnerable. How could I possibly protect him out there?
We brought him home, my heart pounding the whole way. The next few weeks were a blur. We started to get to know this little creature we'd brought into the world (as much as you can with a worm, I guess), but I still felt nothing. I remember turning to my husband and saying, "I still like you and Alfie (our dog) more. Is that weird?" He assured me it was probably normal, but the thoughts of "you're a terrible mother" still filled my head.
For me, new motherhood was very quiet. Too quiet. The quiet meant my head would fill up with intrusive thoughts about "what if I just dropped him right now?" or "what if I just put him outside on the step and closed the door?" or "what if I just pushed his stroller into the harbor?" I've learned enough about intrusive thoughts now to know that this is very normal for new mothers, but f*ck was that scary. When the quiet would be filled by my son's crying, my body and mind would start to panic and switch into "flight" mode. All I could do was put him down as quickly and as safely as possible and get. out. of. there. I would flee to another room to brace myself for the panic attack. The mom guilt would fill my heart as he cried and I cried, both alone, with walls in between us.
When my doctor called me around two weeks to check in on me, I told her about how I was feeling. Sad. Empty. Scared. (I left out the part about the rage and the intrusive thoughts because I was terrified she would have my son taken away from me.) She told me, "Just try to enjoy the moment because this time is precious and he is only so little for so long." I mumbled "yeah,you're right, thanks," and got off the phone as quickly as I could. Her words confirmed all the thoughts in my head: I was wasting precious time with him; I just needed to "stop" being sad; and most painfully, my emotions were getting in the way of me being a good mother to my son. I sobbed and held myself back from punching the wall.
The crying didn't worry me as much as the rage. Having struggled with depression before, I knew the crying pretty well. I knew to let it out. I knew to take care of myself. But I had never experienced anything like the rage before. Rage that would make me fly off the handle at my husband for leaving a sink of dishes. Rage that would consume my whole being if I felt crumbs on the floor beneath my feet. Rage that made my vision go red if my son woke up from a nap after only ten minutes. Thankfully, it was the rage that made me finally reach out to a postpartum therapist. I found her number on Psychology Today and called her in a panic after fleeing from my crying son one night. I don't ever want to hear the voicemail I left for her, but I'm pretty sure it was desperate, to say the least.
Since finally starting therapy four months postpartum, I'm now ten months out and I'm doing better. Not great, but better. I no longer see red when my son cries uncontrollably*. I can take him for a walk along the water and acknowledge the intrusive thoughts and let them go**. I'm still working on the bonding thing, but I know now that will come with time, and it gets a little easier every day. Since coming to terms with this whole postpartum thing (for me, specifically depression, anxiety, and OCD), I've tried to learn as much as I can and expose myself to stories from moms who are brave enough to tear back the baby blanket on their motherhood experience. I've learned that my experience is scary, but common. I'm not alone. I'm not a bad mother. I just needed support and education and attention and love. Kind of like my son. Because when he was born, I was born, too. And just like the world was a scary, new place for him, it was for me, too. And now I know, if we both get the love and attention and support and guidance that we need, he'll be OK, and I will, too.
Strategies That Helped ME:
If you are struggling, PLEASE reach out to a mental health professional. These strategies worked for me, but will certainly not work for everyone.
*My therapist recommended I record my son crying and listen to it when he is not around. Since his crying had made me feel helpless and guilty and out of control, listening to it in an isolated way like that helped me to realize that his crying is natural and necessary and sometimes there is just nothing I can do about it.
**Intrusive thoughts are no joke. The book "Good Moms Have Scary Thoughts" was a game changer for me in realizing that the thoughts filling my head were common. My therapist suggested to acknowledge the scary thoughts and let them play out in my mind, since often scary thoughts are our brain's weird way of preparing for any scenario. So what if I push my son into the harbor? I will scream as loud as I can so people notice what's happening, jump in immediately, get to his stroller and summon my super-mom strength to push it above the water, release his carseat from the stroller base (in my head, all that safety foam might make the carseat float?), and then swim to the closest pier pole thing and scream for help while keeping us both above water. It sounds crazy, but going through each thought, one by one, like that, actually helped me.