I ran into an old acquaintance recently at a social function. He proceeded to tell an anecdote about his memories of me. “I remember you from high school. I would see you in the hallways, day after day, and no matter what you were always smiling. And now, years later, I’ve seen you out and about with your kid and still, you are always smiling.”
A small group of people heard this story, and they all nodded in agreement. This is who I am to the world: The girl who is always smiling, always happy, always pleasant, always polite. And it’s not that that picture is wrong or a lie; being this girl comes as naturally to me as breathing. I often don’t know how to show any other parts of me; however, I am going to try to do just that, and the decision to share makes me feel vulnerable and self-conscious, yet exhilarated and free.
I dreamt of being a mother for much of my life. On my wedding day, I was eight weeks pregnant because my husband and I were so excited to try for a family that we didn’t want to wait. That day was truly the happiest of my life, it was a surreal experience to be surrounded by so many loved ones while making a lifelong vow to grow old with the most amazing man I have ever met. The icing on the tiered wedding cake (or cupcakes in our case) was knowing the next member of our family was sharing the day with us—a little flaxseed nestled safely in my tummy. I was convinced this was it: I had finally found the life I had wanted for so long; the perfect equation that would make me okay forever.
My son is born on the morning of November 5, 2014. My sweet newborn baby is all the things I have imagined—tiny, sweet, cuddly, perfect. The intense love I feel for this little human is swirled in with feelings of exhaustion, self-doubt and worry. Even though I am more tired than I was previously aware was possible, I can’t sleep, can’t relax; my body stuck in eternal fight or flight mode. The first time I really lose it is the morning we are due to take our son home from the hospital. My husband is starting to pack our things, coaxing me to get ready, and I start sobbing so hard it feels like I am going to throw up. I don’t know how to put what I am feeling into words, yet my husband lovingly manages to reassure me that things will be okay, that we will figure this out, that he is here and we will get through this. I remember learning in the prenatal education class that it is normal for me to experience mood swings and intense emotions a few days after the birth. I dry my tears and hope things will get better.
The next few weeks are filled with land mines. Everything from the temperature of the bath water to the outfit my son will wear today feels monumental and overwhelming; however, the thought of giving up some of this responsibility, of letting my husband dress him or a friend hold him while he naps, fills me with waves of panic. I need to be close to this little human every second, need to decide his every move. My poor husband can’t change his diaper without me fretting and re-doing it. At one point I ask him to trim our son’s nails because I am too nervous. I cradle my baby boy in my arms while my husband carefully and gingerly clips the white, rounded arches of his nails. Suddenly, our son starts to wail, and I jerk him away as a tiny amount of blood becomes visible on his fingertip (a common occurrence with newborns). My heart is pounding out of my chest and we cry together, my son and I, the weight of motherhood completely suffocating me.
Every time we have visitors, I stuff these feelings down. I do what I have always done and put on a smile. But this time the smile does not feel genuine. I find myself being less and less able to focus on what others are saying because my mind is always elsewhere. I don’t like this me who can’t engage with others, who can’t listen to their stories and connect with them about what they are feeling, so I start socializing less. It does not occur to me to be honest with those around me about what is going on inside. It just does not seem to fit who I am, who people know me to be.
It is when my son is around two months old that I realize this may be something more than “baby blues.” We are in our midwife’s office and I am asking, for the fifth time, if she is sure he is growing okay and that I am producing enough milk. Each time I ask I phrase my question in a slightly different way, thinking perhaps the rearrangement of my words will trigger some answer I haven’t gotten before. Because, even though I have taken him to multiple weigh-ins this week, even though I can hear him gulping milk at every feeding, even though I have been to visit the lactation consultant and the public health nurse, who have both told me there is no cause for concern, I can’t believe it. There is something wrong; I just know it.
On the sixth ask, my midwife surprises me. “Lauren,” she says gently, “I am going to give you the number for our local postpartum adjustment program. I think it would be a good idea for you to get some support.” As I stiffly open my hand to accept the business card, there is an immediate stinging frustration of not being believed, of feeling brushed off somehow. But on the car ride home, this gives way to relief that someone has recognized something in me that is not “normal,” and given me a clear next step to pursue.
The postpartum screening questionnaire is telling. I answer “Yes, most of the time” to questions like “I have been anxious or worried for no good reason,” “I have felt scared or panicky for no good reason,” “I have felt sad or miserable,” and “I have been so unhappy that I have been crying.” The surprising thing to me about this quiz was that these feelings are not foreign. I have run from anxiety and depression for most of my life. But whenever the panic crept close enough that I felt in danger of it swallowing me up, I would start something new: a new relationship, apartment, city, diet, career path, project. Surely this new thing in my life would fix me, surely it would help me find happiness and contentment. But it wasn’t until I had my son that I had to stop running. It was the first time that leaving my “old life” to start something new was not an option.
And so I started a program to help women with postpartum depression and anxiety. I went to group once a week where I spoke with moms whose stories were like mine, whose journeys I deeply empathized with, and whose presence met my craving for genuine connection and acceptance. I went to individual therapy once a week where I told a counsellor about what was going on in my head, and who met my need to feel heard and validated.
I went back to old coping mechanisms that had been staples for me in the past; not because they were “good,” but because in the moments it felt like I was slipping away, I needed something to weigh me down (cue overeating) or to distract me (cue over-scheduling myself). It is a rocky time filled with contradictions. I struggle with being away from my son, yet feel the pull to return to work. I love the bond of breastfeeding but am completely touched out. I grapple with the idea of taking medication. Oftentimes it feels impossible to care for the needs of my son while caring for my own needs, too.
During this time, life is a steep and rocky mountain to traverse and I am gritting my teeth and clawing my way upward, all while wearing a weighted jacket and steel-toed boots. I come to a standstill at least a couple times a week, when I get completely stuck trying to pick an outfit, or a meal, or decide on an outing. In these moments it’s like I am a broken record, playing the same note over and over, unable to figure out what comes next. My husband is nothing short of a hero as he navigates me through. I see the physical and emotional toll this is taking on him, he works nights and I keep him awake, “Just a little longer, just a couple more minutes…,” because being alone with my baby boy while the day stretches out endlessly is terrifying. I am aware of how much attention I require, how much constant reassurance I am seeking, and how much of this is falling on my husband.
Gradually, the days I feel more-or-less together start to outnumber the days I feel undone. It is around this time that my husband takes on childcare full-time while I accept a demanding job that keeps my mind occupied for a large portion of my waking hours. Now my anxieties tend to be entwined with worries about my career instead of my son, which feels more manageable, less threatening. As time marches on I start craving more time with my little boy, feeling pure joy when I am with him, allowing myself to melt into the moment and enjoy his company.
I have not yet reached a point where I feel “cured.” I still experience many of the anxieties I did when my son was a baby, just as I experienced them before motherhood. They are with less intensity and frequency as when I was in the storm of PPD, but they are still there. These days, when you see me out and about, I am still, usually, always smiling. The non-smiling parts of me are in there too, and I am slowly learning how to share those parts when I feel ready and when the moment is right. But for now, for most of the time and with most people, smiling is still what comes naturally and feels authentic.
A new perspective I have gained is an acceptance of “what is” and the realization that there is no such thing as being “okay forever,” I know now that if I cling to this imagined projection of a perfect life, my stress levels rise and I miss the beauty of what is my messy and gloriously imperfect life, right here, right now. I remember this as I walk hand-in-hand with my son to his first day of school. My husband is there with us, too, and we have made it to this milestone—we three, together, as a family. I watch my child smile as he breaths in the crisp morning air, his comically large knapsack on his tiny back, feeling his fingers entwined with mine. I am enjoying this time, enjoying my boys.
I am okay, for now. And that is enough.