Wednesday, December 9, 2015

It Wasn't Supposed to Happen To Me: Adventures in Antenatal and Postpartum Depression

My struggle with post partum depression began before my son was even born.

            I had planned this pregnancy to a T. We got pregnant right away, and everything fell into place exactly as I had imagined. I was engaged to the most impossibly kind and loving man I had ever met, we rented a house with a big backyard and a room for the baby, I graduated from college with a little baby bump and two bachelor’s degrees, and by the time summer began, I was six months pregnant and ready to focus all of my energy on preparing for our new addition.

            I was so excited and so ready. I had folders and documents on my computer dedicated to the baby shower, the nursery, my birth plan, and my registry. I had lists for everything, from the baby shower to what I was going to bring to the hospital. By the time my third trimester had rolled around, we were all set. We had everything we needed, the nursery was ready to go, and we had done and purchased just about everything on every one of my lists.

            About a month before my due date, things changed. The perfect plan I had laid out years before began to fall apart. While the fear and frustration of not knowing when or how I would go into labor began to get to me, other pieces of my life also started careening out of my control.

            My fiancĂ©, Max, a graduate student, was supposed to have a job as a teaching assistant during my maternity leave. This is a position he had held for the four previous years, which allowed him to make a decent salary while working very few hours. This was the job we had planned on him having so he could be home with the baby and I, particularly in those first three months that I would be on leave. Early on in the summer he found out that he wouldn’t be able to secure this position, so he found another job—one with an hour commute, five full work days, and a much smaller salary. But we would manage.

            We found out later that he would be able to get his teaching assistant position after all. We decided that it would be best financially for us if he worked both jobs at once, particularly since I would not be getting a paycheck while I was on leave. This decision was one I knew we had to make, but it left me worrying about how I would cope with being home with a newborn by myself in the beginning.  I tried not to let myself dwell on that worry and I had myself convinced that it would work out fine.

Around the same time that Max began his new job, it became extremely uncomfortable to sleep. My hips ached no matter which position I was in, I felt dizzy when I laid on my back, and the weight from my belly made my muscles feel like they were shredding apart when I switched from one side to the other. I had to use the headboard of our bed to help myself turn, and I whimpered pathetically every time I had to do it. I woke up in the middle of the night multiple times to pee and sometimes my belly would stick to my thighs and I would have to painfully peel them from each other in half-sleeping agony. The little sleep I did manage to get was turbulent, incomplete, and certainly not the quality I needed to get me through getting up at 3 AM and being on my feet for eight hours a day at work. My doctor, my manager, and I decided that it would be best to scale back my hours.

With fewer hours during those last four weeks, and with Max back at work from morning until 8:30PM in the evening five days a week, I started to lose my mind. Working, even shorter shifts, was extremely painful. My whole body ached, I was exhausted, and it was hard having to leave the sales floor to use the bathroom every half hour. But being at work was the last connection I had to the outside world. When work was over and I went home, I went home to nothing and no one. I stayed working during those final weeks of pregnancy because I had to for my sanity.

Our roommates, who had a one-year-old themselves, were home often, but they were going through a bit of  rough patch during the last weeks of my pregnancy. I was much more comfortable holed up in my room with my dogs than spending time out in the common living space. I wanted to give my roommates the space they needed to work their shit out, and I knew they needed the space for their toddler to explore. So when I came home from work, I hid.

I also hid away in my room because I didn't really have a choice. My body ached. It hurt to stand or do anything. I made new lists meticulously until there wasn’t anything left to make a list for. I completed everything on every list and I overwhelmed myself with worry that I may have missed something. Eventually, there wasn’t anything for me to do even if I had the energy or the stamina to do it.

I also began to really feel what it was like to have graduated. I had dedicated seven years of my life to academia, and now here I was at the beginning of the school year sitting in bed surfing the internet instead of going to class. I couldn’t even start looking for jobs within my field yet because I wouldn’t be able to start one until after the baby was born. Without the mental challenge or stimulation of a class full of like minds, I felt lost and lonely. My skin itched like an addict going through withdrawal. I needed to write a paper. I needed to read a text book. I needed to argue with someone over attachment theory. I needed anything.

During those final weeks of my pregnancy, I caught a glimpse of what life would be like once the baby came—once I didn’t have the chaos of my job or the stress of school to give me purpose. Of course, I knew that taking care of a baby would give me purpose and I knew that it would occupy a lot of my time, but I also feared taking care of a baby with Max away at work so much. That part hadn’t been in my plan two years ago when we planned to start our family or all those months ago when we saw those two pink lines on the pregnancy test. I wasn’t supposed to be alone.

I started to panic. I continued to come home form work, take uncomfortable naps, and then spend time waiting for Max to come home doing whatever I could to stay busy. But when I ran out of things to do, I started feeling more and more alone. The more alone I felt, the less I could bring myself to do. I started out by cleaning our bathroom, doing laundry, making the bed, or whatever else I felt was semi-productive and also within my range of abilities while I was so pregnant and uncomfortable. Once I ran out of productive things to do, I watched whole seasons of shows on Netflix and spent time trying to learn how to use the new camera Max’s parents had given us. When I tired of those things, I mostly just laid in bed, body aching, clicking around the internet, searching desperately for something to make me feel normal again.

I was too afraid to go anywhere alone in case I went into labor, and I was in too much pain to go anywhere anyway. So for the remaining three weeks of my pregnancy, I sat in bed feeling useless, lonely, and terrified of going into labor without Max there. The more time I spent alone, the more panicked I became about childbirth and motherhood and maternity leave.

Surfing Pinterest became a desperate act—like if I could just find the right hobby or the right project, or even the right blogger to tell me that what I was feeling was normal, everything would be okay. I spent hours on Facebook, reaching up and out into cyberspace for any connection that might make me feel like I was still a member of society and my life still had value. I lived in my pajamas because who was going to see me anyway? I didn’t eat much. Leaving my room felt pointless and reminded me that the outside world was still there and that I didn’t know how to be a part of it anymore.

No one tells you that depression before you have your baby is normal (it's called antenatal depression, and it IS normal). 

I could feel myself slipping, but I was also afraid to talk to anyone about it because I felt ridiculous feeling the way I did. I was expecting a baby with the love of my life. We were happy. We had everything we needed. Our families were excited and supportive. Hell, my aunt had even just bought us a new car. If you looked at any of my social media posts, my excitement and happiness gushed from every word and every photo. How could I possibly be depressed? How selfish would that make me?

The birth of my son was like a breath of fresh air.  I had thought that the birth of my son would be like a breath of fresh air.

Something I learned very quickly in the last few weeks leading up to labor was that labor and delivery are 100% unpredictable. That being said, I spent the last few weeks in a mild panic. Any day could be the day and I was terrified. I was terrified of the pain and I was terrified of what it would be like to finally hold my son in my arms and officially become a parent. After weeks of waiting, I ended up having to be induced a week late. The boy was just too comfortable. (Or maybe he was a little bit terrified, too.)

I was very lucky during my delivery. The induction went quickly and smoothly. After just 14 hours of labor and 30 minutes of pushing, with very minimal pain or struggle, Maxwell Tobias Curiel Murphey was born.

It was such a relief for the pregnancy to be over, but I soon began to feel guilty that I didn’t immediately fall in love with my son. He was mine, and I was glad to have him, but all in all, he was just a tiny little stranger with a myriad of demands right out of the gate. You hear stories and you see movies and you have this picture of the first time you’ll meet your child in your head. You expect to be bonded to him immediately, and you’re disappointed when you don’t feel that huge rush of emotions the second you see him. No one tells you it’s normal to feel a sense of detachment from your new baby. No mother wants to admit to that.

Over the next few weeks, Max and I struggled to adapt to all of the changes that came with a new baby. Getting comfortable breastfeeding, figuring out when and how to change diapers, learning what worked to get the kid to stop crying, and creating some semblance of organization amidst the chaos was just the tip of the iceberg. And sleeping wasn’t real anymore. It really doesn’t matter how many times you hear people talk about not getting any sleep with a newborn. You’ll never truly understand it until you’re up from 2AM to 7AM trying desperately to feed, calm, and soothe a newborn baby to sleep. And the longer it takes you to get that baby to sleep, the less sleep you’ll get. The less sleep you get, the more easily frustrated you are. I found myself crying alongside my son multiple times, wondering if he’d ever be full or if we’d ever get to sleep again. Apparently babies are supposed to sleep for 16-17 hours a day (16-17 hours of lies). We were lucky if Little Max slept for 8 hours in  24 hour period.

Perhaps even worse, having to care for a squirmy, demanding, screaming baby is made even more challenging with a recovering body. Little Max tore me up on his way out. I lost a lot of blood and it was difficult to sit or stand for a long time while I healed. This, combined with a severe lack of sleep, gave me sunken eyes and pale skin like a heroin addict.  I had a new respect for single mothers and fathers. Doing anything like this without the support of a significant other is something I can firmly say I could never do. Having Max by my side to help with caring for Little Max was one thing, but having him there for emotional support helped me maintain what was left of my sanity, too.

A week after Little Max was born, Max went back to work. I had foolishly thought I would have hours of free time during my maternity leave, and I had made all of these plans to keep myself busy. But I quickly learned that free time was now a luxury. I spent almost all day in bed, nursing every hour or two, sometimes for hours at a time. Breastfeeding was a struggle, and I was only able to do it sitting down with Little Max lying on a pillow while I held him with one arm. I couldn’t do anything with one arm but click “play” to begin another series on Netlifx.

People will tell you to “sleep when the baby sleeps,” but I can honestly tell you that this advice is almost impossible to take. When he did sleep, I had to frantically do laundry, take care of the dogs, clean what I could, and reorganize my feeding station so that it would be ready when the baby woke back up. I found it hard to remember to eat, and self-care in general went out the window. I was too nervous to shower without Max home, in case the baby woke up while I was in the shower. Because of this, I showered approximately twice a week. There were too many other things to do for showers to get in the way. And I was stuck inside all of the time anyway. No one was going to see my greasy hair or smell the stale breast milk on my skin.

I remember one day, after a particularly good night’s rest, I felt up to leaving the house. I only had two outfits that were easy enough to remove for nursing, and I was starting to feel gross wearing the same clothes every day. I decided to make the ten minute trip to Old Navy with Little Max and look for a new outfit or two. This trip was supposed to make me feel good about myself. It was supposed to make me feel normal again.

The moment we pulled out of the driveway, the baby started crying uncontrollably. When we got to Old Navy, I got in the back seat and tried to console him. I even took him out of the car seat to soothe him. Nothing was working. He wouldn’t stop crying. I decided to go back home. He continued to cry for the trip home, and for an additional hour or two once we got home. He wouldn’t stop crying. Nothing I did for him worked. That’s when I really came to terms with the fact that my life wasn’t mine anymore. I didn’t deserve new clothes. How could I have been so selfish, thinking that I did? I decided that motherhood meant that none of my needs really needed to be met, and that I couldn’t be or do anything that might make me feel good about myself. At least not while Little Max was a baby.

From that day forward, I started to let myself disappear into what I thought motherhood was supposed to be.

When I noticed myself slipping into darkness, I wasn’t prepared. I didn’t think I had time to feel depressed about my new life. Feeling the cold grip of depression was something I had experienced before, but this felt different. It felt wrong to be depressed at a time when you’re supposed to be filled with joy. But how is any new mother expected to avoid it? In an instant, her life is no longer her own. Her body is aching and running on two hours of sleep, she’s un-showered and still in pajamas, and someone is screaming at her constantly and she can’t figure out why. 24 hours a day. Every day.

And the screaming may be the worst part. You want so desperately to be able to help your child. Seeing them struggle and watching them clearly in pain from crying so hard isn’t easy. Sometimes there is no solution to this problem, and you get to feel like a complete failure for a little while. Sometimes you may even resent your little bundle of joy, and that makes you feel even more like a failure.

Feeling the weight of failure motivated me to fight for my sanity. I fought hard. I saw a therapist. I made myself shower every day. I got dressed in clothes other than pajamas and did my hair most days, even if I wasn’t going anywhere. I plucked my eyebrows. I called my mom. I went outside. I took time to hold my baby and enjoy him when I could, because it’s easy to forget that the screaming, pooping tyrant is your child and that you love them. 

Every day is a struggle. It’s hard not to feel like a vending machine sometimes, and it’s hard to feel like I’m still an autonomous citizen of the world. At the end of a day, I'm often overwhelmed and I end up getting angry with Max for leaving me home with the baby every day (even though I know that by working, he is contributing).  I find myself having to stop and remind myself not to take out my frustration on him, because even though it feels a little better to be able to blame someone for how shitty I feel, it really isn't anyone's fault and ultimately we're a family and we're in this together.

The one piece of advice from other moms that I keep getting is that “it will get easier.” I believe them, of course. But words like that are pretty meaningless at 3:30AM when you’re staring into the red, wide-mouthed, squinty-eyed face of an inconsolable infant.

I guess above any advice, the most important thing I try to remember day-to-day is that being a new mom isn’t easy for anyone and it’s okay to feel things. It’s okay to feel scared. It’s okay to feel alone. It’s okay to feel frustrated. It’s okay to feel a little detached. It’s okay to feel like a failure sometimes.

Someday, I’ll re-enter society and feel a little more normal again, but for now I’m allowed to feel whatever I need to feel to get myself through the hard part.

And to get through that hard part, I have to keep fighting. I have to be okay with failing a little bit. I have to understand that sometimes I will be overwhelmed and that it's okay to ask for help. I have to let go of my prior expectations of motherhood. I have to take time to shower and pluck my eyebrows.

Above all, I have to fight hard to keep whatever is left of my old self, while still allowing myself to adapt and change in positive ways.

I refuse to disappear into motherhood. I am more than that.