My sister is terrified of having another baby. She has three kids, her new husband has three kids. Their youngest is four now. Being a stepmom is hard; being a wife is easy. None of that’s the problem, anyway, the problem is newborns. That’s not the problem. Newborns are delicious. Even better, they grow into babies in a couple months, and then they are the sweetest thing ever on earth. Ever.
But the experience of having a newborn — or a baby who sleeps in two-hour chunks (or less) is not sweet. It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done. Not as hard as some terrible things I can’t even mention because then it would sound like I’m trivializing them, but let’s just say: living with and caring for a new baby is hard, hard, hard.
And it’s not made easier by the fact that they are the sweetest thing on earth ever. I mean, it is, of course it is, because you can sit and stare at their chins and smell their milk-sweet breath (which always strikes me as borderline-narcissistic how much I love the smell of my babies’ breastmilk-breath), and when they start to smile it’s a hit of the strongest narcotic each time they do it.
So then you feel guilty, or cheated, or ungrateful. How can you not be full of happiness and sunshine every second when you have this most wonderful being ever created here in your arms to love? This baby you wanted, you prayed for, you chose to conjure into your life.
At my six-week visit after Molly, I took a screening questionnaire for postpartum depression. I’d never been offered or sought one out before. With Avery, I went back to work part-time when she was a month old, leaving her with Tom, no guilt, no regret. With Callie, it was hard. We had just moved back to the States from Egypt, we didn’t know many people, we lived in a small two-bedroom apartment. But none of that was the problem. In fact all of that was fine, great. The problem was that she didn’t like to sleep on her back. At all. She would sleep on my chest, which might have been okay, except I could not sleep that way. By the time Lucy came two years later, we were settled, she slept fine, my mom came out when she was three weeks old and helped us make it through the end of the broken-sleep phase into the getting-enough-sleep-to-survive phase.
I often wondered, especially after Callie, and after the baby shower my new friends held for me after her birth because she was a few weeks early — where I couldn’t feel the normal baby shower happy-anticipation but instead felt bitter and cautionary-tale-like instead — I wondered if what I felt was normal, or if I needed some help, or if I should just be patient, and always just when I was about to ask for help, the baby started sleeping better and things slowly turned around. This entire last pregnancy, birth and fourth-trimester I have been more aware of my options and determined to figure things out, and I was glad that the midwives who were such good birth attendants were eager to address this part of it too.
Here’s the questionnaire in case you want to take it before I talk about it:
Mark each as 1 (Strongly Disagree), 2 (Disagree), 3 (Neither Agree nor Disagree), 4 (Agree), or 5 (Strongly Agree) during the past two weeks.
1. I had trouble sleeping even when my baby was sleeping.
2. I got anxious over even the littlest things that concerned my baby.
3. I felt my emotions were on a roller coaster.
4. I felt like I was losing my mind.
5. I was afraid I would never be my normal self again.
6. I felt like I was not the mother I wanted to be.
7. I have thought that death seemed like the only way out of this living nightmare.
I answered it honestly, except for the last question. Really, death is the only way out — ask Penelope Trunk, but that’s not even depression, that’s logic. (unless you’re Elizabeth Gilbert.)
My midwife came in and said, the nurse wants you to take the longer postpartum depression questionnaire, you’re borderline, but I wanted to ask you how you feel about it. I said I thought I was just doing normally, as well as could be expected, that I had better days and worse days, and that, most important, I knew it would get better, it always does. The baby grows up, sleeps longer, seasons change, la la la. She said, that’s what I thought, I thought you were okay, but if you want to take it, you can. I said, not for now.
Here’s what I answered (I always want to know the specifics):
1 -4, 2-2, 3-4, 4-4, 5-4, 6-5, 7-2
That was a score of 25 (where 7 would be the “healthiest” and 35 would be the most troubled). If I’d answered number seven as I wanted to, it would’ve been a 27-28. But even in that six week postpartum fog, I wasn’t totally sure that life was a “living nightmare.”
So I went home and did things I knew would help. I walked regularly with my friend, I tried to sleep when the baby slept (and was usually in bed by 10 for the night), I let myself drink Mountain Dew again because even though caffeine is not a long-term solution it cheers me up, I wrote about keeping a can of formula in the cupboard as a backup plan (it didn’t surprise me that we never used it after I wrote about it — having it was enough to make me feel not squeezed by the responsibility of being the sole provider). I let myself breakdown in front of my husband and kids, scaring the kids and making Tom think I was crazy, which served the purpose of convincing him I needed help around the house at least.
I got library books and a new iPod Touch so I could read and be online easily while holding and nursing the baby, I had my comfortable nursing chair positioned just so in front of my sunny window. I ate well, drank a lot of water, took my vitamins.
And still I felt something off. I don’t get the nothing or really sad; I get the deep seething rage. My mom told me she remembers the deep seething rage, which is hard to imagine, because she is very calm and affectionate. I do remember her yelling rarely, but I also remember that I deserved it when she did. I get anxiety and anger, and then guilt and self-loathing.
Several Fridays ago I was ready to quit by the time Tom got home from work, just quit it all. Tom suggested (without believing I’d really take him up on it, I think) that I take the baby and spend the weekend at my parents. They live an hour away. My dad said it was a great idea and of course they’d love to have me, when I called Saturday morning. Which was good, because I was already on my way.
I stopped at the mall on the way, saw a movie, nursed Molly on the comfortable mall couches, people-watched, and by dinner time I was ready to go home and face the four other people who like me to cook for them at regular intervals.
The next weekend I took Molly to the movies again. Anyone who thinks it’s sad to go to the movies by yourself has never been a mom.
When Molly was four months old I was back at the midwives for something else and I asked to take the depression questionnaire again. I think I’m doing better, I told them, I just want to make sure, and see for myself.
This time I scored 20, and I was surprised by the wording on some of the questions. I hadn’t looked at it since the six-week checkup, and in my mind, even though I knew I felt better overall, I expected to answer more similarly, because it was still me taking the quiz. I expected my honest answers to specific questions to be more “true” and less variable.
Had I ever really thought I was losing my mind or would never be my self again? And when I said I wasn’t the mother I wanted to be — I meant towards all my kids, not towards the baby, who I’ve been a terrific mother to (so far). I don’t swear at her, after all.
So I know several things. One, having a newborn in the house is the hardest thing I’ve ever done. Two, it changes how I see myself and reality, it puts me in a place where I can’t think objectively or rationally, even when I think I’m stepping back and being philosophical and agreeing that things are getting better and are normal “enough,” I am actually not capable of seeing things clearly through that fog. Three, I’m going to back-down on the guilt and self-loathing over the yelling and swearing. Yes, I should stop, and yes, I will keep working on it, but it’s not all me doing that talking — some of it is the baby mean reds talking. And four, I don’t, at this time, need medication or therapy (of course I would benefit from therapy, everyone could, and if I do need medication in future, believe me I will get it).
Because I am getting better, the baby is growing up, she’s sleeping more, and in approximately three weeks the seasons are going to have to pay attention because I am planting my sugar snap peas on St. Patrick’s Day and I expect the weather to cooperate.