Failure to Launch
When postpartum depression hit me hard, I fought for myself and my son
Part five in our series of essays excerpted from The Good Mother Myth.
At 6:56 AM on August 14, 2008, our son was born. I lightly grazed my finger across his reddened cheek and drew back his oversized knit cap. His hair was thick and black, blacker than any night sky that I had ever wished upon for this exact miracle to happen.
I sunk into the hospital bed. I could feel him whispering soft breaths on the nape of my neck. His body curled perfectly into mine, as if my body was born molded for this moment. Then I waited for my heart to swell with love, just like every mom had told me it would, but I felt nothing. Emptiness washed over me. My soul dropped to the bottoms of my feet.
I knew immediately that something was wrong.
I had just made a terrible mistake.
Over the next few days, my life was chaotic. No person or book can ever prepare you for the torture that is colic. The witching hour, as we dubbed it, started every night at 7 o’clock. He would scream for hours. Those shrill wails, punctuated by the false promise of brief silences when it seemed his little body had no energy left to force out another sound, wore my patience to the bone. Hours ran into days and then weeks as my sleep dwindled to 30-minute pockets here and there.
My nerves were frayed raw, and I found myself lost in rapidly changing waves of anxiety and anger. I was given to violent outbursts: I put holes in our walls, my foot through a wicker chair. I smashed glass and gouged my own skin with deep scratches. I had absolutely no control. I had a solid support system at my disposal, but I didn't reach out for help. I was terrified of what everyone would think of me; perhaps label me crazy and try to take my baby away.
I worked hard to keep my failing sanity a secret by creating a happy façade in our home. I greeted visitors with fake smiles to veil the demons that lurked inside my head. I awkwardly went through the motions of what I thought a "good, loving" mother would do. The visitors hugged me tightly and kissed my son's cheek goodbye. I was sad when they left because I didn't want to be alone with him.
One day, after my guests had left, I carried my son to his nursery. The window was open and warm winds flowed in, laced with the scent of fresh grass clippings. I relaxed into the antique rocking chair with him, relishing the feel of the sun's rays on us.
I stared into his dark eyes as we rocked, praying that I would feel love for him as effortlessly as my friends and family did. The weight of his body felt as heavy as the overwhelming emotions that suffocated me daily.
He began to squawk like he always did around that time, and the high-pitched noise curdled my blood. I had already fed him, changed him, and pretended to love him. "What else do you need?!" I shouted over his screams.
I started rocking faster and faster. I fantasized about what it would be like to place this screaming bundle on the floor and run out of there. I'd tear through the grass in my bare feet and climb my neighbor's fence. I didn't know where I would go, but I clung to the simple thought of leaving him and my newly defined role as a terrible mother far behind.
I felt suddenly sure that if I didn't distance myself from him, right then and there, I would lose it. With great care, I placed him back in his crib as he continued to bawl and walked into the bathroom, locking the door behind me. I slid down the wall and leaned my elbows deep into my thighs. I took my index fingers and dug them into both ears to drown out the noise. Then I closed my eyes and wished that he would disappear.
Each day my symptoms worsened. Thoughts ran faster than I could process. It felt like 500 television channels were all on at once and I couldn't turn them off. Decision-making became impossible. I remember standing in front of my closet for hours panicking about what outfit I should wear for the day. The anxiety became so bad that I was terrified to leave my own home. I isolated myself.
To gain some control, I started cleaning the house at ungodly hours and obsessed over unnecessary lists about feeding, changing, and sleeping times. Things had to be done correctly all the time. My son's washcloths had to be folded four times and placed on color-coordinated stacks. I would do it over and over again until it was perfect, and even then it wasn't good enough.
When my husband insisted that I wasn't well, I lashed back at him, saying that I was perfectly fine and didn't have postpartum depression. I did not fall in the very minimal "cookie cutter" list of symptoms in the hospital pamphlet.
When I was five weeks postpartum, my husband and I went to a friend's wedding. Eager first-time grandparents offered to babysit our son and even told us to take the night off. I welcomed the break without hesitation. I watched as my dad carefully picked my son up from the car seat. He cradled him close to his heart and said, "You're going to miss him, aren't you?"
My chest tightened. Anger boiled inside my stomach. I wanted to scream. I hated that my son cried. I hated that I couldn't sleep even when I had help. I hated that I was terrified of leaving my house. I hated that my mind wouldn't shut off. I hated that I couldn't handle the demands of motherhood. In fact, I hated being a mother, period.
I hated that I didn't love my son like everyone else did.
I woke up the next morning to my husband's soft whisper, "We have to go." I peered at the clock and started to cry. I didn't want to go get him.
Pulling into my parents' driveway, I reached for my husband's arm. I took in a breath and looked at him through tears and asked:
"Do you love him?"
"Of course I do," he replied without hesitation. "Don't you?"
I didn't answer.
My parents met us at the doorway, showering him with all the love they had. I wanted that.
I knew I was going to have to fight for it.
The following week, at my six-week checkup, I sat on the high stretcher wearing only a thin plastic sheet and told the doctor, "There is something wrong with me."
My ob-gyn lifted his face from my chart. I explained to him the overwhelming anger and anxiety that had stolen my smile, my laughter, and my strength. That it came in crushing oppressive waves that pulled me down deeper into murky waters every single day. I felt as if I was watching my world from beneath these waters. So far removed that no matter how hard I tried to swim, I couldn't break the surface. Some days it was just easier to not swim at all.
"I'm a terrible mom," I shakily said, "I don't even love him."
He took a deep breath and said, "Kimberly, you're not a bad mom, and you're not crazy. You have postpartum depression."
My fight to bridge the gulf back to myself – and to my son – started that very day.
Recovering from postpartum depression and anxiety was not easy. I was blessed to receive quick and compassionate care from my doctors and from my support system of friends and family who surrounded me with love.
On the road to recovery, there were setbacks, but as I continued the fight, they grew fewer and farther apart. That is the key to this battle. To keep fighting.
Tonight, four years after winning that epic battle, I find myself standing in my son's doorway after he's fallen asleep. I watch as his chest deeply and rhythmically rises and falls with every breath. His pudgy toes peek from under the covers. I feel such peace watching him sleep.
I always do.
I can't recall the exact moment I fell in love with him or how I fell in love with him, but it took time. Now, I can't even imagine a love greater than the love I have for my son.
Postpartum depression is as real as cancer, diabetes, and heart disease. It can be treated. All you need to do is reach out your hand and someone will grab it and never let it go.
“Failure to Launch,” by Kimberly Morand, is excerpted from The Good Mother Myth: Redefining Motherhood to Fit Reality, edited by Avital Norman Nathman. With permission from Seal Press, a member of the Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2014.
Read other essays excerpted from The Good Mother Myth.