At the lowest point of my postpartum depression, when my daughter was 1 year old, no one but my husband understood how desperate I felt. To my friends and family, I was a composed stay-at-home mom with a smart pixie haircut and strong arms – a mom who made organic, vegetarian meals every night. I nursed Evelyn nearly every hour, and the proof was in her chunky, glowing physique. I toted her in a front carrier until my back gave out. I took her on adventures to the library, the nature center, and other mystical lands like Target and the mall.
My traditional family members piled on the praise. "She's so healthy because you stay at home with her. It's so wonderful that you're putting her first and not leaving your baby with strangers." My grandma, in particular, thought women who pursued careers were selfish for abandoning their childrearing duties in pursuit of some elusive prestige. (Of course, she didn't hold men accountable for the same transgression.)
I had been working to become a professional writer for as long as I could remember, but there was now a divide between my professional and personal goals. My mother had been a career homemaker, and my early closeness with her provided me with a warmth and security I wanted to give my own child. And because it was all I knew, I couldn't let go of the idea that staying at home was the only way to be a mother.
Staying at home didn't work for me
The only problem was, it wasn't working. The pressure I put on myself to be a completely devoted mother was hurting my daughter's ability to bond with my husband or anyone else, for that matter. She screamed if I wasn't holding her. I was frail from it.
I spent my downtime staring at the TV instead of sewing, making art, or reading. Conversations felt heavy and forced. I heard my own voice in slow motion, and none of my words were interesting. Because I had been diagnosed with depression at age 19, I knew that I was now experiencing postpartum depression.
While my friends and family were out doing amazing things, I was changing diapers, keeping myself company with Lifetime TV, and going to bed both exhausted and wired every night. I started resenting my daughter because I felt she was the reason I wasn't a working writer anymore and was chained to a mundane life of household chores and the dead-end job of family martyr instead.
Then one day I tried on a new dress – the first piece of non-maternity clothing I had picked out in nearly two years. I faced the mirror and for one second didn't see myself as a mother, but as a young woman in modern clothing, confident and beautiful. I realized that my depression and the rut I had fallen into were not my daughter's fault. I was the one who lost myself. All my daughter did was arrive, ready to love and be loved. I had made the choice to forsake my career. And a little voice whispered to me, "What kind of mother are you if you can't model taking care of yourself and doing what's best for you? And if you keep doing this, how will your daughter learn to tune out society's skewed notion of womanhood and chase her own dreams?"
Choosing the wrong job
I decided to get a job as a hostess at a local restaurant. I figured this was all I could do, realistically, to make immediate money. Writing, my true passion and career, could fit in between the demands of parenting and a "real" job.
When my first eight-hour work day arrived, I brought Evie to daycare, toting her bag full of diapers and bottles of my pumped milk. Confusion was written all over Evelyn's face when I handed her to someone she'd never met before, and I could still hear her crying as I closed the door and walked away.
Work was not what I expected. The money wasn't good, and the tight-knit employees were resistant to including a new person. It was also a 40-minute drive to pick up my daughter, and she wasn't doing well either. Evelyn would cry herself to exhaustion at night, pass out in a crib, and wake up crying. She refused my milk at daycare, so I stopped bringing it.
One day at the restaurant, I put my hands over my face at the host stand and said to myself, "What. The hell. Am I doing?" My sweet baby is screaming her head off in a room of strangers while I'm on the other side of town, making barely enough money to cover the cost of daycare and feeling completely alone.
Finding my voice
Soon after, I was offered a contributing writer position at Mommyish.com, and I realized it was a chance to quit my serving job and aggressively pursue my dream. So I did.
Evelyn made her own progress. Over the next two months, she formed a bond with one of the daycare teachers and began to feel comfortable with two others. Then she had a day where she didn't cry at all. And one workday, I stopped writing for a moment and realized I was feeling happy and productive. "I'm doing this," I thought. "This is who I am." And just like it did with Evelyn, it happened to me: I had a day where I didn't cry at all. I had finally returned to myself.
Now when I see new mothers, I want to preach my newfound wisdom. Because women are bombarded – by family members, peers, coworkers, movies, and books – with the command to put your child first.
Here's my mantra: Don't listen. Of course your child has needs that only adults can meet, but when you're talking about the panoramic view of your life, you have to come first. Your peace has to come first. Whether your peace is ballroom dancing, or trout fishing, or math tutoring, or working your way up the ladder of a Fortune 500 company, or staying home, do it. Everything else will fall into place. I was missing a sense of influence outside of the home and the unique pride that comes from earning income by creating beautiful things. Not all women need this to feel fulfilled, but I'm not all women – I'm me. Take what's inspiring and go find you.
If you think you may have postpartum depression, answer these simple screening questions.