The conversations started well before I became pregnant with my son. They came up when people asked me how I felt about pregnancy and about the 4th trimester and about the first year. They came up when one of my friends announced she was pregnant and again when her beautiful baby was born. I was reminded of them when I passed any pregnant woman on the street.
I’ve been having them for years. 4 years, to be exact.
It took me a long time to understand the heart of those conversations. Over time, the shared dialogue about the hard truths of the newborn phase, the darkness felt in that first year, and the loss of self became less about pain and more about understanding and the need for self care.
I was retroactively diagnosed with postpartum depression following my daughter’s birth. I don’t know exactly when my charts were updated, perhaps it was after talking with my OB this time around about the fears I had going into another newborn phase. Perhaps it was after my last pregnancy which ended in miscarriage. I can’t be sure. But I do know that when the nurse in the recovery room read aloud that I had experienced PPD with the last birth and offered to take our sweet baby boy to the nursery for a few hours to love on him so we could get some sleep before going home as a family of 4, I felt seen.
During my daughter’s time as a newborn, the language for postpartum depression focused on sadness and tears. I didn’t have those symptoms. What I had were feelings of anxiety. Obsessive behavior surrounding breast feeding. I felt on the inside the way you feel when you look at a wide-eyed, feral animal in a cage. I felt irreversibly changed. Damaged. Trapped.
I always committed to answer honestly when asked by medical professionals about PPD symptoms but no one seemed to ask just the right question to force me into what felt like a confession. I was unable to offer what I viewed as weakness and therefore consistently flew under the PPD radar.
Fast forward to my second time around:
Postpartum anxiety is now part of the professional conversation. My friends are here with me in this phase of motherhood; they’ve been through it and they’re checking in with me. And I’m open. They’re direct because I’ve told them to be. I’ve tipped them off to my darkest thoughts during my first go as a new mom and I’ve given them signs to watch for in case I don’t recognize those signs in myself. In case I’m unwilling to listen.
The biggest change this time around isn’t in others. It’s in me. I had people who checked in during the first year with Emma and people who pleaded with me to supplement even one night to get some much needed sleep if I refused to ask for help. (Word to the wise: Obsessively setting an alarm every two hours at night in order to alternate pumping and nursing for weeks while your child consistently shows hunger cues and you’re left with mere drops after pumping until you finally wake up one morning with literally nothing to give your child for her next meal is *drum roll, please* INSANITY. Now we both know).
I couldn’t hear anyone the first time around. I couldn’t see it for myself.
I’m a recovering perfectionist, learning to see failure as a step in an ongoing process rather than a condemnation of character. Learning to see it as an opportunity for growth. Learning to see it as a mere fork in the road where one path is now closed for the time being and the other path is just as good albeit different.
Which brings me to back to nursing.
I said I’d try.
I had a traumatic relationship with nursing the first time around but from the outsider perspective, 8 months is respectable enough. You couldn’t see the obsession. The arbitrary measurement of success I had placed upon it. So when I had my first bad latch with baby Freddy and he threw up my very own blood, I felt that anxiety rise but I said I would continue with use of a nursing shield. And the anxiety subsided.
And then my beautiful but sleepy boy began to drop weight so I was scheduled to see a lactation consultant and, to her credit, she did not once shame me for wanting to continue using the shield (a likely cause of weight issues, I came to learn) but instead gave me tips to continue use which involved nursing, then pumping, then immediately feeding what I had pumped. And the newly climbing anxiety began to subside.
Then I actually tried to put into practice what felt so reasonable in her office and it took me 1.5 hours to complete the whole cycle. At which point, I had 30 minutes until I began the cycle again. And so the anxiety began to rise.
When Fred called me on his drive between work engagements to check in, I picked up the phone and immediately began to sob. I felt panicked. Caged. So my husband came home, he took the kids, and he shooed me out of the house to go for a drive. Go to a library, a bookstore, get a coffee. Whatever. And I did. And the anxiety began to subside.
What I’m realizing about self care is that it’s more than simply saying “I will stop before I get to that deep, dark place.”
I didn’t immediately see that I was taking that approach to nursing. “I will try this thing and this other thing to ensure that I can continue nursing even though it is stretching me toward a place I do not want to go. I can still get control of this.”
I don’t believe that I have postpartum depression this time around but I also don’t believe that I need to in order to make self care decisions that may look selfish from the outsider perspective. I am coming to see that self care means allowing yourself more than preventing disaster. It means allowing yourself to thrive.
For me, self care means giving a formula bottle when my supply is fine, knowing that I’m telling my body to produce less. It means nursing only at night, pumping sometimes, and increasing formula. It’s not ideal but it isn’t bad either. It’s giving me room to breathe. It’s taking away some of that anxiety. It’s giving me back control and allowing me to feel whole. And that, my friends, is good.