Last week, "Nashville" star Hayden Panettiere opened up about her struggles with postpartum depression—and subsequently entered a treatment center to deal with it—a condition that affects 1 in 10 moms, but is often misdiagnosed by doctors and women alike. Her comments were short, sweet and so completely necessary, and really brought to light that our common understanding of PPD is far from accurate.
Through my own struggles with postpartum depression, I learned that that stupid little checklist given to moms at Well Baby visits can't even begin to capture the complex emotions that arise when women, who have just undergone the most trying ordeal in the world, are sent home with a demanding stranger who will interrupt their sleep, test the strength of their marriage and a body pumped with adrenaline that will ache, leak and betray them whenever possible for at least few weeks.
Now, given how much we bellyache about unwanted company when our in-laws come to visit for the weekend, or how sore we were after that grueling boot camp class (which only lasted 1 hour, 1/20th of the average length of labor!), and how we get to take a day off after a simple dental procedure, how on earth would we expect new moms to be exclusively happy during those first few weeks?
It's easy enough for me to make light of the situation now, but the truth is, just two weeks ago I had an encounter with a young couple that reminded me of just how awful those first few months were, and how hard it was to find anyone who would take me seriously in my time of need.
I could tell the two parents used to be attractive go-getters, but when we crossed paths, they were frazzled, tired and worn. Mom was leaking and Dad was stroking her back in that gentle, reaffirming manner of a husband who no longer knows what he can do to make it better.
They reminded me of those first few months postpartum, which, while filled with moments of joy and love, were also the most miserable time of my life. I went from being a strong, confident and composed hard-ass (both literally and physically) with a heart of gold, to a whimpering shell of a woman. I was exhausted beyond belief, paranoid, worn-down, resentful, lost, confused and riddled with guilt.
Yet it didn't start that way. The first weeks after having the baby were great. I was pumped up on adrenaline and happiness hormones, and had lots of doting attention from friends and visitors, which made the 37 hours I was awake every day tolerable, even fun. I worked on projects, sang songs, made DIY crafts and even built a platform for a mommy blog. I was an unstoppable supermom, and never felt more empowered in my life.
And then it hit me: the fatigue. The lack of personal space and time. The realization that my life would never be mine again.
And then it hit me: the fatigue. The lack of personal space and time. The realization that my life would never be mine again. The hard truth that I only had enough time or energy to brush my teeth OR shower, never both. The fear that my child would die or my marriage fall apart. The flabby fact that my 45 pounds of pregnancy weight were not going anywhere, despite the hours I was spending nursing and pumping every single day. The invasive thoughts that I was no longer a lovable person and that I would never make a great mother.
And of course: the guilt.
The guilt, which science has shown is neurologically linked to depression, came in a number of flavors, everything from feeling like I was failing as a mom for my low milk supply, to the shame implied by moms who weren't able to have a natural birth and scolded me for hating mine, and the deep pit that sat in my stomach every time I thought about my husband whose wife had been transformed into a sleepless mess.
Determined to pull myself out of it by the time I went back to work, I started seeing a psychologist, causing more guilt as I left my child with his dad to take an hour for myself, and a whole new layer of anxiety as the counselor informed me that my feeling of unbondedness might just mean that I'll be the kind of mom who's not maternal, but a great role model for how an adult should act nonetheless.
Despite three months of maternity leave, I was nowhere ready to go back to work full-time, and after a series of quick-fire meltdowns in my boss's office I decided to go part-time for a while and to continue working on my recovery through regular visits with a new therapist, and most importantly, the amazing network of moms at my job.
When I took over, I simply said: "I remember how hard this was. It'll pass. I promise." The mom burst into tears, and surprisingly, so did I, not stopping for the next three days.
While I received a snub or two, I also found a warm group of women who simply let me ask them what it felt like to have a "normal" birth. Why did they enjoy it? They often told me that it wasn't great, they just didn't remember it as being bad. I listened to many different stories of moms old and new, and eventually, I was able to piece together a story that started making sense to me, one that was forgiving, and in which I could hate pretty much everything about being a new mom, and still love my son and my role as his mother.
Somewhere around 8–10 months postpartum I finally went from feeling like I was doing OK, to feeling like the person I used to be. Getting up in the mornings was no longer a struggle, nor was leaving my son with my wonderful mother-in-law to go take care of my own needs or those of the office. I felt like I was back online and my boss agreed. I went from being the person who shows up just to do their job, to the firecracker who goes in with the single- minded mission to make everything better.
And eventually—as everyone always promised—it all passed and I forgot about it, and went on being a happy mother to a gorgeous little boy.
Until that couple walked into my life.
I was immediately flooded with intense emotion, and sprung into action cooking extra food for them to take home. When I took over, I simply said: "I remember how hard this was. It'll pass. I promise." The mom burst into tears, and surprisingly, so did I, not stopping for the next three days.
When I served that food, I wanted to nourish this young family and give them permission to admit that it's OK to feel awful. We are not our feelings, but sometimes that's hard to remember. The fact that I hadn't done if for myself caused me to hide my feelings and take on the burden and the guilt myself, which eventually caused me to crack.
By saying those words out loud I finally acknowledged, out loud, that being a new mom had in many ways sucked, and I was able to forgive myself and let go the last of that guilt.
So looking back, would I still say that being a new mom sucked? Truth be told, I no longer feel it in my bones, the way I did back then, and the memories almost feel like something out of a movie. But I know that that version of me suffered in silence, and I encourage anyone who feels that way to reach out, talk about it, and admit that sometimes, #motherhoodsucks!
And it's about remembering that it too will pass. And it will.