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The Words That Got Me Through Postpartum Depression

Photograph by Getty Images

At the starting line, I try not to think about the three plus miles ahead. My 6-year-old son starts off strong, pumping his arms and legs like a madman.

"Pace yourself, buddy," my husband warns him. I pant, trying to keep up.

I was wary about signing up for a 5K with my family. I haven't run much this summer, and when I have, it's been more like a wounded lope. But when I heard that a new local organization to support women with postpartum depression would be the fundraiser's recipient, I was in.

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My husband finds a steady pace, pushing our 3-year-old daughter in a stroller, and my son and I run alongside them for the first several minutes. But when Max and I began to linger behind, my husband asks for the go-ahead to run ahead of us. I give him a sweaty thumbs up.

It's not until later in the race that I realize that in the stroller he's pushing, next to our daughter, sits my phone and water bottle.

Max and I jog along, stopping to walk when we get tired. I look around at all the joggers, and then at my kid, thinking of my own bout with postpartum depression. After Max was born, it hit me hard and fast. Flushed with hormones and sleepless, I felt wholly incompetent, still bleeding and waddling from a tough delivery. What have we done? I wondered at night, when my thoughts were at their darkest.

Looking back, that period of time feels like another lifetime. It's encapsulated the same way eras of grief are—when I concentrate on it, I can still feel the dullness and desperation, the fierce winter of postpartum depression. And yet when I look at my almost first-grader jogging next to me, it seems impossible that that was us six years ago—him a tiny, wakeful lump and me, exhausted, despondent and hopeless.

Here we are, doing our first 5K together.

Motherhood, in general, felt overwhelmingly like something I just couldn't do. And yet—here we are.

We continue our stop-start of walking and jogging. At every point in the route when we pass the volunteers who cheer us on, Max starts sprinting, invigorated by the audience. In fact, he sprints right past the water station, so quickly and so far ahead of me that he doesn't hear me when I yell to him to slow down and grab some water. Pumped on adrenaline and encouragement from the volunteers who cheer, "Great job, little guy!" he's oblivious. I shrug it off, figuring there will be another water station later on.

There isn't.

It's right past mile two when Max hits a wall. "I'm so thirsty, Mommy! I can't do this!" The bright energy he held at the beginning of the race has disappeared.

"You can do this," I tell him. I grab his hand, taking in his crumpled face.

"I can't!" he argues, beginning to cry.

His words remind me of my long labor with him. I decide to try and make this a teaching moment.

"You know what, Maxie?" I begin.

"When you were being born, it was really, really hard for both of us. And after a long time of trying to get you born, I was so tired that I started saying, 'I can't do this.'"

Max looks at me, his blue eyes clear and inquisitive. "Yeah?"

"Yeah. And then the midwife told me, 'You're the only one who can do this.' And Daddy told me I could do it, too. And so instead, I tried saying, 'I can do this.' And you know what? I totally could, because look!" I smiled, pointing at him.

"Because I'm here," he said, grinning, his face lifting.

"Exactly. So I could do that, and you can do this, Max," I tell him. He doesn't look entirely convinced, but we keep walking. The walking is excruciatingly slow, and people we jogged past miles ago are zooming by. But we are still walking.

I couldn't see the finish line—maybe because there wasn't really one.

What I don't share with Max is that when I had postpartum depression, I felt the same way—I can't do this.

I didn't think I could do the waking up every few hours or the hormonal hopelessness. I didn't think I could do diapers and carseats and the constant breastfeeding. Motherhood, in general, felt overwhelmingly like something I just couldn't do.

And yet—here we are.

Jogging with Max, and then walking with Max, and then walking super, crazy inchworm slowly with Max, reminds me of that era of depression. I couldn't see the finish line—maybe because there wasn't really one. There wasn't one clear day where things suddenly were okay and I felt confident and happy in motherhood. It was, like the 5K, a series of steps, strung together, over and over, of moments and hours and days of thinking I can't do this.

In a similar way, Max and I keep taking small steps forward. There's the step where he trips on the curb, scraping his knees, and I wonder if we're going to make it to the finish line. There's the handful of steps where I attempt to carry him piggyback, quickly feeling my 41 years. There are a bunch more steps where he says, "I can't do this," and "I'm so thirsty, Mama," and, "please carry me!"

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And then there's the step where we can see the finish line, and people are cheering. We see my husband and daughter waiting for us, and Max and I speed up again, finding one last smudge of momentum, proving that we can, in fact, do this.

Maybe that's what I most needed when I was going through postpartum depression—a clatter of voices and cheers, saying yes, yes you can do this, and you will do this, and you are, in fact, doing this.

Image via Unsplash

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