labor and delivery
I had a labor that lasted 100 hours. I had contractions every 3-5 minutes during that time and didn't sleep for 4 days. I was not dilating. I was sent home from the hospital 4 times. By day 2, I begged for a c-section. They gave me morphine instead and said I would sleep for 8 hours. I did not sleep. By day 3, I reached 5 cm dilated (after I had acupuncture) and was admitted to the hospital. By day 4, I started to swell. I went from 8cm, to 7cm, to 6cm. They said I needed surgery after all. At 12pm, I had a c-section. I was in and out of consciousness from the anesthesia. My arms were strapped down and were nearly completely numb. My husband brought my daughter to my cheek so we could do "skin to skin". We called it "cheek to cheek". It makes me sad to think about that.
the first few months
She woke up every 2-3 hours. I was exclusively breastfeeding. I felt lonely. Whenever she was awake, I was supposed to be sleeping, getting the rest I so desperately needed. Everyone else was chatting away. I could hear them in the next room. I was only ever with the baby or trying to rest and recover. I couldn't sleep. 3am, was that her? No, just a noise outside. Well, she's going to be awake soon anyway. 4am, I'm still awake. 4:30am, she's hungry. I feel sad and then happy. Lonely and then bored. A couple weeks go by like this. I'm so tired. After about a month, people stop coming by. Husband has long since been back at work. I watch the clock. It's monotonous. I feel distant from her. I want to "bond" so badly but I feel like I don't know how. I don't feel like I love her yet. I feel so guilty for that.
I start to not eat very much. I stay awake. I feel like I'm withering away. I start to get anxious. My anxiety builds. Everyone is looking at me. Everyone knows I'm "having a hard time." What if something happens when I'm all alone with her...everyone will think it's my fault. Everyone will blame me. Am I at fault? A terrible image flashes through my mind of me holding my daughter and I trip or faint and fall down the stairs taking her down with me. At night, in the middle of those terrible nights, I trace my hands along the wall opposite the stairs, hugging the corners for dear life to make sure I don't trip or fall. After all, I'm the only one awake. If something happens, it will be all my fault. They say I'm a mother, but a real mother? No, I am not that. I don't know how to do that and if this is it, I'm not very good at it. It's 3am. I wake up my husband to tell him I'm struggling. He knew, but it was good to say it out loud. He said we'd get through this. I had a better day.
And then, I had the worst day. I just couldn't do another minute. I was crying. She was crying. My sister worked from home and lived close to me. I texted her to see if she could come over. It was 1 o'clock. She asked if she could come over around 4pm. I said 3pm was better, trying to meet in the middle. I think she could tell I was desperate. She came over at 2pm. When she walked in the door, I handed her the baby and I wept. I had never had a panic attack before. My sister stayed with me until my husband came home. I called the advice nurse. They transferred me to a crisis hotline. The nurse was reassuring and said it sounded like I had a difficult birth and started taking on too much too soon. She recommended I make an appointment with my doctor who referred me to a therapist.
I made the appointment. I was nervous. I fretted over the logistics - can I bring my baby to the appointment? (of course you can). What if she gets hungry? (of course you can feed her at the appointment). I also worried about what they were going to say. I was sure they were going to tell me I had IT. I didn't want IT. All you hear about postpartum depression is about how horrible it is with such terrible ends. But she never mentioned it. She focused on what was going on and some things to try to overcome these feelings. Her strategies were extremely effective, namely:
Breathing: Don't let yourself spin out. This was a really important one for me because I was experiencing a lot of anxiety. As soon as the anxiety started to build, I would breathe in and say "I am peace" and breathe out and say "I am calm." I think I rolled my eyes when she told me, thinking, I feel like I'm dying inside and you want me to breathe?! But I kid you not, it really helped. It was a way to take back control of my feelings so I could control what to do about them.
Turning Negative Thoughts into Positive Ones: This is another one I thought wouldn't work. My therapist taught me to write down a negative thought (like, "What if I fall down the stairs and my baby gets hurt!") and reframe it positively, (like, "I'm walking carefully by the stairs"). Every time I had a negative thought, I wrote it down and came up with a positive one. This was incredibly helpful. In the middle of the night, as I hugged the wall opposite the stairs, I would congratulate myself on being SO careful, SO dedicated to the health and well-being of my child to so cautiously traverse the stairwell. I was consumed by everything that could go wrong and how horrible I would be if it happened on my watch, but when I reframed it, I was her protector! It was on my watch that she was fed and well-rested. It was on my watch that she was in a clean diaper. It was on my watch that she was ok. It may not sound like much, but this was a powerfully healing exercise.
I left that meeting realizing that it didn't matter if I had "postpartum depression" or "postpartum anxiety", it only mattered how I was feeling and what was going to help me get better. I worked really hard every minute of every day to reframe those thoughts and breathe through my anxiety. It was incredibly hard. If you asked me if I'd rather be going through the 4th day of labor or climbing my way out of my postpartum hole, I think I just might pick labor.
A few weeks go by, but with the support of my husband, my therapist, and my family, I started to feel better. I actually started to feel great. All of a sudden, I loved being at home. The days lost their monotony, her rhythms were my rhythms, I felt connected to her (finally!). I went from feeling like a sorry excuse for a parent ... to supermom.
I felt so good that I started getting worried about returning to work. I didn't want to go. I didn't want to leave my baby. Anxiety about returning to work made me start to dip back again. I got sad. I thought I had "beat" it. I thought I was getting better, but I realized something: creating and birthing a baby is a hormonal roller coaster and sometimes you get flung from one extreme to another as your body seeks equilibrium. It takes time to come back to balance (remember that!). The other thing I realized was that taking care of yourself is never done - it's work every day and some days are easier than others.
For me, bonding did not come "built in". Perhaps it was the ruthlessly long labor. Perhaps it was because I didn't get to hold her for a few hours after she was born. Perhaps it was because I didn't take enough breaks. Or perhaps it is because a bond is something that is grown. It is not something that you either have or you don't. It is something that grows because you decide every day that the other person is worth the effort. During this time, I used to imagine real mothers saying, "I love you more every day!" as they looked with adoring eyes at this child they were helplessly in love with. I liked that thought because although I didn't feel like that at all, the idea presumes that the love was smaller the day before. It gave me great peace to remember that even the smallest seed grows and everyone starts from somewhere.
I was never clinically diagnosed with postpartum depression or anxiety. My feelings started up around 3 weeks postpartum and lasted until 8 weeks postpartum. After that, I felt much more myself and didn't experience those feelings again. My medical providers chalked it up to an intensely difficult labor and delivery, coupled with the "destination birth" we had (I delivered in Southern California and moved back home to Oakland, California when my daughter was 9 days old). I didn't fit in one box or the other. I didn't feel this glorious connection, nor did I feel like I was a threat to myself or my child. I was in the middle and I think maybe a lot of us are. What matters is that we are honest with ourselves, we get the support we need, and we give ourselves a little room to find our balance... and breathe.
Am I a mother, a real mother? YES. Because this - all of this - is motherhood. Your wisdom, experience and know-how starts small, but it grows every day. So give yourself time, be patient, this too shall pass. Get the support you need and keep reaching out for support. We aren't meant to parent alone. And try not to worry about where the road is going, just exist in this minute. All you have to do right now is this minute.
Things to do
Here are 10 things anyone can do during postpartum no matter where they are on the spectrum of their feelings.
Talk about whatever you are feeling to your partner and your medical provider.
Be honest with yourself.
Get out of the house.
Find a new parent support group (we've got on in Oakland, CA!)
Take time in nature.
Take a break (this post may help)
Ignore people when they tell you to "enjoy it" because kids "grow up so quickly." The years may be short, but the days sure are long. It's not helpful to comment in hindsight (we all have a selective memory about these times!) and it just makes you feel like a terrible parent that you don't love every minute.
Postpartum is hard on everyone, every time. Give yourself, your relationship and your body time.
Feed your baby, no matter how, no matter where.
Listen to yourself and listen to your baby (everyone else may have opinions, but you and the baby have the answers)