A month after giving birth, I was lying in my bed, consumed by an all-powerful emotion.
“Please don’t leave me alone”, I said to my husband for the hundredth time. “Please. Take another month. Stay with me longer. I can’t do it on my own. I can’t. I won’t.”
“Come on”, he said. “We agreed long ago. Everything is already documented, papers drawn, forms filled, bureaucracy done. I can’t possibly redo all this at the last moment. You will be fine.”
I have never felt so far from fine in my life.
I live in a liberal country. A country that’s quite generous with a (partially) paid parental leave which can be split between the parents, and there’s even a two months bonus for it. So if there’s two parents but only a mother takes parental leave, it’s 12 paid months, but if you split with a father, it’s 14 between the two of you, and it can be divided whichever way you want, except that the first two months always belong to the mother . So, we decided that we will take the first month together, then I will take another seven on my own, and then my husband will take six months as well.
And so it happened that after the first month together he had to go back to work. And I had to stay at home. With the baby. Alone.
And I felt terrified.
No one ever told me that I would feel that way. Friends and relatives around me were having kids right and left. Granted, it wasn’t easy for them; they talked about sleep deprivation, kids getting sick, no time to themselves, difficulties finding childcare.
But they never said anything about being completely and utterly terrified or desperate, nothing about this dominating, boundless fear that was swallowing me whole, making it hard to breathe, to live, to function.
I later stumbled upon a narrative about the same kind of post-childbirth emotion, exactly once. It was an article written by a woman who fought a hard case of PPD.
For her, it was worse: she had to be eventually hospitalized and spent five months under specialized care, having no contact with the baby, so she had to rebuild their bond later. I didn’t think I required that; not at the moment. But hers was the only experience that talked about this emotion, so similar to what I felt.
What was it that I was so desperately afraid of? Not the responsibility, because I knew I could perform the basic duties — changing, feeding. For me, the worst was sleeping. The baby had to nap; I knew he needed to, and I certainly needed him to nap, to have at least some downtime in this seemingly never ending screaming. Problem was, the baby apparently didn’t get the memo. We had to rock and bounce him, in arms and on a yoga ball, sometimes for up to an hour, and then he slept for 30 minutes. Or 20. Or sometimes 10. He also had colic (or so we thought), and that was the reason he cried a lot. It wasn’t just at specific times, too; sometimes it could continue for hours on end, no matter what time of day it was. Once we timed it and it was 10AM to 6PM, with a few very short breaks for eating and (again very short) catnapping.
Or he didn’t sleep at all for hours on end.
The whole thing was just completely unpredictable.
“What if he won’t sleep? What if he’ll just cry all day long?” I asked my husband. He was unfazed.
“Just assume the worst. Assume that he will cry; so what? He will sleep eventually, as much as he needs to. Maybe he just doesn’t need to sleep so much. He isn’t a robot, you know. All babies are different.”
“But not in this! This is a basic need! He can’t not need sleep!”
I considered myself a well-prepared first-time parent before my son was born. I even bought a sleep program beforehand; this program promised that by following the age-appropriate awake intervals, my baby will automatically become a great napper, and also will self-settle and even sleep through the night — parental Holy Grail — as soon as possible, without having to use the cry-it-out methods.
This was another memo our baby never got.
The days and nights were becoming a blur, a black hole sucking me in. We tried to prolong the naps any way we could; by rocking, feeding, holding, everything but the baby-wearing (because it didn’t help at all with our baby) and co-sleeping: that is where I drew the line. I heard enough about the kids who still haven’t left the parental bed at 3 years of age and I was determined that our baby would have his own cot from day one and sleep in it.
He did have a cot; it was sleeping in it that was becoming an unsurmountable problem.
“He won’t be a baby forever. This will pass”, people said. “This newborn period is difficult, but it will not last.”
But in my eyes, I was in a dark corridor which was endless and had no way out.
Another fear I had, the fear-that-must-not-be-named like Voldemort, was “doing something to the baby”. And myself. I wasn’t exactly suicidal; myself came as an afterthought. As something I would have to do after “doing something to the baby”. Because living after that wouldn’t be an option, see? How could one just continue living after such a thing? No.
I didn’t know what exactly I could do to the baby, because I tried not to imagine that. The worst mental picture that came to me was dropping him to the floor. And how he was just lying there, all broken, unmoving. Finally silent. Finally. Silent.
This mental picture I tried hard to push from my mind. I didn’t know yet, but it was also another symptom of the same disease. Postpartum depression.
Would it have been better if I did want a baby in the first place?
But didn’t I want it?
It was definitely planned. I was approaching a certain age after which having kids becomes increasingly difficult and just medically unadvisable. My husband wanted a baby, he thought it would be a life enriching experience which we just had to have. Our mothers, though not pressing us anymore (we were married for quite a few years now), still wanted it and we knew it. The peer pressure was very much felt, too: every couple we knew our age or even much younger either already had kids or was currently in the process of family planning, getting pregnant or already pregnant. We decided it was now or never; I was too afraid of never, it seemed just too big, a point of no return. So we chose now.
But now was also a point of no return. They both were. So why did we decide on now?
There were too many questions and not enough answers. Moreover, I was too tired to look for answers. What I wanted most was just sleep. Precious sleep.
But sleep was avoiding me. Even when my husband started taking night feeds so I could sleep a bit more, I still couldn’t. I developed nervous insomnia: I slept till the first wake, either because of the baby or just my own bladder; and then I couldn’t go back to sleep, though I desperately wanted to. Another sign of postpartum depression, though I didn’t know it until later.
A doctor I went to because of some lingering post-pregnancy health problems finally asked me about my feelings, because I was looking downcast, I suppose. And I started to cry. I was just sitting there, in front of her, in my chair, and crying, because she wasn’t dismissing me. I told her then about my insomnia and anxiety, about being desperate all the time, about being in a dark place. She suspected postpartum depression then and gave me a referral to seek professional help.
I wish I could say that it got much better after that. That I got treatment fast, and got antidepressants, and anti-anxiety meds, and whatnot. But in turned out not to be so easy. The country I live in has a distinction between psychotherapy and psychiatry, and a very significant one: a psychotherapist can’t prescribe meds; only a psychiatrist can, so I actually needed both. And in both professions, the demand for specialists turned out to far exceed the supply. Finding a psychotherapist was like finding a unicorn; finding a psychiatrist, even worse. The problem was exacerbated by me not speaking the German language enough for medical reasons, so I had to look for specialists who would speak English or my own native language. When I finally found a psychiatrist who was prepared to take me, they scheduled my first appointment a month from the date I called. I hesitantly mentioned the urgency and got the following response:
We’re a psychiatric practice. Every patient here is urgent.
In other words, you’re no special snowflake.
I already knew that, and the last thing I needed was another reminder.
Gradually, however, the situation got better. As I finally had my preliminary diagnosis, my husband started being more supportive — as if someone confirming that I indeed had a diagnosis had more weight than just me being unhappy; but perhaps it’s because I am a born complainer and he just got used to it. I also asked my other relatives for help, so first my mom came to visit and then, in turn, my aunt. Both took a lot of baby-related responsibilities upon themselves and the exhausted haze which was killing me every evening started to finally lift. The doctor that recommended me psychotherapy also gave me a prescription for some mild sedatives I could start using while I was still waiting to get that therapy.
And finally, I began to get used to the idea that there will be good days and bad days, and there will be inevitable and often inexplicable crying.
My medical treatment is still in its very early stages though, so this is the path that’s largely unexplored, but hopefully it should improve my condition as well. But there are some things I realized.
- Depression isn’t you being lazy or encouraging negative thoughts. It’s your brain not releasing hormones that people need to be happy/content. It’s not anyone’s fault, no more than you being born with blue eyes (or not).
- Those emotions and feelings that are terrifying, they have a place to be and you have a right to experience them. They are valid. You’re not a monster.
- You aren’t just a milk-producing factory for the baby. Your needs come first, not just because the baby needs a mother, but because you are no less important than the baby.
- You matter.
I just wish it was as easy to live by this as write it down. But I am trying.