After the birth of my second child, I thought having another baby would be a breeze. I had survived years of interrupted sleep, zombie-like days, and the endless piles of little people laundry. I thought, how hard could it be to manage one little addition to the family?
When my daughter Reese was born, my son was four years old. For the first 12 weeks, everything went as expected, maybe even a little better. Our daughter was a healthy bundle of joy who took to nursing right away, slept soundly, and hardly ever cried. She was much easier than my son had been. When my maternity leave was over, I headed back to work, lugging the breast pump to keep my milk supply going so I could continue nursing her.
Feelings of Depression
When Reese was about five months old, she pushed me away, and nursing was suddenly a thing of the past. Around the same time, something happened to me emotionally. I started to feel unhappy and anxious. I had trouble sleeping at night. I felt fatigued and began to gain weight. I lost interest in the activities I had once enjoyed.
The joy I once felt in my heart was gone. I felt empty inside, even when I saw my children laugh or smile. I also had a very hard time getting out of bed. Getting up in the morning was the most difficult part of my day because I didn’t know what to expect from myself: Would I be angry all day? Irritable? Scared? Or some strange mix of it all?
One of the scariest moments for me happened early one morning when Reese was about 7 months old. At 4 AM, I was stiffly holding my daughter while trying to get her to fall back to sleep. I became filled with an overwhelming mix of emotions. I felt alone, filled with hate, fear, anger and despair. I thought, What was wrong with me? Why couldn’t I connect with my daughter? Why wasn’t I excited about being with her? Why was I so grouchy? Nothing about my kids or my life gave me joy anymore. I just wanted to put her down and run away. Worst of all was the feeling that I hated being her mother.
The people closest to me would describe me as a loving and kind, grateful and optimistic person. I usually see the good in everything and everyone. But something had changed in me. I wasn’t myself. I couldn’t even look at myself in the mirror. I couldn't figure out how or why I’d gone from being such a happy woman with a wonderful husband, family, and job to a totally miserable person. I wanted so desperately to just get over whatever I was feeling and be happy—but I couldn’t. So for months, I robotically went through the motions of my life, stoically caring for my family, and reporting to work. I smiled through it all, pretending everything was okay.
Overcoming Shame and Speaking Up
About a month after my daughter’s first birthday, a dear friend took me aside. Her words, “I can’t find you, Karen. I don’t even see you in there. Where are you?” caused me to immediately burst into tears. I had thought that no one could see how lost I was. I felt shame and embarrassment for feeling the way I did.
I didn’t wait to seek help after that, and went to see my OB/GYN. She assured me that I had done the right thing by contacting her. I was diagnosed with postpartum depression and then started treatment with an anti-depressant medication.
A Better Day
After about 4 weeks or so, that terrible, looming feeling of dread, sadness and anxiousness started to lift. I was able to slow down and breathe, talk and laugh with my family and friends. When I looked into my children’s eyes, I felt happy. I had started to feel like myself again. It was if the sun had finally come through the dark clouds that surrounded me. After about a year, with my doctors’ help, I was taken off of the medication.
Looking back, my one regret was not speaking up and getting help earlier. It took me far too long to appreciate myself, far too long to understand myself, and far too long to love myself. Today, I feel lucky to have my old self back and to be able to feel all my feelings, both positive and negative. There was joy in my life again. It was in my son’s silly laugh, my daughter’s hopeful smile, my husband’s big, warm hug, my best friend’s companionship and my mom’s voice. Getting help was the best thing I ever did.
What You Can Do
It can help just knowing that someone else has gone through a similar experience. In fact, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about 10% of women who give birth each year have postpartum depression symptoms. You can find many other stories like mine on the Internet, but reading about it may not be enough. If you can talk with your doctor, you have already started to tackle the problem. Here’s some advice for women struggling with postpartum depression:
- Speak with your doctor. The single most important thing you can do is get medical advice about your condition. My doctor was so kind and understanding. She couldn’t believe I’d waited so long to get help. And, now, neither can I.
- Don't go it alone. It can feel easier in some way to stay home and isolate yourself in the house with the baby, but it’s not the best course of action. Instead, make a point of finding someone you can speak with about how you are feeling. You can go to a support group, a mom’s group, a counselor or find a sympathetic friend.
- Take time for yourself. Even if the laundry is not done and the kitchen is a mess, remember that those things can wait. What needs attention is YOU. Get someone to take care of the baby for an hour and go do something you enjoy: Lunch with a friend, exercise, or a walk.
- Write your feelings down. Some people find it helpful to write things down as they happen. I kept a diary before seeing my doctor and it helped me to sort things out. I look back at it now and I can’t believe how far I’ve come since getting treated.
- If you have suicidal thoughts, get immediate help. Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK, or call your doctor right away.
The views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Pfizer, Inc.
Karen Messina is dedicated mother and wife, who balances her family and career while helping to raise awareness for postpartum depression.