My daughter is almost 18 months old and I am recovering from postpartum depression. Actually, post-weaning depression to be exact. Post-weaning depression? Huh? I didn’t know that was a thing either. I didn’t know it was a thing, a very real thing, for almost 8 months, with all the same physically and mentally draining shit-mix of emotions and hormones paired with unbearable anxiety and irritability…all the things every mother dreams of being. *NOT*
I fully weaned my daughter when she was about 10 months old. She was down to only 2 feeds a day, I was back to work, and she was showing less and less interest in it. I felt a little sad and knew I would miss our bonding time, but at the same time, I could see light at the end of the tunnel. She weaned quickly without any signs of emotional difficulty, and I only had one short bout of plugged milk ducts that cleared up within a couple days.
It’s common knowledge that a major hormonal shift happens after birth and that shift is the underlying cause for postpartum depression. What I didn’t know is that a similar shift occurs again when a woman stops breastfeeding. Slowly I started to feel an unrecognized change in me. I didn’t even know postpartum depression could occur anytime within the first year since giving birth. It didn’t cross my mind that the shift within my myself that I was feeling could be related to postpartum depression – I was 10 months out after all. Just when I should be feeling happy to have extra freedom since weaning and to have my body be all mine again, right? Wrong.
When everyone was saying “oh things must be getting easier now that she is getting older, she is sleeping longer, you are done breastfeeding, etc” life for me seemed to be getting harder. But instead of thinking there must have been an underlying reason for the changes inside me, I assumed it was simply just me and I had to learn to accept being this new person who doesn’t enjoy happiness like I once had. I could hardly admit it to myself, let alone others. After all, the stigma of depression tells society that an unhappy person who is a mother must mean you are a unfit mother. So I would nod along and smile, while deep down thinking, if you only knew how hard every little thing felt – exhausting, taxing, completely irrational and guilt-ridden HARD. And I didn’t know why. I had done some reading on postpartum depression, but by then I was more than a year out so I didn’t think that could be it. I didn’t understand myself but I had no answers so I thought this just must be the new me, and that scared me.
I know something was seriously different within me from about 1 month of weaning – but at the time I summed it up as relationship problems. I rationalized it as just the daily stresses that having a baby brings to a relationship and that it would pass. But it didn’t pass. My erratic emotions, mood swings, the feelings of my daughter not liking me, her and my husband (we aren’t technically married, but we have a child and lived together in a marriage like household – I looked at him as that role in my life) being better off without me, the irrational irritability and frustration over every little thing…it all continued to get worse. And the anxiety. I can’t even begin to describe the depths of the anxiety I felt every moment of every day. It was exhausting and sleep was the only relief from it so I slept a lot, yet when I would wake up the next morning everything would come flooding back and I felt just as tired as when I went to sleep. I felt scared and incapable when I had to be home alone with our daughter. I counted the hours until my husband would return, and I would try to control every detail of my life including the way my husband did even the simplest things because it gave me a sense of predictability and control when I felt I had none in every other aspect of myself.
The only person I felt safe and comfortable enough to communicate my deepest and darkest feelings to were my husband. Regardless of how poorly I had been treating him, he always listened and reassured me that I was a good mommy and our daughter loved me. While I was falling apart, he picked up. He took on extra care of our child, cleaning of the house, getting up with our daughter in the morning so I could sleep…all while working, and never complained or made me feel guilty about it. But the guilt still ate me up inside and I was constantly in a battle with myself: one day I would try and put on a brave face and be super sweet because I knew he deserved better, and then the next day I couldn’t hold it together and would fall apart at his expense. If I was missing my old self, I knew he had to be missing the old me too and wondering what happened to the person he fell in love with. I can’t imagine how many times I must have left him feeling alone and holding the bag all by himself.
Life continued on like that for 7 long months. Until I reached the lowest point in my life. I love my daughter with all my heart, but all the negative emotions and anxiety spiraled down so far that I began thinking that my daughter and family would be better off without me. I knew I could never love and accept this new person I had become and certainly did not expect my daughter to. I thought about dying. I thought about how that would affect my daughter, but told myself that she was young and that would be less damaging to her development than having me in her life. I definitely did not feel like a good role model for life when I didn’t even know how to enjoy life myself. I felt like she deserved better.
Thoughts of dying was the trigger for me to reach out for professional help. That was my wake up call. Although I felt completely irrational in almost every emotion I felt and had lost hope in ever being back to my old self, I was rational enough to realize that thoughts of being better off dead was not normal and not something that happens without some kind of underlying cause. I called a counseling help line the day I had those thoughts. You know, the ones we hear of and see posted in the office lunchroom or on the side of a phone booth and think no one ever calls them. Add one to the statistic for me please. The woman I spoke to suggested the possibility of postpartum depression and recommended I see my doctor. I made an appointment to see my doctor the next morning and after a series of questions he confirmed that I most likely have had postpartum depression for a while, specifically and most likely brought on by post-weaning depression based on when my symptoms started. He believes the severity of it is because it went undiagnosed and without help for so long, but assured me that most women come out of it with the right treatment and help. That was my first glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel in a very long time.
It has been a month since I called that counselor help line and saw my doctor. I have since started a low dose medication for anxiety and seeing a counselor my doctor recommended for my situation is in the works. Opening up about my struggle and letting the weight of holding it in be released from my shoulders has been a huge factor in my steps to getting better and I am lucky to have a few close friends who are there for me to share with and support me. I am not better. Not yet. But there have been a few particular stressful days since I started treatment, that in the past would have normally thrown me into 3 year old going on 30 meltdown and feeling like I cant cope, where I felt the tension in me easing and a sense of calmness I hadn’t felt in a long time. I know it is going to be a long process full of ups and downs, a lot of learning to let go, and a lot of grace for myself and those around me, but its days like that that give me hope and keep me on track.
I wish I could say my husband is a part of my support network, but unfortunately this has had an irreversible negative affect on him and our relationship and he is not entirely sure he believes depression exists. At this point, I am not sure we will survive it together. I still struggle on a daily basis going back and forth between wishing I had reached the point of getting professional help sooner because maybe it would mean our relationship would still be intact, but then thinking that if I hadn’t reached the lowest point I had I probably wouldn’t be taking it as seriously as I am now. There are many other factors to the breakdown of our relationship that we both had a part in, but I understand that he carried the weight of me and tried for our family for a very long time and a person can only withstand so much and I acknowledge I have not been the easiest person to live with. So I respect his decision if he has to walk away. I know my uphill battle will be that much more difficult to go through while also grieving the loss of having him by my side, but I know I need to stay focused on my road to recovery for my daughter, because she deserves the best version of me and no less.
A friend recently stopped me mid sentence while I was telling him that my main goal is to just get back to my old self and told me: “You shouldn’t look at it that way. You are still who you always were, its just buried deep inside you and as you learn to let go of all the negative emotions that cover it up, your true self will start to reshow itself”. That was the first time someone had made me feel as if my depression does not define me. It gave me a new perspective, a new angle, to face my battle. I hang onto that piece of advice with a tight grip that this is not me and will not be forever. On hard days when the negative thoughts and anxiety start to creep in, I use it as a reminder: I am still me underneath. This will pass.
** If you are struggling with postpartum depression, please know you are not alone. As many as 1 in 7 women suffer from it and it can show up anytime within the first year of giving birth, or after weaning if breastfeeding. A great resource that I turn to a lot is Postpartum Progress. They are a non-profit community dedicated to raising awareness, fight stigma, and provide peer support and programming to women with maternal mental illness.
You Can’t Tell a Mom Has Postpartum Depression By Looking is another great project by Postpartum Progress. It is a series of photos of mothers and their babies that proves that just because you may not be able to see or understand someone’s suffering from the outside, doesn’t mean it is not there and is not real.