I have always been that girl: the capable one. The one others rely on for a calming and centering presence. The achiever, the doer, the stoic. You never had to tell me to pull up my big girl panties and get something done. I’d already done it and done it well. At 41, life had already brought me a number of interesting changes and challenges, and I had embraced them all and come out the other end victorious.
And then I had my daughter.
I had no illusions that motherhood would be easy. I anticipated not getting enough sleep at times, navigating my way through through the multitude of new skills I’d have to master and having the occasional emotional wobble. But, I’d cope, you know – just like I’d coped with every other challenge in my life. She was a miracle baby and I was a coper.
So it turned out I was wrong.
So very wrong. The anxiety hit me almost immediately after she was born. I hadn’t slept for three days of laboring and then waiting for a c-section, and I didn’t sleep for a few days after that, delirious from excitement over the arrival of my precious baby. By the time I got home I was in a daze, having palpitations and experiencing light and sound as uncomfortably amplified. I could not rest nor sleep. My mind was racing and it sounded like the passing traffic outside, which I never heard before, was heading straight for my home. I pictured large trucks smashing through the wall behind my head and plowing into me. Besides feeling wired and anxious, I started feeling disconnected form my baby too, and numb inside.
Things spiraled downhill from there.
I was camped out in the living room for the first six weeks, sleeping with the lights on so that I could watch over my infant. The sofa seemed like the safest option. I couldn’t easily get in or out of bed due to post-operative pain and I was too afraid to be any distance from the kitchen, where her bottles and sterilizer and formula and seemingly millions of other absolutely necessary baby supplies were. My infant did not sleep for longer than 20-30 minutes at a time. She would not sleep anywhere other than on my chest, so I tried to do that for her but I couldn’t sleep for fear she’d topple off me and fall to the ground. I didn’t sleep. I barely managed to keep myself together during the day time but the nights were terrifying.
As the sun set I prepared myself for another scary, lonely night. It felt like every other person in the whole world, except me, was asleep. The days blurred into each other and I didn’t get out of my pajamas. A public health nurse came to help me with breast feeding which my exhausted body just could not do, no matter how hard I tried and how many herbs and tinctures and cookies and pills I consumed. I pumped, I cried, I fought with my husband. I felt like I was going crazy. I felt like a complete failure and I was not used to failing at anything. I felt isolated and ashamed about not being able to do this parenting thing gracefully. It seemed that every Facebook post of other moms and their babies pictured a state of bliss and maternal fulfillment which I clearly had not achieved. I loved my baby and felt bonded with her but I had no warm and fuzzy feelings. No bliss.
I sucked at being a mother.
I had to return to work at 12 weeks postpartum, which was both incredibly difficult but also my saving grace. You see, at work I was competent. I could do stuff well. I was good at my job and no one knew how dismally I was failing as a parent. When people asked how things were going, I’d smile and casually mention I wasn’t sleeping much but other than that, things were fine. It took another four months before I realized I was actually depressed and very anxious. Part of my complete lack of insight was denial, and the rest was sheer optimism that this was simply a passing phase and things would get better if I better managed my work stress, slept more, wasn’t fighting with my husband as much, exercised more, ate well… Also, I am a mental health care provider, so what did this say about my ability to help other women through their perinatal struggles? I was so busy trying to help everyone else around me that I neglected to take care of myself. And by minimizing my struggles, I had contributed to the awful silence and stigma surrounding postpartum depression and anxiety. I had failed the very same women I had been tirelessly supporting all these years. And I felt I had failed my daughter. The guilt was crippling.
I made the decision to choose love instead of guilt and fear.
I saw my GP and started medication to treat my symptoms. I started feeling stronger and less overwhelmed with my life. I stopped focusing on my failures and started celebrating the joyful moments. I was open with friends and family about my diagnosis and treatment and it felt like an enormous relief to admit to my struggles. It took a long time for me to fully recover. There were definite improvements along the way but my progress was slow and I had to learn to be kinder to myself. Self-care became, and remains a necessity, not a luxury. I still struggle with some guilt about taking time for myself but it is getting easier. I have many warm and fuzzy moments with my daughter now, and there are times my heart feels like it might burst wide open with love for this child. Would that have happened earlier on if I hadn’t had postpartum anxiety and depression? Maybe. I choose not to spend time on the “what ifs” and “should haves” and rather focus on the “now.”
I choose love. Self-love, love for my daughter…just love.
Samantha Hendy was born in South Africa, has traveled extensively, and worked and lived in many different places before settling in BC, Canada. She is a mental health professional and mother to a mighty girl who is the light of her life. She also has two dogs and a cat, all of which believe they are precious only children. Motherhood is by far the toughest job she’s ever had.
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