I had been told all about the all-consuming love one has for her child when he or she is born. I had been told that it was an amazing feeling. I had been told that those minutes, when you see your child for the first time, are magical, somehow transcendent. Sometimes, someone, somewhere, mentioned taking a while to bond with her baby, and doctors and nurses constantly stressed an awareness of postpartum depression, but it was never exactly descriptive. They said it was common, spoke of "deep sadness that you can't seem to get over," and told expectant mothers to put the baby down in the crib and tell someone if they had thoughts of harming themselves or the baby. Their information was of course correct, informative. Clinical. But it didn't do justice to the reality. No one ever mentioned, in those moments after birth, mere hollow detachment. The tiny, red-faced, wiggly thing placed on my chest felt distinctly other. Alien. And it was screaming at the top of its lungs.
At first I blamed my lack of overwhelming maternal feeling on the drugs. I wanted an unmedicated birth, but after 26 hours of labor, I agreed with Mr. Nerd and the doctor that the best plan was to get some rest, so the anesthesiologist placed the epidural. After I'd gotten some sleep, they gave me the lowest dose of pitocin available, and then labor and delivery sailed by without a hitch. I felt pressure, no pain, I laughed and joked with Mr. Nerd, and when the time came to push, I was still aware of it well before the L&D nurse came to check on me. After a total of 36 hours, Baby Nerd was out in 30 minutes; none of my fears of tearing, or forceps, or dislocated anything (for myself or baby) were realized. Yet my only thought when the doctor congratulated us, held up my baby for the first time, and announced that she was a she, my only thought was, Why don't I feel anything?
That wasn't exactly true. I did have some feelings, but they were mostly negative. A little bit of panic, a little anxiety, a little worry. I just didn't feel connected to the tiny creature in my arms. I forced a smile through those first hours and that first night, thanking everyone for their congratulations and well-wishes, wishing my baby could bring me as much joy as it seemed to bring grandparents, great-grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins. She slept the first night, in a new-newborn sleepy phase that quelled some of my initial panic just enough to allow me some sleep. I planned to breastfeed and spent the next day dealing with a baby who would fall asleep with every effort of trying to latch, trying fruitlessly to get inverted nipples to pop out using a hand pump just long enough for her to take hold. Nurses popped in every once in a while to do fundal massages-- thankfully we learned about those in childbirth classes, otherwise I would have asked the nurse why in the seven hells she wanted me to be in so much pain after the birth was over-- refill medications, and help me change the cloth-and-witch hazel-wrapped ice packs and pads the size of Rhode Island adorning a giant pair of mesh underwear. Those monstrosities more than any pain made walking the halls difficult. Childbirth may be a beautiful, natural thing, but glamorous it is not.
The next night, she screamed. Rooting and putting her hands to her mouth, she still wouldn't latch. One nurse kept telling me that the baby would latch if I only relaxed. If only I could, I thought to her. I broke down in tears and told Mr. Nerd that I just couldn't do it. I had thought this was what I wanted, but I was obviously wrong. I was tired and scared. I knew I would never, ever, hurt her, but I started to understand that feeling that a lot of depressed mothers feel. At that moment, though, I simply didn't want to interact with her. I wanted to go back in time and never have gotten pregnant in the first place.
"I shouldn't be unhappy; I could be happy if I tried" is one the most damaging things anyone with depression can think. You start to wonder if you are a terrible person when you have so much that is good and manage only to feel bad. Despite all the prenatal advice from doctors and nurses to seek help for depression, it took me eight weeks to admit that I needed more help than I was getting, because a tiny voice in my head kept telling me that my feelings were wrong. That I'd be judged negatively for them. Mothers who want children are supposed to love them from birth. It's just... the way the world is supposed to work.
I finally sat in a psychiatrist's office and said all of this aloud. For me, medication was what I needed most; I thank God every day for the gift of doctors and medication. That is a perfectly valid treatment for PPD; don't let anyone tell you otherwise if it helps you. But I also needed to know that I wasn't alone. That there are thousands of women out there struggling with similar feelings. That it's OK to feel overwhelmed, sad, even angry when your life changes so much and you don't have the internal resources to deal with it immediately. That you are allowed to put the crying baby down in the crib for a minute, go in to the bathroom, and scream into a pillow because you're frustrated and exhausted. That it's all right to ask for someone to stay with you if you need that. And let me assure you, even if you think you are all alone in this, there are people who WILL stay with you. We are lucky to have lots of close family in town, but even if you don't, trust me on this; there are other women who know and want to help. Who know what it's like to have a hungry baby who won't latch at 3am on a Saturday. Who know what it's like not to sleep because you're worried that the baby might wake up at any minute and need you, and you might not understand what's needed. Who know that despite best intentions, it's easy to neglect yourself when there's another human being depending on you.
Who know that it gets better but that you need help in this moment, because you might not see it until one day... it does.
It started to become easier when she began smiling, because I could see that what I did made a difference in her life, rather than just keeping her breathing (although Mr Nerd and I are rather amazed we managed!). I still didn't realize it had gotten better at that point. I didn't really realize it until I found myself in the shower, monitor outside the glass, knowing that I was ready to run to her if I heard her wake from her nap sounding scared or hurt. Knowing that I knew her "scared" and "hurt" and "hungry" and "cranky" and "bored" and "happy." Right now Mr. Nerd and I are sick, and Baby Nerd has been staying with grandparents, and I feel like a little part of me is missing. And three or four months ago, I wouldn't have believed it possible.