by Kasey Stacey
(credit for featured image: Angie Gray)
I remember the night that Brigid was conceived. I looked at my husband and said, “So we’re really serious about another baby, huh? Okay. Come what may.”
Vinny was two or three days shy of 11 months, not even walking yet, and my body was working its magic to grow his little sister. I knew that we must’ve been crazy, to purposely have babies so close in age, but I loved motherhood. I was ready. I yearned to be pregnant again, to experience childbirth, and to bring home that snuggly little bundle and watch her grow. The days and nights that comprised Vinny’s first year were the happiest of my life and I wanted to capture that feeling again and again.
That’s not to say that being a mom wasn’t hard. Like most new moms, I was at times uncertain, anxious, and exhausted. I endured months of struggling to breastfeed Vinny, and all my expectations of what it would be like to nurse my baby had been shattered during that time. Still, it all just felt so right, like I was finally doing what I had been meant to do all my life.
As the pregnancy progressed, Vinny became a toddler, and I came down to earth hard. Trying to be consistent with discipline when my primary goal was to sneak in as much sleep as possible was wearing on me. Fears about how a new baby would impact my relationship with my son had me second guessing this whole “let’s have another baby right this minute” idea. Meanwhile, my son’s increasing mobility and desire to test the limits of my patience were having their own impact on our relationship.
This second pregnancy was rough. By my second trimester, the nausea and vomiting were only getting worse, and I called The Birth Center begging for Zofran, which I took as needed until 36 weeks. My pelvic floor was a mess and I developed Symphysis Pubis Dysfunction. I spent months in physical therapy. Nursing aversion, which I’ve written about a few times before, certainly didn’t help.
At 36 weeks, we discovered Brigid was breech, which eventually led to an external cephalic version, all of which is fodder for a blog that I’ve been promising Katie I’d write for about 16 months now. Believe me when I say that having a breech baby crushed me. Birthing Vinny naturally at The Birth Center was the most incredible, fulfilling experience and I longed to recapture that in some way with future children. As if I hadn’t spent my entire pregnancy being miserable enough, seeing my dreams for Brigid’s arrival being trampled upon was throwing me into despair. I hated being pregnant and I couldn’t wait to give birth and just get on with it.
I knew, though. I knew what was coming for me after delivery. At an appointment around the mid-point of the pregnancy, I said to the midwife, “I just want to float this out there. I think I’m probably more susceptible to developing post partum depression this time around. I’ve talked to my husband about it, so he knows to look out for me, but I’m just putting it on the record.”
“Do you feel depressed now?” the midwife asked. I considered her question for a minute.
“No, I think I’m okay. I’m exhausted and tired of feeling sick, but that’s normal. I mean, who knows? I may be fine afterward. I just have a hunch…”
At times, I think it was the nursing aversion that was the catalyst for the depression. The experience of night weaning Vinny was a mere foretaste of what the months following Brigid’s birth would look like. As often as I told myself that I would never say those things again, never treat my beloved baby boy that way, I found myself regretting my behavior over and over again. I can’t really bring myself to repeat here the terrible things I said to him, the ways I screamed and carried on, the expectation I had that he could even understand what was happening and why his mother was acting with such vitriol toward him. I kept thinking that if he could only see how frustrating his behavior was, he could change it. Did I mention that Vinny was 20 months old when Brigid was born? Still a baby in his own right.
The depression wasn’t what most people think of when they think of post partum depression. I wasn’t sad. I didn’t sit around and cry, didn’t mope, didn’t feel hopeless. I threw myself a number of pity parties, but I didn’t feel like I had fallen into a hole I couldn’t climb out of. I loved my baby girl and wanted nothing more than to bond with her, take care of her, gently guide her through her new world outside of my body. She was pretty intense—she practically came out of the womb a screamer and has remained ear-piercingly loud and shockingly demanding—but I felt all of the appropriate motherly affection and warmth toward her that we expect moms to feel. No, it was toward my son, with whom I had just spent the happiest year of my life, that I felt distance, frustration, and near-constant anger. I was so irrationally angry and it overcame me day after day and I couldn’t explain why. At night, after the kids went to sleep, I spent hours online looking for better ways to handle my son’s normal toddler behavior. I needed some skills, I decided, that would help me deal calmly and rationally with him. I read all kinds of articles from publications that align with my parenting ideals, trying to take their methods to heart. By the time we reached nap time the next day, though, the cycle would repeat, the screaming (mine) and crying (his) would commence, and we’d be right back where I had sworn we’d never be again. I hated myself for the way I was acting toward Vinny. I appealed to my husband. “I don’t know how to be anything other than mean to him. This isn’t who I am and it isn’t who I want to be, but I don’t know how to change it.”
Mike didn’t have any answers for me, but he supported me in my quest for a solution. One night, at the end of another Internet session looking for advice, I came across an article on Mothering Magazine’s website. It detailed the author’s experience of PPD, wherein she described her excessive anger following the birth of her youngest child, illustrated by a moment trying to load her kids in the car when her daughter wasn’t cooperating. I remember well the lines I read that clued me in to my own depression:
“I knew I hadn’t hurt my eldest when I put her in her booster seat, at least not physically. What left me shaking was not just the adrenaline rush but the disturbing, painfully clear realization that I had wanted to hurt her, and that it had taken an alarming amount of restraint to not hit her. In some horrible, dark corner of my heart, I wanted her to suffer and feel ashamed […] I realized how badly [I] wanted to punch a six-year-old with pink sparkle sneakers.”
I read this and wept. I knew exactly what the author felt. I knew her rage; I was her. Except I didn’t have a six-year-old in sparkly sneakers. I had a two-year-old in a Thomas the Tank Engine t-shirt.
Shortly after my realization that post partum depression can look more like post partum anger, I reached out for help. I knew Malina from the Balanced Breastfeeding community and had proofread her writing for this blog. I sent her a Facebook message, explained my circumstances, and asked for her advice.
Malina set me up with Julie, her student, and I spent a few months going weekly or bi-weekly to Christiana Hospital to meet with Julie for therapy. I brought my kids every time because I had to, which wasn’t ideal, but it gave me plenty of opportunities to practice healthier ways to respond to Vinny’s behavior. Honestly, just having someone who knew about the rage I tried to hide from everyone else was a relief. Julie also connected me with the Attachment and Biobehavioral Catch-up (ABC) program run through the Child Development Lab at UD. Each week, a representative from the program would come into my home and guide me through situations where I would need to respond to Vinny and Brigid in appropriate ways that matched up with their developmental needs. I haven’t told many people about using this program (which is free, by the way), because it is embarrassing to admit that I wasn’t able to implement parenting practices that I knew (from all those late-night Internet sessions) I ought to have been doing. But I went through the program, it helped a great deal, and I recommend looking into it when other parents tell me they are having a tough time managing their toddlers’ or preschoolers’ behavior.
I think the biggest thing that has helped lift the depression has been time and a change in circumstance. Around the ten-month mark, I started feeling much more myself. I have found a group of moms who share my values and who have children similar in age to mine. We meet almost weekly and they have been a light in a truly dark time. For a length of time, I found myself in the confessional at church nearly weekly, feeling like a jerk for repeating the same thing every time, but relieved at yet another chance for spiritual reconciliation and renewal. Gradually, I realized I was going longer stretches between confessions, and I saw God’s grace working to heal my depression.
In January, Mike and I began the process of buying a house, and the prospect of moving out of our cramped apartment into a home of our own lifted a huge burden from my shoulders. We have recently settled into our house, located in a town with many places we can walk to. Although the stress of the move has intensified some of my yelling, crazy-lady tendencies, I would describe my feelings at my kids’ sometimes wild behavior as frustration, not rage. I still get angry; I still lose my temper and say things I regret, but those moments are much fewer and farther between, a huge departure from the daily loss of control I used to know. And I have the tools now to keep myself in check and to implement healthier responses when a situation feels like it is getting out of hand.
With a certain level of understanding that this is foolish, I sometimes ponder if I could have prevented this all from happening. If my husband weren’t working two jobs while also attending law school, would I have felt stretched so thin at home? And, really, considering all of the sacrifices Mike makes for us, at some point don’t I just need to suck it up a little bit and straighten myself out? From another angle, I wonder: Should I have just weaned Vinny during the pregnancy instead of pursuing this tandem nursing thing? Was this more for his benefit or for the sense of victory at having achieved this particular pinnacle of breastfeeding badassery? This can be a dark hole, I know. Whatever could have been, the reality is that I had post partum depression and it has impacted me as a mother and the nature of my family’s life. We cannot change it; we can only move on to whatever comes next.
I still have a great deal of work to do in cultivating the virtue of patience. Having resources I can turn to provides a sense of security and relief, knowing that I have a support system in place were things to get ugly again. Having children who are snuggly, loving, and quick to forgive helps, too. Also, I will acknowledge my relief that I am the only one of us who will actually carry the memories of this difficult year. Occasionally I feel sad that Vinny will never remember the happiest year of my life, the year we spent just the two of us. I am grateful, though, that my children won’t remember the darkest year of my life, either. I’m grateful, too, for the opportunity to create many more happy years as a family. Post partum depression isn’t who I am, and it doesn’t last forever. Thankfully, this only needs to be a short blip on my motherhood timeline.
For what it’s worth, my conclusion is that continuing to nurse Vinny was the right choice. I probably would have developed PPD even without tandem nursing, and breastfeeding him has afforded us an ability to stay close and bond when I wasn’t able to foster that connection in other ways. And he loves nursing. At almost three, he’s starting to wean, but he loves it so much. Listening to him talk about “Mama milk” and watching the relationship that he and Brigid have together as it relates to nursing is such a joy.
I see now what has come. When they wake up each morning, the first thing the kids do is tackle, hug, and kiss one another. They are the sweetest pair and having them so close has been worth it. We had a hard year, but time has shed some light onto my darkness and anger is being replaced by joy.
If you suspect that you or someone you love may have post partum depression, please reach out for help. Contact Post Partum Progress for resources and join us for the annual Climb Out of Darkness event. More information is available here.