Postpartum Depression, Postpartum Anxiety, Postpartum Rage & Postpartum Psychosis: A Conversation – Week 10
Featuring regular mothers from our community, from all different walks of life, all having experienced varying postpartum related symptoms. I wanted to HUMANIZE these experiences, I wanted to remove the judgement and shame that women are made to feel about their experiences as new mothers. I wanted to educate everyone on the fact that the range of symptoms and severity for postpartum related issues is VAST and VARIED. I wanted to support the new mother who might not even understand what she’s thinking, feeling or experiencing as postpartum related. I wanted to normalize these things. I wanted to do what (I) could to help. Thus, this project was born.
In exchange for free portraits with their children, I’ve asked participants to tell their stories. To write about their background – what makes them relatable, what do they do for a living, what are their interests or hobbies? I’ve asked them to tell their story as they remember it. I’ve asked them to write about how they came to recognize their struggles, how they discussed their needs with their loved ones, how they sought out help, where they are now, how they’re taking care of themselves etc. In past weeks, I’ve received very detailed, thoughtful, personal, vulnerable and encouraging stories! I hope you’ll go back & read the stories from previous weeks!
If you are a Survivor & would like to contribute your story (I heard that there were no available spots left, I will be opening up additional spaces at the end of the year, if interest is still there & I still have the stamina to keep up with it!) – I shoot portraits (my gift to you) every Friday from 5:30-6:00pm in Downtown Asheville (& your written story would be due by Sunday night for publication on Mondays!) You can sign up here: Contribute
Throughout the series, I’ll also feature Guest Blog Posts from Mental Health Professionals in our little mountain town & the state of North Carolina! At the end of each post, I’ll include contact information for local resources where you can get help right away should you need it!
If you would like to contribute a Guest Blog as a Mental Health Professional, Postpartum Doula or other Pregnancy/Postpartum expert , please email me directly at: Brittany@AshevilleFamilyPhotography.com
As a Registered Nurse and classic type A personality, I approached pregnancy, child birth and motherhood as I had many chapters in my life – with a clear plan in mind and all the information I could gather. I had a “best practice” approach: a home birth, a natural vaginal birth for a healthy gut microbiome, gentle transition into the world, breastfeeding, midwives and doulas. I was armed with all the resources I needed. I expected it would be difficult, but in the end I would succeed in birth as I had in so many areas of life. My pregnancy was absolutely perfect and I was physically stronger and more confident than ever. But then, despite all my careful planning, things fell apart. I failed to follow the birth plan I had meticulously crafted. I failed to have a home birth, I failed to have a drug free, natural birth, and I failed to deliver my daughter safely and gently into the world.
There were signs of meconium in my amniotic fluid while I labored at home so I had to transfer to the hospital. Then I developed a fever during the last few hours of labor. The NICU team had to be present for my daughter’s birth and she developed a respiratory infection requiring a NICU stay. This was completely unexpected and frightening. After she was taken to the NICU, and while I was being admitted to the Mom/Baby unit, she had a cyanotic episode and the NICU team had to get her breathing again. I knew it was important for new infants to remain close to their mothers after birth to help regulate their breathing and temperature. Why didn’t I insist on going with her to the NICU? I’m supposed to be her fiercest advocate! Add that failure to the growing list.
During our week in the NICU, I was exhausted and in a state of constant worry. I was completely focused on my daughter’s recovery and neglected my own. I felt the need to stay on top of every little thing and only left the hospital for a total of a few hours that entire week. I was having trouble breast feeding this little baby who was sick and very sleepy. Two NICU nurses were impatient with me, causing me to further doubt my breastfeeding skills. Worst of all, I felt I had completely failed my very first task as a mom – to bring my daughter safely and gently into the world. What the hell? This is what my body is basically designed for right? That’s what I’d heard during all the classes I had taken, “this is a natural process” and “your body will know what to do” and “follow your instincts”. Well, none of that had prepared me for the reality of my birth experience.
So, there we were, in the NICU and the exact opposite of a gentle transition into the world was going on. She was being poked and prodded, had oxygen tubing in her nose and a tube going down into her stomach. She was hooked up to monitors that made it hard to hold her. She was being given IV antibiotics – destroying her gut microbiome! – and when they had to change her IV several times they gave her sugar water which helps distract from the pain. I didn’t want her to have sugar! I wanted none of this and yet here we were, having to compromise on pretty much everything. The sweet time of post partum bonding and comfort at home in our family bed that I had been picturing in the months leading up to her birth had been taken away, not just from me, but most importantly from her. The guilt and shame I felt were strong. I did not want to talk to anyone about her birth or about her NICU stay. I couldn’t even think about it without crying. I was truly grieving the loss of the birth experience I had dreamed of, but I didn’t realize it.
Once the course of antibiotics was complete and her lab work showed the infection had cleared, we went home. We were so happy to be home and tried to put the hospital behind us. My husband was starting a new job and two weeks after our daughter was born, he started to travel again, meaning he was only home on weekends. I was breastfeeding exclusively so I was up every 2 hours feeding. Once the meal train ended and the family visits stopped, we settled into our new routine – me home alone with our daughter for the majority of the week.
We did not have any family or close friends in the area, so I tried to schedule play dates with other moms, but illness, sleepless nights, conflicting nap schedules always seemed to make that difficult. We live in a rural area and I started to feel very isolated. Thinking back on that first year, I don’t think I have ever felt so alone. As a nurse, I knew that I was likely suffering from Post Partum Depression, but I had many reasons for not seeking help. I am a stay at home mom, I should feel lucky to be able to do that! Unlike so many moms, I had very few other stressors in my life. I had no reason to be depressed and even if I was, I didn’t have the time or energy to seek help for myself. Other moms with multiple kids seem to be functioning just fine, so why am I struggling with one?! This was my choice and I just needed to power through, but no amount of self determination seemed to be helping.
I took my daughter to a music class and library story times. I was functioning despite a severe lack of sleep that caused me to have peripheral visual hallucinations. I was experiencing persistent thoughts of worry about the safety of my daughter and would obsess over theoretical dangers. Finally around 13 months, my husband decided that we needed to stop co-sleeping and night wean to regain our sanity. I was grateful for his intervention, even though I’m sure I didn’t show it. Although I was finally getting more sleep, I was still pretty miserable to be around. I poured what energy I could muster into my daughter and left nothing for myself or my husband. Several times, I researched therapists in our area but each time I came back to the excuses: you have no reason to be depressed, you’re lucky, there is no time for you to go to therapy, people will think you’re a bad mom. I would cry in the car, in the shower, basically anywhere no one would see me. In my mind, I had already failed at so much, I couldn’t admit to anyone that I was struggling.
It took me two and a half years before I finally told my husband about my depression and reached out to a therapist. I was diagnosed with PPD and PTSD stemming from our time in the NICU. I started with EMDR therapy and later added Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. It has been a long process, but through these treatment modalities and self compassion work, I have been able to gain perspective about my experience. More importantly, I can look back at that time and extend kindness to myself instead of criticism, shame and guilt. I could not control the things that went medically wrong during our birth experience and in the weeks that followed I did the very best I could. This self compassion work has been important, not just for me, but for how I view other mothers. Once I started to treat myself with kindness, I could more easily extend that kindness to other moms, instead of judgement.
When I read the article that precipitated this project, and saw the mug shot of the local mother who threw her baby into the ravine, I was struck by what I saw and felt. Prior to therapy I would have jumped on the condemnation bandwagon, but now I recognize that her photo reflects how I felt during those very difficult first years. She’s a smart, medical professional, with a seemingly happy life displayed in Facebook posts, and no one predicted her actions. I’m sure those who know her best are shocked and saddened that they did not know she needed help. People who know me were, and will be, shocked to know the extent of my struggle. I also hid it very well behind smiling pictures and an appearance of holding it all together.
Dealing with perfectionism and the impossible societal expectations of mothers is still a challenge for me. I’m learning that I cannot bend everything to my will, and that the things I once viewed as personal “failures”, were more likely me being hypercritical of myself. I’m working on showing myself the same kindness I would show a friend who’s having a bad day. There is a lot of talk about self care and that can come in many different forms. The best thing I can give myself is the gift of improved mental health. I hope that if you are like me, and have considered reaching out for help, you will make that phone call. You deserve to feel better. It’s not a failure to admit your struggle, and it absolutely will help.