I wanted to start this post off with something very dramatic like, when Theo was six weeks old, I was contemplating suicide. That has a nice ring to it, doesn't it? Edgy, yet thoughtful. The problem is, it would be a lie -- by the time Theo was six weeks old, I'd gone way past contemplation and was firmly into planning territory. It's just that "planning" doesn't have quite the same literary panache as "contemplating", you know?
It would be pills, I decided: the percocets I had left over after my c-section, and some sleeping pills that'd been sitting around since before my pregnancy. I would have to do it while Matt was at work, but close enough to the end of the day that Theo wouldn't have to be alone with his dead mother for too long. I would get some formula, I decided, and sterilize some bottles -- that way Matt could feed him immediately, because Theo would likely be hungry by the time I was found. I would write a note, a good one.
Planning things out step by step like this made me feel better; it made it seem as if I had some kind of control over my life.
I didn't want to die because I hated Theo. In fact, I loved him ferociously. I wanted to die because I knew that I was totally and utterly incapable as a mother. I wanted to die because I knew that if I lived, if I had to continue to be Theo's primary caregiver, then I would continue to fuck things up horribly. I wanted to die because if I did, someone else would have to step in as his mother, and whoever it was would surely be more competent than me.
At that moment I sincerely believed that even random people I passed on the street were more qualified to raise my son than I was.
I tried to tell people how I felt, I tried to convince them that I was an unfit parent, but no one seemed to believe me. They dismissed my worries as normal, and told me that every first-time mother felt the same way. I knew that what I was feeling was far from normal, but I didn't know what to do about it. I thought about running away, packing a suitcase full of warm weather clothes and boarding a plane, but that seemed crazy. Suicide, however, seemed totally logical.
Although I'm referring to what I went through as postpartum depression, my anxiety and fear had been around for most of my pregnancy. Here I'd gone 27 years only having to take care of myself (and often doing a pretty poor job of it), and now suddenly I was 100% responsible for this tiny life inside of me. It seemed like that should be enough to drive anyone around the bend.
Was I eating enough, I wondered? Was I eating the right things? Did I need more iron? Was I getting enough omega 3 to ensure healthy brain development? I started carrying around a list of fish, rated from highest mercury content to lowest. I would whip this list out at restaurants and do a few quick calculations in my head -- had I already ingested any potentially mercury-laced fish this week? How big of a portion could I have? It didn't seem fair that Matt didn't have to change his life at all while his son gestated, but I had to watch every bite that went into my mouth.
And then there was the alcohol. See, I hadn't known I was pregnant for the first few weeks, and I'd had maybe two or three glasses of wine, total, in that time. Midway through my pregnancy I became convinced that my child was going to have fetal alcohol syndrome. I hadn't even given birth yet, and I'd already ruined my child's life. How could I be such a selfish, terrible person?
By the end of my pregnancy I'd become incredibly paranoid about everything, so it was almost with a sense of relief that I greeted the news that, at 34 weeks, I had to be hospitalized and put on bed rest. Here I would be in a place where I was eating a doctor-approved diet, where I would be hooked up to a big, clunky machine twice a day in order to monitor my son's heart rate, and nurses were only the press of a button away. After months of fretting over taking care of myself and the baby, suddenly I could put myself in someone else's hands.
And then Theo was born, at 36 weeks, via c-section. I'd thought that once he was out of me, once I could hold him in my arms and know for certain at any given moment that he was alive and well, things would be better. It wasn't like that, though. I held him briefly in the operating room while they stitched me back up, but then they whisked him away, concerned about the grunting he was doing (a sign of laboured breathing, they said). Matt went with him, and my mother went off to call my grandmothers and aunts and uncles. I sat alone in the recovery room and waited, wanting only to hold my son.
They brought Theo back to me and let me try to nurse him, but he wouldn't, or couldn't. He started grunting again, so they took him away again, this time across the street to Sick Kids for an x-ray of his lungs. You need to prepare yourself for the fact that he might end up in the NICU, the nurse told me. I knew that wasn't the end of the world, but still, it was scary. On top of that I'd read so many things about how the first few hours of a baby's life are critical for bonding and creating a breastfeeding relationship -- would missing this time with him have an effect on the bond we had?
The thing was, I was already having doubts about our mother-son bond, even that early in the game. When I'd been pregnant, I'd felt like Theo and I had intuitively understood each other. He would kick, and I would ascribe meaning to those kicks. I would rub his feet as they poked my ribs, and I felt like he just knew that my actions meant, baby, I love you. But once Theo was born, I realized that he was a total stranger. I didn't know what he thought or wanted at all, and he didn't give a shit about my feelings.
That first week things went from bad to worse. I couldn't get Theo to latch, and every attempted nursing session was a nightmare. His weight dropped down to 4 lb 12 oz, which, while still within the range of normal, seemed frighteningly low. I felt like I'd failed at having the birth I wanted, had failed at properly bonding with my son, and was now failing at providing him with even the most basic necessities, like food. I couldn't believe that they actually trusted me enough to let me take my kid home a few days after his birth.
There was something else, too. During my c-section, I heard my doctor say to his intern, look at this, here's why he was breech. I asked him what he'd found, and he told me that I have a bicornuate uterus (like a cat! he said brightly). This means that instead of having one large chamber, my uterus has two smaller ones. Theo's head had been stuck in one of the chambers and he'd been unable to flip into the proper position.
Of course, as soon as I could, I googled bicornuate uterus. Wikipedia had the following to say:
Pregnancies in a bicornuate uterus are usually considered high-risk and require extra monitoring because of association with poor reproduction potential.
A bicornuate uterus is associated with increased adverse reproductive outcomes like:
- Recurrent pregnancy loss: the reproductive potential of a bicornuate uterus is usually measured by live birth rate (also called fetal survival rate).
- Preterm birth: with a 15 to 25% rate of pre-term delivery. The reason that a pregnancy may not reach full-term in a bicornuate uterus often happens when the baby begins to grow in either of the protrusions at the top. A short cervical length seems to be a good predicter of preterm delivery in women with a bicornuate uterus.
- Malpresentation (breech birth or transverse presentation): a breech presentation occurs in 40-50% pregnancies with a partial bicornuate uterus and not at all (0%) in a complete bicornuate uterus.
- Deformity: Offspring of mothers with a bicornuate uterus are at high risk for "deformities and disruptions" and "malformations."
So here I'd been worrying about stupid things like omega 3 and iron while, deep in the dark recesses of my body, my own uterus was secretly working against me. This whole time I'd been afraid of the wrong thing -- I was like France, setting up the Maginot Line, while all along the Germans were planning to attack from the opposite direction.
I was clearly (biologically, even) not meant to be anybody's mother.
The first few weeks of Theo's life were awful. I'd always been a bad sleeper, and now it was worse. Theo wriggled and grunted in his sleep, and it kept me awake. Every little sound that came out of him made all of my muscles tense up, making rest nearly impossible.
Whenever I complained about how tired I was, people would say, sleep when the baby sleeps, as if that was some great revelation. As if it was something that I couldn't come up with on my own. Breastfeeding continued to suck, and I began to dread feeding time. I would push it back by 5, 10 or 15 minutes, as if that made any difference. My days were lonely, boring and frustrating.
It was the carrier that finally pushed me over the edge. See, we live on the third floor and our building doesn't have an elevator. I'm not strong enough to drag our stroller up and down the stairs. So, whenever we went out, I used a carrier for Theo. And whenever he fell asleep in the carrier, he grunted with every breath.
I asked everyone about the grunting -- my mother, my sister-in-law, friends with kids. Everyone assured me that it seemed totally normal. Then, while obsessively googling "grunting" "breathing" and "baby carrier", I found one lone site that said that grunting was a sign of laboured breathing (which I already knew), and prolonged grunting could mean that the baby's blood oxygen level was low. Which could lead to many health complications, including brain damage.
The thing is, I'd known something was wrong. I'd known. I'd asked everyone and yes, they'd reassured me, but why hadn't I trusted my own instincts? Because I stupidly and selfishly wanted to be able to leave the house, that's why. If I was any kind of good mother, I would have stopped using the carrier as soon as he started grunting. I would have stayed home until Theo was old enough for the grunting to fix itself. But I wasn't a good mother. I was a terrible mother. Not only that, but I was a clear danger to my child.
When I read that part about the brain damage, I handed my sleeping son to my visiting mother-in-law, went into the bedroom and cried for three hours. How could I ever undo this? How could it ever be fixed? It wasn't as if I could just have a new kid and start fresh, having learned from my mistakes. A baby wasn't like a paper that you could crumple up and toss in the garbage. I was stuck with my sad, damaged kid, and would be stuck with him for the rest of my life. He would be a constant reminder of what a terrible person I was.
If I'd been home alone at that moment, I likely would have killed myself then and there. But I wasn't alone, so instead I confessed everything to my mother-in-law, hoping she would call the CAS and have Theo taken into protective custody. Instead, she convinced me to go to the doctor.
And I did go to the doctor, and joined a program at Women's College Hospital specifically for women with postpartum depression, and I went on medication, and saw a therapist. All of that helped, but I think what helped the most was seeing Theo grow up and realize that no, in fact, he wasn't brain damaged. He's a totally normal, lovely, happy kid. And these days I'm mostly a totally normal, lovely, happy mom. The two of have a fantastic bond. I am so lucky.
I still have my moments of fear and paranoia. I still occasionally freak out over little things. I will probably always be a somewhat high-strung parent, but I can live with that.
What makes me sad is that I will never get those first few weeks of Theo's life back. They will always exist for me in this cold, dark haze. I will never be able to think of Theo as a newborn without associating his early babyhood with that terrible time in my life. And that sucks. It sucks big time.
What also sucks is that I feel like I can't talk about my experience with postpartum depression. I often dance around the issue, saying "I had a tough time at the beginning," or, "things were really hard for me". I've never said, "being a new mother made me suicidal".
Well, not until now.
But I want to talk about it. I want to share my experience so that maybe someone else will think, hmmm, maybe I'm not bonkers and/or a terrible mother, maybe it's my hormones. I want to feel like I'm not the only one who went through this, and I also want other women to feel like they're not alone. I want them to know that things will get better, that they should talk to their doctor, or call a suicide hotline.
Most of all I want them to know that they are, in all likelihood, fantastic mothers.
For anyone who is in a state of mental health crisis, here is a link to the Mental Health Crisis line. You can also call Telehealth, if you're in Ontario. If you are experiencing any kind of depression or are having suicidal thoughts, please, please call one of the numbers above, or else contact your doctor or local mental health crisis line.