When contemplating motherhood, most women give serious thought to the pain of labor. We deliberate how we want the birth of our unborn child to unfold. Would we want to attempt a natural birth? Would we prefer receiving an epidural? Do we have need of a c-section? We write out birth plans in the hopeful anticipation that all will go as we desire. We recognize that we will experience at least some degree of pain, both during the birth itself and during the healing process after the birth.
I have birthed eight babies (not all at once!) and it has never ceased to amaze me how quickly my recollection of the pain I had just endured faded after that sweet little bundle was placed into my arms. I thought that once the labor and delivery were over and my healing complete, my days would just be pure joy. To a large extent, even amid sleep deprivation and a colicky first baby, my days were joyful. I did not realize there was a storm cloud hovering on my horizon.
My second baby was born 21 months after my first. After the initial adjustments, life seemed to begin to fall into place. I felt more confident as a mom the second time around and my second baby was not colicky like my first. I thought all was smooth sailing ahead! But I did not realize the waves were getting a little higher. My third child was born 3 years after my second. He was a dream baby! I joke that he slept the entire first 6 months of his life. He was just soooo easy. He lulled me into a sense of complacency and then BAM! he got difficult! I found it hardest to make the transition from 2 children to 3, particularly after dream baby quit being dream baby anymore! I was juggling the needs of a preschooler, a toddler, and an infant at the same time that we began home schooling. I was treading water that was both deep and roiling. I was putting up a valiant effort, but it was tough. My fourth child was born when my third child was 20 months old. At that point, I was beyond outnumbered.
The unvarnished truth of the matter was that I had birthed four children in only six years, had a husband who loved us all dearly but worked very long hours to provide for us, felt pretty overwhelmed (that’s an understatement!), and (unbeknownst to me) was reeling from postpartum depression that worsened with each succeeding birth. On the outside looking in, we were the all-American dream. We were very active in our church, did things together with friends, and ran the kids from one sports activity to the next. We looked happy, like we had it all together. And more than anything I wanted us to be that picture that we were portraying. I desperately wanted our family to be the living, breathing, Norman Rockwell image of the perfect little family. Perfect husband and wife with lovingly adoring, perfectly-behaved children. I often dressed the four of them in cute little coordinating outfits, fussed over fixing the girls’ hair just right, and did everything in my power to have them project that image that I so longed to embody.
The problem with Norman Rockwell paintings are that they are a snapshot into a single moment in time. Life is too busy and too messy to maintain that snapshot-image indefinitely. Slowly, the mounting pressure of maintaining the image of my “perfect” life began to overpower the true joys of daily life. As it got harder and harder, I started going down with the ship, but I didn’t realize it. I was grumpy with the kids, I was unkind to my husband, I was agitated and annoyed just about all the time. I spent a lot of time crying over the smallest things. I would go to bed at night hoping that I just wouldn’t wake up the next morning. And since I did always wake up the next morning, I would lay in bed as long as I possibly could and wish I could just die.
As if things weren’t already bad enough, I began having panic attacks. The worst of these would tend to come when I would drive, so I attempted to go as few places as possible when my husband wasn’t available to take us. The panic attacks didn’t go away though. Things finally came to a head when my 4th child was almost 11 months old. I had been experiencing a painful tingling sensation at the back of my neck for 3 solid days and I could not stand it any longer. I called my husband at work and told him to come home right away because I was dying. He called a friend to come care for the kids and rushed me to the hospital. On the way, I was trying to give him every instruction possible regarding the kids because I truly believed I would die at the hospital and would never see them again. At the hospital, I was told that the tingling sensation was because I was so anxiety-ridden I had been hyperventilating for the past 3 or more consecutive days. They told me I was seriously depressed and needed treatment.
What had happened to that beautiful life that I had envisioned? It was supposed to be rainbows and laughter! It was supposed to be giggles and kisses! It was supposed to be joy and contentment! It was was supposed to be fulfillment and fun! It wasn’t supposed to be sad and hard with an overreaching level of stress like I had never known! None of the books prepared me for this! No one talked about the pain after the birthing and the healing were done! How could this be happening? What was wrong with me? Why couldn’t I cope? Why was everyone else excelling at motherhood and I was failing miserably? Why couldn’t I laugh at anything anymore? Why couldn’t I even smile? Why did life hurt so bad?
After my trip to the hospital, I sought treatment which involved both medication and counseling. I was diagnosed with Major Clinical Depression with an anxiety disorder (and a full serving of passive-suicidal on the side). I was a big mess. After about 2 continuous years of treatment, I was doing better. Not all better, but much better. I realized that I had been trying to maintain some extremely unrealistic expectations. I had to find other ways to have a fulfilling life without trying to make my family look like a still life portrait.
One of the most surprising things to me after I began to “come back” was my renewed ability to enjoy things. I hadn’t even realized how little I had been taking time to appreciate even the little joys in life. I glossed over them, took them for granted, and essentially discounted their place in the experience of life. Slowly, I learned to laugh again. It was something I actually noticed and other people noticed about me. It started (just like a baby) with simple smiles. Smiles became giggles, and before I knew it, I began to find the joy in a moment and allowed myself to laugh again. My mother gave me one of my greatest tools for coping: She would hear of the escapades of the children (and my tone of disapproval) and would say, “What difference does it make?” I heard her say this a number of times and, after I stopped letting it bug me, I began to consider the question in earnest.
Anytime the kids wanted to do something and my knee-jerk reaction was to holler out a resounding “NO!” I began to retrain myself by posing the question in my mind:
Will what they want to do result in stitches or a cast?
Then, what difference does it make?
Will what they want to do result in a big mess?
Really, what difference does it make?
As I began to allow my children a little more breathing room, I began to see things a little more through their eyes. I began to see the joy and the humor in things again. My husband and my kids are really funny people and I shouldn’t have been blinded to this for so long. The problem was that I wasn’t letting them be who they were because it wasn’t fitting with the picture of what I thought we were “supposed” to be (whatever that was). Things happen. Things happen all the time. How I choose to respond to the things that happen have made all the difference. Let me say that again! Things happen! And how I choose to respond to the things that happen have made all the difference! And now, more often than not, I choose laughter.
My children are like any other children. In fact, I might be tempted to say that my children are more than a handful because they tend to embody the spirits of Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn! They get into things. (Boy, can they get into things!) They make messes. (Mercy, can they make messes!) They argue. (Sheesh, can they argue!) They disobey. (Enough said, right?) These are not things I laugh over, but things I realize need correction and training to help them overcome their childish ways so they can be responsible, productive adults someday. There’s a responsibility I have to them and to everyone else to teach them right from wrong. So, no; those types of things don’t even garner a giggle. (Those things get the “mom glare”)
However, there are other moments; moments that are sweet and innocent, moments that are unintended and spontaneous. Those moments, when there is no issue of right or wrong, those moments receive a smile, a wink and a nod, a hidden giggle, or a burst of laughter. My children know there are standards by which they need to operate, but they also know that when they mess up it’s not the end of the world. Having more realistic expectations and extending a smile (even when I don’t necessarily feel like it) have gone a very long way in helping me manage such a full household without spiraling back down into depression.
Finding myself ensnared in the throes of debilitating postpartum depression was not even something that had been on my radar. I may have glossed over it in my favorite pregnancy book. In my mind, it was just something that happened to other people. That perception could not have been farther from the truth and it truly rocked my world. Those days were dark, painful and miserable. If you find yourself struggling to get through your days, if life seems to be sad and dreary, please seek help for yourself. There are so many treatment options available. There is no need for you to continue to suffer in silence. Postpartum depression is pain we never anticipate, but it can be overcome.
(If you think you suffer from postpartum depression–feeling overwhelmed, anxious, sad, or suicidal–please contact your doctor immediately. You can find out more about postpartum depression on the PPD Moms web site. There is also a hotline number you can call: 1-800-PPD-MOMS)