I’ve been making a lot of a certain tea called “Calming” these days. It helps me feel better, at least while I’m drinking it. Ingredients include not only the expected chamomile, but also licorice root and fennel seed, two flavors that have a calming effect on my belly. This is good, because depression affects every part of a body.
The tag on my steeping teabag says, “Love has no boundary.” And that’s the problem. I became a mother and lost my known identity because maternal love has no boundary. I now exist not simply as myself but as the means of support to someone else. Yes, I have a body and skin that separate me physically from the body of my child—he is no longer attached to me via the umbilical cord, encased in my uterus, buffered by amniotic fluid, literally being nourished by the food I eat, and sucking the calcium from my bones. But the psychological divide between us is not complete.
The package containing the tea has a warning: “Consult your healthcare provider if you are pregnant or nursing.” I think, probably, this is good advice whether or not you are drinking herbal tea, especially if your healthcare provider is helpful with psychological matters.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) , one in nine women experiences postpartum depression, but these numbers may actually be higher, as the CDC study also states that “ depression is often underdiagnosed and untreated; nearly 60 percent of women with depressive symptoms do not receive a clinical diagnosis, and 50 percent of women with a diagnosis do not receive any treatment .”
I love my obstetrician. I’ve been seeing her for seventeen years for my regular gynecological visits, and I was happy to have her deliver my baby after I became pregnant. But my postpartum care was not extensive; it consisted of one follow-up appointment six weeks after I gave birth, to make sure that it was safe for me to take a bath or have sex. Everything checked out, and my doctor said, Okay, I’ll see you in a year for your regular checkup. I told her I was incontinent. She said it was common, but did not investigate the muscles of my pelvic floor. I started to cry and told her that parenting was so hard, and she said, This is also normal.
She said, “It is hard, it’s the hardest thing. I’m not just saying this to make you feel better, but many parents don’t love their children until their kids are two or three years old.” This did make me feel better; at least I felt that I wasn’t alone. But there was still the problem of being depressed and having a hard time loving my kid. Just because something is “normal” does not mean it is okay.
It is difficult to feel okay when you can’t sleep when you’re tired, or go to the grocery store without negotiating childcare, or make plans that aren’t always tentative because who knows when the baby will decide to throw a fit or take a nap or pick up a nasty germ from daycare.
Pregnant women are treated as the most special patients in my doctor’s office. While pregnant, I never had to wait to schedule an appointment, and toward the end of my pregnancy, in part because of my “advanced maternal age,” I was seen a couple of times a week. I even called in tears at one point in my pregnancy, and the kind nurses immediately gave me the contact information for three different counselors to try. (I did end up finding one elsewhere.)
After pregnancy, it’s a different story. As long as the baby is healthy and the mother isn’t hemorrhaging, most doctors simply send you on your way to just deal with it. Some months after my son’s birth, I left a message with my doctor’s office, asking for a physical therapist recommendation after discovering on my own that I was suffering from diastasis recti. (Diastasis recti is a condition where the stomach muscles separate due to stress such as a long pregnancy and a large baby, and don’t return back to their pre-stress position, resulting in a vertical gap down the front of the stomach, which leads to back pain and bladder control problems, among other difficulties.) I never heard back from my doctor’s office. A culture of urgency around postpartum care just does not exist in America. The implication is that the life of the baby is the most important; the life of the mother is secondary.
Even during prenatal care, as my baby’s heart rate and fluid levels were monitored, my own nutrient levels and blood pressure were checked, but with the purpose of making sure my body was providing the optimal growing environment for the baby inside of me. After my son’s birth, he had his own standard weekly and then monthly visits with the pediatrician. The baby was now outside of my body, and the regular doctor visits were no longer even under the premise of being about my body. I had done my job and the medical establishment had moved on.
I love my baby. I can sense him crying in another room long before anyone else can, including his father. It is part of my biology to be attached to him this way, but I’ve also been conditioned by medicine and society to believe, if not always then at least most of the time, that I exist for the purpose of his wellbeing. For a formerly independent woman in her late thirties, this has been a massive identity shift with which to grapple. And I’m expected to open my arms and welcome this change, because, after all, I did want a baby.
Imagine, if you will, your insides shifting, your intestines being pushed to the sides. Imagine your ribcage expanding and your hip bones widening. Imagine one of your organs growing from the size of an orange to the size of a watermelon (uterus), while you grow another, completely new organ that will reach the size of a dinner plate (placenta) before you birth it from your body right after birthing a baby. There are a lot of hormonal changes that make these things happen, and it takes a long, long time for the body to get back in balance—while my mind was grappling with my new identity as a parent after giving birth, my body, my earthly vehicle, was continuing to change. I couldn’t find my foothold, and with each passing month of parenthood, as I continued to fail at understanding my role in this new world, my feelings of worthlessness grew.
It is a bewildering and lonely thing to be so attached to another human (granted, a preverbal one) and also feel so adrift and so alone. I am an outgoing, confident person. At least, I was before I became a mother.
In my twenties, I was a late-night bartender. I sang in rock and punk bands, performing on stages in New York City. I went out dancing and hosted giant parties in apartments and on rooftops. I struck up conversations with strangers who would then become friends. I lived in the present. I made my opinions known. I challenged myself, and I took up space. I hugged the world, and the more open I was, the more right and at peace I felt. And then my hormones made a human inside of my body, and the part of me that sometimes felt like an open wound in my past became the bulk of my self.
What makes the change in my personality so hard to understand is that only my husband and my closest friends are aware of it. I’ve had so many years of practice at being a social, engaging person, that I can usually fake my way right through group interactions without anyone picking up on my inner turmoil, or the fact that I am not completely there.
One night recently, a fight with my husband drove home to me how disassociated I had become. Karl and I were dealing with the emotional and financial stresses of new parenthood. We were struggling with something that so many partners go through: a seeming shift in our marriage from intimate relationship to business partnership. This shift was scaring me. What if it was permanent? I already felt so alone. If I lost my husband, I felt, I would have no one. My view on life had reached dangerous tunnel vision territory.
Our son was already asleep in his crib for the night, and Karl and I were yelling at each other, a couple of rooms over, four floors up from the street. Karl was sitting in a chair in front of a window. I was on the rug, feeling desperate. Everything was over. I wasn’t being heard. My husband had given up on me. I stood up, walked behind my husband, and flung the window open. We hadn’t bothered to install safety window grates for the baby yet, and the screen was missing. A cool night breeze blew into the room.
“What are you doing,” I heard my husband say, as I reached through the window. Some part of me knew that Karl would stop me, and some part of me needed the proof that he hadn’t given up on me completely.
What scared me the most, after Karl guided me inside and closed the window, was my realization that, in my decision to initiate a jump, I had forgotten that I had a child. I had turned off the part of me that was responsible for my baby—and, yes, also the part of me that is responsible for my own life. How was this possible? I said to myself, “Even Sylvia Plath thought of her sleeping children, lining their bedroom doors with wet towels, before putting her head in the oven and turning on the gas.” Granted, Plath’s attempts at suicide had been much more premeditated and consistent than my own. But still . . .
That moment at the window scared me into not keeping my postpartum mood swings to myself. The more I can be open about my depression, the more I can feel not alone. But I struggle with the stigma of postpartum depression that still exists, especially in our culture, where a mother is deemed A-OK if her body is able to submerge in water and have sex six weeks after giving birth, thank-you-very-much-see-you-next-year. What is this new identity where I need other people so much? Where has my independence gone? I am supposed to be the caregiver now, not the one who takes.
And so I am trying to talk about the struggles I often feel I should not be having, but that I know so many mothers have. I am trying to be comfortable with needing help sometimes. I am doing little things each day to take care of myself. Sometimes drinking a cup of tea can be a lifesaver. I am drinking my tea.