Our second son was two months old. My husband and I laid in bed long after we should have been sleeping. In the depths of February, the blue flannel sheets and heavy duvet stretched over us were not enough to keep me from shivering. Evan wrapped his arm across me, while I faced the wall. I was counting on the darkness to hide my red eyes and splotchy cheeks, but I couldn’t conceal my heaving shoulders and wracking sobs.
This was a common scene after Leo’s birth. Nearly every night, I laid in bed feeling completely defeated and overwhelmed. Everything about my posture said, “I don’t want to talk about it,” but what I wanted to say was, “I don’t know how to talk about it.”
Somehow, even then, Evan knew. “Do you think you have postpartum depression?”
“I don’t think so,” I replied, my back toward him. Wasn’t I managing to care for the boys every day? I didn’t want to hurt them, and I didn’t have any suicidal thoughts.
“I’m just having a hard time.”
We went on like this for months. I was full of excuses for how I was feeling. We had moved across the country, 1,200 miles away from our family and friends. Evan worked long hours, and we didn’t have much support. Our oldest son, Ian, presented a slew of behavioral challenges. We struggled under the weight of student loan payments. Always a perfectionist, I blamed myself for any less-than-ideal day (which was basically all of them, with two children under three years old). My hormones still hadn’t returned to normal after Leo’s birth. What I labeled “excuses” were actually risk factors.
As summer approached and the days lengthened, I walked into our room one night and showed Evan the stick that confirmed our suspicion: I was unexpectedly pregnant with our third baby. We laid in bed next to each other, holding hands and staring at the ceiling in a bit of shock. I was excited–after all, we had always said we wanted a big family–but that excitement was swiftly overrun by fear. I didn’t fear labor or delivery, nor did I fear the coming reality of having two babies only 14 months apart.
I was afraid of my own emotions, my own mind, and my own capability or lack thereof.
I didn’t know if I could survive parenting a third child–another internal reality I couldn’t manage to say out loud.
It was a podcast episode that changed the conversation.
One afternoon during naptime, my house was quiet except for the conversation streaming through my earbuds. Suddenly, I froze, motionless in the middle of my kitchen, the half-unloaded dishwasher open next to me. I had stopped short with a deep sense of recognition. In this podcast episode about anxiety, it felt like the hosts were describing my life–the looping thoughts, the irrational fears, the racing heartbeat. That night, Evan and I found ourselves in that familiar place: late at night, way past bedtime, my pillowcase soaked through. But this time, I had the words to articulate what was happening in my head.
I turned towards Evan instead of the wall, and I told him. “I think I have anxiety. Like, real anxiety.”
I ask myself, now, if I would have ever sought help for my PPD had my new pregnancy not necessitated a fresh batch of prenatal appointments, if I hadn’t been so alarmed by my fear, and if that podcast episode hadn’t given me language to articulate my confusing mental state.
My nurse and doctor went through the typical rigamarole–arm cuff and blood pressure, scale and weight, blue goop and baby’s heartbeat, syringe and bloodwork. Everything was good, everything was normal.
“Congratulations,” the doctor offered. “Any questions for me?”
“Well, there is one thing I need to ask you about.”
And yet, when she offered to write a prescription, I declined.
“I think it’s getting better. I think I have it under control,” I said.
I did not have it under control. As winter descended again, now 7 months pregnant, I found myself unable to leave the house. I couldn’t stop crying. I didn’t want to get out of bed. I kept my oldest home from preschool and cancelled appointments.
On Leo’s first birthday, I drove to pick up my husband at work. My mother-in-law was at our house with the boys, waiting to celebrate. A smash cake and tiny balloon sat in the backseat. While I waited for Evan to come out of his building, I sobbed into the steering wheel. “I don’t want to feel this way anymore,” I thought.
A few days later, I laid in bed crying (again) and confessed all this to Evan. “We’re going to talk to the doctor again,” he said.
This time, the conversation ended with a Zoloft prescription. It worked like a charm.
The symptoms of a perinatal mood disorder seem obvious in retrospect, but at the time, I only understood a very limited definition of postpartum depression. Because I didn’t have suicidal thoughts and was still managing to care for my kids, I assumed I was not experiencing PPD. Now I know an estimated one in seven women experience perinatal mood disorders, and there are a whole slew of symptoms and risk factors I had never considered.
The entire first year of Leo’s life was marked by intense anger and irritability. I didn’t want to get out of bed some mornings, and I cried hopelessly in the shower most nights. At some moments, I walked away from my tantruming toddler because I no longer felt in control of my own body. I stopped doing laundry because an image of falling down the basement stairs played like a movie in my mind. I grew afraid my husband might be hurt or killed on his commute to and from work.
Worst of all, I felt so disconnected from Leo. What was a natural response with my other children—saying, “I love you,” giving kisses, feeling the desire to hold and be near them—was missing with Leo. I had to deliberately choose those actions, rather than experience them instinctively. Looking back, I remember very little from Leo’s first year of life. I look at photos, but the memories escape me. I loved that little boy, but I could not connect with him. I was terrified to say so out loud, believing it would be the thing that solidified my standing as a terrible mother.
In late December, a few weeks after beginning my medication and with a full-term baby girl growing in my womb, I snuck into Leo’s nursery while he slept. I stood over his crib, trying to keep my feet still, lest the creaky floor wake him. Suddenly, I saw him, as though for the first time. I ran to grab my camera because I wanted to remember this moment–the sweetness of face, the roundness of his cheeks, and the depth of my previously dormant devotion–forever.
The next day at breakfast, I sat down at the kitchen table. Ian ate Cheerios in his seat, and Leo clumsily tried to spoon oatmeal into his mouth. Just a few weeks before, I spent every breakfast hiding in the kitchen, wishing to go back to bed and looking at the day with dread. But today, I had sat down at the table without thinking about it. I laughed with my boys, sipped my tea, and felt Ruthie kicking in my belly. My fear was gone.
It turns out, my husband was right from the get-go: postpartum depression. I wish I had seen it all those many months before.
Lindsey is a writer, reader, and mom who is slowly learning to trade perfectionism for freedom. A Florida-to-Michigan transplant, her faith and sense of purpose are shifting as she experiences seasons in the world and in her own life. Lindsey is also the co-founder of The Drafting Desk, a newsletter for anyone trying to pursue grace instead of perfection. You can find her on Instagram @lindseycornett.