Not just in my head: The physical force of postpartum depression

14285643_10100708262114242_604312381_oI’ve wanted to be a mom for as long as I can remember- and a stay-at-home mom at at that.
My own mom had these little “School Days” books that she kept for my brother and me. One of the sections included the question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” Year after year, my answer was “mother.” (And, briefly, around second grade, a model…”so I can work with clay.”) Did I mention I wanted 12 kids? Yes, twelve! The image of motherhood I had spent almost my whole life picturing turned out to be quite different than the reality I encountered.  Postpartum depression has a way of doing that.
By way of background, my husband and I have been married for ten years. We have five kids, aged almost 9, 7, almost 5, 3, and 18 months. During those ten years, we also moved, my husband completed a Master’s program, and I began homeschooling our kids. To say our lives are full and never boring is an understatement of greatest proportions. For most of my life, I have thrived when I had a lot on my plate. I like having things to do, and my type-A, checklist-loving self adores the feeling of accomplishment, no matter how small and mundane the task may be (hello, never ending laundry). Other than that we have five kids, not twelve, I am living the exact life that I have always wanted to live, almost down to a T. I mention that because in some ways, I think that made my depression worse, as I’ll explain shortly.
Although now, looking back, I can see that I struggled with PPD with all of our kids to some extent, the last two rounds have been much worse, and I’ll be focusing on those for this post.
On a glorious Friday in May, just days after my husband graduated from his Master’s program, our fourth child, Fulton Ignatius, was born. He weighed 9 lbs. 6 oz, had a full head of blonde hair, and his ginormous hands and feet looked like paws. We loved him instantly. Our first three children were, respectively, a girl, a boy, and a girl, and we could not have been more thrilled that everyone now had a brother and a sister. From the get-go, he was a really sweet and happy baby. His laid-back personality was evident from birth and most welcome in our crazy household. That summer, over the course of two months, we found a house we loved, went through hoop after hoop to buy it (it was a foreclosure), and prepared our house to be rented. We moved in October, when Fulton was five months old. At this point, things had (again) been so busy that we hadn’t really been paying attention to my mental health. There were too many things to do.
Despite his easy-going personality, Fulton was a fairly poor sleeper for the first ten months of his life, waking every two to three hours. I was co-sleeping with him for much of that time, which seemed to be the lesser of two evils as far as trying to get some sleep was concerned.
It was that during spring, around the time our older son finished preschool, that we slowed down long enough to realize that there may have been more to my constant meltdowns than our busy schedule. While the running around definitely wasn’t helping, we both knew that by this point of our babies’ lives, we were usually back in a groove, something that definitely wasn’t true this time. I mentioned something to my doctor about how frustrated I was that I just couldn’t handle the kids as well as I felt I ought to be able to. By this point after all of the other babies, I had always bounced back to our “pre-baby” state, just a little busier with another person in the house. But this time around, we were barely surviving. I was exhausted from still not sleeping well at night and hauling kids all over the place during the day. The house was usually in shambles; we were gone enough to not be home to clean it, but home enough to make mess after mess. I found myself yelling at the kids more and more, over the smallest infractions. I was anxious about the most mundane and random things. Dinner most nights was whatever my husband could scrounge up and make when he got home. I hated it. I knew I wasn’t taking care of everyone the way that I wanted to, and this was the point that I brought up with our beloved family physician.
I started out with “I’m just feeling a little overwhelmed with the kids all being so young and needy,” which quickly escalated to tears and apologetically telling him that I knew how blessed I was to be home with them, and how frustrated I was that I just couldn’t be grateful and enjoy them. He let me ramble for a while before kindly telling me, “This is not an issue of ingratitude. This is a chemical issue of your brain not working the way that it is supposed to. Your neurons and neurotransmitters aren’t functioning properly, and medication will heal them.” While this all made sense to me from an academic, biological standpoint, I still stubbornly felt like I should be able to just be grateful. I had always wanted to be able to stay at home with my big family! What was wrong with me? I can see now that this only added to my frustration, as the real me, who has been so hard to see these past few years, is a grateful person who enjoys my kids.
I was still nursing Fulton, who was about ten months old at the time, and decided to just wait a few months until he was weaned to see if things got better. My husband was leary of this idea and didn’t want me to wait, but I convinced him that things would be better as Fulton started to sleep more, preschool ended, and we moved into the relaxation of summer.

Fulton’s first birthday

So, preschool ended, Fulton turned one, started sleeping through the night in his crib, and things seemed to improve. For about a month and a half, things were swell. We were finally settling into our new house and the kids were all starting to thrive again with laid back-days at home. Everyone was happy. And then I got pregnant.
Our fifth baby, a delightful little boy named Athanasius, was our only “surprise” NFP baby. While we were obviously open to life, a baby so soon after four kids in five years was NOT our plan, and I cried many, many, many hysterical tears both when I showed my husband the positive test and in the months following. My husband immediately brought up the issue of my depression, to which I quickly responded that I definitely wouldn’t start taking a drug while I was pregnant, and that we would have to figure out different ways to deal with it, if it did indeed show up again.
Almost immediately, this pregnancy was more physically difficult and traumatic than previous ones. Various unforeseen complications sent me to the ER throughout the pregnancy. In hindsight, there were signs that the depression was already returning during the pregnancy. I couldn’t handle the chaos around me or the constant messes my kids created in the blink of an eye. I found myself frequently sending them back outside to play at the neighbors or downstairs to watch a(nother) show. I quit reading books to them. We did the bare minimum for school, often completed after my husband came home at night. I didn’t laugh anymore. Ever. I would get annoyed when they would laugh and be joyful (misery really does love company) and send them away from me again. I’m overwhelmed by the shielding of my children’s hearts. All through the pregnancy, despite my insane screaming and literal fits over a glass of spilled milk, they remained so excited for a new baby. They always forgave me when I went to them in tears after my latest episode of hysterics, apologizing for my behavior and telling them how sorry I was that I was acting like that. How do you explain to a seven-year-old that you know you shouldn’t scream like that but that you quite literally couldn’t stop yourself, even as you heard the hurtful words coming out of your mouth?  I think that was one of the scariest parts.  I felt so out of control of my actions and like such a loose cannon.
The only people who really truly knew what was going on in our house besides my husband were my parents and my best friend. I would allude to struggles and the chaos to other moms in our homeschool co-op, and I am sure that many of them knew I was struggling, but I don’t think most people knew the extent of chaos and difficulty. My parents were wonderful and would take at least one kid almost every weekend to try to give us a break. My husband frequently took the whole brood to his parents’ house four hours away, or even just out of the house. He let me sleep in every weekend and basically took over the care of the house.  I am so thankful that he knew what was going on and that it wasn’t just laziness or shirking work.  The physical exhaustion of depression was so real and only added to the struggle.
Ready or not, our sweet Athanasius arrived on March 25th. His labor was my fastest yet, with only three hours passing between the first contraction and his arrival. We were over the moon at being blessed with another healthy baby, and delighted to have two boys in a row, something new for our previously girl/boy patterned family. I remember sitting in the hospital and thinking about all of the things Paul had done to prepare for my postpartum time, like arranging for our moms to stay for a total of about three weeks and spreading out his paternity leave by working at home. I thought that maybe this time would be different and things would be fine; perhaps all of my worry had been in vain.
For the most part, for those first two months, everything was wonderful. I was able to sleep during the day after being up most of the night and really rest and recover. One other thing I had tried this time was having my placenta encapsulated, a practice I had previously written off as a “hippy, tree-hugger” idea. However, looking back at all of my postpartum experiences and realizing that I had struggled with PPD to some extent during all of them, I was desperate for a different experience this time. The science behind it made sense to me, the price was reasonable, and the woman encapsulating it had a PhD in biology.
Summer arrived, and we all seemed to be doing well. It wasn’t until the baby was about six months old, and we had started school and our other activities again, that I could feel the depression creeping back. And, like before, other than Paul, who lived through it, and my best friend and mom, both of who know me almost better than I know myself, there really weren’t many people that knew the depths of it. I did a fairly good job of hiding it and just writing off our busy and understandably chaotic life as the cause anytime someone asked me how I was doing. Our baby is now almost eighteen months and has been weaned for a month, and I can finally feel myself returning to normal and beginning to enjoy life again.
In many ways, one of the hardest things about depression was that I began to think that this was just who I was as a mom- someone who didn’t enjoy being around her kids, someone who shouldn’t have gotten married in the first place, and someone who was too selfish to raise a brood of kids. I started to wonder if I even liked kids. Yes, I had been a babysitter/nanny/camp counselor/teacher from the time I was ten and loved every minute, but that must have been a different person. This person I was now was the real me; it was a me that I didn’t like, but that was just the reality with which I would have to learn to live.
Now, being on the other side of it, it is painful to look back over the last few years and see how much depression took from me. I love to write and kept a blog until our fourth son was born. I said that I quit blogging because we were just too busy for me to keep up with it, and at the time I really believed that was true. I can now see that that was just another area that depression took over. That’s the funny thing about depression. I felt like I should just be able to snap out of it. There wasn’t anything physically wrong with me, at least visibly, so why did I quite literally feel like a physical force was keeping me on the couch or in bed much of the time? I once described to my husband that trying so hard all day to be “normal” only to fail miserably time and time again was completely exhausting. I had this vision of the mom that I wanted to be, and despite all of my attempts, I continued to fail. I was overwhelmed by the smallest of tasks such as getting dressed or making breakfast and found little joy in anything, including my kids.
I now see how much I cheated myself, my kids, and my husband by not being treated professionally for my postpartum depression. I wish that I would have sought outside help and not just endured the long sixteen months. I think my story is also a reminder of how much we moms struggle to put our own needs ahead of those of our kids. We take care of everyone else and put our own health last, frequently not addressing it at all.  I was so bent on nursing our babies because I knew that my breastmilk is best for them, that I wasn’t willing to be put on a drug that would have helped me be a better mom to the four kids I already had. As I type that, I can hear how crazy it sounds, but at the time, my otherwise rational self really believed that “this” was better than stopping nursing. This is something that I really regret. I also know that while I was physically present with my kids for the last few years, there are so many moments of bonding, intimacy, and joy that I missed because I just couldn’t care at the time.
I recently read a heartbreaking article about a mother who committed suicide after struggling with PPD, leaving her husband and their beautiful six-month-old daughter without a wife or mother. My parents and husband were so wonderful through my difficult time, despite how emotionally and physically draining it was on them as well. While I didn’t reach the point of being suicidal, it scares me to think of how differently my story could have ended without their constant support. We had SO much support, and it was still so, so hard. For us, even though we knew how bad things were, life was so busy, and I never made my mental health a priority, even at my husband’s urgings.  I wish I would have sought professional help, as those years with my kids are a time I can never get back.  If you are struggling, help is available. Please, speak to someone before it’s too late.

Amanda Wagner

Amanda Wagner

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5 thoughts on “Not just in my head: The physical force of postpartum depression”

  1. Wow, reading this was sort of an answer to a prayer for me today. No kids yet, but feeling a lot like this when I have so many blessings and support around me. I’m discerning a career change and am feeling a call to be more present in my relationships. Thanks for sharing, Amanda! You’ll be in my prayers!

  2. Maria Roseanne Krienke

    What an angel to write such a revealing story. You certainly will help others with your honesty and openness! I think each one of us suffers this to some extend and I am sad to know now that you have suffered so greatly too! Keep up the great work Amanda! xoxoxox

  3. Oh, Amanda! I had NO IDEA!! You always seemed “so together” every time I saw you. I always felt “lazy” compared to you and your busy life. Thank you for being so brave in telling your story. You will never know how many you will have helped by doing so.

  4. You are amazing! I wish I could have been there more for you during those years of struggle as we now live so close to each other. This is a good reminder to reach out to others around us to check in and see how they are doing. Life keeps each of us so busy that it is easy to stick your head in a hole in the ground and not see the needs of those around us. Your honesty an openness is so appreciated!

  5. Noel Elizabeth Pedry

    Hi Amanda,
    Thank you so much for your honesty and openness about PPD. I can relate to so many of your struggles and feelings. I had really bad PPD after I had a really hard and long birth my daughter Maria. I knew I might feel a little down, but was not expecting the severity of the PDD. I had lots of support as well, but time, increasing my antidepressant dosage, prayers, getting Progesterone shots, support from my loving husband, and stopping nursing were the only things that got me through the worst of it all. I felt like such a failure as a Mom because I could only breastfeed my daughter for a month. However, looking back it was the best decision I ever made for myself. Sometimes the hardest decisions end up being the best decisions. My husband and I are trying for a second child. I hope and pray that the second time around is a little easier, but even if it’s not I know that I’ll make it through the storm like you did with great support and God’s grace. Again, thank you for sharing your story. Know that there are so many women out there who have struggled like you with PPD. God bless.

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