In the waiting room at my OBGYN’s office, I sat holding my second newborn daughter, just three weeks old. I made silly faces at her and caressed her chubby cheeks and tiny toes. I smiled at the pregnant ladies around me as they looked upon us with eagerness and anticipation.
But behind that smile and playful demeanor, there was nothing to admire. I was suffering.
After being brought into a private room, my doctor and I locked eyes and my stiff body collapsed. I cried- cried so hard- into her loving embrace. There was a rush of emotional release as I admitted defeat in her arms. This compassionate woman who had delivered both my daughters held me saying, “It IS going to be alright. I am here to help.”
I was suffering from postpartum depression (PPD). Most new moms (approximately 80%) suffer from some form of sadness, anxiety, OCD, baby blues, or in my case, PPD. PPD is when the sadness and anxiety don’t subside after a week or two.
After talking with my doctor, we realized I had it after my first daughter as well; however, at the time, I chalked it up to a really bad case of the “baby blues.” I managed, pushed through, and inevitably got myself to a good point before getting pregnant with my second child. But apparently, postpartum depression can get worse with each pregnancy, and this, unfortunately, was true in my case.
The healing process for PPD was long and new to me. I had deep emotional pain, yet no trigger to pinpoint other than the fact that I just had a baby, which millions of women do every day around the world. I had always known I was a strong woman with deep confidence in my abilities. If I wasn’t good at something, I worked hard, persisted, and believed in myself until I reached excellence (and if not excellence, at least self-respect). I didn’t want to accept that I could have PPD. What would others think of me now? A failure, I began to conclude.
Prior to PPD, I had courage. I had guts. I had faith. I flew without wings. But no matter what accomplishments my resume displayed, I was not excelling (in my opinion) at the most important thing–being a good mother. Yet what I didn’t know at the time was that it wasn’t my fault. It was not my fault.
Growing up in Ellicott City, Maryland, I excelled in school and on athletic fields. I played countless hours of soccer and basketball, ran track, sang in school musicals, was part of my county’s children’s choir, loved traveling and experiencing new places; I was busy, and I was confident. I received a scholarship to play four years of soccer at Davidson College, a Division I liberal arts school just outside of Charlotte, North Carolina. I spent 6 months abroad studying British Literature and traveling anywhere and everywhere. After receiving my Bachelor or Arts in English, I moved to a new city- Nashville, TN- by myself. No family. No friends. I genuinely beam inside when I think about the courage I had at just 22. And days after moving to Nashville, I may have even tried out for Season 2 of American Idol. Maybe.
Fourteen years later, I’m not an American Idol, but Nashville is home. Nashville is where I met my husband, had my babies, and have made lifelong friendships. Nashville is where I have accomplished many vocational dreams (minus American Idol, of course); I worked my way up the ladder to become a Marketing Manager in television advertising, hosted short commercials and shows on TV, completed my Masters in Teaching at Belmont University, taught English for four years, received my coaching license and began coaching soccer ten years ago, and most recently earned my Personal Training certification.
After giving birth to my second child, I became extremely anxious, obsessive compulsive about minor things, and my thoughts became clouded due to hormonal imbalances and to a degree, genetics. I could not fall asleep, and to this day, cringe when I hear someone say, “Just sleep when the baby sleeps.” This was not possible for me. Mentally and emotionally, I was in so much pain that I could not physically fall asleep. Sleep deprivation made the PPD even worse. Or did PPD make me sleep deprived?
I cried. EVERY. SINGLE. DAY. Mornings were better, but afternoons and evenings were my personal hell. I got angry with myself for crying so much. “Be strong!” “Be happy!” “Why can’t you just be happy?” My PPD was filled with excessive love, anxiety, and fear of the unknown for my two little girls. Even with that overwhelming feeling of love, I still judged myself. I became resentful of other moms who seemed so calm and at peace with motherhood. My brain simply could not rationalize the irrational. I would lie in bed at night worried that my two year old daughter would never learn to read because I would be too tired to ever teach her. Irrational. I worried my first born would never be potty trained because I had no time for her because all my time was being spent on breastfeeding my second child, calming her, changing diapers, or crying. Irrational. I worried I would never organize my pantry (OCD) because the idea of writing out a grocery list that wasn’t perfect (OCD) was overwhelming and too time consuming. Irrational. The worst was I thought I would die from lack of sleep, and compared myself to prisoners of war who suffered sleep deprivation as a torture device. Irrational. My mind produced torturous thoughts which I couldn’t curb. I was out of control in a world I so desperately wanted to control.
I remember the day my world came to a halt. My father was in town, and I woke weeping in his concerned embrace, begging him to tell me why I was not happy. He calmly whispered, “You deserve to be happy. It’s time we call the doctor.” And that’s when I called. Admitting defeat. Admitting defeat was the hardest part.
Today, as I type these memories, they sound so absurd. But at one time, it was very real to me. The hardest part of PPD was feeling inadequate and alone. My mother had never experienced this, nor had my sister. No one knows if my grandmothers ever did because it wasn’t really ever talked about back then. My friends did not ever discuss symptoms of PPD, so they must not have experienced it either. But I can bet some women, friends, family members, and neighbors have experienced it and felt alone with this “hush hush” topic (as did I). Sadly, research shows so many women suffer from PPD but don’t ever seek out help because society deems them as weak. Mothers are supposed to be strong; mothers are supposed to be happy!
For the first time, I was not strong. I had truly fallen down to a point where I believed I couldn’t get back up again. I couldn’t care for myself and definitely not two babies. I needed more than confidence to get me through this difficult yet delicate stage in my life. I no longer had faith in myself and I needed my family, friends, and others to have faith in me. I needed more than me. I needed support.
After lengthy discussions, my doctors decided medication was the best route. I never would have thought that to feel independent again, I would need to be dependent on medicine. I’m ok with this, though. I did try many avenues, and ultimately what worked for me was medicine.
Today, my children are 3 ½ and six, and I have been medication free for over two years. It took a long time for me to realize none of this was my fault; and, it has been a struggle for me to discuss it openly with others. I often think back on my journey whenever I come across a new mom, and wonder how she is truly feeling behind those tired eyes and half smile. Postpartum depression, as cruel as it felt one time, gave me the chance to look at the world through suffering eyes and a suffering heart. This led me to a new level of empathy, of which I will forever be grateful. If there is any advice to give on this topic, mom-to-mom, it is this: strength is finding the courage to ask for help, and you are not alone.
I am also proud to say that both of my girls are potty-trained, my first born learned to read and loves to read, I still like to have a neatly written grocery list (some things just don’t change), and of course, I’m still alive. Happy and alive.
Written by: Natalie Hennes, Certified Personal Trainer (CPT, PWR! Moves Certified), Licensed Soccer Coach, Former English Teacher grades 7-12 (Masters of Arts in Teaching)