Words by Candi Barbagallo
I looked at my baby with spaghetti sauce all over his face - smiling, innocent - and I wanted to fall in a hole. How did I get here? He was only one year old and had encountered more rage, more shouting than anyone should have to tolerate for a year, much less the only year they'd been alive. He didn't deserve this. None of us did. I was tired of screaming at my husband, him screaming back. Tired of yelling at my perfect cherub during sleepless nights. Tired of feeling so ashamed, so alone, so broken. I finally admitted I needed help. I called my doctor the next day and her nurse returned my call.
“So what’s going on?” she asked.
“I’d like to see about getting an anti-depressant for postpartum depression and anxiety," I responded. “I just feel mad all the time."
“Are you having thoughts of harming your baby or yourself?”
“Not my baby… and not really myself, but a lot of times I think he and my husband would be better off without me,” I began to sob into the phone.
“OK. Hold on just a moment please.”
“Can you come now?" she asked, returning to the phone.
“Will you be able to get me in quickly? I’m about 10 minutes away and I have my son with me. It’s almost nap time.”
This was two years ago. In hindsight, I realize I did have thoughts of harming myself and my baby and I'm positive I am not the only woman to suffer in shame with those thoughts. It feels impossible to admit them because surely you will be deemed unfit and your child/ren will be taken from you. Those thoughts sound something like this:
“I am a horrible, worthless mother and wife. Everyone is miserable because of me. Maybe I should just go away. No, no I couldn't live under the weight of that guilt. I can't run from that. Suicide would be the only way. But my god, I couldn't leave my baby behind, he needs his mom and what an awful life story he'd have. My only choice would be to… Ooohhh… this is when some women do the unthinkable. I get it now.”
And you do. You so get it and your heart aches for those women and those babies and you're so grateful you're not at that edge, but you feel like a monster. A useless rage-y monster who is screwing everything up. This is when you either ask for help or keep silently sinking, wishing, hoping, praying you will see the other side soon. You watch other moms enjoying this season and doing normal things like sleeping, exercising, and having a social life and think you must just be doing it wrong. You weren't meant to be a mother and you're just really bad at this or you wouldn't still be in survival mode. You'd be able to leave the house with ease, and take care of yourself, and maybe even screw your husband… if you weren't such a failure.
But you’re not a failure. The medical system has failed you. The village, perhaps, has failed you. This culture has failed you. You are not failing. You go to bed every night with a heart full of love and a gut full of dread, and you wake up and love your child with all your might and take the punches day after day, month after month. Possibly year after year, as there is no time limit for postpartum mood disorders.
That day at my doctor’s office I was given a questionnaire intended to assess my mental health. I’d seen this questionnaire twice before. Once at my six week postpartum checkup and again a few months later at my annual exam. Both times it was not discussed. Both times it was still laying on the counter by the wash sink when I left. This was the only postpartum support I was offered. My son’s birth bordered on traumatic. My doctor was concerned I’d develop PTSD. I was sent out of the hospital five days after I checked in with no wheelchair, no belly brace, no concern for the fact I’d been cut open two days prior and hadn’t slept longer than twenty minutes at a time in those five days.
So let me say it one more time for the cheap seats... YOU ARE NOT A FAILURE. One in three women suffers from a postpartum mood disorder, and those are just the ones being diagnosed. How many more are suffering in silence? How many children, husbands, families are suffering because not nearly enough people are talking about this out of fear, shame, guilt, or simply a lack of understanding?
After I left my doctor’s office, I picked up a prescription for an anti-depressant. It made me tired and foggy-headed. I waited the recommended two weeks for the side effects to subside and see if it was working. My husband said he noticed a difference, but I honestly felt worse. I was slightly mellowed, albeit more exhausted. After six months I called my doctor’s office and told the nurse I needed advice on how to wean off my medication because it made me so sleepy. She returned my call, told me how to do it and that was that. The withdrawals were awful. About a week later, I lost my dear mother to cancer. To say my world shattered would be a gross understatement. My little family was living in my parents’ basement at the time as we transitioned between cities and the next few months were grueling. We moved into our new home just before my son turned two and slowly but surely the fog began to lift.
My little baby will be three in a month and I struggle greatly with the fact he is growing into a big boy and I feel like I missed it all in a hazy, angry depression, but I’m learning to give myself grace and recognize that I’ve likely been a much better mother than I realize. I’m putting one foot in front of the other and picking up the old pieces of myself, tossing out what no longer fits and keeping what works in this new life. I still battle anxiety on the regular. I still yell as a result of that anxiety, but I’m doing better every single day. And I’m showing up every single day. I’m treating my body with love again and I go to counseling twice a month. Most importantly, I’m learning how to ask for help and how to recognize when I need it.
I’m grateful to be one of “lucky” ones because I know there are far too many mamas out there held down tight in the grip of postpartum depression and gasping for air. If you are one of them I beg you to please, please speak your truth. Reach out for help. You do not have to do it on your own and it does not have to be like this. Take the meds, seek the therapy, take every break from your child/ren that you can. There is no shame in this, dear mama. It won’t be easy, but you can feel whole again and you can enjoy this season of life.
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About the Author:
Candi Barbagallo is a writer, boy mom, executive assistant, jewelry crafter, and personal growth enthusiast. She values synchronicity, authenticity, and a healthy dose of cynicism. When she’s not chasing a toddler, she’s drinking coffee, trying to sleep, and daydreaming about all the things.