Liz shares her story of postpartum depression and how she created a different experience for herself with her second child. Her story illustrates how creating intentional supports and community can transform the postpartum experience, even when a person has experienced postpartum depression in a previous pregnancy.
Article by Liz Lian
I always thought I’d make a decent mom. At thirty-five I had already survived sleepless nights to graduate from MIT, had persevered as a consultant under grueling conditions and had happily immersed myself in the new and unfamiliar while living abroad. Over evenings and weekends my husband and I fit in birth preparation and newborn care classes. We wrote up a birth plan.
My first two weeks as a new mom left me utterly devastated. I had never felt so alone, so overwhelmed. I had no local mom friends, no close family nearby. I dreamt of catching a one-way flight to some small Ohio town and restarting my life where no one knew me. When my husband walked out our front door to return to work, I wept for an hour at the breakfast table. Cradling my precious daughter, I sobbed for her and her broken mother who, usually so strong, independent and competent, felt barely capable of mothering. I was going through the daily motions, scraping myself together to try and be a good mother. On the inside, I was falling apart.
It took me years to unpack my postpartum hell. Yeshi’s New Mother’s Circle, a facilitated group for new moms, was the first space where sharing my suffering felt safe. We held our babes as we each tearily shared our own versions of ‘I never thought this would be so hard!’, or ‘I wanted to escape.’ or ‘I thought motherhood would complete me, why do I feel so alone?’
One morning, seven months in, ongoing insomnia of three to four hours’ sleep each night brought me to my breaking point; I was unable to will myself out of bed. My thoughts turned to escape again. I couldn’t bear the thought of my daughter growing up without her mother and actively began seeking help. My doctor diagnosed postpartum depression and prescribed anti-depressants. I worried that anti-depressants would bury my feelings. I wanted to face the demons that drove my sleeplessness, preventing me from becoming the mother I wanted to be.
I began weekly therapy and joined my husband in couples therapy. I started journaling. I explored the raw feelings keeping me awake at night – the loss of my former capable self, abandonment by my husband and mother, anger at family and friends who did not meet my expectations of support, frustration with my body for taking so long to heal. Slowly, with a better understanding of myself and with the willing engagement of my husband and my mother, I learned to let go of expectations and live more fully in the present, to draw boundaries and care for myself, and to communicate from the heart and heal my close relationships. For two years, even as I began to feel more like myself, I was too terrified to consider another baby. I did not want to risk descending again into the dark pit of postpartum loneliness and despair.
When I was finally mentally ready to try for a second child, I resolved to build community and support into my next postpartum experience. After learning I was pregnant, I scaled back my work life and prioritized caring for myself and my family. I met with Maria, a highly respected local midwife. Our hour long prenatal visits gave me time to delve into my birth and postpartum intentions, as well as postpartum fears and anger that unexpectedly emerged. Maria gently reassured me it was normal to see post traumatic stress symptoms during the postpartum period. I reconnected with my therapists to work through re-emerging painful emotions. Their knowledge of the details from my first postpartum journey helped me recall what worked, what didn’t and what we should celebrate. Once I decided a postpartum doula was worth the investment, Maria recommended Esther, a veteran doula with relevant experience who could help me navigate the vulnerable first couple weeks.
I never made a birth plan; instead, I created a family postpartum plan. The process of conversing with family and friends to set realistic expectations of support was invaluable. For example, taking the time to clarify that my most important criteria for our initial week of support were food preparation, ability to figure out what needed to be done and entertaining our four-year-old helped me identify the family member best able to help us immediately after the birth. To ensure I had a safe peer space, I organized a facilitated second-time mom’s group.
My younger daughter was born to a mother who was nurtured, emotionally supported and empowered. The first week, I rarely left my bedroom, spending 24/7 in bed with my babe, welcoming visitors to my bedside. I especially cherished the beautiful, natural rhythm my daughter and I shared. When she slept, I slept. When she woke, I nursed and chose among the ample, nutritional snacks by my bedside. I kept my tank full, knowing there could be sleepless nights to come. As I faced the inevitable challenges along the way, I met them with an equanimity and a positive, I-can-overcome-this attitude. I knew I was able to count on my intentional community for guidance and support. In the first weeks my support team helped me overcome mastitis, PUPPP (a horrible postpartum itchiness all over my body), relationship friction and several months later, an unexpected international move.
The second time around, I was stunned to discover motherhood could be so magical. I was a joyful mother, filled with gratitude. The loneliness, the despair, the exhaustion I had previously known as a new mother had been banished. They were replaced by a sense of community, of peace, of wholeness. I had become the mother I wanted to be.
Liz Lian lives in Switzerland with her husband and two daughters. When she is not exploring Swiss life with her family, she writes about motherhood, relationships and education.