Self-portrait by Andrea Paterson
By Andrea Paterson
There was a morning, nearly a year after I had my son, when my body crumpled to the living room floor. I heard myself sobbing, saw myself throwing whatever stray toys were in reach, and watched myself give voice to suppressed rage and despair. It was a horrifying moment, like the inverse of birth when the inhuman sounds rising like smoke from my throat made manifest a strange animal wildness and power. In dark contrast, my voice from the floor was an instrument of utter brokenness, the sounds made by a woman who has come apart in a profound and traumatic way. Through the haze of my grief and confusion, I saw my little boy standing in the doorway, fearful and crying, backing away from his mother who had, it seemed, lost her mind.
When I was finally able to get up, exhausted and depleted, the truth came to me with grave clarity: I was suffering from severe postpartum depression. I could no longer lie to myself, no longer believe that the agony I experienced every day was a normal part of parenting, the feeling of suffocation just part of the transition to motherhood. Though perhaps I should say that these feelings of trauma upon beginning the journey into motherhood are normal, or are far more common than most people know, but they were not feelings that I needed to bear alone, or suffer silently.
In a miracle of foresight my midwives had provided me with the number for the Pacific Post Partum Support Society before I gave birth. And so I was aware that there was help out there, but had stubbornly avoided calling until I was in extreme distress. When my son was 15 months old, I began attending a support group in Richmond where, over the course of the next year, my life transformed. With the PPPSS I was inducted into a group of strong and courageous women who were willing to articulate the multi-faceted nature of their postpartum experiences. I saw myself in each and every one of them. They were mirrors for my struggle, my lack of confidence, my fear, my feeling that my life had blown apart and could never be reassembled, and for the deep existential confusion that can accompany the sometimes violent transition to motherhood. Together, with the assistance of our group facilitator, we began to tease apart the tangled strands of motherhood and learn to care for ourselves more effectively, we learned that unrestrained self-sacrifice can only lead to self-destruction. We learned how to save ourselves from drowning so that we would have the ability to care for those around us.
During my year of recovery from postpartum depression I read extensively, suddenly drawn to ancient mythology and archetypal psychology. I had a distinct feeling that what was happening to me was as old as motherhood itself, but that our modern culture had forgotten the dark side of new parenthood. When you become a mother today, you receive the message that a child should utterly fulfill you, should bring only joy, should brighten your days and give you purpose. So what happens when instead your life as a mother feels meaningless and mind numbing, when joy is elusive?
We have forgotten motherhood’s underworld. We have forgotten Kali, the Hindu mother goddess who is both creator and destroyer, a life giving spark and a raging fire that consumes everything before it. In focusing too heavily on the light aspects of motherhood, on the Virgin Mary ideal of sweet sacrifice and eternal calm, we have repressed and hidden the dark energy of Kali that is equally necessary for balance and health.
I came to embrace the darkness of my depression with the help of my fellow journey-women in our support group. I came to see the black emotions, the shadowy places, and the pain as indicative of the immensity of my transformation. Who can expect to have the essence of themselves changed so completely without any struggle? We don’t expect to have a painless birth so why do we expect the birth of our new Mother-Soul to be effortless?
It took a year of hard, soul-baring, sometimes agonizing work and self-reflection to begin to emerge on the other side of postpartum depression. I still have bad days. There are moments when I begin to worry once again that I can’t cope, but more and more often I can approach my life with a sense of agency and curiosity. I am coming to know my new Mother-Self more intimately and to know my son as well. I can now say with honesty that I am grateful for my experience because it took me further into the depths of myself than I had ever gone before and brought me into contact with new powers of empathy and compassion that I couldn’t have accessed otherwise.
The PPPSS was instrumental to my process, and the support group renewed my belief in the power of women to uphold each other and act as scaffolding for each person’s process of rebuilding. I am left in a state of awe and gratitude for the kinship I was gifted and I can always call upon the communal energy of support and understanding when I inevitably face dark moments. I no longer feel the need to hide or repress that darkness. I know how to hold the grief and the pain like the vulnerable infants they are and care for them tenderly. The darkness deserves as much respect as the light and I am glad that my own experience will allow me to pass on this challenging lesson to my son as he grows and faces his own dark nights. For it is only in the darkness that a seed can germinate and finally bloom forth into the full light of day.
Andrea is a writer, photographer, and mother to a very active and curious 2 year old. Currently an at home mom, Andrea makes time for the passionate pursuit of knitting, art, blogging, and reading as many books as her spare seconds will allow. She is deeply grateful for the assistance of the Pacific Post Partum Support Society that was provided after her son was born.