Photographed By: Tzvi Feifel
“You’re going to feel love like you’ve never felt it before.” That’s what they told me. In those exact words and other iterations of it, that’s the message I had been receiving about what love after childbirth would feel like since, well, maybe my own birth. Having a baby would bring blissful, unspeakable, tear-jerking love into your life, and it would happen right there on that table, the moment your baby emerged from your body.
As I cried and contracted and pushed on that August day, I was ready for all that warm gushy love. I had had a crushing pregnancy, and I was ready to usher that out and welcome in the new. Terrified though I was, I was bursting with nervous excitement and eagerness to be a mommy. I was ready to fall in love.
And then, nothing. Instead of love, something else came knocking on my door: postpartum depression.
A few cliff notes about postpartum depression:
- When you get it, you’ve also just had a baby. Having a baby is not easy, so you end up with all the worst parts of something you thought would be amazing — you still need to care for your baby — plus the worst parts of something you didn’t anticipate getting stuck with at all: depression.
- As far as I’m aware, the earliest you can get diagnosed is a few weeks after childbirth. Once you’re diagnosed, you can start on medication, which is critically helpful and important but not anything like an antibiotic. You will not be fixed and feeling great within forty-eight hours. Medication concoctions are complicated; dosing is complicated. They take a while to kick in, and even when you have the concoction right, the serious help of a therapist is a much-needed addition to the medicine. This isn’t strep throat; healing is complicated, long, and takes a lot of hard work.
- Postpartum depression is not your fault, and yet I can almost guarantee it will feel like it is. It sure did for me.
- And perhaps the most important: postpartum depression can make loving, bonding, and connecting with your baby harder than cracking the Rosetta Stone. Postpartum depression took me — a loving, kind, thoughtful eager-to-be-mother — and turned me into a can’t-feel-anything machine. A shell of a person.
I’d like to share my own story with you. If you can’t relate, I hope it helps you understand what so many women silently go through. And if you can, I hope you can see that you’re not alone; I hope you can hear how definitively I can tell you that it will get better.
The days and weeks following my daughter’s birth were nothing short of hell, the weird kind of hell you go to and you think, “Huh, this isn’t how I pictured it, but I see it now. Yep, this is what hell looks like.” As if feeling disconnected from your baby isn’t painful enough, imagine the inevitable horror, guilt, and shame that one might feel discovering that they don’t love their baby.
My baby was perfect. That made it worse. She was stunning, so beautiful it almost made me uncomfortable — irrationally afraid that she would outshine other babies — and she slept like a dream. She was the all-star of babies, so much so that I consistently got random Facebook messages from sweet people from my past who I wasn’t in touch with, reaching out after seeing the photos I would share of her, to congratulate me on having the “World’s Most Perfect Baby.” So G-d had blessed me. And what other blessing had come with that package deal? I felt like the world’s worst possible mother; if you’re not even capable of loving the world’s most perfect baby, what else could you be?
And the answer to that question, of course, is, “Postpartum depression! You were a mother with postpartum depression! Of course, it wasn’t your fault, and that really sucks!” But when you’re in it, the depression eats your thoughts alive. It takes every dark and clever turn it can think of, convincing you that you are nothing, not good enough, totally to blame.
I remember the tears. And more tears. And more tears. I remember the phone calls to my closest friends, absolutely panicking about how I didn’t love her. I didn’t recognize her, and that really got me. I didn’t understand how I could have someone in my family who I barely knew, who I couldn’t have picked out of a lineup just weeks earlier. I remember my preoccupation with the realization that I loved my camp friends more than I loved my child. So many die-hard Jewish summer camp loyalists brag about how camp friendships are the best kind of friendships. I’ve heard it. But how could I love even my old guy friend with the weird nickname more than I loved my own damn daughter?
My world had been turned upside down.
This story has a beginning and end, but to be honest, I’m not positive that it has a middle. I got diagnosed as early as a doctor would take me, I started medication to get me to a healthier place, and I did hard work in therapy. And it did nothing. Or very little. Until it did something.
Loving and bonding is a funny thing, which I feel especially authorized to say as someone who’s spent almost every day for the past going-on-three years thinking about it. I fell in love with my daughter, deeply, fiercely, but it didn’t happen until two entire years after she was born.
I would say that those were two of the longest years of my life, but that wouldn’t be quite honest. The truth is that depression can seriously affect your memory, so I barely remember any of it. It felt like I was completely asleep at the wheel for the first two years of her life, and even though I knew I was “asleep” at the time, I was totally powerless to stop it. I wouldn’t love my daughter until I did, and sitting through that experience is doubtlessly the hardest game in patience I’ve ever played. I wouldn’t wish it upon anyone.
Do I love my daughter with every ounce of my body, more than every star in the sky? I do. I do and I’m so warm and happy and glowing just thinking about it. The feelings I expected to have in the delivery room came, albeit much later than expected or desired, but eventually they found me and I found them.
The thing is, and maybe you’ve already realized this, I loved her all along. I can see now that every day I cried about not loving her, every cuddle and play session and time I made an effort, every mother-daughter therapist appointment I sat through where I tried to learn from professionals how to bond, and every time I bathed and fed and nursed a baby for whom I felt absolutely nothing, I loved her more than I’d ever loved anyone.
I’ve learned that love can be messy. I love “love” when it’s clean. Sometimes love comes and flows and fills your heart like someone filled you up with hot chocolate with the little marshmallows in it (kosher, of course). And that love feels so good there are barely words to describe it. But sometimes love is messy. Sometimes love is giving instead of feeling, working to earn an emotion you never thought you’d have to earn. Sometimes love is trying and yearning and begging and pleading and doing every creative idea, to no avail, to try to feel it. I wish I had known then how to love my precious angel, cleaner. But I didn’t. And yet, I loved her all the same.
Somebody once told me that, for a mother with postpartum depression, it feels like the lights are out. It’s not that you don’t love your child, just that you can’t see it. And you won’t until you find the light switch.
I found my light switch.