walking through postpartum depression

People often ask me how I knew to see my doctor about postpartum depression. The answer is a long one - usually too long for an instagram comment or quick email. And the reality is that I’m still in the thick of it. I feel tons better than I did five months ago, but I’m still taking medication, I still have rough days, and I’m not writing this as someone who has fully come out the other side. I’m writing this as someone who was in the trenches and found the light, was reminded of the hope, but is still moving up and out each and every day.

So here goes.

My whole life, I wanted to be a mom. I absolutely could not wait to start babysitting, and began as a “mother’s helper” when I was in 5th grade, watching littles while their mama was home but otherwise occupied. I moved on to watching kids solo, and then did some full-time nannying, including overnights. I wanted 10 kids when I was in middle school, you guys. I reaaaaaally loved the movie Cheaper By the Dozen. It gradually went down to 7 kids, and then 5, which is where my heart is now. Point being: I could not wait to be a mom.

And then we got pregnant, super quickly, which felt like a huge blessing when so many of our friends have struggled. But I really struggled with pregnancy. I thought I would love it, and I really didn’t. Every part of it was hard. I truly think my depression symptoms started during my second trimester of pregnancy, many weeks before Xavier was ever born. Prenatal depression is just as common as postpartum depression, but for whatever reason seems to be absolutely not discussed. But I remember one night over the summer, curled up in the old blue recliner in our dark living room, sobs wracking my body as I googled “prenatal depression.” Matt walked in and asked me what was wrong and I could barely hiccup out the words, “I think there’s something wrong with me.” But I figured it was just pregnancy hormones, and chalked it up to being overwhelmed and over-emotional. Looking back, I don’t think it was just hormones. I think I knew at a gut level that there was something deeply off, but I was really too afraid to probe deeper. What kind of a mother is depressed during pregnancy, when you’re “supposed” to be glowing and over-the-moon? Not the kind of mother I wanted to be, I thought.

And then Xavier was born. The first few days were pretty smooth. In fact, I remember telling my mom over and over again, “I don’t know why everyone says this is so hard! Things are great! He’s sleeping well, I feel great, things are great!” But after a couple days, things were not great. I felt this NEED for them to be great, or to at least uphold the illusion to everyone else that we were fine-just-fine. I was supposed to be so good at this! But inside, I was crumbling.

One major factor that played into things was how disappointed in myself I was about Xavier’s birth. I already shared his birth story here, and I’ve since totally come to terms with the way things played out. But in the first few weeks after he was born, I was wrecked with guilt and shame about getting an epidural, and beating myself up for what I saw as giving up too early during labor. No one was making me feel this way; in fact, everyone kept telling me how great I did and how the epidural was the best thing for me and for Xavier (and it was.) I just couldn’t believe them. Unfortunately, our natural birth class instructor had some strong opinions about epidurals, and shared some scary statistics (true or not, I don’t know) about medicated babies not eating as well, not developing as well, being higher-risk, etc. etc. I felt like I already let Xavier down before he was even born by not having an unmedicated birth, so I was already off to a bad start. In my eyes, I was already a sub-par mom, and felt like I started out motherhood from a deficit because of how tightly I’d held onto my natural birth plan, and how guilty I felt for having to let it go.

And then there were the panic attacks. The first time I had a panic attack, Xavier was just several days old. I was breastfeeding him and was having trouble - gosh, it was SO painful. I had just fed him around 1 or 2am and as soon as I laid down in bed to go back to sleep, my heart started racing and I felt like I couldn’t breathe. I had to walk around. I paced the house for a bit, trying to pray and calm down, but couldn’t. Every time I laid back down, I panicked. I felt the crushing weight of being responsible for this tiny person. In my eyes, it was all up to me. I had to feed him. Without me, he’d starve. It felt like too much. I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t keep him alive. There was too much pressure. Of course, looking back, it’s easy to see that had things gotten really bad, or had I truly not been able to feed him, Matt could have run to Walmart at 3am and bought formula and Xave would have survived. But in those panicked moments, all logic went out the window. So Matt stayed awake with me and we watched Netflix until sunrise, when I finally calmed down enough to sleep. 

Nights were so hard those first few weeks. Every night around 7pm I’d feel the flutters of panic, wondering how much (or really, how little) I’d sleep that night. I’ve always had a weird relationship with the nighttime. I absolutely hated to be the last one awake at sleepovers growing up; in fact, I’d try my hardest to be the first to go to bed. All growing up and through high school, I hated being the last one awake in my house, too. As soon as my parents headed to bed, I’d go to bed, too. In middle school, I’d tiptoe out of my bedroom and listen at my parents’ door to see if I could still hear their tv on. If it was on, I wasn’t the last one awake. I’d creep back to bed and try to fall asleep as fast as possible. If their tv was off, I was immediately freaked out, and would end up having insomnia for a few hours. I’d go into my little brother’s room and fall asleep on his top bunk, just to be near someone else and not be alone. I have no real explanation for this - to my knowledge, nothing bad ever happened to me at nighttime. Our house was never broken into. I have no trauma associated with the night. I’ve just always, always hated it. And so I think those early weeks with a newborn triggered that same, very deep-rooted anxiety. Every time I got up to feed Xavier, I’d feel panicky and scared, like I was the only one in the entire universe that was awake, even though Matt always got up with me. Those days with a newborn are SO isolating, and it truly feels like it will never end. That’s what it felt like for me, anyway. Fighting the panic every night, gritting my teeth to get through the pain of breastfeeding, and feeling like nothing was ever going to get better. Day after day of feeling like that, and I started to spiral into feeling sort of hopeless.

It all combined into a perfect storm. Matt was gone long hours, working and finishing his paramedic program, and even though we had TONS of help thanks to our AMAZING village of family and friends, I still felt so alone and in so far over my head. Every time Xavier made any fuss whatsoever - which was minor in the grand scheme of things because he was such a good baby - it’s like I’d shut down. Instead of my mothering instinct kicking in, it felt like it shut off. I couldn’t think, couldn’t respond. It’s really hard to put this into words, because it sounds like I didn’t want to take care of my son or that I wasn’t bonding with him, but that’s not the case at all. I WANTED to care for him, I just felt like I COULDN’T. Like I didn’t have the skills to calm him down or meet his needs, and this impossibly loud voice in my head was just on repeat saying, “You can’t do this. You can’t do this. You can’t do this.” And I started to believe it.

I stopped being interested in things I had previously enjoyed, like reading or exercising or baking or anything, really. I thought the minute I picked up a book or started a project, Xavier would wake up or need to eat, so what was the point? I felt like my life consisted of two things: deal with crisis (anytime Xavier needed anything - even if it minor - felt like a crisis) or wait for next crisis. And I kept setting benchmarks for myself, like “once I’m healed from birth, I’ll feel much better” or “once we hit six weeks, it will get better” or “when he starts sleeping through the night, everything will be better” or “we just have to hang on until three months - that’s the magic mark.” I was just prolonging the inevitable, and refusing to admit what I knew deep down: that something was wrong, and I needed some help. 

Here’s the part I’m ashamed to admit. I really believed that depression wasn’t a real illness. I do believe we have a problem of over-diagnosing and over-medicating in general in this country, and that many things can be fixed by living a healthier lifestyle rather than taking a pill. I thought most people who claimed “depression” were really just being dramatic. I also truly believed that depression had no place in the life of a believer. How dare someone who believes in God be depressed! I thought I just needed to pray more and be more grateful. After all, I had a child! I conceived easily, had an easy pregnancy and a short labor, all things considered. A healthy child, an incredible support system. I just needed to buck up and get over it. Or eat some more spinach. Or something.

But I was eating as well as I could, and praying and praying and praying, and trying and trying and trying to feel better on my own, and it just wasn’t working. Even after three months of being a mom, I still felt like everything was so surreal. Like I’d wake up and go back to my normal life. And then it would hit me that THIS was my normal life, and suddenly I’d feel like I had made a huge mistake becoming a mom. Not that I didn’t love Xavier with every ounce of my being - I did - but that I would never, ever have the skills to provide for him and be the mama he needed. I just felt so entirely defeated. All those years of babysitting felt useless, and laughable that I’d believed I was ready to be a mother myself. I really believed it was never going to get better.

And then the lies in my head took a really destructive turn. I started to blame myself for, in my eyes, ruining Matt’s life. He had all these dreams! He wants to be a police officer, maybe even go federal. He was working SO hard for us so I could stay home and be a mom and grow my business. I felt like I had trapped him. Like he was stuck in this life with me and with Xavier and it wasn’t what he wanted. Of course, he vehemently disagreed anytime I voiced my guilt to him. He’d reassure me over and over again that we were all he wanted, that he loved our life. I know he was hurt that I was feeling this way and wondered if he was doing anything to make me feel like that - he wasn’t - I just refused to believe the reassurances he was giving me.

There was a day, I think in December, when I remember feeling my absolute lowest. I was standing in the nursery, staring out the window at the grayness outside, thinking “they would be so much better off if I wasn’t here.” Don’t get me wrong, I never thought about hurting myself, but in that moment I really thought I should just get in my car and drive far, far away. I felt like I was bringing absolutely everyone around me down. I felt so guilty for always calling my mom to save me when I was having a “rough day” - rough meaning Xavier cried once or twice. I felt so guilty for not knowing what Xave needed. I felt so guilty for putting extra stress on Matt during an already stressful season for him. I felt so guilty for not returning texts or emails and making excuses to not see friends because it was just too much. I saw myself as a weight, dragging everyone down. They’d all be better off if I just drove myself to California and got out of everyone’s way.

Oh, my heart hurts so much to type those words. Writing it out brings up just how dark of a season that was for me. Praise the good Lord for delivering me, for being faithful to His promises and never leaving my side, for walking with me through that valley and straight out into the light.

During our trip to Hawaii with my parents after Christmas, I confessed to my mom how I’d been feeling. I was so scared to tell her the truth, convinced she’d tell me I was being dramatic and to count my blessings. Of course, she didn’t say that, because she’s my mom and because she is wonderful. Instead, she patiently listened as I blubbered and cried and told me I didn’t have to feel this way, and that I should make an appointment with my doctor when I got home.

So, I did.

I almost canceled it, and then the day of the appointment I almost didn’t go. I was so torn. On one hand, I was hoping my doctor would tell me what I suspected, that I did indeed have postpartum depression. On the other hand, I was so afraid to officially have that diagnosis, afraid of what that said about me. I didn’t think I fit the mold of a depressed person. But all that - the molds and such - are just stigmas and stereotypes created by society. People all around us are struggling, mostly alone, and the shame and stigma around mental health just has to go.

So I filled out the doctor’s questionnaire and waited nervously for her to come in with the results. They were what I’d known for months: “severe postpartum depression and anxiety.” As soon as she said it, I felt relieved. Scared, sure. But relieved. Because now we had a starting point. Although it felt so unfamiliar and overwhelming, it was ground zero. Now we could make a plan.

And make a plan we did. I started on an antidepressant medication that also helped with the anxiety. She wanted me to take it for six months, so I’ll be taking it until mid-July and then hope to wean off of it. She also prescribed a medicine for the panic attacks that I could take as soon as I started experiencing one that would stop it quickly. Thankfully, I’ve never had to use it. I think just knowing I have it helps when I start to feel panicked. Part of what contributed to the panic spiral was feeling like once a panic attack started, I couldn’t stop it. Knowing I can stop it helps me feel more in control. I also began to really focus on eating nutrient-dense, whole foods, exercising and sleeping well. And I did see a therapist a few times, and although she was very nice, I didn’t find it all that helpful. I chalk that up to the fact that I have incredibly great friends who I talk to openly and often, so everything I talked over with the therapist was stuff I had already talked about with friends and Matt. She did give me one great action step that I feel was monumental for pulling me out of the deep, deep hole I was in, though. Rather than my usual to-do lists each day, she told me to put my planner in a drawer and make only three goals per day. One social goal (like text a friend), one small productivity goal (like make the bed) and one self-care goal (like take a shower.) Because even if I got 12 productivity things done but neglected myself and my relationships, I’d never feel balanced. By focusing on just those three tiny goals per day, I started to gain momentum. For a week straight, my productivity goal was simply to make the bed. Some days I did more than that and some days that’s all I did, but it got me moving. I don’t even remember the day I started using my planner again. It just naturally happened out of weeks of focusing on three simple goals.

Like I said at the beginning, some days I still struggle. I’m still in the thick of this. I battled a lot of shame about taking medication, feeling like it went against everything I believe in and the way I try to live my life (as naturally as possible.) I struggle with feeling like I'll always need medication to make me feel like myself. When people ask how I'm doing and I say "great!" I want to follow it up with "but it's probably just because I'm taking medicine." I don't know why it's been such a weird thing for me, but it has. Some days, every cry or whine from Xave will fray my nerves and make me feel like I’m about to lose it. I think that’s just motherhood, though. It’s never going to feel easy, or effortless. But I’m grateful for that now, because it keeps me close to Jesus. Those effortless moms you see on Instagram? I promise you - it’s an illusion. Which isn’t to say they’re intentionally faking it. I don’t think that’s true at all. I’m just saying that there’s no way to sum up the magnitude of motherhood, the valleys and the victories, the agony and the ecstasy, in tiny filtered squares. Motherhood is far from effortless. It’s grit and it’s grueling and it’s hard, hard work. But damn it if it isn’t the most beautiful hard work I’ve ever done. And I know now that I am absolutely cannot do this work of motherhood on my own, but that Christ is with me and in me and makes me able through his grace alone. Those early weeks and months of motherhood were marked by striving, so much striving to reach impossible standards I set for myself. Motherhood these days feels a lot more relaxed. Sure, I still have days where I make impossibly long to-do lists and then feel frustrated that I didn’t accomplish it, but overall I feel so much more peace. I know I’m going to struggle, but that doesn’t mean I’m a bad mom, or that I made a mistake in becoming a mom. The reality is that yes, we were open to becoming parents, but God was the deciding factor. And to say that becoming a mama was a mistake has to be so offensive for the God of the Universe who breathed life into sweet Xavier and forever marked us as mom and dad. I’m resting in that truth a lot more, these days. That I’m going to struggle, but it’s okay. Because He is in me, and He is goodness personified. I believed the lie that because motherhood was hard, it meant I was bad at it, or could never be good at it. And it felt like in the singular moment that I brought Xavier into the world, my entire identity changed and now I was solely “mom.” And because I saw myself as inadequate as “mom”, it meant I was inadequate in general. That my whole identity, my whole being, was not enough. The truth is that motherhood is just hard, period. It keeps me on my knees and close to Jesus. It depletes me then fills me back up again. It’s hard. It’s probably always going to be hard. But that doesn’t mean I’m bad at it, or not equipped to do it. I AM equipped for this vocation of motherhood, because Jesus says so. “He who began a good work in your will carry it on to completion.” Philippians 1:6. And my identity is not “mom.” My identity is, and always will be, daughter of the King. Beloved. Redeemed. I am not the sum of the things I do or how well I do them or the labels I carry and the roles I hold. I am God’s workmanship, His masterpiece. He gave His own son up for ME. And that didn’t - and never will - hinge on how well I mother, or how well I do anything. And that is good news, indeed.

And I’ve seen so much redemption, so much hope, over the last few months as I’ve walked this road of depression. All thanks to God. Writing this just shows me how far I’ve come. I straight up love motherhood now. Sure, I hate stepping on wooden blocks 18 times a day and I’m not a super huge fan of Xave’s dirty diapers and getting spit up on will never be fun and the fact that he uses my hair as leverage to pull up to standing is not the most awesome thing in the universe, but I’m out of the pit. I love our days together. I can lay on the floor and make block stacks and not feel like there’s forty other things I should be doing. I’m not constantly counting down the minutes until my mom shows up or Matt gets home to save me. I don’t feel like I’m living on a razor edge, seconds from unraveling at any moment. Things don’t feel so wobbly any more. I’ve stopped googling each month’s milestones and obsessing over other mama’s instagram accounts to see how I stack up. And I’m sure that’s partly just from having several more months under my belt. But it’s also thanks to the medication and the steps I’ve taken to be a more healthy, whole me. And it’s 100% thanks to Jesus, and the way He never lost hold of me even at my darkest, lowest point.

Last week, Matt and I were talking about how my Etsy shop has been growing and how to manage my time between my shop and Xavier. He started to outline all the ways I could get more time to work - he could go in late on Tuesday and Wednesday, and my mom takes Xavier on Thursdays and my MIL could take him on Fridays and it hit me - I didn’t want the answer to be spending less time with Xavier. And that feels like a victory. I feel like I fought so hard to get here. Fought myself, the lies I believed, the hold the enemy had on me - that I don’t want to give up that ground. God has done so much work in my heart to get me to this point of truly joyful motherhood, and I’m so, so grateful.

I want you to know, sweet sister, that if you’re struggling with postpartum depression: you aren’t alone. I know you might feel alone and isolated and like you’re on an island, population: 1, but you are not alone. Dawn is coming. There is hope. You are seen and you are known and you are loved. God chose YOU to be your sweet baby’s mama. He’s not surprised by your depression. He’s not surprised by your shortcomings. He’s not up in His heavens, thinking to himself, “man, I really messed up on that one. She’s really not cut out for this.” No! He LOVES you. He’s FOR you. He’s WITH you. And He’ll be with you every one of your days. He’s in the mess with you. He picked YOU for that babe. Depression and all. Shortcomings and all. Messy mothering and all. And you don’t have to feel this way. You aren’t “less than” because of your struggle. You are not a bad mom. You are a warrior, willing to lay down everything for that precious child. But you have to, have to, have to care for yourself. Put on your oxygen mask first. Tell your husband how you’ve been feeling. Tell a friend. Schedule the doctor’s appointment. Take that first step. Throw off the shame. Throw off the stigma. There is no shame. There is no stigma. You are worth it. You are so worth it. I wish I could reach my arms right through your computer screen and give you the warmest hug. You’re okay. You’re doing okay. And you’re going to be okay.

Sending all my love to all of you - thanks so much for reading and I pray my story is used by our mighty Father to shed light on this often taboo subject and bring Him glory above all. XO!