I was such a great mother until I became one. I thought I knew all the right things to do as a parent until I became one myself and realized it was all a crapshoot. I had done all the research and made all the choices for the natural birthing and attachment parenting experience I wanted; midwife, unmedicated labor and delivery, delayed cord clamping, skin to skin, breastfeeding, cloth diapering, on and on. I minored in Children’s Studies in college, I provided parent-training in graduate school. I felt like I knew everything I needed to know about parenting.
Then I became a mother and realized that no matter how much “knowledge” we have, nothing can compare to experience. I knew, in theory, that I’d be breastfeeding every two hours. But living that was so very different. It was utterly exhausting. I was so sleep deprived I felt like I was going mad, but there was no “sleeping when baby slept,” my anxiety was much too high. Was my baby breathing? Did he spit up and block his airway? I didn’t know what was normal and what wasn’t, I just knew I was not getting enough sleep and it was so very hard.
The sleep deprivation snuggled right up into anxiety & held hands with depression. I was sooo irritable. My husband could do nothing right and I was utterly resentful of him and how little it seemed he could do for our tiny eating machine. He got to leave the house without fear of how the baby would be. He got to have a life outside of parenting, even if it was work. I needed a break so bad, but the baby needed ME. I didn’t have family close enough to help or friends who I understood. I was effectively alone.
I remember the exact moment I was knew something wasn’t right. I think I had gotten my menstrual cycle back and that was when shit really hit the fan. I told my bestie, 1300 miles away, that I understood why mothers drove their minivans into the ocean. I felt so isolated. Trapped. Desperate. The swings of my emotions were mind-boggling. Here was this tiny human I’d grown with my very own body that I loved so much and so desperately needed a break from. Here I was, all alone in this unbelievable experience. What was I supposed to do?
I called my OBGYN's office, but they refused to see me because I'd had a midwife. My husband even visited their office and was also turned away. My primary care doctor wouldn't see me because my issues were "pregnancy related." Finally, my husband got me an appointment to see his doctor. The nurse had me complete a short questionnaire with maybe 16 questions that was supposed to screen me for depression, anxiety, ADD, and OCD. I had symptoms of 3 out of 4 these disorders, according to this ridiculously brief questionnaire.
When the doctor arrived, he was full of absolutely incorrect ideas like babies get teeth at 9 or 10 months & that's when I'd stop breastfeeding and then I'd feel better. (I breastfed for 2.5 years.) All the same, he prescribed me trazadone with the added benefit, he said, that it would make me sleepy. I knew I couldn’t take a medication like this while cosleeping with my baby, which was the only way either of us got any sleep. I never took the meds.
Shortly after, we left Corpus Christi and moved to North Dakota with my husband’s job. I was even more isolated, knew even fewer people. I was devastated to be leaving behind the mothering community I was just developing thanks to Heart to Heart Babywearerers and La Leche League groups. I knew I needed something to quite literally keep me alive in North Dakota, so I began leading a babywearing group like the one I’d left behind. Helping other struggling mothers and helping normalize their experience was exactly what I needed. The relationships I developed there still touch me deeply five years later because I needed them so much.
I knew I still needed help and managed to find a naturopathic medicine doctor shortly after our move. I worked with her for months, tried homeopathic remedies, supplements, etc., but wasn't feeling as much relief as I desperately needed. I was still having dark thoughts, anger, despair, irritability, nursing aversion, exhaustion without being able to sleep. My husband had established a new doctor for himself and set up an appointment for me. This time I was prepared. I had found a postpartum screening questionnaire online and had determined from fellow breastfeeders that Zoloft was generally regarded as safe while breastfeeding. My son was a year old at this point, but here I was, finally medicated.
I started to feel better really quickly. After a short period of time, I told my husband that I felt like I was finally able to be the mother I wanted to be. It was one of the most difficult decisions for this uber naturally-oriented mama to get on medication. But my only regret was that I didn't do it sooner. I am now such an advocate for taking meds when you need them. If it is what will keep you alive, it is so very worth it. The issue with meds is that they must be paired with other methods. For me, it was counseling.
By the time I made it to counseling, we had moved back to South Texas. My son was now two. In the move, I had unintentionally stopped my medication and my mental health failed big time. My marriage suffered tremendously. It’s fair to say that my husband became a scapegoat for what I was experiencing. All my anger was directed at him and my depression attributed to him because he was the only one who was there. I demanded we attend counseling or get a divorce. I’m so grateful he agreed to attend counseling with me.
Counseling was so valuable for myself and my marriage. It was a necessary part of my journey. While we were attending counseling, I was diagnosed with premenstrual dysphoria disorder. My husband has been instrumental in helping recognize this pattern. For me, the one experiencing it, when the darkness hits it all feels so very real and I lose rationality. In those moments, I legitimately wanted a divorce from my husband because the stress of our relationship became unbearable. I couldn’t deny any longer that I needed to be on medication again. The wait was long to see a psychiatrist, so after months of kicking around ideas, I finally got in to a new primary care provider who would prescribe me meds. This time, a low dose of Celexa and it has been amazing!
A part of me wonders if premenstrual dysphoria disorder is what I had all along, but I don’t think it matters, ultimately. What matters is that I was suffering and I kept on to find what would work for me and when whatever solution was no longer enough, I continued onward to the next thing that could help me. It has really been such a beautiful journey. As absolutely miserable as I was five years ago, the joy I feel on the other side is just as consuming.
Motherhood has forced me to keep a close eye on my mental health and to learn to ask for help when I need it. The best thing I can be for my son is joyful and present. Taking control of my mental health with the help of meds is what allows me to be what I need for myself and what my family and friends need from me. I am so grateful to have survived this tremendous darkness that my life’s work has become to help other women, particularly mothers, to overcome their darkness as well.
If you are living on the dark side of mental health, please, please reach out. You are not alone. There are so many of us who understand and want to support you. You CAN get through it. A life you love is waiting for you.