Knit One Purl One: A Story of Postpartum Depression in the 60s

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I’m so glad Gretchen Houser, who is 70, reached out to me last week. She remembers keenly what it was like to have postpartum depression in the 60s, when there was no diagnosis and no support. She had to find a way to get through it on her own. Her words are beautiful and important. They remind us how far we’ve come, and how much further we have to go …

Gretchen Houser

Gretchen, with her daughter, Robin.

I can write somewhat dispassionately about what happened to me; after all, it’s been forty-three years.   It is the fall of 1968, October 12th to be exact, a Saturday morning, normal in every way, except for me.  My son has just turned five and my daughter is not quite a year old. A fierce headache insinuates itself early on and after breakfast, the pain is piercing.  This explains why I am skulking around with a remedy of my mother’s:  a soft cloth tied around my head smelling of Vick’s Vapo-Rub; an old wife’s remedy to “draw out the pain.”   I wear it like a warrior headband, my body tensing as if in battle and in a way, I am.

I am standing at the kitchen sink washing breakfast dishes, looking out at a world going on without me, a world in which I no longer fit.  It seems I’ve been standing here forever, rinsing glasses and plates, sorting silverware.  There has been no postpartum Brooke Shields on my horizon, offering poster-girl encouragement; only fearful days and nights, falling one after the other in slow succession.

Desperate for normalcy, I have taught myself to knit:  scarves, slippers, socks, Barbie doll ponchos, potholders — anything to alter my thinking.  When I’m not caring for the children, I bend my head and with trembling hands, cast on, knit one, purl one.

I wonder if I’m doing a good job at anything, agonizing over every last detail until my mind is awash with nerve-wracking images.  Is the bath water too warm? Too cold?  Is there enough milk?  Is her sweater warm enough? Did he brush his teeth?  Am I a good enough mother?

Always a good housekeeper, I become maniacal in my need to set everything in order.   I sort by color impossibly small panties for my daughter, fold t-shirts for my boy, match socks one by one.  I add twice-daily cleaning to my list of mindless activities. The house sparkles, every inch a Pledge-dusted sea of clean.  My intense need to straighten the house exhausts me but I cannot stop.  I wax the bedroom floor and stand back looking at missed spots, cursing myself for failure.

I extend my efforts to the backyard, but after a few moments, decide weeding is too hard.  I stand looking out at the sky, shielding my eyes from the sun.  Then, everything becomes too hard.

I stop sorting and cleaning; my knitting needles gather dust. Nightly insomnia renders me useless most days anyway. My throat closes up when I eat and swallowing becomes problematic. One thing follows the next and food no longer appeals to me.  Who can swallow past what feels like a large lump of clay?  I weigh 103 pounds and am 5’7” tall.

During a doctor visit, I try and speak to him of my problems, but words cannot describe this hell.  Ashamed of my tears, I bury my face in my hands and search for a Kleenex.  He is sympathetic and makes appropriate cluck-cluck noises.

“You’re very thin,” he observes.

“Yes,” I say, pleased someone has noticed.

“I don’t sleep,” I offer as though I’m handing him a menu at a fancy restaurant.

He studies something on the wall behind me, writes in my chart.  Finally, I close my purse with a loud click.

He sets up an appointment with a psychiatrist. Over the next few days, I prepare for this event like it’s some sort of strange debut. And yet by now, it’s nearly impossible to engage in eye-to-eye contact and I become like an animal, low and slinking around the corners of life.

Memories of that time still surface from time to time — of me trying to explain to this new kind of doctor, my monotone voice of those years, halting at first, then unable to stop.  I remember that she looked at me gently and nodded.

“Depressed,” she declared sadly.

“No kidding,” I want to scream at her.

But on this day, this Saturday, October 12, 1968, my acrobatic heart goes on a rampage, turning somersaults in my chest, heartbeat thundering in my ears like a herd of bison. What plagues me most are the nightmarish restlessness, now extending down my arms, the back of my neck; my jaw. Terrified, I call to a neighbor through an open window.  The rest is a blur, except for the worried, frightened faces of my children.

Soon, a screaming ambulance rounds the corner, and after a cursory examination, two paramedics load me onto a stretcher and out I go, like a piece of furniture that hasn’t worked out well.  Several curious children stand on the sidewalk watching and great pity wells up inside me, knowing what might await them too.  In the ambulance, safe from the world, I cling to one thought and one thought only: Wherever I’m going, I hope they keep me.

Stay tuned tomorrow for part 2 of Gretchen’s story …

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About Katherine Stone

is the founder & editor of Postpartum Progress. She was named one of the ten most influential mom bloggers of 2011, a WebMD Health Hero and one of the top 25 parent bloggers using social media for social good. She also writes the Fierce Blog, and a parenting column for Disney's Babble.com.

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Comments

  1. This is an amazing and beautifully written disclosure. Thank you, Gretchen! I can't wait for Part II.

  2. Absolutely stunning.

  3. Thank you for sharing your story. You and your daughter look so happy and beautiful in that photo!

  4. Wow. That is amazing. I hope that moms who hear the too often touted "PPD is a modern woman's problem" will refer to this post as evidence to respond to the ignorant.

    My grandmother alluded to having had PPOCD after having her three boys (she scrubbed her garage floor every single day. With a toothbrush.). However, she died when I was 5 mos pregnant with L1- can you say another risk factor for me?- so I didn't get to ask her more when the info was actually relevant to me later.

    Our female ancestors suffered no doubt. I just feel blessed that we do have so many more valid and helpful resources than they did. Oh how alone my Gram must have felt. :-(

  5. This is just beautiful.

    My mother has mentioned in passing some "times" when she was young that my grandmother and aunt would "take each other's kids on as their own" for brief stints during her childhood. No one has ever come out and said it, but after reading this and dealing with my own struggles, I think both my Aunt (4 kids) and my grandmother (3 kids) took care of each other's children so the other could fight off their PPD.

  6. Stephanie Perez says:

    Wow…this took my breath away. What an eloquently written story. Can't wait for part 2.

  7. Chimomwriter says:

    All I have is "wow." Can't wait to read more.

  8. Gretchen,

    Your way with words is amazing- You are so brave and sharing your story gives moms like myself some HOPE! You clearly look like a very happy person now! I am sure 40 some years ago you couldn't see that you'd come out of it- I am looking forward to part II of your story- thank you so much for sharing- I can tell you are a warrior!

    Thank you,

    Kris

  9. Thank you so much for sharing your story.

    It is so beautifully written, I was totally caught up in it, forgetting everything around me for a moment.

    Reading your story made me realize how much I have to be thankful for.

  10. Thank you for this. Your story is so familiar to many of us and it's never too late to speak up about what you went through. You are courageous.

  11. I have no idea why that horrible bio of mine is showing up at the bottom of each post. Will fix when I can figure out what the heck is going on.

  12. I am crying reading this! It hits home and I just wondered what happens to her. I just recently found out that my biological grandmother suffered with post pardum psychosis. She tried to commit suicide in the hospital two days after giving birth to my mother. They put her in a mental asylum and I can only imagine what she went through. This was in the Spring of 1949. My mother never suffered from PPD but I did with both of my daughters. So the insight of my biological grandmother suffering breaks my heart and also intrigues me to find out more about her history.

    Also wondering what happened to Gretchen in 1968. She is so brave to come forward and tell her story. Thank you Gretchen for sharing your story.

    • Gretchen Houser says:

      Hi Tara: Thanks for your kind comments. Actually, I'm a richer person on so many levels for having experienced PPD and as a result, live a rich and satisfying life. We women are amazing creatures, aren't we? Endowed with unbelievable strength and fortitude. Thanks for sharing your comments. Hurrah for us!

      • Gretchen~

        I finished reading part 2, beautifully written. I applaud you for your strength. And I agree about being a richer person for going through PPD. I feel the same way. I am stronger for it and would not be the person that I am today if I did not go through it. Again thank you so much for sharing your story! And yes Hurrah to us! Fondly, Tara

  13. This made me go, Woahhhhhh!

    I SO can't wait for the next part. And my oh my, I am not alone.

  14. Brilliantly written, beautifully expressed. Thanks for sharing!

  15. Wow. What an eye opening story. It always irks me when people talk about PPD as a "modern woman's disease" because our grandmothers were tougher and just got up and took care of things. They might possibly have done so, but only because they didn't have any other option – who knows what was sitting just below the surface. I can't wait to hear the rest of the story!!

  16. Gretchen – you are an amazing writer. Thank you so much for sharing. Although you say you are able to write dispassionately about it, your words are so emotionally charged that I feel like I am right there with you. I can only imagine how hard it must have been to silently suffer through something that did not have a name to go with it. You give us all hope!

  17. Beautiful writing Gretchen. I think of the stigma and hardships brought to women suffering from PPD these days, so it is interesting to read a perspective of PPD from 40 years ago. I am excited to read part 2 tomorrow.

  18. Beautifully written! You are a role model for such strength and courage. Thank you for sharing. Looking forward to part two.

  19. Gretchen thank you so much for sharing. I remember the restlessness in my arms and neck. can't wait to hear the rest of your story.

  20. From a male point-of-view: And also, I might add, not having kids myself, I found this story a stunning eye-opener. Because birthing a child is enough work in itself, and all that goes with it for months and even years after, it would behoove men to take a look at what their wives are going through with PPD. Might not be much they can do about it, but it would most likely help to offer to hold her hand, or hold the baby, or even give her as much free time as possible. Obviously my knowledge of PPD doesn't go that far, but maybe a husband can be of some small help. And finding a book on the subject would be worth their time.

    Ted

  21. Gretchen,

    I'm so glad the psychiatrist was a woman, otherwise you might have undergone shock treatments…that's how arcane 'things' were back in the preEnlightment days. How embarassing this topic was for people back then. Love Your Style, Entralled by Your Story.

    Hugs,

    Emily

  22. Sharon H. says:

    You inspire me on so many levels. Your words are a mirror of the vicarious trauma I've experienced in my own life. It's therapeutic to see the writing on the wall/blog. My gratitude is yours, always!

  23. Maureen Rogers says:

    Gretchen, wow, I'm having trouble getting grounded after reading this! I was with you all the way on this ride. Fabulous writing! So glad you got through this and I know the Gretchen of today. hugs from Maureen

  24. What a beautifully written article. Having suffered only one bout of depression myself which was diagnosed as "accumulative grief", I have difficulty understanding true depression. Having never birthed a child myself, which is depressing and sad in itself, I have no clue about ppd. You have given some enlightenment and understanding to a subject that I have heard of but know very little about. Thanking for exposing your inner self and your feelings so that others may benefit.

    You are a great person and writer.

  25. Barbara Denton says:

    You have just told my story, short of the ambulance ride, I drove myself to the hospital. Thank you so very much for sharing. Hopefully the new Mother's of today's world will take heed to their feelings and seek help without feeling ashamed to do so. A woman knows her body better than anyone else ever will, so I hope when they discover something wrong with any part of it, they seek help without judgement from others.. Thank you again Dearheart and much love to you, Barb

  26. Nicki Chen says:

    Gretchen, thank you for sharing your story. You brought your experience of PPD alive. After reading this, who could believe they're the only one?

  27. I can't wait for Part 2. I'm relieved I'm not the only one.