I suffered from postpartum depression and anxiety with a side of OCD for two years after my first child was born. And though I sought treatment and began my path to wellness after my baby had her 5 month birthday, it took every last day of that additional 19 months for me to feel like I wasn’t waiting for the other shoe to drop. If you asked my husband, he’d tell you now that I’ve completely recovered from my PPD and from the antenatal depression that hit when my second child was still baking. But he’d also tell you that I still suffer.
I know now that I suffered from anxiety and OCD symptoms for years before having children. My anxiety diagnosis is not going anywhere – and I’ve made peace with that. I see my doctors regularly, take my medications daily, and make a point to be mindful of my emotional health. When I have a bad day – a panic attack, a moment of anxiety, or a day of feeling like I want to just stay in bed – I have the tools and the support now to reach out and ask for help. I can identify the anxiety and often stop it in its tracks. My mental illness may always be there, but it’s managed. And in the last 5 years, the most important thing I’ve learned is that I don’t have to wait to be perfectly healthy to be happy. So though I still struggle with anxiety, that’s not why my husband would tell you I suffer. He would tell you of the guilt.
No matter how hard I try, that guilt monster rears its ugly face. I say “monster,” because that’s what it is – an ugly, twisted creature that deserves no place in my life or my thoughts. It’s clandestine and voracious and likes to hide until just the right moments. And though my rational mind knows that I did absolutely nothing to deserve or cause my PPD, I still find myself fighting to let go of the past.
The guilt was amplified when my second daughter was born and I experienced joy. Unadulterated, life-affirming joy. I was fortunate to work with an amazing doctor early in my pregnancy and not only was her delivery a happy time, but my pregnancy was too. Postpartum, I found myself enamored with my new baby. Bonding came quickly and easily and she brought me a sense of completion. It was everything that was missing with my first baby, and the shame hit me in waves. With each gentle nursing session and snuggly late-night feeding, I was reminded of the screaming and the detachment those early days and nights brought with my eldest.
Most recently, the guilt resurfaced while I was struggling with the idea of taking my 5 year old daughter to therapy for her violent outbursts and non-compliant behavior. It was more than a feeling that I had caused her problems by failing as a parent – it suddenly hit me that she must be this way because of how I treated her as an infant. I found myself sobbing and asking trusted friends, “how can this not be my fault? Those early days were so, so ugly.” And they were. I have vivid memories of screaming at my 10-day old baby, “what the fuck do you want from me?” Even now, typing those words is hard.
And then a good friend wrote me a letter and said this:
“I know right now you are worried about E. Of course you are. Your sweet, imperfect, first baby. But you worry that it’s your fault. It is. It’s your fault she’s smart, emotional, a touch socially awkward, and painfully self-aware. Let’s just own that for a minute because really, it’s wonderful. But that lucky, lucky girl, she has the gift of a mom who sees her, who accepts imperfection, who asks for help. You don’t know how much I longed for that. I bet you did, too.”
As the hot tears rolled down my face, I knew she was right. I did not ruin my daughter.
I did nothing to deserve or cause my PPD. The guilt monster will not own me with its lies. If my daughter suffered because of my PPD, it was not my fault. But the triumphant, sensitive, wonderfully imperfect little girl she’s growing into? That’s all me. I still regret that it took me so long to get help – but regret is not guilt. There is no shame in regret… only a wish for the past to be a bit different.
I think coping with the guilt that accompanies antenatal and postpartum mood and anxiety disorders is a common experience for many warrior moms. I want you to know that, like me, you did nothing to deserve or cause your PPD. You are exactly the mother your child needs and wants. You deserve to be happy and healthy.