On a bright September afternoon, a little more than a year after my first daughter was born, I drove back to the hospital where I gave birth. Through the stop lights on El Camino Real, right at the In and Out Burger, straight ahead through the double lanes of Grant Road. It was so familiar it felt like the car was driving itself.
I was returning that day on a mission. With one baby ten months old and another now on the way, I was teetering at the edge of something; I feared slipping back into the deep dark troughs of myself I discovered during my daughter’s infancy. Reaching toward hope I was clinging to a wisp of spiritual instruction that I had encountered years ago.
On my honeymoon in Bali, I found a brochure explaining that the Balinese deal with trauma by returning to the scene a year or more later to reintegrate spirit left behind in the wake of horrible events. They return to the place, passing through step by step to pick up threads of the self, the bits snagged in the jagged edge of terror.
In the pink corridor of the maternity ward memories of the past year seeped up inside me like wet pools from an underground spring. They held a slippery quality of illusion, not recorded in photographs or in my handwritten baby book, they trailed behind me like ghosts with unknown intentions. Swimming in their presence, I noticed that the whole past year felt unreal to me.
Not all postpartum depression or anxiety starts with a difficult birth, but mine did — with a streak of red blood sliding down my thigh. There were bright white lights that flashed on above my head, a hovering cluster of anonymous faces, a mysterious injection in my arm. There was an epidural that only worked on one side of my body, a ride on a gurney watching hospital ceiling tiles pass above my head, and the sound of a razor shaving my pubic hair. My mind’s desperate focus on the Norah Jones playing in the Operating Room filled my head as I recalled it all.
During the surgery there was pain, hot and deep, shoveling through my middle. Then there was nothing, dark black nothing.
I woke up in a beige room illuminated by yellow light. My husband was there. I had a sore throat. I could not feel my hands or my feet or my legs.
“Where’s the baby?” I rasped, then, “What happened to me?”
“The baby is fine, she’s great. She is in the nursery. The doctors gave you general anesthetic because they thought you were panicking.”
No one ever acknowledged the epidural did not work. No one ever told me why I had to visit Labor and Delivery that first time, or why they had to induce, or why I had to have an emergency C-section. The only thing I understood when I woke up was that I had a sore throat and I did not know where my baby was.
“But you were amazing. You did great,” he said.
Through most of early motherhood I was in pain. Even six months after the birth I felt stabs through my c-section scar when I rose to get out of bed. For nearly a year I did a kind of roll-over-push-up-shimmy to avoid feeling the sharp zap across my middle.
When my baby cried, my whole body sizzled with anxiety, as if an alarm was buzzing just below the surface of my skin. When I attempted sleep, an uncontrollable alertness to my daughter’s cries prevented me from relaxing. When sleep did finally come, my dreams terrorized me. I dreamed of a speeding train passing so close to me it singed my skin. I dreamed my hair caught on fire. On another night, my body burned in my dreams, the smell of cooking flesh startled me awake.
This was not how I expected motherhood to feel. When I selected the bunny crib bumper, the pink onesies, and plush blankets for my registry, I assumed the experience of new motherhood would be as soft and as sweet as the baby things that caught my eye. Instead, in that first year I nursed and changed the baby at an exhausting clip, run by an energy as vicious as a threatened lioness.
All I wanted that first year was to be a normal mom. I wanted to stroll down the street, with my new baby in the pram, chatting with neighbors, and enjoying afternoon sunlight. Instead, I hardly left the house for fear of the baby crying, needing a change, or needing to be fed. Any suggestion from my own mother or my husband that I might have postpartum anxiety or depression was met with denial and resistance. I did not want to believe it was true, I did not want any more of my experience taken from me. I was determined to be typical, to be normal, and to succeed at motherhood.
At my daughter’s one month checkup, my pediatrician looked me in the eye and asked me how I was doing. I told her everything was good, but she saw through me. She said something I needed to hear: “The local hospital runs mommy groups. I want you to join one. It’s good for the soul.”
The first time I went, it rained. I remember carrying my daughter in the bucket car seat across a wet lawn. A fellow mom met half way and offered to share her umbrella. We walked into the classroom together. As I crossed the threshold I breathed a silent wish, please may these women be kind to me.
The group leader, an older woman with curly brown hair, invited us to sit in a circle on the floor with our babies. We started with a check-in. One by one, moms shared their stories, the long nights, the difficulties breast feeding, the crying–both their babies’ and their own. One mom was on an antidepressant. Another was pumping because her baby never learned to latch. At least three of us had experienced shocking c-sections. In that circle, moms broke open like ripe fruit, weepy and juicy, sweet and real. There was tenderness, and in that tenderness I found safety.
For the first time, I understood a new definition of normal–one with more range. I saw that my own internal judgement, the one that needed to feel normal, the one with concrete ideas about being a good mother, had little use to me now. There was my direct experience and then there was what was needed. Any judgements about how that stacked up or what it meant in relationship to other people became less and less important. In the safety of that group I stopped feeling broken and alone. I didn’t have to hide from myself or from others any longer.
When I returned to the hospital all those months later, I was steady enough to accept my experience for what it had been, to admit that I had not been okay. For the first time since the difficult birth and following months, I saw how bad off I was. My experience had been traumatic, and I had fought with postpartum depression. As I watched families come and go with their newborns, settling into my new realization, I wondered if the vicious lioness that had raged inside me was gone for good, or if she was simply dormant, coiled in the bowl of my hips, waiting to return to her vigilance with my next birth.
I could not alter my previous experience, but I could accept it. For all I know the cheap Balinese guide was full of fiction, but my choice to return to the hospital gave me a chance to move forward in a new way. The Hail Mary yielded this one result, a promise to myself as I stood in the maternity ward: I vowed I would take care in this second pregnancy. I would find a new doctor. I would get a referral for a therapist. I would hire a babysitter. I would talk to my husband and my mother and my friends. I would mobilize all that I could for my own protection and for the protection of my children.
The lioness might be waiting for me, but on the day I returned to the hospital, I promised myself I would never face her alone again.
Cristina Olivetti Spencer is a writer in Palo Alto, California. She lives with her husband, three daughters and her German Shepherd. You can read more of her writing at www.cristinaspencer.com
The 7th Annual Mother’s Day Rally for Moms’ Mental Health is presented by Postpartum Progress, a national nonprofit 501c3 that raises awareness & advocates for more and better services for women who have postpartum depression and all other mental illnesses related to pregnancy and childbirth. Please consider making a donation today, on Mother’s Day, to help us continue to spread the word and support the mental health of new mothers.