Today I’m happy to share a story from Warrior Mom Jennifer Carney. She had postpartum depression after her first child was born and didn’t seek help because she felt guilty that she had PPD and other moms who she believed had situations much worse than hers didn’t. After her second birth, which was severely traumatic, she learned that it never helps to compare yourself to other mothers. It’s like comparing apples to oranges.
I was at home by myself, having called in sick from work. It was a Friday and I was entering my 32nd week of an uneventful pregnancy with my second child. It had been in all respects much easier than my first pregnancy.
That week, I began developing what I thought was the flu. Everything felt a little off, but nothing that a few days of rest wouldn’t cure. By the afternoon, my blood pressure had climbed so high that I couldn’t see straight. My vision was affected. My head pounded. My thoughts were so confused that I was completely incapable of seeking the help that I knew I needed. When I finally realized that I was not going to be able to drive through Los Angeles traffic to pick up my son, I dragged myself off the couch and tried to find the phone. Getting up must have caused my blood pressure to spike. By the time I got to the kitchen, I was stumbling. I reached out to steady myself on the counter, but I missed. Instead, I continued falling to my left and landed on my side on the floor in front of the stove. One thought filled my mind: “I can’t let this happen.” I do not remember much after that. I stayed there, on the floor, for several hours experiencing grand mal, tonic-clonic eclamptic seizures.
Eclampsia is what happens when preeclampsia becomes severe enough to induce seizures. I had not been diagnosed with preeclampsia at any point in my pregnancy. It came on suddenly, with almost no warning. It developed into a variant called HELLP syndrome, which can kill both mother and child in a case like mine where aid is delayed. When my friend finally arrived and called 911, I came to for a few minutes. By the time the ambulance arrived, I was unconscious and seizing again.
When my son was born an hour later via emergency c-section, I was on life support. When I awoke two days later, I was still on life support in the ICU. Later that day, the nurses brought my son’s isolette into my room briefly before they transferred him to another larger hospital with a NICU. I would not see him again until I was released from the hospital six days later.
It would be 28 total days before we could bring him home from the NICU. Almost a full month before he would meet his older brother and we would all sleep under the same roof as a family of four. During that month, I operated largely on adrenaline and the need to get by.
We received multiple offers of help. I had flowers all over the house sent by well-meaning friends who did not know how else to express that they cared. My mother and my mother-in-law made sure that we had constant help for over a month and a half. I promised myself that I would accept help in whatever forms it took. And I determined that I would not let myself sink into the same hole that had engulfed me following the birth of my first son.
On the morning of my first day alone with my second child, I made my husband call my doctor. The next day I had a prescription for antidepressants – and they worked. Not right away, but within two weeks the PPD and the anxiety that I could feel coming on were gone. The trauma was still there, but at least now I could begin to process it.
This was a very different experience compared to my first pregnancy, which had ended in a planned c-section at 39 weeks. It was normal. My son was healthy, I was healthy and we all went home together. In the weeks that followed, however, my mood plummeted. I ceased caring for myself. I never sought treatment for postpartum depression then because I could not understand how I could feel so badly when I had finally gotten exactly what I wanted. My baby was healthy! He was perfect! How could I be sad when I knew that other women weren’t so lucky?
That’s one of the ugliest things about depression for me. I compare myself to people who have it worse. My perspective is skewed because I am only looking down. And that’s all relative, too. I use other people’s tragedies as a way to make myself feel worse about feeling bad, which helps no one. I am horrified by the thought of some young mother using the story of my second son’s traumatic birth as a measuring stick for her own PPD or anxiety. It scares me to think that someone else could possibly have those same thoughts that she has no right to be struggling. It’s only when I try to put myself in someone else’s position – to see my story from the outside – that my perspective starts to right itself.
I wish that I could go back and talk with myself after my first son was born. That young mother was terrified, sad, and worried that she had made a terrible mistake. She was constantly tired and filled with anxiety, which made sleeping difficult. She felt anger and had a notion that things were going to stay like this forever. She felt like she should be happier. That she was lucky to have a healthy son. That she was lucky to be able to stay home with him for a time. She didn’t want to complain because, dammit, she had asked for this. She wanted this.
My second son’s birth was far worse, but I think that the severity set me up to better take care of the aftermath. The hospital provided support. Friends and family provided more support. And I decided very early on to accept help in all the various forms in which it was offered. I had the memory of the previous postpartum depression to draw from too. I knew it was coming, so I braced for it. I knew that I would ask for help this time. I did. I was also more forgiving of myself. I didn’t immediately compare myself and my situation to others because I had never heard of anyone experiencing childbirth in quite the way that I had. There would be time to seek them out later.
I also used the time while my son was in the NICU to recover physically. And you know, it’s hard to admit that. Most of the NICU moms I know talk about how horrible the experience was. How they were in the NICU constantly and spent any time they were at home thinking about and planning for the baby’s homecoming. I did feel a bit guilty that someone else was caring for my son, but I also recognized that this afforded me the opportunity to take care of myself. As painful as the NICU experience was, it offered me some much needed time to get my own health back.
I try not to fall into the trap of having to give myself permission to feel an emotion. I try not to compare too much between my own experiences and those of others. My circumstances may be unique and
my perspective is my own. But I know that the depths of my PPD experiences were not directly
related to the severity of either birth. My feelings as a first time mother were more severe because I did not allow myself to deal with them. They spiraled further out of control because I tried to deny and to resist them. The depression was made worse not by the circumstances of the birth, but by the negative thoughts that ran through my head.
~ Jennifer Carney
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