Postpartum: Isolation and Parenting in the First Year
By: Madeline Webster |
“You need to watch her too,” said the very pretty doctor to my husband, “because you know her the best and you’ll be able to tell if she’s not doing well.” My husband and I smiled and nodded, knowing she was about to launch into the talk she has to give every new family. Because it is such a serious issue and because it affects so many women, postpartum depression is addressed at the hospital right after your baby is handed to you. Every doctor and nurse mentions it at least once, and if you took any birth classes beforehand, it would have been addressed there too. The problem is, postpartum depression and isolation are hardly ever discussed once you leave the hospital. There’s almost no follow up required by the hospital or your doctor. And whether you stay at home, or work, or work from home, every mother experiences some degree of feeling isolated. The word isolation is severe and it means to be cut off from everything surrounding you. And it can feel like that, no matter when and where it hits you.
The CDC reports that 1 in 9 women will experience postpartum depression, and that in some states it can be as high as 1 in 5. I was actively aware of the need to monitor myself for the “baby blues” in the first few months of my daughter’s life. I had been through two years of therapy and anti-anxiety and anti-depression medication before stopping when we decided to get pregnant. I assured the doctor at the hospital I would check in with my counselor. “I love patients who are proactive” she said as she smiled and left the room.
The next few months were filled with the high’s and low’s that every new mom experiences, but I felt I handled it well. I never checked in with my counselor, because I decided I didn’t need to. I got in a routine with breastfeeding my daughter, and later pumping when I went back to work. My mother in law lived only twenty minutes from us, so she helped out when I had to go into the office. The other days I could work from home, thanks to a flexible job. I crunched away on my laptop while she slept, and I felt incredibly lucky to have found this job.
Sleeping was going well, we were settling in as parents, and we felt like we were getting into a rhythm with work and family life. We decided to make a big move and sell our current house, and we started looking for a new house in the same town as my in-laws. My mother in-law offered to watch our daughter as often as we’d like if we lived closer to them. At the same time, my husband and I were both looking at different roles in our companies. In a time span of just two months, we moved and we both took a promotion at our jobs. But, it wasn’t without sacrifice.
My husband’s new role was third shift IT. He needed to make a move to the department he wanted to be in, and this was a foot in the door. He would have to agree to stay in the role for one year before applying for other jobs or shifts in the department. Our daughter was six months old and sleeping through the night. We thought, ok, this would be hard for our family, but it would give him a step up at work, and we could do it for a year. Everything was falling into place, and although we knew it would be hard, we felt confident that we would be ok.
Then, my daughter stopped sleeping through the night. We moved to a town about forty-five minutes from everyone I knew. My best friend moved to Florida to pursue her dream job. And I was buried in a new job, and a new schedule where I was the primary caretaker of a six month old, two dogs, and a house. Instead of falling into place, everything was falling apart. My husband would try to swap his schedule on the weekends so he could see us, but he’d usually fall asleep at some point, and I’d be alone.
It took about one month for reality to set in for both of us. I would drag myself out of bed in the morning, having gotten about three hours of sleep, and make a full pot of coffee to keep myself awake during the day. My daughter would wake up, grumpy and hungry from her night of not sleeping, and my mother in law would come pick her up. “How are you?” She’d ask. “Fine!” I’d lie. I would go stare at my computer and try to care about the customers who were asking me questions, or try to listen to my boss or coworkers request my help with another project. I’d work until five, and then go pick up my daughter, who had taken two long naps at my mother in-law’s. I ordered dinner most nights, and my husband would wake up at five or six PM, spend a couple hours with us, and leave for work.
At night, I’d get my daughter settled. We’d go through the bedtime routine of using sleepytime bath soap, reading stories, feeding until just almost asleep, and I’d lay her down and quietly leave the room. She’d sleep for about forty-five minutes and then wake, screaming for me. I read about sleep regression, I tried the cry it out method, I felt horribly guilty for stopping breastfeeding and using formula. I guessed and second guessed and I cried all the time. I had never felt so alone, and I was so afraid of burdening anyone with my problems. And on top of it, I felt like I was failing my daughter. Was I doing something that was causing her to not sleep?
My husband would come home from work at eight-thirty AM and find me in tears at my computer, trying to concentrate on work. He looked for other jobs, applied to several, and we talked through trying to get out of this. We talked about me cutting back at work, but financially we couldn’t afford it. On the nights he was off, he would sleep during the day and then stay up at night and be with our daughter when she would wake. He was home on Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday nights. I’ve never hated Wednesday but I started to. He was also missing us, as much as we were missing him, and going through his feelings that he’d abandoned us. We were living together, and feeling completely alone.
I didn’t know who to turn to. My husband knew I was miserable but didn’t know how to help, and he was so tired. My mother in law watched my daughter every day, I didn’t want to burden her on nights or weekends when I couldn’t handle being alone. My entire family besides one sister lived in another state. My sister who lived close was young, and she would come babysit but she wanted to be out on the weekends, making friends and going out, and I wanted her to do that too. I had friends, but they also had jobs, and young children, and I felt like they were all hitting it out of the park, and I didn’t know how to tell anyone that I sometimes laid on the floor of my daughters room and fell asleep while she cried because I didn’t know what else to do. I was isolated, but I was partly doing it to myself. My anxiety had come back and when I’d think about leaving the house with my daughter, I would imagine the worst case scenario and be too afraid to leave. Sometimes, I’d just drive until she fell asleep in the car and then I’d come back home.
There’s a feeling I like to call the anxiety snowball. Where you start hyper focusing on one problem and then that leads you to think about the next problem and the next, and before you know it, you’ve arrived at the conclusion that no one loves you and you’ll be miserable the rest of your life. When in reality you just needed to figure out how to make one thing work. Every problem has a solution. Sometimes that solution is just to keep breathing until you can address the problem. When the anxiety builds and builds, it feels like you’re alone because you can’t see a way out of your problems. But there is always a way out. You fix one problem, and that leads to the next solution. For me, the first solution was to get out of my head.
We decided to visit my grandparents in Michigan, even though we were struggling and I didn’t want to go anywhere. I needed to be around family but every bone in my body didn’t want to go anywhere. We put the baby in the car and made the drive. While we were there, some combination of cold northern weather and a visit from the god of sleep flipped a switch in my daughter. She started sleeping through the night again one month before her first birthday. I was cautiously optimistic, and I started to look around at what was left after five months of absolute mental isolation. I had gained twenty pounds, my husband was more like my roommate, and I had barely hung on to keeping a job. I hadn’t talked to friends or checked in with them, I was pretty sure I had lost some of them. I had spent tons of money, on whatever felt good in the moment to keep my sanity.
After her first birthday, when it appeared her sleep had normalized again, I stopped being sad every single day. My husband’s night shift seemed like more of an inconvenience than a nonstarter. He settled into a good routine of being with us on his days off, and started looking at other opportunities for work. I could breathe again, and I wanted to work out, and eat better. I started looking at what was happening at work and showing up at the office more to be around people. I realized my hair was pretty gross.
It took several months for me to admit to myself that I had been depressed, and that I had handled everything pretty poorly. I said it out loud for the first time to my stepmom while we were making food in my kitchen. She said she was so sorry she hadn’t been there for me. I told her, there was no way she could have known, because I lied to everyone about it. It took until now for me to write this all down. This wasn’t the same type of depression I had experienced before when I was in my twenties. Back then, I felt I had no real cause to be depressed (not knowing that you didn’t need one) and it would fill me with guilt that I was struggling so much when I had no reason to.
This time, the causes of my depression were clear, and they were valid in my mind. But it didn’t change the feeling of complete and utter isolation. I felt the same both times, both when I felt like I had no reason and when I felt I had a reason. The truth was, the second time was worse because I didn’t ask for help like I did the first time. I was embarrassed that I couldn’t handle being a mother. I was ashamed that depression had hit me hard, again, and that I let it get so bad. I couldn’t see five feet in front of me, and I didn’t let anyone know.
I should have gone to counseling the minute we moved to a new town and my husband started his new job. I told the doctor at the hospital I would be proactive, but I was arrogant. I didn’t think that isolation would hit me, six months into my daughter being on the earth. I thought I was past the danger point, but there is no time period when you aren’t vulnerable in your child’s first year.
I should have told my friends that I wasn’t doing well. I didn’t want to burden anyone, but the truth was that I had several friends who had been through the same thing, and we could have leaned on each other. There are a lot of mistakes I made, and I had been through all this before.
When you struggle to reach out, and people struggle with how to help you, you can feel so alone. But you are not isolated. There is always someone willing to listen, a health professional or a friend or a loved one. We don’t have great healthcare in this country and we don’t support new families. In my opinion, counseling services should be free for the first year after you have a new child. To go through a life change like that, and not take pause, is just setting ourselves up for failure, as individuals and as a society. If I could encourage one law to be passed, besides paid parental leave, it would be free counseling for new families.
Right now we don’t have those laws, it is on you not to suffer alone. Surround yourself with people who love you. Look someone in the eyes and say “I’m not doing that well” if you start to feel like you’re alone in the dark. Depression, anxiety, and isolation are real, treatable problems if we only start to look for help. And if you’re the loved one, partner, or friend of a new mom, don’t take her at her word when she says everything is fine. Show up for the people in your life, as much as they’ll let you. “It takes a village” is not just about raising children, it’s about supporting the people around you. We all move forward together, or no one does.
Madeline Webster is a fledgling freelance writer and holistic enthusiast. Her background is in health and wellness, art history, and all things coffee. She lives outside of Nashville, TN, with her curly haired mini-me, husband, and two dogs. Follow her on Insta @_bobcatbaby where she posts mainly photos of her two year old.