This one’s for the moms: new moms, seasoned mothers, mamas in the thick of it— I want to give you a shout-out. But this piece is not to praise you for your efforts in mothering your children, although believe me; heaven knows we can use a lot more of that.
Instead, I would like to shed some light on those first weeks postpartum and the intense feelings that may have accompanied you in your fragile state when you brought your precious baby(ies) home from the hospital. Because the world often abandons new mothers in favor of their newborns. Babies are cute, so I don’t blame the world for this. But I want to acknowledge the women—literal warriors— who so selflessly bring these tiny humans into the world and provide them with love and nurturing, while simultaneously shedding layers of their old selves in order to fill their new role. They are most likely also confronting a whirlwind of intense emotions including fear, sadness and inadequacy. Top that off with the debilitating exhaustion that threatens to swallow a new mama whole, and indeed, you’ve got a recipe for depression.
I salute you, mamas, for the personal suffering you likely experienced, whether a lot or a little, when you became a mother.
A hovering black cloud followed the birth of each of my three babies. It always appeared within the first few days of being home from the hospital and lingered for several weeks. It seemed Mother Nature handed me a package deal each time and told me: here is a precious newborn baby from God, but disclaimer: you will not be able to fully enjoy this time. A heavy weight will be pulling you down and holding you there until enough time has passed that you have found your footing. In the meantime, your new normal will feel something akin to swimming in a vast black ocean with a gnarly riptide dragging you further away from the life you knew before. You will have to fight against the current until you can finally break free. In due time you will be able to swim safely back to the shore and enjoy the sunshine.
Baby 1: FEAR
My firstborn brought joy, but before I had the chance to take a decent shower, it morphed into paralyzing fear. That first week at home is a blur to say the least, except for two things. First, I distinctly remember the shrill screams that escaped my daughter’s tiny throat on our first night home from the hospital. In very non-maternal fashion, I became panicky. Sobs escaped me as I handed this miniature human over to my husband, feeling nothing but hopelessness and dread. Thank God for my husband; he took her tiny body into his arms and gently rocked her until I found my breath again. Finally I managed to convince myself that I was still a good mom, but maybe this didn’t come as naturally to me as it did to others (in hindsight, I realize this is a normal reaction for a lot of new moms).
A week later, the night before my husband was to return to work, I experienced another episode; this felt like the mother lode of overwhelm and panic. I was 100 percent convinced that I would not be able to take care of this baby on my own. While I cried, my mom gently reminded me that I was, in fact, capable, but that this was still new. Anything new is scary and we must allow ourselves a grace period as we trudge along the learning curve.
Finding My Way
As the days passed, the fear slowly subsided and I found my footing. Now, eight years later, in reflecting back on those first few weeks, it would be easy to downplay my fears. Just a little “baby blues.” And though that may be exactly what it was by the world’s definition, to me the fear was all-consuming and very real.
Baby 2: GUILT
Guilt. This is the black cloud that hovered over me for days following the birth of my precious baby boy. Not one ounce of my brain could focus on this new child in my arms. Instead, it was hyper focused on my firstborn and how I had seemingly failed her. The guilt was intense and heavy. It felt confusing, as this was a time where I should have been gentle with myself. All I remember is walking into my bedroom one evening and suddenly, without reservations, confronting this heaviness. I stood there in front of my full-length mirror and sobbed.
During this episode I couldn’t stop thinking about how I had botched my job as a mother to my little girl. I kept thinking about how I had “ignored” her for the first three months of my pregnancy while I slept on the couch and she watched too many shows. During those dismal months, a pattern had emerged. Rough mornings consisted of me sucking on white lifesavers and falling into a coma-like state—a helpless response to the misery that the first trimester brought. The more logical part of me knew that my three year-old daughter had no memory of this time. If she did, she must have thought I was an awesome mom for letting her devour so many episodes of “Dora the Explorer.” Yet, the hormones were stronger than my logic. My guilt was ruthless in letting me know that I wasn’t a good mom. Since I had no strength to resist it, I allowed it to swallow me for a time. I knew at some point it had to go away, but not until I had paid the price.
Relief At Last
It did, in fact, go away. One day I woke up and felt lighter. And with each passing day I felt a little stronger, a little less guilty, a little more rational. As the guilt faded, the logic took its rightful place. I became aware that the guilt I had felt wasn’t real or true. Yes, it was a feeling, but what I realized was that sometimes our bodies will overpower our rational minds. When hormones are at play, especially those that are present in a woman’s body after she gives birth, it is best to be as prepared as one can be for their intensity, acknowledge them when they arrive, and be patient as they dissipate. Because they will, eventually, leave for good. The light at the end of the tunnel is there.
Baby 3: REGRET
My caboose baby brought more of a grey cloud, but it was a cloud nonetheless. This cloud came in the form of a very intense kind of nostalgia. On the best days it felt like wistfulness, and on the worst days it felt like regret. Upon bringing my daughter home into our established lives, it was like I suddenly understood the reality of the passing of time. It was the first time that I truly grasped how brief babyhood is.
One afternoon after returning from an outing, I felt an immediate sadness overcome me. A week into the third-kid life, still reeling from the hormonal roller coaster, all I could think about was combing through every detail of my kids’ baby books. I wanted to physically stop and breathe them in through photos and keepsakes. I wanted to stall time and dedicate it to staring at their little newborn bodies. Every part of me longed to remember how I had felt bringing both of them home from the hospital. In scouring said baby books, I believed that I could take back some of those moments that I had wished away. I vowed to never do this with my youngest. I became fixated on the idea of slowing down and enjoying her. No more staring at the clock as each minute ticked by, wondering when my husband would be home from work so that I could pass her off and take a shower. It pained me that I couldn’t conjure all the memories, milestones, and moments that made up these earlier times.
Over the next several days, I gazed at, adored, idolized and cherished their sweet, tiny bodies and faces. I furiously wrote down all that I could remember to ensure my recollections of their babyhood would live on a hard copy and not fade away into the dust. I felt that I owed it to my kids, but mostly myself, to not allow a single memory escape me. This mindset was physically and emotionally draining, and thankfully, temporary.
The Power of Hormones
I realize now that this short-term obsession that gripped me was once again hormones disguised as regret, even shame. It was the all-too familiar feeling of unworthiness, of not feeling deserving of my children or the title of mother, of feeling like I wasn’t doing enough or measuring up. These feelings overwhelmed me just as the guilt and fear once had. The difference was that this time I acknowledged it for what it was: a façade, a momentary chemical imbalance, a normal hormonal response that intensified on the heels of bringing a baby into the world, and I knew that it wouldn’t last forever. It was just a hovering cloud that would fade away in due time, just like the others had, once the sunshine was ready to make its debut again.
A Warrior’s Work
I never want to minimize the emotional turmoil that I experienced following the birth of my three babies. Giving birth may be a common occurrence that the world casually overlooks, but every mother has a fascinating and important story to tell regarding her unique experience with it. The anguish of the actual birth (whether mentally, physically or both) combined with the physical healing and emotional whirlwind in the aftermath is work that only a heroine can endure.
Time often weakens the sting of our most difficult experiences, so I hope today you will take a moment to reflect on those first few weeks with your newborn(s). Your black clouds, however they showed up for you, should not be forgotten. I hope you will make it a point to remember the heroic way in which you navigated through this delicate time in your life. And I hope you continue to hold the utmost respect, adoration and awe for yourself. You are a warrior, mama.
For Meagan and Remy: the world’s newest warriors