By Lisa Romeo
I never got to be the kind of mother who doesn’t, daily, remember and fear the possibility of returning to that hole.
Survive is a terrible word to use about one’s transition to motherhood. Fulfilled. Joyful. Happy. These are the right words. But “surviving” was the word I used to label what it was like for me, from virtually the moment of my first child’s birth until he was nearly two. I survived, and eventually realized that motherhood, after all, was not going to kill me.
Having battled severe postpartum depression (PPD), however, is not the most important part of my story. It’s what came next, after I was was supposedly no longer fighting off PPD that matters. What came next—what, even now that my sons are 21 and 17, persists—are days and nights and long worrisome moments of everyday life as a mother who is indelibly marked, thoroughly different from a mother who did not have PPD.
Because here’s the truth about what comes after severe PPD goes away: the deepest, darkest clouds may wash away in a few months, or a year, or in my case, about 22 months. Your therapist may wean you off the anti-depressants which saved your sanity (and probably your marriage). You may have more good mornings, and eventually only the kind of mornings when you wake up and you are no longer already crying. You may not any longer be overcome, hourly, with feelings of guilt, shame, hopelessness, and fear. All this may happen, and you may begin to enjoy your child (or children), sink into your role as their mother, relish your little family—but. That will never feel like your right or your natural state, and you may, at any given stressful mothering moment, think you certainly are going to drift away, back down that hole. The truth about having survived severe PPD is that it is incipient. It lingers. There is a legacy. Its shadow, the fact of its presence in your history, never goes away.
And you are a different person for it. You are a different mother.
You are not the mother you always thought you’d be, the one you’d planned and hoped to be, before you were even pregnant, before you gave birth, before your slippery, perfect baby was laid on your chest in the hospital and instead of feeling love and joy, you were dead and numb and ashamed. Of course, motherhood frequently does not turn out as expected for many others, mothers whose babies are born with serious medical conditions or neurological deficits or are born but never breathe. Those terrible, unexpected, difficult new-mother experiences occurred because of something that happened outside of a mother’s control. PPD feels as if it exists because of the mother, because of something that lives in her mind and body, and feels like something you—something I—must have caused. After “conquering” PPD, for me the guilt continued, and morphed. PPD’s long-term after effects hung around, its contrails crippling my ability to make confident mothering decisions as my babies turned into toddlers, and school children into adolescents and teenagers, and even college students.
When postpartum depression slammed me, in 1993, the condition was not yet widely understood. It took grit to find any professionals—unlike many pediatricians and ob/gyns, including my own—who weren’t telling PPD-suffering new mothers that they were sleep-deprived, or self-centered, and either way, needed to “snap out of it.”
Eventually, after hearing all that and more (relatives loved to say things like, Stop worrying about getting back to work! Just relax! Motherhood is not easy, buck up!), I found my way to a psychotherapist who understood, who was frankly a bit astounded that I was still functioning considering the severity of my PPD. We talked, for months; she prescribed the medication that allowed me to understand it wasn’t my son, it wasn’t me, it was a disorder, a bungled chemical process in my brain and misfiring hormones in my body.
I got better. I got well. But here is the price: I never got to be the kind of mother who doesn’t, daily, remember and fear the possibility of returning to that hole. I survived only by adopting an extreme cautiousness in my approach to mothering, an overbearing protectiveness of my children, and the admittedly irrational conviction that some way or another, I would eventually lose my children—physically, emotionally, or metaphorically—because I wasn’t, from the start, a good mother, not even a good enough mother.
With one child who is now an adult, and another on the threshold, I still feel the reach of PPD. Every day, I am still outrunning those greedy, grabby tentacles. They tug, spawning shame and guilt and fear and remembered hopelessness, stalking my every mothering decision, reaching back to when my first child was an infant and I knew, with certainty, that I was incapable of making mothering decisions because I was incapable, period.
Since I am still married to my children’s father—who, let’s face it, except for my lactating boobs, was in many ways father and mother to our first infant—I am not parenting alone, and so I often check in with him when my PPD-induced fears and insecurities are pushing me to make mothering decisions that pivot not on helping my sons to grow and flourish, but on providing too much safety and shielding my children in ridiculously overzealous ways. For nearly two decades now, he has affirmed what I already knew but couldn’t accept: that keeping my children where I can see them, or in environments I think offer safety, doesn’t make me a good mother, or expunge any damage I think I did to them in the early months when I was, empirically, not a good mother.
It’s my belief, or at least my experience, that a mother who has battled severe PPD, is a mother marked forever by its tight grip, its insistence that, devoid at first of natural parenting instincts, one is thereafter doomed to doubt every future mothering instinct. You’re never sure. Never without the worry that something’s wrong, that fundamentally, you don’t have what it takes. Even when standing before you are two pretty terrific young men.
Looking at them, I’m reminded that in the late 1990s, when working for a nonprofit that raised funds to treat children with cancer and blood disorders, I learned about the “late effects” of pediatric cancer treatments. One-time patients, in long term remission, in their late teen years and in their 20s, were surprising doctors with varied other ailments, a result of their treatments’ lingering effects.
Lingering effects from PPD however, according to experts, are rarely recorded, and usually vanish entirely in three years’ time. This obviously wasn’t my experience, and neither was it the experience of many other post-PPD mothers I’ve kept in touch with, after finally finding a PPD support group way back then. We’re wary, and we know why. The researchers need to look past toddlerhood, and study us, learn what happens after the therapy and meds and “recovery.”
All of this doesn’t, however, make my motherhood depressing, only different. In fact, the opposite of PPD (when I didn’t want to touch, hold, or even see my baby) often prevails. I don’t think I’ve ever, outside of my bedroom with door closed, ranted in exasperation, “My kid’s driving me crazy,” because I know what real mothering-induced craziness feels like. I don’t let my sons shrug off my hugs because I remember when hugging them felt like torture. I don’t wish my children back to school before summer’s even begun, not because I’m the world’s most loving mom, but because for what felt like a very long time I wasn’t, and I’m hoping every day to use my entire second chance.
Lisa Romeo’s work has appeared in the New York Times, O The Oprah Magazine, Inside Jersey, Babble, Hippocampus, Under the Sun, and Sweet. She has just completed a memoir about facing her father’s death while in the middle of motherhood, marriage, and midlife. You can connect with her on Twitter and at her blog.
Photo: Volkan Olmez