My husband and I welcomed Abel, our much-anticipated first child, into the world in mid-May. I was blessed with an easy, even blissful, pregnancy, during which I felt healthy and strong . . . and special. There’s nothing quite like carrying a child in the womb, and nurturing oneself and that child simultaneously.
During my pregnancy, I did all the “right” things. I rested a lot, got plenty of exercise, and read extensively about labor, birth and newborn care. My husband and I prepared a nursery for our son, stocked up on diapers, and accumulated all sorts of baby gear. But even though I felt ready for Abel’s arrival in a material sense, there was something in the back of my mind that wouldn’t quite let me feel at ease.
People would ask, “How do you feel about becoming a mother?” and I’d reply “Excited . . . and terrified.” It was a true statement, but also somewhat glib, as I never really paused to think about where that terror was coming from.
So Abel was born, and after a couple of nights in the hospital we all came home and began to settle in. For the first two weeks, I was tired but quietly content. Like most newborns, Abel didn’t sleep for long stretches, and he often refused to nap unless he was held in someone’s arms. I spent most of my awake-time in my sitting room, holding and/or nursing Abel, and reading.
I was fortunate to be able to give birth to Abel naturally, so my recovery time, in a physical sense, was short. Before long I was dashing around the house, “getting things done” whenever someone else could hold Abel. I’d heard about new mothers feeling helpless once the baby arrived. I didn’t want that to happen to me, so as quickly as I could, I leapt back into as much of my old schedule as possible. Abel and I went grocery shopping, and to my office to work on my newspaper columns and other computer jobs. I made dinner every night, and visited with friends and family during the day.
And then abruptly, my adrenaline wore out. Years ago I’d endured a depression characterized primarily by anxiety and frequent panic attacks. When Abel was around five weeks old, the anxiety and panic returned. Suddenly I felt completely overwhelmed. I was overdoing it, trying to return to my old lifestyle and beginning to realize that such a thing was no longer possible.
Before Abel was born I was a very independent person. I worked six days a week, and although I made my own schedule with freelance work, my days were often non-stop. On any given day — even though I was working at my computer — I had several hours to myself, by myself. My husband’s schedule was similar, so we cherished the few hours we had together at the end of each day and on Sundays.
When Abel arrived, that all changed. Instead of being home only to eat, sleep, and veg on the couch for a couple hours a night (and occasionally do some housework), I was now in the house almost all the time. I was still doing freelance work, but I had to fit it into times when Abel was asleep or being cared for by someone else. When I wanted to go out, I had to schedule around Abel’s feedings. Suddenly everything revolved around the baby. I was used to everything revolving around me — or my husband and me.
You may be saying, “Of course your life revolved around your newborn! What did you expect?” I know it seems obvious. But it’s hard to truly fathom how much your life will change until you’re living the changes.
I was ready for the sleep deprivation. I was ready for nursing and all that goes with it. But no one talks about how you will have no personal space, and no un-negotiated time to yourself. No one tells you how you will mourn the loss of your old life, how you will feel incredibly guilty for wanting to spend an hour away from your baby, and yet you will desperately need that time to yourself in order to remember who you are.
I started asking my friends if they felt overwhelmed when they became mothers for the first time. Most, but not all, of them said yes. When I asked those same friends if I was naive for expecting it to go more smoothly, they all admitted that it took them by surprise too. When I asked, “SO WHY DIDN’T YOU WARN ME!?!” their responses were variations on the following themes.
“You came to my house every week, saw me struggle, and listened to me complain. Wasn’t it obvious?” (Apparently not – unless I was thinking, “this won’t happen to me.”)
“I wanted to tell you, but I didn’t want to sound negative just because I found it hard.” (Okay, but . . . )
“I tried to tell you but my mom/husband/sister elbowed me in the stomach and told me to shut up.” (Thanks for trying!)
“It’s not something you can explain or understand until you experience it for yourself.” (That pretty much sums it up.)
There has been plenty of coverage of post-partum depression in the media lately, thanks in part to Brooke Shields’ brave memoir about her own experience and Tom Cruise’s wacky response to her book. But I’m concerned that we tend to focus on the extremes, where mothers want, however fleetingly, to hurt their selves or their babies. There’s a whole spectrum of depression that’s common among new mothers, and no one is talking about it. Depression and anxiety are not unusual responses to big life changes. Yet we women end up feeling guilty for not living up to the ideal of the perfect mother, who loves – and thrives on — every minute of her new role.
I don’t want to play into that image. So I’ve decided that, as undignified as I might appear, I will be honest. I don’t want pity – and it would be easier to pretend that everything is fine — but when someone asks me how I’m doing, I admit that it has been a difficult adjustment. When someone says, “Isn’t motherhood the greatest?” I say, “I’m not there yet.”
Don’t get me wrong – I love my son and the daily joys he bring me. I feel confident in my ability to meet his needs. The hard part is meeting my own needs at the same time. Transitioning into motherhood has not been easy. At least now, more than three months into it, I can say that it is getting easier.
By Kezia Bacon-Bernstein, correspondent
Kezia Bacon-Bernstein’s articles appear courtesy of the North and South Rivers Watershed Association, a local non-profit organization devoted to the preservation, restoration, maintenance and conservation of the North and South Rivers and their watershed. For membership information and a copy of their latest newsletter, contact NSRWA at (781) 659-8168.