The Split Mind of Postpartum Depression

The Split Mind of Postpartum Depression

(Originally appeared April 2018 in Motherwell. To check it out and more, click here.)

In a quiet, distant voice I tell my husband Mark that I want to die. Not exactly dead, I clarify, but not this. I tell him not to worry. I tell him love, guilt, duty will always matter more. I promise. But he has to understand, he has to reconcile what I’m saying with the fact that I love him, that I love our life together and our beautiful daughter. “Mark, do you know what I’m saying?”

Before breakfast I sing our daughter to sleep, rhyming her name with nonsensical Seuss-y words. I smile. The real kind, reflexive, above the sadness.

Mark listens as I describe my half death wish. I need him to know this about me. I need him to know becoming a mother was a big mistake.

Somehow he manages to bring me back for a moment, to remember the woman he married, to prop me up with his words.

“I don’t know what to say. But it will be okay babe, I promise.
You’re an incredible mother.”

He knows how I craved our child, a longing made even more insatiable after a series of fertility tests, surgery, hormone shots he gave me at home, ultrasound disappointments and finally, hope.

I try to explain between sobbing, breastfeeding and searing exhaustion why I am sad. I fiercely advocate for our child. I tell my husband he’s the better parent. Good parents don’t want to “fade to black.” He looks terrified but reassures me yet again, that this, that I, will get better. I nod but don’t believe him. Depression is a wild animal, it can’t be tamed with gentle coaxing.

“. . . ultrasound disappointments and finally, hope.”

Our daughter Taylor was born at 37 weeks, two days after my doctor sent me straight to the hospital because my borderline preeclampsia tipped and my blood pressure spiked to a life-threatening level. My child emerged flawless and unscathed, despite a long, grueling drug-induced labor, despite a dangerous forceps and vacuum delivery.

So to beg for my own death was the ultimate selfish betrayal to gratitude. It is this no man’s land inside the mind that is impossible to describe about postpartum depression. An involuntary vacillation between immense joy and unexpected misery.

As I snapped a thousand pictures of our new baby, propping her against the giant Paddington bear we bought for her room, I marveled at this little person that Mark and I made. Made. But in the evening sometimes I begged God that I wouldn’t wake up, fully aware of my irrational mind, yet unable to stop the dark thoughts from spinning. I pictured Mark trying to shake me, his scream, the sobs, and the thought of his pain pulled me back.

For a few weeks we managed to move through the worst of it. A time when, if I could go back, I’d listen to my husband and ask family and friends for help. I’d take the antidepressants I was afraid to ask my doctor for because I worried about the side effects.

After about two or three months I gradually came out from under the suffocating sadness, not quite happy, but with a sense I was meant to mother, despite the constant feeling that I was broken.

When I tell other moms about my depression, inevitably a few share that they have also struggled. Most whisper their story. The happy moms must never overhear. Because even now, as we collectively and bravely confess that parenting isn’t all giggles and glow, most parents reassure women that mother-love is their pre-ordained superpower. Our innate shield against the darkest moments.

I think about my dear friend Lisa, and her warmth, her wicked sense of humor. Only she and I are worlds apart about what “good” mothers are allowed to feel.

In her mind, “good” mothers don’t crumble. They suck it up. They get mad but never depressed. If they’re sad, it’s because the kids are grown and the house is too quiet without them. Sadness may only come because you love your children too much, not because you didn’t love them enough.

The few times I mentioned postpartum depression—mine, a friend’s, a celebrity’s—Lisa said, “I really don’t get it. I loved being a mom from day one.”

“Depression has nothing to do with how much moms love their kids,” I told her. “It’s a treatable illness. A cruel mix of ping ponging hormones, brain chemistry, exhaustion and feeling totally overwhelmed.”

Essentially I force fed empathy to a mother who refused to believe that maternal love, the real kind, would ever succumb to the weakness of depression. After that day, we never talked about postpartum depression again.

Maybe I stopped her from inflicting unintentional harm on another mother suffering the agony of two embattled minds. Someone who loves her child so deeply she can’t imagine a life without her, and someone who believes she wants to die, if only to slip into the sweet relief of nothingness. And then return.

I’ve had a few bouts of depression since, nothing as dark and all-consuming as the weeks after my daughter was born. I was reminded, haunted really, how quickly and tortured my mind can become from drastic swings in my sleep and brain chemistry. It is a narrow and terrifying turn, but something I understand now, something I’m finally able to tame.

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Why I Never Had Babies

Why I Never Had Babies

I started babysitting when I was in the 7th grade. I sat with older children, though truthfully, there wasn’t much sitting involved. I mostly played games, broke up fights, doled out snacks, and devised various failing strategies to get them to bed on time. Once they conked out, I dozed through Johnny Carson’s show and woke when the Star-Spangled Banner trumpeted the arrival of the test pattern. I got paid 50 cents an hour.
By 9th grade, I was the regular sitter for the three kids next door, often on summer days when their mother simply had to get something done outside the house. The youngest was the oddly named Hugh-hill, whose upper lip frequently hosted a worm of green mucus that I managed by thrusting a wad of tissue at his older sister with an encouraging look.

When the nice young couple across the street adopted a newborn, I accepted a new client. Having grown up with a sister 8 years younger, I knew how to change diapers and warm a bottle. My mother was home if anything should go wrong. On the maiden voyage, the baby slept; I read some magazines. The cookies designated for my enjoyment were of a superior quality.

When invited back, I readily agreed. A drowsy infant, time to read . . . and $1 an hour! To my surprise, on reporting for duty that evening, I found a second child had been added to the mix. My nice couple was going to a party with friends, whose toddler I was also expected to watch. At 14, I was wise to the way of toddlers, but if the baby slept quietly, I figured I could manage. 

I couldn’t. The toddler was everywhere at once, and the evening infant was not the undemanding one I’d tended in the afternoon. He required a diaper change, for one.

Excited to be on the changing table, the little guy thrashed around and knocked over the open bottle of baby oil. It efficiently emptied itself, dripping from the table onto the floor.

Fearful of slipping, I held tightly to my tiny charge and made my way to dry ground, afraid the toddler would abandon his toys at any second and wander into the oil slick.

Desperate to clean up — and knowing my mother was out — I called my six-year-old sister over to help. I wasn’t worried about the freshly diapered and immobile infant, but the toddler needed a keeper. So, she kept him occupied while I cleaned up. Order restored, the four of us gathered in the living room near the piano.

The next part of the story is where I went terribly wrong. And, the consequences of my actions not only devastated me at the time, but they still come to mind when I’m put in charge of a small child, however briefly.

My little sister perched on the piano bench and tinkled the keys, drawing the toddler’s attention. I lifted him onto the bench next to her to allow him to pound out a little tune. He was not, however, steady enough to hold himself erect for long and, in a slow-motion nightmare, he tumbled from the bench, hitting his head on the floor. He looked startled, gasped, then wailed with pain and indignation.

I scooped him up and, using the address the nice couple had left on a pad, I told my sister to run to the nearby dinner party and summon the parents. She sped off; I wrapped an ice cube in a dishtowel and placed it on the goose egg that was developing. The toddler continued to howl.

I should pause here to say that I was an unusually mature and responsible child, the oldest of three, my mother’s helper. An A student, I was elected vice president of my 7th grade class, served as a bus monitor, and had earned both child-care and first-aid badges in Girl Scouts.

My resume in no way mitigated the reaction of the toddler’s mother. When she returned to find her injured child in my arms, and as I was trying to explain what had happened, she screamed, “What kind of babysitter are you?” again and again, until I tearfully gave up. My sister and I went home.

I crawled into bed, sobbing. When my mother returned, she sat on the bed to pat my back and coo comforting words. I keened and gulped my way through the story. I had made a mistake that could have cost the child his life — that’s what the upset mother’s angry words communicated to me — and I couldn’t stop the self-recriminations.


My mother crossed the street to talk to the infant’s mother, who reported the events as I had. The toddler’s mother, she acknowledged, had over-reacted. And, she admitted, it had been a mistake to add a second child without a forewarning. She even mentioned the effort I’d made to clean up the spilled baby oil.

The next day, my mother visited the toddler’s mother. Once assured that the boy was fine, I know my mom had some things to say about the pain her child felt. Later that day, the nice lady across the street came over to pay me; I refused to take the money.

I never accepted another babysitting job.

When I was in my late 20s and working in a Dallas newsroom, a younger colleague approached my desk to say she wanted to get pregnant because, she claimed, “My body is screaming BABY BABY BABY!”

Her resume didn’t prepare me for that: she was a highly competitive gourmet cook and runner with a degree from a good school, hired from a Chicago paper to edit a flashy new section in Dallas. She showed every sign of professional ambition.

As for me, I was happily working as a features writer, married to an older man with children from his first marriage. My body scolded me at night for wearing high heels to work and nudged me to eat dessert, but it hadn’t so much as whispered “baby” to me.

It never did.

“My body scolded me at night for wearing high heels to work . . .”

As friends and co-workers began to start their families, I dutifully showed up for baby showers and expressed interest in the oft-shared statistics — hours of labor, weight at birth, number of sleepless nights. New moms clustered in the hallway at work to compare notes about breast pumps and childcare.

Meanwhile, I had Wednesday nights to myself — that’s when my husband took his twins out to eat — and I adjusted to every-other-weekend sleepovers. I attended my first PTA meeting, sent letters to camp, baked birthday cakes. My stepchildren were already 10 when we came together: I had nothing to share with friends who were starting from scratch.

The new moms in my circle likely thought I was a big drag. I’m sure I complained about my part-time parenting — about meals and laundry and being stuck at home on Saturday nights. I know I whined about late-night pick-ups at the roller rink and all the backseat squabbling.

Some of it was good, of course. Accepting a limp bouquet of flowers gathered on a walk or having a small hand slip into mine eased the pain of having to scrape bubblegum off the bed sheets. I still remember the first time one of my stepchildren thought to wish me a happy Mother’s Day.

I was only 26 when I took on those 10-year-olds. In some ways, that helped. Because I was still defining myself, I had fewer notions of how things should be. I was accustomed to change: in the previous four years, I had graduated from college, moved to two new cities, married (and divorced) my college sweetheart, and become a journalist.

With all that going on, having babies had yet to make a blip on my radar. Instead, my focus was on learning to be a better journalist and making friends, both of which were happening in that Dallas newsroom. And though I wasn’t looking, that’s also where I met the love of my life. As it happens, he already had two perfectly good children. On the day we married, I became both a newlywed and a stepmother.

Almost 40 years later, I’m astounded to realize how little thought I gave that choice. When I said, “I do,” I joined a club whose most famous members were the tormentors of Cinderella and Snow White. We were “wicked” or “evil,” and nobody loved us. Even I laughed when a co-worker regularly complained about her “step-monster.”

I had been a stepchild, so I guess I thought I knew a thing or two. There was the real parent, and there was the not-real parent. You had to do what the real parent said, and if the other one told you to do something, you checked with the real parent.

And so, I became a not-real parent. As such, I spent the next four decades picking my way through the thorniest of relationships — with my stepchildren, their real mother, their spouses, their children and . . . yes, their stepchildren. It’s been the biggest adventure of my life.


 My aunt Helen, whose shoes and purse always matched, kept multiple $20 bills in her wallet at all times. She had her hair regularly colored and styled, and she went to church (my mother said) to have an excuse to dress up. She kept a cake of Maybelline mascara on her pink vanity, and I loved watching her load the tiny brush and sweep it onto her pale eyelashes.

Aunt Helen worked, but her house was unfailingly clean and orderly. She read Perry Mason paperbacks and stocked her downstairs fridge with icy bottles of Tab. She exercised with Jack LaLanne on TV and bought one of those jiggling machines with a wide belt she strapped around her bottom. Having been a pretty woman, she kept at it until the end of her life.

My mother’s big sister had three husbands, but for reasons unknown to me, she never had children. I remember some grown stepchildren who came to holiday meals. And, she had my brother and sister and me, on whom she lavished love and attention.

Because I never heard her lament her lack of offspring, I assumed Aunt Helen was happy with her lot. And, in that unconscious way that children emulate beloved family members, I embraced not only my aunt’s tendencies toward financial solvency, self-care and tidiness, but also her child-free status.

My timing was good. Born in the middle of the baby boom, I had encouragement and opportunities denied women of earlier generations. I knew I wanted an education and a career. Although I first settled on being a flight attendant (when I was 11), my love of reading and writing won out. My parents were encouraging: They bought me books and magazine subscriptions and, when I was 12, my very own typewriter. 

In high school, I discovered the women’s liberation movement.

The day I left for college, I had with me the first issue of Ms. magazine, published in spring 1972. I read and re-read the satirical article called “I Want a Wife,” targeted to working women who came home to household chores and childcare expected of traditional wives and mothers. As someone just leaving the nest, it seemed a terrible injustice: The editors of Ms. would have called that my “click” moment.

There were many more. In the women’s history classes I took in college, I learned how recently women had gained the right to sit on juries and to own property in their own names. My eyes opened to the inequalities that persisted. I discovered that I couldn’t apply for a credit card without a male co-signer, not until after someone fought for and won that right for me during my junior year. I got a Mobil gas card right away.

More pertinent to my life choices were the changes that occurred during my first two years in college. In 1972, the law prohibiting unmarried women from possessing contraceptive devices was overturned: my campus health clinic began to dispense the birth control pill. A year later, Roe vs. Wade made abortion legal.

As a woman then in my late teens and early twenties, having control of my reproductive life meant an accidental, or unwanted, pregnancy was unlikely. If I had a baby, it would be deliberate. It would be my choice.

It never was. I know people are curious about childless women, more so in my youth, I suspect, than these days. I’m sure some suspect fertility issues; others assume we dislike children. Once, I was accused of being selfish for not producing a small person or two.

Most adults are too polite to ask for an explanation. But when I was a high-school teacher, at least once a year a teenager in my class would ask if I had children. I always replied, “I have stepchildren.” That was, of course, an evasive answer. I was afraid to say no outright, because the follow-up would have been, “Why not?”

It was not a question I could easily answer. I’ve made an attempt here, partly because my adult stepdaughter once asked me point blank, and although I really wanted to answer, I didn’t have the paragraphs lined up.  Because I’m a writer, I don’t know what I think until I see what I say.

Here’s what I’ve learned writing this piece: caring for other people’s children had something to do with my failure to develop baby fever. My role models suggest a rejection of my mother’s preference to stay home and raise children. And, as a young woman, I awoke to my culture’s historic devaluation of women and therefore, of motherhood. These explorations have allowed me, at 66, to consider more fully the choice I made decades ago.

Now, if anyone asks me why I didn’t have children, I’ll say: I simply allowed time to pass — busy, happy years — without considering pregnancy; I felt no urgency to reproduce. It didn’t occur to me that anything was missing from my life, at least not anything that would be solved by having a baby. How very fortunate I’ve been, to have had such a life.