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.