As mothers, we often joke how there is no manual for having a baby and raising them to be functioning humans. “Shouldn’t that be included in the afterbirth?”, I find myself saying, like a bad Dad joke. There is no easing into it. When you find yourself pregnant, motherhood is thrust upon you and no book or class could possibly prepare you for the ride to come. No amount of studying prepares you for this test. As a military spouse, I prided myself on my ability to “adapt and overcome”, “hurry up and wait”, “expect the unexpected”, and every other cliché that is associated with having a spouse in the Armed Forces.
My husband and I took advantage of every free pregnancy and birth class that the base offered. I took meticulous notes while rubbing my growing belly, wishing I could fast forward to a time when I all I would know is the immense love and joy of having our baby girl in my arms for the first time. The instructors talked openly about postpartum depression and the baby blues; making sure we all knew the signs and that asking for help was okay and not a sign of weakness. Each class I left never giving PPD a second thought. I was a “go-with-the-flow” kind of person and my ego was getting the better of me… “I’m made of stronger stuff than that.” Never have I viewed mental health or illness as a weakness in someone else, but for some reason, I thought I was untouchable.
At home, I read What to Expect When You’re Expecting religiously and glazed over the parts about postpartum depression knowing full well (HA!) that I wouldn’t fall victim to it. My pregnancy was textbook and I know I was fortunate for that. Baby girl was due December 22, 2012 and on December 19 I felt the first pangs of labor. Fast forward (oh, wouldn’t it be glorious to have a fast forward button for labor?!) to my due date, and she had arrived at 7:15pm. Fifty-two hours of active labor, an epidural, and two and a half hours of pushing, she was in my arms. But…something was missing. Where was the love bursting at the seams I was supposed to feel? Where were the sounds of trumpets coming from the heavens? Where was my heart exploding from all-encompassing joy? Instead, those feelings were replaced with “huh…I just pushed out a tiny human. Now what do I do?” Uncertainty, pain, extreme exhaustion, and questioning what we had been so sure of in our planning suddenly invaded every cell in my body. My husband was a ball of mush watching and holding this person we had created. The brand new grandparents beamed with pride and cried tears of joy. No matter how hard I searched within, I couldn’t find my joy. What was wrong with me? (a question I would ask myself over and over in the coming months).
On Christmas Eve, we were discharged to go home. Home?! Were they batshit crazy? There were no nurses or doctors there. I don’t know what the F*** I’m doing! HELP! I confided in my husband that I didn’t feel “right”. I then told my mother who told me that I looked a little “off”. Both of them agreed that I should tell my nurse. When I expressed my concerns to the nurse that something in me just didn’t feel right, she brushed it off with a smile, “you’re just tired. It’s normal”. This would haunt me for the next 6 months and had me convinced that since a medical professional had deemed me “normal” less than 48 hours after giving birth, that’s all I could be; a “normal” exhausted new mom.
Looking back, I gave my doctors and nurses every red flag. Now, I chalk it up to everyone wanting to be at home on Christmas Eve. In the next few weeks, I’d battle sleepless nights, constant breastfeeding, leaking from just about everywhere, trying to dress a new body, all of the things that are normal for a new mom. This was all overshadowed by a constant feeling of despair, failure, tears, and a rage building inside of me like I had never felt before. But, again, this was all supposed to be “normal.” Right before my husband left for TAD for a few months, he gently brought up seeing my doctor about postpartum depression. All I heard was “you’re failing. You’re not good at this. You can’t do this.”, so his love and concern for me was met with my defensive ego and pride snapping at him. He left and I was on my own.
Because hindsight is so 20/20 (mockingly so), I see how deep I was in PPD, but my own judgments got in my way of asking for help. Even when I brought it up to family members, I was met with “you’re just tired. This is all normal to feel as a first time mom.” But was it? To this extreme? I had to take my days minute by minute and sometimes second by second. With my husband, my rock and support gone, the days were excruciatingly long and the nights even more so. I hid from visitors and deliberately didn’t answer my phone. When it came time for my 6 week postpartum appointment, I lied. By this time, I was barely functioning through the depression, but I was functioning; so I slapped a smile on my face and emptily gushed about my new role in motherhood. My BFA in musical theatre was coming in very handy as I learned different masks to conceal my PPD from society and from myself.
Women have been doing this since the beginning of time, what is wrong with me? Why can’t I hack this? I AM MADE OF STRONGER STUFF THAN THIS! My shame and disappointment in myself was palpable. To be clear, I loved my daughter. I loved her more than anyone had ever loved anyone else. That, I could finally feel. Where my pain lie was in myself. This was also where I had myself convinced that I couldn’t possibly have PPD. If you were going through PPD, wasn’t that also accompanied with not feeling love for your child? So no, that wasn’t me.
Somehow, I made it through those lonely months. I didn’t have a strong support system of military spouses at this duty station; and now, as a “seasoned” spouse I see that could have been my savior right from the beginning. Family came to visit and help here and there, but I never let anyone see through my masks. Even my best friend, (who had battled severe postpartum depression a few years earlier) who knew my heart and soul through and through, could tell just from talking on the phone that something was amiss. “Honey. How are YOU? Are you really ok?”. “Of course!”, I’d answer. “Just the normal new mom stuff.”, I lied. How badly I wanted to break down to her and tell her everything…but pride is a funny beast.
We welcomed my husband home and my joy to see him was genuine. (Honestly, it was probably mostly relief; but I hadn’t felt joy in so long that I was taking it as I could get it.) While he was away, an opportunity presented itself to me; an opportunity to find myself again, to be Andrea and not just a leaking, sagging, exhausted mommy. My choir, the American Military Spouse’s Choir, had been asked to audition for the America’s Got Talent preliminary auditions in Chicago. I saw it as a retreat; a way to recharge myself and return home a better wife and mother. We had to keep the audition a secret, as it wouldn’t air until later in the summer (it was late April at the time). When I had a week left until the auditions, drama combusted in our family over who would be the lucky ones to help my husband with our 5 month old while I was away for 3 days. Words were spoken that can never be taken back, ultimatums were issued, and I unraveled. I cradled my baby girl as my sobs heaved out of me, heavy and freeing at the same time. How dare I take this glimmer of hope for myself, I thought. None of this would be happening if it weren’t for me. None of this would be happening if I wasn’t here. I SHOULDN’T BE HERE.
And just like that, a switch clicked on.
That moment was my pivotal point. That was the moment where the fog instantly cleared and I realized that I had postpartum depression and I needed to claw my way out of it, not to be a good mother or wife, but to survive. I left for Chicago, with feelings still hurt and people not talking to each other…but I was taking care of ME. Music, my root, my profession (before motherhood and military wife-ness) SAVED me. Making beautiful music with my fellow military spouses SAVED me. Our big family blow up SAVED me. And for that, I have no resentment, only gratitude.
Before having my second daughter, my husband and I were proactive in prepping my OB and nurses with my previous history. We were on high alert for any signs after I gave birth and the weeks to follow. Happily, I can report that I felt the love burst from my heart and heard the trumpets from the heavens the moment baby girl #2 was laid on my chest. It was actual bliss. Would I have appreciated it and relished in it if I hadn’t had postpartum depression my first time around? I don’t know. What I do know is that the way movies depict instant all consuming love after birthing a baby is not even close to the realm of reality and I was lucky to touch it the second time around. I know I’m a stronger mother, wife, friend, daughter, sister, daughter-in-law, woman because of postpartum depression. Sometimes I wish I had a different experience and story to tell, but then I wouldn’t be who I am today. Today I am someone who knows the importance of these conversations and stories. If one mother reads my story and it resonates with her so much so that she finds her power and strength to ask for help, then my purpose in this piece is fulfilled.
Despite all of the warnings and red flags that I had learned in classes while pregnant, I succumbed to PPD. I just didn’t know it. Or want to admit it. It is not a weakness to ask for help, nor is it a weakness to have postpartum depression or a mental illness. Postpartum Depression doesn’t care who you are. It doesn’t care if your pregnancy was carefully planned or not. It doesn’t care if your personality is Type A or B or Q. Race, class, age, financial stability, or marital status don’t sway it one way or the other. Even the women who go into every pregnancy and birth class with an open mind, but come out thinking “postpartum depression will never happen to me” are vulnerable. This was me. Our pregnancy was wanted, planned, and conceived in love. It wouldn’t happen to me. It couldn’t. It did. And, thankfully, I lived to share the tale.
In a nutshell; I’m Andrea. I am known as Mommy/Mama to two very different but equally strong-willed and opinionated girls (ages 6 and 2 ½ …and I am currently accepting care packages of coffee and wine). I met the love of my life at the ripe old age of 18 during a family cruise in Hawaii. We dated long distance for 9 years before getting married. He commissioned into the Marine Corps while I earned my BFA in musical theatre performance from Syracuse University (Go Orange!) and lived in NYC for the better part of my 20s as an actor/singer/dancer. Leaving NYC and my dreams to marry my Marine gave birth (see what I did there?) to new dreams. First and foremost, I’m still ME…then I’m mommy and a Mrs. In the future, I hope to earn a Masters degree in Music Therapy and let music give hope and light to others the way it did and does to me. Music and running are my free therapy, dance parties with my littles before bedtime wash away the stress of the day, and a glass of wine while snuggling into my husband can right any wrong. Lastly, I find solace in the fact that none of us know what the <bleep> we’re doing and we’re all just making this up as we go, doing the best we can with what we’ve got. Cheers <clink>.