After gave birth to my kid, I always feel depressed, and always want to kill my baby or myself.
That’s what they all said to watch for. When my doctor came into the hospital room to check on me, she said, “She’s perfect,” about my new baby girl and, “She seems to be latching well,” about our breastfeeding and, “No intercourse for six weeks,” as she went over the recovery process.
And then, “Don’t be surprised if you feel emotional and weepy throughout the next couple of weeks as your hormones shift all over the place. But if it extends beyond that or you begin to have feelings of wanting to harm yourself or your baby, then you call us.”
All the labor and delivery classes, every single postpartum pamphlet, the questionnaire I had to fill out at the pediatrician’s office –– they all said the same thing: “If you are having thoughts of harming yourself or others, it’s important to seek help.”
But I’m sitting in a rocking chair clinging to my newborn baby girl. I rock back and forth, and the room seems to be closing in on me, like the already dim lights are growing dimmer. Like I am featherweight, but also heavy, and I will either be sucked into this black hole that seems to be growing larger by the minute or else I will be flattened to the ground by the unbearable weight of dread that is sitting atop my chest.
I hold Claire tighter. She is sound asleep, and yet I don’t want to put her in her crib because I fear she is the only thing anchoring me to any sense of reality. I don’t want to kill my baby, no. Instead, I feel like everything is trying to kill us. Like the man who walked a bit too slow past our house this morning was up to no good. Like the pain I feel in my right calf is a blood clot that is slowly traveling to my heart. Like I will walk down the steps and we will both go tumbling down. Like I will dry a knife in the kitchen and the blade will somehow slice her open. Like this pain in my chest is a heart attack that will leave my sweet daughter without a mother to show her how to grow big and strong.
Dead. Dead. Dead. Dead. Dead.
Looking back, I can see it all started when I honked the horn. I was on my way over to my parents’ house so my mom could watch Claire while I went to get a haircut. Driving with an almost-3-month-old baby was still new enough to me that I would check the rearview mirror multiple times while driving just to make sure she was blinking and breathing.
As I was driving, I noticed a white workers’ van roll through a stop sign to my left. I was on the opposite side of the street, so they weren’t going to hit me. But it made me nervous, so I lightly tapped my horn. Two men in the front of the vehicle threw their hands up at me; the passenger leaned out the window and made wild gestures. I kept driving, but my heart was pounding and my hands had begun to shake. I thought, “What is wrong with me? Why do I get so upset?”
I approached a red light and looked in my mirror to find a white van heading my direction. It wasn’t close enough for me to see the driver, but I kept my eye on it. It was advancing quickly, almost like they were trying to catch up to me.
“What if it’s them?” I thought to myself. Visions of the evening headlines flashed through my head. “Mother and Child Slain in Case of Road Rage.”
It felt like the sides of the car were closing in on me. My heart was beating faster; my throat was tight.
I turned down a side street, veering off my typical route. They followed. I turned down another street and watched in my mirror as the van went by. I continued to my parents’ house, irrational thoughts plowing their way through my head.
Had it been them? Did they now have my license plate number? Did they have a friend who had an “in” with the license plate people and they would therefore discover my home address? Would I wake up tomorrow morning and see a white van lurking outside my house?
That night, I lay in bed listening for sounds of people trying to break in. I woke up several times and tiptoed down the stairs, fully expecting to peek out the window and see a white van parked outside our house.
By the time the sun rose, my worries had started to fade. I even felt a little silly. But I quickly learned this was the beginning of a pattern. In the daylight, things felt hopeful, but as the light dwindled each night, so did my rationality. Each blackened window looked ominous. Every awful possibility became something that was undoubtedly going to happen.
As I sit with Claire nestled into my chest, I look down at her face and admire her rosebud lips parted with sleep, her dark eyelashes curling to touch her eyelids. I wish I could still protect her as I did when she was safe within my belly. This can’t be depression. I can’t imagine hurting her. I love her so much it hurts. But what is wrong with me?
Still holding her, I stand up and check that her windows are locked even though I know they have not been opened since we painted the walls of this room long before she was born. I’ve tried to stop myself from doing this each night, but I also know if I don’t, then I will lie awake fearful someone will prop a ladder outside her window and break into her room to take her from me.
I lie her down in her crib and stand looking at her for a few minutes. I don’t know where to place these colliding feelings of love and deeply rooted fear. If something ever happens to her, then how will I survive? What if something happens to me and she never knows what it’s like to be loved by her mother?
I quietly exit her room and make my way to our bedroom. I am exhausted and should go to sleep, but Dan is not home yet, and I know waiting up for him means I have a chance of falling asleep feeling some comfort that we have run through my checklist together.
“Honey, did you remember to lock the door?”
“I did, honey.”
“What was that sound?”
“I’ll go check.”
“Honey, if I die in my sleep, will you please tell Claire every day how much I love her?”
“I will see you in the morning, I promise.”
“But, if I do, then do you promise?”
Most nights, I would roll over and cry anyway, conscious of the irrationality behind my fears and frustrated by my inability to stop them.
It would be months until I learned about the many faces of postpartum depression, profound anxiety being one of them, a year before I sat and wept as I read the stories of other women and saw my pain in theirs.
But at that moment and on the many nights that would follow, I squeeze my eyes shut and try to force sleep, thinking, it can’t be postpartum depression — right?
Editor’s note: We recommend Postpartum Progress for anyone who’s experiencing any form of postpartum emotional difficulty. There are tons of resources and help is available on the site, including support forums, lists of services and mental health providers and answers to questions you might have. If you’re experiencing intrusive thoughts unrelated to postpartum, The National Alliance on Mental Illness has information and resources that can help you, including a phone or text helpline. Help is available. You are not alone.