I finally had everything I always wanted. And I was miserable.
A candle flickered on my desk, the sun dipping low in the distance, signaling an early end to the daylight hours of a late November day. I looked out, over the top of my computer screen, acutely aware of the fact that a blanket of darkness would soon stretch over our home and my family, and we would settle into our nighttime routines of homework, dinner, and baths after a full day of school and work, piano lessons, and basketball practice.
“Candle season,” my husband likes to call that time of year when the world is swathed in darkness for more hours than light.
Our first son was born at the outset of candle season on an unseasonably warm October morning. By the time we left the hospital two days later, the weather had shifted to that of a typically cool fall afternoon, wind blowing and leaves falling. Soon—almost immediately it seemed—the chill in the air turned to the harsh and unrelenting coldness of winter.
I went to my first mommy-and-me class on one of those frigid January mornings. I bundled up Jackson—just three months old—in his plush white Gap snowsuit, strapped him into his stroller, and marched to the Gymboree three blocks from our house.
I walked into the storefront, flushed from the cold and fast-paced walk, with wild eyes and shaking hands and slouchy shoulders. After shedding layers upon layers of protective winter clothing, I scooped up Jackson and joined the other moms sitting on the floor in a semi-circle with their babies.
For 30 minutes, we played peek-a-boo and sang songs and massaged our babies’ chubby little legs.
It was absolutely exhausting.
As we neared the end of the 45-minute class, the cheerful instructor asked us all to share our impressions of motherhood. One mom said that she was surprised by the “overwhelming love” that she felt for her daughter; another mom said she “couldn’t believe that her heart could hold so much love.” As we went around the circle, nearly every new mom’s response had something to do with the love they felt for their baby and the joy that motherhood had brought.
And then it was my turn. I knew what I should say, but I just couldn’t. Instead, I mumbled something about how it was all just so much more than I had expected, my heavy eyes darting around for some affirmation or reassurance. Instead I was met with blank stares and incomprehension.
I knew I should have said something about how I was in love with my new son, but I just couldn’t. Love is powerful and vibrant, pleasurable and joyful. Love is supposed to be happy and feel good; it is supposed to make the world colorful and bright.
But I didn’t feel any of these things. I didn’t feel powerful or vibrant. I felt weak and ashamed. I didn’t feel happy or joyful. I felt scared and angry and resentful. My world wasn’t colorful or bright. In my world, the lights had gone out.
And that—the lights-gone-out darkness, the sadness and fear, the shame and the regret, the resentment and the absolutely horrible thoughts—was something that I was completely unprepared for.
I had thought that my husband and I were well-prepared for our first child. I had read the books. What to Expect When You’re Expecting told me what I should expect during labor and delivery. The Happiest Baby on the Block told me how I should practice swaddling and shooooshing so that I could have a happy baby. Sippy Cups Are Not for Chardonnay told me that it was normal to feel overwhelmed and that…well…I shouldn’t use sippy cups for my wine.
We had a labor-and-delivery plan that basically involved a strong and effective epidural given as soon as possible, and a survive-the-first-three-months plan that had more of an all-night-party glow to it than a cram-for-mid-terms exhaustion to it. The nursery was filled with books and toys and a brand-new crib. We had a changing table upstairs and downstairs lest we were too tired to walk a flight of stairs. We had a few frozen meals in the freezer and dozens of take-out menus.
Like I said, we were prepared.
Except that nothing went according to plan. The labor and delivery was long and painful, with lots of blood, vomit, and tears. The physical recovery was long and painful, also with lots of blood, vomit, and tears.
This was not how it was supposed to be.
After two days in the hospital, Matt and I returned home—only it didn’t feel like home anymore. Our house felt like a stranger’s home. What am I doing here? Who are these people? Is this my life now?
Breastfeeding was a source of despair all its own. Every time Jackson latched on, the levels of resentment and regret peaked to shocking new heights.
And then the lights went out.
There were only shadows of my former life and I felt like a shell of my former self. Nothing made sense anymore. Things that had once brought me joy now seemed bland and lifeless. I was angry at just about everyone, including my baby and the people I loved the most. I cried every day. I couldn’t sleep or sit still. I felt apathetic or angry at the sound of my own baby’s cries. And I didn’t even like holding Jackson.
What kind of horrible mother doesn’t like to hold her own baby? I thought.
Why did I feel this way?
On paper I had the life that I had always wanted: I was happily married, with a healthy baby, and I was able to be a stay-at-home mom. Each day I would wake up and remind myself of all the reasons why I should be happy, why I shouldn’t feel so angry and sad and bitter.
What kind of mother thinks such awful things and isn’t even sure if she loves her own baby?
A horrible mother and a selfish person, that’s who.
At least that’s what I thought at the time. I was pretty sure that there was something wrong with me. That I was just far more selfish and uncaring and heartless than other mothers. That I was wired differently, that I was missing that maternal instinct we hear so much about it. That I was awful and weak and incapable.
Of course, I wasn’t any of those things; I was sick.
The words “postpartum depression” were first tossed around during one of my late-night crying fits.
“Do you think you might have postpartum?” my husband asked timidly.
“No, of course not,” I said indignantly. And then I proceeded to bombard him with all of the reasons why he couldn’t understand how hard it all was and berated him for all these really big indiscretions like leaving his socks on the floor or not making the bed in the morning. I mean, he clearly didn’t have a clue; I most assuredly did not have postpartum depression.
In fact, it wasn’t until three years later—after my second son was born—that I realized just how far into the hurricane of postpartum depression I had been pulled. After Teddy was born, I would sit on the couch holding him and think to myself, So this is what it feels like to have a baby without postpartum depression. Who knew?
And with this realization, I felt both relief and profound regret. Why was I robbed of this contentment and joy after Jackson was born? Why was that time stolen from me and my husband? What made the lights go out? And will I ever stop feeling such bitter regret and shame?
Ultimately, I don’t know the answers to any of these questions. And I never will. I don’t know why postpartum depression took over my head and heart. I don’t know why some women are taken hostage, and some are not. I don’t know why this tenacious disease can happen after some pregnancies and not others. I don’t know what made the lights go out, or what turned them back on. And I certainly don’t know if I will ever be completely free from the scars of regret and shame that postpartum depression left on my heart.
Last year, both of my sister-in-laws gave birth to girls, and with each visit to see these new babies—and their first-time parents—the hot embers of shame and the barbed wires of envy chafed at those scars for days and weeks. Each visit left my heart as raw and tender as ever.
Maybe the scars will never go away. Maybe the best I can hope is that they will grow fainter and gentler over time.
While I might never know the why’s or the how’s of this postpartum monster, what I do know is that postpartum depression was not an end but a beginning—because even though the lights went out, a tiny candle of resilience was lit. And that flame guided me as I was fumbling and fighting my way out of the darkness. That flicker grew into a bigger flame that cemented us more tightly as a family. And eventually that flame lit the way toward the realization that by owning this part of our family’s story—by accepting the claw-like grip of postpartum depression and the gnarled scars it left—and then sharing my story with others, the regret and shame fade a little bit.
Last year, while looking through some old photos, my mom found an old one of me when Jackson was about 2 months old.
“You sure looked tired,” she said.
“Yeah, I guess,” I responded distractedly, thrust back to those days of darkness and confusion.
I looked at the picture for a while and I saw it, crystal clear and unmistakably. I saw that this was not tiredness or exhaustion or even new-mom weariness. This was depression. And, in that moment, I realized that if I continued to just wave it away as exhaustion or the “baby blues” or sadness, I was withholding a healing ointment from myself and millions of other women who have struggled with or are now struggling with postpartum depression. By denying the hurt and shame and ugly truth of postpartum depression, I was keeping the lights out in a corner of my soul. By staying silent, the darkness lingered, and I was playing a role in the cycle of shame that is attached with postpartum depression.
In that moment, I realized that I didn’t want to be quiet anymore. I don’t want to focus on the darkness when the lights went out; I want to focus on that tiny candle that grew into a flame and lit the way out. And I don’t want anyone else to live in the dark either. I want to light a few more candles.
It is candle season, after all. It is always candle season.
Christine Organ is the author of Open Boxes: the gifts of living a full and connected life — a collection of stories that celebrate the human condition. She lives in the Chicago area with her husband, her two sons, a gecko, and a couple of naughty-but-lovable dogs. Her work has been published on the New York Times, Washington Post, Huffington Post, Scary Mommy and Mamalode, and she has appeared on HLN (a division of CNN). She writes at www.christineorgan.com.