Unedited, emotional excerpts from a P2L mother’s journal, describing her experience with Postpartum Depression and Anxiety.
For Maternal Mental Health Day, she shares her most vulnerable moments in an effort to create awareness, to reach out to those in need, and to provide resources within our community for finding peace again.
I understand why mothers kill their babies. That’s a deep dark secret that many women I’ve spoken with, who have shared my same struggle, can understand as well as me, but most won’t admit to it due to fear of judgment, shame, and even being ostracized. These women who have murdered aren’t monsters. They are women suffering from postpartum psychosis, which is a very real and ever present danger. That frightening thought, a mother taking the life of her own child and/or her own, had once seemed completely unimaginable to me, but now I can understand it. I know because I was once like one of those mothers.
Before I go on further, I feel it important to explain that I love my child more than anything in the world. Just take a look at my Facebook page. I shove my love for my delicious and adorable son down my follower’s throats unapologetically. What I didn’t make mention of; however, is how badly I suffered from severe postpartum depression (PPD) and struggled even worse with postpartum anxiety (PPA). That’s not so adorable. Breastfeeding was the hardest thing I have ever done in my entire life, which added tremendously to my PPD/PPA. Society paints a picture of how beautiful and natural breastfeeding is, so when new mothers struggle, it makes them feel guilty and unworthy. I was up every three hours around the clock for months on end living off mere minutes of broken sleep. That’s what breastfeeding can really look like. It’s not so adorable. Going from being a full-time working woman whose life revolved around her career to a mostly stay at home mother, was a HUGE life altering adjustment. It was as big an adjustment for me as it was when I lost a parent and moved to another country, maybe even more. Had I known how difficult and life changing a baby would be, I may not have had one, truthfully. Would I go back now if I could and change my decision to have a baby? Absolutely, positively, without a doubt, no. I can’t imagine life without my son now. I honestly can’t. I love him more than I knew was humanly possible. He is the reason I breathe. He brings me a level of joy that I have never experienced before, but transitioning into motherhood was not as natural nor as easy as I had assumed it would be.
I never wanted to hurt my baby. Postpartum mental disorders come in many forms- depression, anxiety, rage, and psychosis to name a few, and fortunately I didn’t suffer from the latter two. Even though I had only just met my son, I loved him very much and only wanted the very best for him. I felt I was not that. He deserved a more equipped mom who wasn’t utterly broken and my husband deserved a better prepared wife who could keep it together. I felt I was neither. I needed out. It was all too much. I felt everything so deeply and it was consuming every part of me. I wondered if I could leave my newborn at a church or maybe in a hospital. There are so many much more deserving people who deserve a baby and can’t have one. So here, take mine. He’s perfect. I’m not.
I was not suicidal, but I had come to the conclusion that if I were to die, then that would be ok. I thought, if my baby died, that would be ok. I knew I needed help. This was not just the “baby blues.” This was not just “hormones.” This was a shit storm of darkness. I called my doctor and was told that the first available appointment was in 6 months. I left a message to have the nurse call me so I could explain the severity of my situation. I explained my need to die to her to which I was told that “mental health is not an emergency.” As I hung up, my knees buckled and I fell to the floor sobbing. I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t swallow. I couldn’t stop shaking.
I wasn’t thinking clearly at all. I need to impress upon the gravity of that last sentence. I was physically unable to think normally – at all. I truly wasn’t me. People very close to me could tell. If you are fortunate to have never suffered from true postpartum mental issues then this statement will make you think that I’m a monster and you’ll most likely judge the hell out of me. I know this because I used to judge.
In my darkest of moments, in the deepest depths of my despair, I completely understood why mothers have killed their babies and/or themselves. I could understand the feeling of unworthiness and the level of despair so great that you feel both your baby and you would be better off dead. I wasn’t me. I. was. not. me. I was gone. Truly. I desperately needed the pain to go away and there only seemed like one way out. Logic played no role at all. If you’re judging me, it’s because you’re thinking logically. PPD/PPA took away my ability to think rationally. To better illustrate how I was operating mentally, I’ll give you one of many similar scenarios that played out.
I accidentally killed a stink bug a couple of months after having my son and I called my husband at work hysterically. He thought something was wrong with the baby and almost left work in a panic. As he was trying to make out my incoherent screams, he heard music in the background and questioned what was going on. I explained to him that I was in the middle of a makeshift funeral, complete with music and candles, for the stink bug whom I felt I had carelessly murdered. The guilt was so overwhelming that I felt I wouldn’t ever be able to forgive myself for killing another mother’s baby. I was so concerned over the pain that I must have caused that stink bug’s mother. I killed her baby. I was suddenly aware that everyone in every species is someone’s baby. I was only feeling, never thinking.
A lot of people have heard of postpartum depression, but many don’t know what it’s actually like or that it’s more than just depression. Many can’t appreciate what it feels like or what it looks like. This is what it looked like for me, but no one will ever fully know or understand my struggle, the demons I battled daily, or the work I put in to overcome it. PPD/PPA looks different for everyone. You never know what is hiding behind someone’s smile.
Although I would never wish PPD/PPA or any postpartum mental illness on anyone, I’m oddly thankful that I struggled with it. I’m thankful to have made it through that unique kind of suffering because it’s given me a newfound appreciation for life and it’s made me a better person. I’m much softer now, much more forgiving, and much less judgmental. I also care less about the things that don’t truly matter and focus more on what does. I’ve realized more than ever that as much as I may think I might, I honestly don’t have any idea what others are going through so I must only offer love, support, and respect, especially when confronted with hate, as those with hate in their hearts are the people that need love the most. Everyone is someone’s baby no matter their age and I try to treat others now more than ever, as I’d want my baby treated.
When my PPD/PPA started to subside, remembering that I had these thoughts made me feel an even more intense guilt that no other person or situation could possible make me feel. I look at those woman’s faces in jail that actually killed their children and I know the pain they must feel. I ache for them. No amount of jail time or judgment from anyone else could ever make them feel any worse than they already do. When their hormones re-balance and they fully realize the magnitude of their actions, I’m sure they’ll be in a personal hell unlike any other. I’d imagine there is no punishment greater than living with that guilt. I know because I’ve felt a kind of guilt akin to theirs. I imagine many mothers have.
Biologically speaking, a woman’s brain chemistry changes after giving birth and her hormones become wildly imbalanced in the months after she delivers, which can cause postpartum mental illnesses. Can you imagine how badly one must be hurting, how far gone you must be, if death seems like the only way out?
By not having honest and open conversations about pregnancy, childbirth, breastfeeding, and the physical and emotional changes as a first year mom, it does a massive disservice to both parents and children. Society paints an unrealistic expectation of what motherhood will be like and that’s incredibly dangerous. In fact, it sometimes kills.
Motherhood is hard. It can be extremely hard at times. At 19 months postpartum, I’m happier and more fulfilled now than I’ve ever been. I had to fight my way out of a deep dark abyss to get here and, at times, I was unable to see a light at the end of the tunnel.
It was 3am. I was hunched over my newborn baby’s bassinet unable to stand as I had severely injured my back while laboring a couple of weeks prior. I was physically unable to stand straight for many weeks post delivery. Without warning and without control, blood tinged urine ran down my legs and puddled at my swollen feet. I no longer had any bladder control as my bladder had been pushed aside by my growing fetus for so many months and it took quite a long time to regain normal tone and function again. Tears poured down my face as my whole body violently shook. Anxiety, my lifelong unwelcomed companion, heightened to a level I could no longer control, and the worst panic attack I had ever had threatened my consciousness. I stared down at my newborn baby as he peacefully slept wondering what I had done. I was scared of him. I was frightened of what he meant.
When PPD/PPA truly set in, at the height of it, I felt everything and I felt it to an extreme. Something that would normally make me happy made me off the wall ecstatic and something that would normally make me a little sad left me devastated. The high highs and low lows were exhausting to an already sleep deprived new mom. I knew my son was affected by it, and thus began the rollercoaster known as never ending mom guilt.
Many days I felt nothing except dread, crippling dread. A black cloud followed me around all day everyday and I felt numb. My anxiety was always so high that my body was being extremely taxed from constantly being in flight or fight. I lived in constant fear. Fear of the unknown. My new life now was uncharted territory.
Car rides were absolutely terrifying. My baby couldn’t tolerate them for the first few months, so he would cry a horrific cry unlike any other I’ve ever heard. I would panic and pull into the closest parking lot and climb into the backseat with him and cry with him in my arms. I was unable to drive any further. A twenty minute car ride would take hours. His cry, no matter where we were, would send me into fight or flight immediately. I needed to stop the crying as quickly as possible. The longer it persisted the more agitated I became. It didn’t help when it stopped; however, because I lived in constant fear of it starting again. His cry physically pained me and I panicked when it started.
Motherhood is advertised as joyous, easy, and innately natural. It’s supposed to be the best time of a woman’s life. The bad is downplayed and the good is over promised. What was wrong with me? Why was this supposedly easy role so hard for me? How could I be failing at the one thing that’s most fundamentally natural for a woman to do, the reason I was put on Earth? And what did my baby ever do to deserve such a mess like me? And who have I become? No one called me Sam anyone. I was mom. How’s baby, mom? How’s breastfeeding going, mom? How is baby eating and sleeping, mom? Mom? My mom isn’t here, I’m Sam! Oh, wait. I’M mom. And I guess that’s my identity now. No one cares to even know my name anymore. I’m just somebody’s mom.
Nobody talks about the grieving process new mothers go through, the loss of your former identity. Now I pride myself on being “just a mom,” in fact, it’s my crowning achievement to date. That being said, one of the hardest aspects I wrestled with the first year postpartum was the loss of my identity. The person I was for the last 20 years was inexplicably and forever changed seemingly overnight. And I never saw it coming. Who was I now? I stared at myself in the mirror everyday not knowing. I didn’t feel connected to the woman staring back at me. How could a 6 lb human, so dependent on others for every single want or need, change everything in my life so dramatically and so permanently overnight?
I’ve worked in veterinary medicine for 20+ years and I prided myself on finding a way to keep my emotions in check. I wasn’t emotionless. I had compassion and empathy, but I was able to learn how to separate myself from the gut wrenching situations I had to deal with as a means to preserve myself. In a field filled with convenience euthanasia, unfathomable suffering due to neglect and abuse, and illnesses that can’t be treated due to financial constraints, you discover very quickly how dangerous the ubiquitous threat called compassions fatigue is and how tangibly it looms over you. You learn coping mechanisms to survive or face being eaten alive, hence the ever growing rate of suicide within the field. As a new mom, however, I was unable not to feel every emotion. I had no coping mechanisms. I wasn’t able to detach or keep my emotions in check. I felt every single emotion possible and I felt them quite profoundly, every single moment of every single day.
Many said it was the baby blues and that they would simply pass. I wasn’t blue. I was black. No one heard me. It’s amazing the shift that takes place once you give birth. People check in with you every day throughout your pregnancy, especially towards the end as the excitement heightens and up to a few days, maybe weeks, after the baby is born and then- radio silence. No one seems to care anymore. Sure, many ask about your baby at times. But few, if any, ask about you, the mom. And if they do, it’s just out of nicety. They don’t really want to hear anything negative or anything real. If you work up the courage to bear a little part of the truth, you’re made to feel ridiculous and even selfish for daring to ask for help when you’re not living for you anymore, you’re living to serve your baby. If one seasoned, albeit well meaning mom, usually around my own mother’s age, asked me how happy I was or told me how this will be the best time of my life, I was going to scream. Why wasn’t I feeling this joy that I was supposed to be feeling that everyone else did? It made me feel completely inept. I believe that the human mind must forget intense pain and suffering as time goes on as a means to protect oneself. I believe you forget how tough new motherhood can be, much like you forget how painful childbirth is as time goes on. We do such a disservice to new parents and babies by not talking about this more without stigma to better prepare and offering help.
Motherhood, especially to those who do it fulltime exclusively, can be isolating. Within the first couple of weeks, the visitors stopped coming over and my husband had to go back to work. I had to figure out how to survive on my own. I had absolutely no idea what I was doing and I had nobody to physically show me or help. New mothers are bombarded with contradictory advice on how to raise their newborn and every single person has an opinion and judgment. There’s no way to escape mom shaming. There are a least two ways to do the same thing so you’re always going to do be doing something wrong to someone. I had a new job that started at 7:06pm on August 8, 2017 and I had neither prior experience nor training for it. I had no choice but to dive in feet first and learn as I went. I felt I was sinking in quicksand. The prospect of a new day was too overwhelming. I had to find my village.
My dog was the only link to my old self and she undoubtedly saved me. She reminded me of who I used to be before I was a mom. She was the only constant in my life, through all that life had thrown at me over the last decade- marriage, multiple moves, new jobs, illness, loss, and now, motherhood. She was my sole baby for her entire life and without her consent or prior knowledge, she had no choice but to take a back seat to this new extremely needy creature I had brought home out of the blue. All of my energy had to go to this new baby that she had no say in and I felt immense guilt about the effects that this had on her. She was my everything her entire life and now she was forced to share my attention. Her grace under fire amazed me. After all the times I wasn’t able to offer her my lap, something that had never ever happened before, and all the meals that weren’t served on time since the baby came, she never once acted hurt. She saw me struggle and in turn offered me support and love. So how did my dog, Lola, save me? I believed in my heart that I was truly unfit to care for this tiny human that I had created. I felt my husband deserved a better partner to parent with. I truly felt the people around me would be less burdened without me around. But as I looked down with tear filled eyes to my ever constant cheerleader in life, I believed, even in the firm grasp of PPD/PPA, that I couldn’t trust anyone else in this world to care for my dog the way I would and after all I had done to her since having a baby, I couldn’t leave her health and happiness in someone’s hands. I couldn’t do that to her. I owed her too much. Many have joked throughout the years about my close bond with my dog and how it will kill me someday when she passes, but ultimately, that bond saved me. The only reason I didn’t actively pursue a way out was that 5 lb doe eyed Chihuahua who, without fail, day in and day out, sensed when I started to panic and jumped on my chest and stared into my eyes to reassure me that she was there and that we’d get through this together. She reminded me of the person I was before I became a mom and she reminded me of the strength and determination I was capable of. She gave me hope that maybe, by the grace of God and with her by my side, I’d get through this.
I remember the day I was able to breathe deep again. I remember when the dark cloud started to fade. I was at a local children’s gym and my son had just mastered a skill he had been working on for quite some time. The second he achieved his goal he beamed. He was so proud of himself. As soon as he successfully did it, he immediately looked over for my approval. When I lit up, he came running over to me exclaiming “Mama! Mama!” as if to say, “Did you see? Did you see?” I tried so hard to keep it together, but I broke down in tears. One of the other mothers saw how emotional I became and excitedly asked me if that was the first time he had called me mama. No, it wasn’t. He had been calling me mama for quite some time and it fast became my most favorite sound that I have ever heard. I cried because in that moment time stopped and I flashed back to a very dark time when this scene didn’t seem possible. I immediately felt such enormous gratitude that I got through it because like the sadness, this joy was just as overwhelming, and both took my breath away. As I wrapped my arms around him, I smelled his little head and heard him whisper “mama” in my ear, and I realized how incredibly lucky I was. My life had purpose again, dare I say, maybe even more purpose. Had I not lived through such darkness I may not have been able to appreciate this joy as much. In that moment at the gym, I remembered staring down at him months before as he slept so peacefully in his bassinet wondering who he would call mama someday and if he would ever know who I was. Tears rolled down my eyes as it hit me in that moment that it was me he was calling mama. It was me! He was calling ME mama!
I don’t take anything with my son for granted. I have profound gratitude for him. I have learned more about myself and the world around me from him in the last 19 months then I ever have before. He’s changed me for the better irrecoverably. I often stop and stare at him just being his amazing incredible self and pure happiness wells up inside of me as I reflect on how thankful for the darkness I am because it made the light shine even brighter.
If you or a loved one is experiencing PPD/PPA, please be sure to refer to our blog post HERE listing local resources for maternal health. Feel free to reach out to someone at Play2Learn and we can connect you with other mothers who have fought this battle. We all need a “village;” allow others to join yours and help during this time.
Samantha Ostrowski spent the last 20 years surrounded by feces, urine, bodily fluids, scratches, hisses, bites, cries, cuddles, hugs, kisses, head butts, and stinky bums. And while she still works in a veterinary hospital once a week, she relishes in her job promotion as a full time mom to her 20 month old son, Charlie, a job in which she is surrounded by the same exact things.
Her hobbies include reading Little Blue Truck one million times a day, cheering enthusiastically about proper fork usage, being taught the difference in a backhoe versus a digger by a one year old, seeking out construction sites she once avoided and being on a first name basis with the workmen, saying things like “please stop opening the door with your face,” explaining to strangers that her child didn’t just call them fat (he did), rebutting such arguments as “wearing socks makes me tired,” surviving tantrums caused by water being too wet, and figuring out what “deetee” means and why it’s being shouted.
In addition to her toddler, she adores her husband, Joe, and is proudly owned by 2 cats, Louie and Ralphie, as well as the first love of her life, the apple of her eye, her chihuahua, Lola.