By Prerna Uppal
It’s been more than two years since my son was born, but the first time I shared my birth story was four months ago. It was in an online creative writing class for writers, who are also mothers/grandmothers. Maybe it was the distance I have now from the feelings and emotions I had faced during the early days of my son’s birth, or the fact that I was talking to perfect strangers that made me open up. As the course and my writing progressed, they confirmed what I had always suspected – the blues I thought I had had, were probably of a much darker hue – what I did experience was, in fact, Postpartum Depression (PPD).
Today, I have to confess, writing about that time is more of an intellectual exercise – to delve into why it happened, why no one diagnosed it, how I survived that phase.
At the time, I felt I was drowning.
I felt trapped, in my own body and tied to a new responsibility – the ultimate responsibility, really, one that I couldn’t seem to give up. For the first time in my life I couldn’t run away. And the funny thing is that I didn’t want to, yet the impulse to bolt was supreme.
Though I prepared for childbirth, no one prepared me for motherhood. I was not prepared for the onslaught of demands, the loss of control over my own body and my life, the ever-present insecurity, the constant guilt and total helplessness. Here I was, a 34-year-old adult female and now a mother, who knew nothing about being one.
IN THE BEGINNING
I had had a somewhat difficult pregnancy. I suffered from hyperemesis from the second month onwards right to the day I gave birth. While most pregnant women I knew glowed, I tried to stay hydrated and upright. I hired a doula, took hypno-birthing classes, read the books and watched the recommended inspirational films/videos. By week 40, I was looking forward to my son’s birth (in part also because of the release from the physical discomfort and constant fatigue).
When at week 42 the baby hadn’t made any attempts to break free, the local hospital that I was due to deliver in, decided to induce labour over the weekend. However, my contractions began (unaided) on the Thursday before. After the initial panic, I finally remembered my training of the past months. My wonderful doula and husband were next to me helping me onwards. For 22 hours I breathed into my pain and prayed for deliverance. To cut a long story short, I ended up having an emergency C-section.
I remember lying on the operating table when my husband brought our bawling new-born close to me to look at, even as doctors carried on behind the screen stitching me back up. I tried to block out the incessant shivering and the extremely odd sensation of my lower body being tugged and pulled at, and willed myself to feel love for my child; I felt nothing, except confusion.
I recall smiling. I cooed at him and said words that I thought were fit for the occasion. Till a few moments before this, I had expected to be awashed with love and joy….not this – this odd mix of non-feelings and numbness. And I don’t think the epidural had anything to do with it.
THE CLIMB DOWN
At the time I blamed my body for betraying me. For not falling in line with ‘the Plan’. I was meant to give birth as women over the millennia had given – naturally and without medical intervention. (Of course, if there hadn’t been a medical intervention my son wouldn’t have been born and I would most likely have died. But at the time gratitude was overrun by bitter disappointment.)
Back in recovery and finally cradling my baby, I tried hard to be happy; everyone around me, my husband, my parents, his parents, friends – everyone was.
“He looks exactly like his dad!”
“He has your eyes!”
“He is so tall/long!”
“He is adorable!”
The messages and congratulations flowed in thick and fast.
But very different to (how I felt):
“I can’t walk.”
“I am so sore.”
“I want to sleep”
“What have I done?!”
I remember berating myself. Surely, surely a mother’s love transcends all this! What was important was that my baby has been delivered safely…wasn’t it?
So why was I feeling as if I had lost something precious?
“They did what was best for the baby and you,” my head told me.
Baby and you…
“That’s what it will be from now on… the baby and you… the baby and you…”
I have never felt so alone as I did then.
My parents who had so far despaired if I caught a cold seemed to have forgotten that I had had a major surgery. My husband, who had been in the OT when I was being cut open, couldn’t understand why I was upset. It was all about the baby. While I didn’t resent my son the attention and love, I may have come very close to it.
I felt invisible. I felt blinding anger. I felt sad. While they celebrated his birth, I mourned the death of who I used to be. This was supposed to the happiest day of my life.
I know it sounds selfish. Believe me, I judged myself equally harshly.
I was horrible and so self-absorbed, thinking only of myself! Surely this was an indicator of the kind of mother I’d be. How could I not put his needs first, instead of moaning about my own discomfort? How about I shut up and start breastfeeding?
Having missed on a natural birthing experience, I had hoped that breastfeeding would take the edge off the disappointment. What mother can’t breastfeed – put the baby to your breast and it suckles – it is the most natural thing in the world. Isn’t it? Well let me tell you: It may be natural but it isn’t easy, not by a stretch. It takes practice. And some new mothers need help. I was one of them. Except the help I received wasn’t helpful at all.
With five different midwives guiding me, I was told I was breastfeeding wrong five different ways. So I took the advice that suited me the most and would take the baby off the breast the moment it began to hurt. For the next two weeks I kept disengaging my child, stopping him from what was clearly he was a natural at, but I wasn’t. Finally he gave up and went on to the bottle. It was only later, much later, a friend (a mother twice over) confirmed that breastfeeding hurts. Period.
Even after T stopped latching on, I was determined not to give up – my worth as a mother was now linked to my ability to breastfeed. I finally went to a lactation consultant, tried the local breastfeeding clinics – nothing worked. My son had soundly rejected me.
A month of failed attempts later, I made a new best friend (for a few seven at least), the breast pump. Though my son got breast milk, it was from a bottle. No wonder we couldn’t bond. I had denied him the best start in life.
Strike 3; I was out. I was a failure, I was convinced.
I may not have felt overcome with love but I did feel fiercely protective of this littler person of mine. I was his mother. Flawed and broken I might be, but that’s the mother he had and I’d do my best by him, no matter how hard. This was commitment; everything before that was a sham.
Despite these slivers of light, the rest of my life at the time felt filled with dark of despair, dotted with red hot spots of rage. I wanted to turn back time to when I knew myself or at least had an idea of who I was, what I was feeling.
When I was not sad, I was angry.
I was angry at myself, the baby’s constant needs, at my mother, my husband, the patriarchy, the frailty of my body, I was anger epitomised. When the anger was spent, I was sad again. I thought life would never be the same. I thought I would be forever imprisoned in a room, strapped to the pump, feeding a child who was never sated, battling a society that wanted me to man up when all I wanted to do was cry myself to sleep in a cave far far away.
In the UK, a health visitor visits a new baby and mum to check on their well being once they settle back into their homes. One of the questions asked is about the mother’s mental well-being. The lady assigned to me asked if I felt okay. I said yes. What else was I to say? It was early days, I hadn’t slept properly in what seemed like years, people around me were acting as if all was okay – so I must be okay, all things considered. It didn’t help that I did not know said health visitor from Eve and that my mother was sitting right next to me.
At the time I couldn’t see it but I realise now that my family, in their own way, may have helped me cope. I don’t think that at the time they suspected that something was wrong, but they tried to keep the pressure of new motherhood off me as much as they could.
My parents who were visiting us at the time made sure that T had the love, attention and fresh air he needed. After rubbing me the wrong way with his general optimism, my husband learned early on to keep out of my way. This created much strife but maybe not as much as it would have had he tried to force me into “thinking more positively”. My friends were there to help with new baby stuff (setting up a feeding station was one, burping the baby was another, swaddling him, etc). Those who thought they couldn’t help, stayed away.
After six weeks, once the stitches of the C-section allowed free-ish movement, I went for a walk, on my own. After months of being in constant touch with another, I was truly alone. Sitting on a park bench, I had intended to enjoy the sunshine and peace; I decided to wallow in misery instead. In between sobs I started thumbing words on my phone. After months of pause I started to write, again. The words that emerged took over the pain and weaved them into poetry. I had only once written a poem 4 years ago, when I had miscarried. The questions came tumbling out:
“Motherhood. Is there a cure for it?”
I admitted to raw emotions, wrote things I dare not admit to my loved ones. I wrote when I was despairing, I wrote when I felt near-normal. I wrote when I pretended to be okay. I wrote when I felt judged, when I was racked with guilt. I wrote of my love for my son. I wrote of my hatred for myself.
I took a day at a time, put one foot in front of the other… baby steps.
For the first time in my life I realised the gift my father had given 30 years ago -– to put my feelings into words. The simple exercise of writing kept me sane. Words consoled me, cajoled and raged with me, holding my hand as we navigated my new life. I wrote when I could, whether I was pumping milk or after I had put the baby to bed. I was writing on the fly.
Eight or so months of this, punctuated by the facade of a normal life, the fog began to lift, even if a little.
I finally began to see my son as a person, and not a responsibility: his tiny fingers, curly toes, the constant motion and I hungered for more. He couldn’t be more different than I was: demanding, expressive, unapologetic in his needs, laughing, strong, living in the moment. The rush of love that had been eluding me, came through in fits and bursts. With love came an even greater ache to protect him – from pain, sadness a cruel world, from myself. The more I wrote, the more the emotional pain started to make some sense.
“How do I let go? The problem is that I want to be your everything.”
Even as I wrote, I read, a lot. I steered clear from parenting advice, I had enough of that offline. I sought stories of women, mothers, before me. Their struggle, their emotions, their wisdom and most importantly, their fantastic sense of humour pulled me up, little by little. With their words they told me to carry on, despite feeling as if I was alone and a failure. They too had battled their demons, they told me to keep fighting mine and join them on the other side.
It was during one of those trawls for answers and emancipation last year that I came in touch with an inspirational and unbelievably kind and generous woman, a teacher who runs an online writing course for mothers. I put myself on the waiting list for a class that didn’t start for the next nine months. I checked off months and days with anticipation, at times feeling that this was the only good thing to look forward to in my life.
Classes started in September and for the next 11.5 weeks, I and my virtual classroom wrote our hearts out. We read each other’s stories, we made notes, shared our experience, comforted each other, challenged and cheerlead one another and our work.
It was here that I first truly came face to face with the fact that my journey was one through the dark maze of PPD. These insightful women didn’t care if I was diagnosed, they perhaps knew before I did that I needed to write my story and in doing so, finally bid goodbye to a challenging phase in my life.
Despite the fact that the first two years of my son’s birth were the most difficult so far, I owe much to it — self-awareness, a new dose of confidence, empowerment, appreciation of the love and support of friends and family and much more. However, I know better than to put an entirely positive spin to this journey.
PPD is an illness, one that needs attention.
PPD is not uncommon; studies show that 1 in 10 women will be affected by it.
Just because women have endured it, some with support and others without it, doesn’t mean it can be ignored. I didn’t find the every-woman-goes-through-it attitude helpful at all; it only made it worse. I didn’t choose this path and it sure as hell wasn’t my fault. It wasn’t anyone’s fault.
Having a child is a life-changing experience, and honestly till I had one, I never really fathomed the extent and enormity of this change. This alone can trigger an onslaught of emotions and reaction. I had the support of my family and friends who kept me from drowning in the deep end; I also had my words that kept me afloat.
If I knew then what I do now, I would have asked for professional help. I may still have gone through the same gamut of emotions but I wouldn’t have felt alone. Who knows, maybe I would have enjoyed my son’s babyhood more, and sooner. Maybe my memories of those days would have been filled with the joy of having him and less of losing myself.
Views Expressed are Personal.
About the Author: Prerna Uppal works as a fundraiser for a disability charity in London and is a former reporter.
Editors’ Note: If you think you or someone you know may be suffering from PPD, please do reach out for help. A list of resources in India is here (updated on a rolling basis).