I asked her to repeat the question even though I had heard every word she said. Tears welled up in my bloodshot eyes and I tried to meet her gaze. But I couldn’t. I had to look away.
She smiled kindly before glancing down again the form she held in her hands.
“Have you ever considered hurting yourself?”
The tears fell freely now, and I closed my eyes, still unable to speak. I couldn’t force the words out.
She moved on, blessedly, “Are you able to sleep?”
“Not without help,” I whispered. She nodded, scribbled a note on her paper. She asked me a few more questions and then did some quick math, circling a number at the bottom of her sheet.
Did you know they can quantify depression? I didn’t. In terms of scores and tests, I failed miserably that day. And that felt consistent with my life. I pretty much felt like a failure.
She never did go back to her first question, but we both knew she didn’t have to.
I had been so excited and desperate for my daughter to make her appearance. The life-altering nausea that inexplicably lasted throughout my entire pregnancy and the debilitating low back pain that plagued me day in and night out since week 18 were all supposed to disappear when she arrived.
Thankfully, the nausea did dissipate almost immediately after she was born.
But the back pain worsened and spread.
I was in near constant pain, unable to move without discomfort, definitely unable to turn to my beloved yoga practice or even a walk in the fresh, winter air when I needed it most.
No one I knew had personally experienced any of these things. And so, I convinced myself that I was alone, completely, thoroughly. Alone in my pain. Alone in my experiences.
They tell you to sleep when baby sleeps, but rules don’t apply when anxiety and depression are wreaking havoc in your mind and body. I would lie awake while my daughter slept peacefully in her bassinet next to me—lights off, blanket pulled up to my chin, eyes wide open, heart pounding, mind racing.
The relentless doubt that seeped in through the cracks of my exhaustion and panic was enough to suffocate me. Why did we think it was a good idea to have a baby? Am I supposed to be a mother? Would she be better off without me? What is wrong with me?
I was deeply ashamed for effectively wishing away my child, but powerless over the chaos. I had no idea how to do this thing called motherhood. I was drowning.
She was a perfectly healthy newborn with ten fingers and ten toes, the sweetest blue eyes, and blonde, peach-fuzzy hair. Everyone said she was an exact combination of my husband and me, but I knew they thought she looked just like him.
She was also a hungry little thing who demanded every ounce of energy and milk I could spare, cluster-feeding her way through her first two months of life and gaining adorable, squishy rolls to prove it. She really was (and is) perfect, and I cried almost every time I looked at her.
Our friends and family were so supportive in those early weeks—they signed up to bring us meals, swaddled and rocked and shushed our baby girl, helped with our endless laundry. They thought they were helping new parents adjust to life with a newborn. They had no idea there was an internal battle raging inside of me. And I was determined to keep it that way.
“You’re not doing yourself any favors by suffering in silence,” she said gently, but firmly. The best therapists speak with a gentle firmness—an authority gained, I think, by witnessing brokenness and desperately wanting better for their clients.
She was right, too. I wasn’t helping myself or anyone else by refusing to speak about my pain. In hindsight, I realized I was never very good at identifying and expressing my needs to begin with. But my silence was intricately interwoven with my suffering, and it took me a long time to untangle the two. I have spent a lifetime being the strong one, the overachiever, someone who puts on a brave face in the midst of adversity—traits that were necessary for survival during a difficult upbringing, but entirely destructive when it came to motherhood.
I was gradually losing touch with reality as a result of my inability to articulate what I was going through. I alienated friends by cancelling plans, lost out on precious self-care time by rescheduling therapy appointments five times in a row, and did serious damage to my marriage by shutting out my husband and picking fights every time he suggested I take a break. If I needed something, it must mean that I wasn’t giving enough to my daughter. Or so I thought.
But postpartum depression shone a piercing light on the inadequacy of my silence and eventually forced me to see. And then to speak.
The pain, the disappointment in my body, the sleepless nights, my refusal to speak up and ask for help—it was slowly killing me. I was beyond sleep-deprived. I was pouring breastmilk down the sink, leaving my keys in the front door, forgetting my husband’s name, and staring blankly at walls when he (Johnathan, his name is Johnathan) would try to talk to me. I was breaking down at the smallest inconvenience or stress and refusing to go to sleep when I was exhausted. I was a mess. But all new moms are, right?
What it took me weeks to realize was that I was not coping, not by a long shot. When my daughter was six weeks old, I was sobbing on the couch—probably because her cutest burp cloth came out of the wash permanently stained from spit-up, or my milk had come in right after she fell asleep and I realized I had to pump before I could go to bed. I should have been frustrated, irritated at worst. I was beside myself.
I had been insisting over and over again to my husband that I just needed a nap and I would feel better. But he looked at me from across the living room and said carefully, “Babe, do you think that maybe there’s more going on here than just exhaustion?”
I looked at him incredulously. Defensively. How dare he. Doesn’t he know how much I’ve been through? Doesn’t he see how much I’m giving of myself? What right does he have to tell me I’m not just tired? Whatever his name is.
But before I could spew out something about how maybe he’s the one who needs a nap, something deep within me snapped. In an instant, I knew he was right. This was not normal. I was not ok. I needed help.
It has been quite a journey since that day. I met with my doctor to take that earth-shattering depression questionnaire; I started seeing a gentle and firm therapist who broke through my silence and helped me find the words to describe my pain and ask for what I needed; I began to take care of myself and accept help; I learned how to sleep again and made some hard choices to put my mental health above others’ expectations for me and my life. I opened up to friends, let them hug me and tell me, “I’m sorry you’re sad,” even in moments when I just wanted to hide under a down comforter in my darkened room.
And, I still feel sad sometimes. My daughter is three now and there are many days I feel like I have a long way to go. I’m still grieving the fact that I didn’t get to experience the same uneventful pregnancy most of my friends have had, and that the joy of snuggling my perfect newborn was often stolen by surges of cruel and painful hormones and shattered expectations.
I don’t think I’ll ever be the same.
But I’ve come to believe that we were never meant to be the same after becoming mothers. I believe we were always meant to grow and change and never go back to the women we were before. I’m confident we were intended to emerge on the other side, stronger, more resilient, with a deep assurance that we do not have to ache alone. We do not have to suffer in silence.
I would do it all over again for the privilege of getting to love and raise my perceptive, sassy, creative daughter. She has turned my life upside down and has transformed me into a better version of myself than I ever could have dreamed up—a woman who has learned how to move with resolve from silence to strength, and a mother who will fight to teach her daughter to do the same.
For me, apart from my beautiful daughter, the best and most profound gift of motherhood has been becoming a woman who is too strong to stay silent.
Guest post written by Addie Davis. Addie lives in Seattle with her husband and young daughter. She is a communications professional by day, and skilled bedtime routine negotiator by night. She can often be found in deep conversation with a good friend, making music with her husband, or jumping on beds and building castles with her toddler. She believes in the power of listening well, celebrating small victories and choosing joy.
Photo by Lottie Caiella.
P.S. If you enjoyed this essay, don’t miss our podcast episode on postpartum depression