Beth Sorenson Prince
I remember my mom saying to me, “It is like no other time in your life.” She could not have been more right.
I am sure that every young, expectant mother may hear words like these from people who love her as her belly grows and the time gets closer for the world to meet the new little one that has been kept carefully inside, next to her heart.
I was expecting my second daughter, and yes, my belly was growing. It was growing by the day it seemed. I had always been tall and thin, but I carried my pregnancies like a ton of bricks. Not only did the scale go up, but the emotional weight of being pregnant, running a nonprofit, being a mama to a beautiful and smart two-year-old, and being in grad school was crushing at times.
I had always been resilient, always worked best with an overflowing to-do list. I loved being a mama to my sweet Abigail, loved being in school because classrooms are my happy place and loved being challenged at work. I couldn’t wait to welcome my new baby, and convinced myself that the three months I had approved for maternity leave would be just the break I needed to be present with my little family and step away from the chaos.
I have an amazing husband, Evan, who is supportive in every way and is my best friend, and a network around me that was too big to be called a village – a city maybe. My parents live 30 minutes away and my in-laws live in our town. My sister would drop everything and fly in from Colorado at a moment’s notice. I have a friend circle that includes brilliant, loving people.
So, I should have been all set, right?
I can spare you the birth story. Every mama has one, and every mama loves to share theirs. Long story short, Amelia (Mia) arrived with a bang via emergency C-section.
She and I both had significant struggles for the first few hours in the hospital, and I didn’t get to hold her for what felt like a lifetime after she was born. I had been injured during the birth, which I am still feeling the effects of seven years later. When Evan was finally able to bring her to me, I held her and my life changed, though not the way Hollywood portrays with loving and starry-eyed looks.
All I can say is that something happened in the time before I had her and when I first got to hold her. I wouldn’t say that life flashed before my eyes, because it isn’t that simple. It’s more like a weighted blanket was placed over my world. Things turned a little grayer, like I was looking through a pair of dark glasses. I felt my instincts kick in. I had to protect this baby. She needed me to keep us safe from the world that had just turned so scary.
People came to visit us in the hospital. Abigail held her sister so proudly and kissed her on the forehead. My mom came, tears in her eyes saying she looked just like me. I sat in the hospital bed while visitors and nurses swirled around me.
“Look at those cheeks!”
I thanked everyone for the compliments but distinctly remember Evan looking at me cautiously out of the corner of his eye, and my mom asking what she could do for me.
That’s the thing. So many times, people don’t check on the mama. They want to see the baby and hold the prize. A gorgeous, brown-haired, blue-eyed, chunky baby. The mama has done her job. The healthy baby is here and the diaper changing, outfit trying, funny hat wearing and lullabies can begin. I had been through a trauma, and my village was surrounding my baby like they should be, and I was painting on a smile because this was supposed to be the happiest time of my life.
When we got home, I took Mia and went to bed almost immediately. For over a month, I spent most of every day in that bed with my baby, nursing, napping and staring at her. I dare say I cried more than my newborn. For the first week, I ate very little. I didn’t want to leave that bed, maybe ever. I could control what happened on that queen-sized rectangle. After what Mia and I had been through during her birth, I didn’t want to know what could happen if I left the bed, let alone the room.
I became irritated by very small things. We still tease about how I would become nearly irate if there was a package of wipes left on the bed because the sound of the crinkling was like nails on a chalkboard to me. I was teary most of the time. Smiles were forced. Laughs were nearly non-existent. I was navigating the days feeling suspicious of anything that felt safe because I had been let down by that feeling before. Abigail and Evan would come and snuggle in with us and the world would feel secure as long as everyone was in my sight.
I denied any feelings of sadness or anxiety at my six-week follow up with my doctor. I figured this was the “baby blues” that you read about and that I would (and should) just get over it. I hid what I was going through from mostly everyone, though Evan saw me crumble before his eyes. He did everything right. He sat with me, checked on me, let me cry and reassured me. He took Abigail for bike rides and made me grilled cheese. He put Mia on his chest to sleep, making sure she was always within arm’s reach of me. It would take time.
After about three months, I had reached a fever pitch. My emotions were not my own, and though I had experienced depression and anxiety throughout my life, this was different. I knew I couldn’t fix this with some yoga classes and a couple of sleep ins. I was losing myself, and my sweet children needed me to be healthy. I saw worry in Evan’s eyes, and felt it in his extra tight hugs. I went to see my doctor, knowing I needed help.
I remember sitting up tall in the chair when she entered the room. I had always been “high-functioning” and maybe I could convince myself that this was no big deal if I sat up straight and confidently. She asked the typical questions. I talked about how I had been injured, and how scary Mia’s birth was.
She said five simple words that I will never forget: “That must have been hard”.
I remember staring at her like she was the first person to ever hear me talk. She followed up this simple statement with another one that I will never forget: “Beth, are you okay?”
My experience with Perinatal Mood and Anxiety Disorder (PMAD) is no different than millions of other women. The so-called “happiest time in your life” is just not for many of us. Women can also have PMAD without having a traumatic birth.
The experience of pregnancy, childbirth and caring for a newborn is jarring, to say the least. Literally everything changes. Your body, your mind, your relationships. The career you have worked so hard for can feel like its slipping away because of the expectations of working moms.
I remember trying to figure out how I could have my “old” life back while still having my daughters. It’s impossible. Things that you have always known are swept away and it isn’t a bad thing. It is a piece of life that I had always dreamed about, and when it finally arrived, it knocked me off my feet. But I got up. I picked up my girls, grabbed Evan by the hand and we trudged through it together. I count my blessings every day that I have these three people in my life who give me time and space to feel all the ways I need to.
Seven years later, Mia is healthy, bright, beautiful and completely brilliant. She shows no signs of the scary times right after her birth. I on the other hand, still experience the effects of my injury, but it is not intolerable. I am still on anti-anxiety and anti-depressant medication, and have a very open dialogue with my doctor about dosage, symptoms and next steps. Evan and I talk, a lot, about how we are feeling and ways we can continue to support each other. I consider myself blessed to have battled through Perinatal Mood and Anxiety Disorder and have come out the other side. Sure, there are days that my depression and anxiety bring back the dark glasses and weighted blanket, but nothing like right after I had Mia, when hormones were rushing, panic was setting in and loneliness trumped all other feelings.
I hope that people can learn from my story. I left out a lot of details of my struggle, but the nitty gritty isn’t what’s important. What is important, is to recognize that among all of the baby showers, gender reveals, maternity clothes and ultra sounds, there may be a person who feels like she is losing a piece of herself. While people ooh and ahh over a new little life in the bassinette, there could be a woman wondering what the hell just happened to her life and not knowing how to navigate this new one. While visitors come and go, there may be a lady, tired, worn, injured and feeling alone while surrounded by people that love her. Remember to check on her. Check on the mamas.
-Beth Sorenson Prince