I have very strong feelings about breastfeeding. It’s not because I’m anti-breastfeeding or anti-formula. In fact, I’m the opposite…I’m pro- women should choose what works best for them and their mental health and sanity during what might be the biggest transition of their lives…motherhood. And no woman should ever be made to feel like she is a failure or a terrible mother because she chooses formula over breastfeeding or even supplements breast milk with formula.
Now I know there are the people who believe that becoming a parent is all about sacrifice. We sacrifice for the well-being of our children and therefore moms should breastfeed no matter what. Well I’m here to call bullshit…because at the end of the day, giving your baby a happy, healthy mommy is just as if not more important than giving your baby breastmilk at the expense of your well-being. What about women who don’t produce enough milk? What about exclusively breastfed babies who don’t gain enough weight? No mom should ever be made to feel bad about how she nourishes her children.
Social media is filled with celebrities promoting breastfeeding. Celebrities not so subtly telling you that breast is best…the only proper way to feed your baby. And it’s not just celebrities…regular women like you and me love to judge and shame moms who choose not to breastfeed. Doctors and lactation consultants lay the guilt on thick for new moms who struggle with the decision between breast milk and formula. None of this is fair to new mothers. Plenty of studies show breastfeeding to be the better option and the same number of studies claim that these studies have no merit…which brings me back to my main point…choose what works for you…because your baby will be fine… and fuck the haters and everyone else.
Here is my breastfeeding story: It’s not a fairly tale.
In the last several years, more and more celebrity moms have opened up about their struggles with postpartum depression. They are women who look like they have it all. They are women we assume live perfect lives as they travel on private planes with their personal chefs and glam squads. They are women we would never think could have any problems because why would they? They are beautiful, famous, and wealthy enough to afford anything they want, including teams of baby nurses, nannies, and other child-care services that make a mom’s life easier.
They are also women you didn’t know struggled with mental health issues in their first year of motherhood because they kept it secret. They are women who became moms and had no clue that motherhood didn’t always come easy. Moms who didn’t know what was happening to them when they didn’t experience the magic of motherhood portrayed by the movies and TV shows they act in. Moms who didn’t admit they suffered from postpartum depression until after they made it through to the other side. Most importantly, they are moms who can teach all of us some valuable lessons about maternal mental health and why we must keep the conversation about this very serious, even life-threatening issue going.
Four years ago, I gave birth to a healthy baby boy. A few days after taking him home from the hospital, I became convinced I didn’t want to be his mother. I had made a terrible mistake by having a baby. I had no idea what was wrong with me. All I wanted was to be the perfect mother madly in love with my son. Two weeks later I was diagnosed with postpartum depression.
I don’t remember writing during that year while I was sick, but I recently came across an unlabeled composition notebook, and when I opened it, what I found inside broke my heart.
I wrote the following on May 27, 2013, two months after my son was born.
Yesterday, my son Mason turned 2 months old. Yes, I have a son and I wish I didn’t. I also have postpartum depression, which is apparently the reason I don’t want him. I now take anti-anxiety medicine and antidepressants. I see a psychiatrist every couple of weeks and a therapist twice a week.
When I had postpartum depression, I could barely leave the house. I rarely left the house with my new baby for almost six months. I was lucky if I could get out of bed and get dressed, let alone do the things that used to snap me out of a horrible mood. Getting my nails painted with the latest gel color wasn’t going to fix anything. Exercising just made me more tired and meant I had to be around people. Girls’ night was the last place I wanted to be. Showing up on my yoga mat wasn’t going to happen. Retail therapy wasn’t therapeutic at all. And the last thing I wanted to do was talk about what I was going through.
Postpartum depression is so much more than just being “moody.” It’s not an exaggerated form of that time of the month. It’s going to last longer than those two weeks of “baby blues.” It’s a serious mental illness that can present itself in so many different forms and requires medical treatment. Each woman’s journey and struggle will be unique to her, her symptoms, and her risk factors. As a result, many new moms don’t even recognize they have postpartum depression. They find themselves flooded with guilt, wondering how they could feel so miserable during what they thought would be the most magical time in their lives. They feel too ashamed to tell anyone because they don’t realize that one in seven women have some form of what they have. And like me, they don’t find any solace in the activities that used bring them joy.
Postpartum depression is not a one size fits all illness, which makes it difficult for outsiders to process. While every mom will get better with treatment, there is no formula that predicts when. Some women suffer for a few months. Some for much longer. I struggled for a year. Husbands, family members and friends want to help, but don’t always know how. They don’t always understand what mom is going through. What should they do? What should they say? Other moms might not get it if they didn’t have postpartum depression when their babies were born. Sometimes knowing what not to say is just as important when it comes to offering your support.
We’ve come a long way.
Do you remember what I was like when you were holding my new baby boy, your first grandson in this photo? You said it was as if a light suddenly went out in my eyes. That I looked like a ghost of my former self.
You also told me you would never let me stay that way. You said that one day my son would be my little buddy. You answered your phone every morning when I called you as I was walking circles around the neighborhood ugly crying to you that I would never get better. You promised me I would.
For Mother’s Day, I want to say, “Thank You.”
Stigma sucks. Stigma is the reason so many moms don’t talk about postpartum depression. The reason they struggle in silence. The reason they don’t ask for help and get the treatment they need to get better. The reason they would rather pretend life is perfect. The reason they take their own lives. Did you know that of the hundreds of thousands of women who suffer from a postpartum mood disorder, only 15 percent of them get treated? How heartbreaking and outrageous is that?
1 in 7 women who give birth each year experience symptoms resulting from a postpartum mood disorder. That’s close to 1 million women annually having some form of mental illness after the birth of their babies and close to 850,000 women not receiving the help they need to get better. That’s way TOO MANY women. Postpartum Progresss, Inc. reports that more women will suffer from postpartum depression and related illnesses in a year than the combined number of new cases for men and women of tuberculosis, leukemia, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimers disease, lupus, and epilepsy. I bet people with these illnesses usually admit they are sick and seek professional care.
Getting postpartum depression was sort of like a death for me. It was the death of the perfect and perfectly happy mother I thought I would be when my baby arrived. You’ve seen her countless times on Pinterest boards and in Instagram photos. You’ve heard about her from friends, strangers, and celebrities who make motherhood look so easy and tell you it’s the most magical experience where you feel nothing but overwhelming love, joy, and the constant desire to spend every waking minute with your new baby.
You see her posting Facebook videos of herself, hair blown out, face fully made up, carrying her baby in that soft cotton sling every mom seems to own while she simultaneously purees her own baby food, designs the stickers she will use for those adorable monthly picture updates of her baby, and preps an organic meal filled with protein and vegetables for her and her husband to eat once she’s had her fill of breastfeeding, bonding, and reading time with her little one.
I thought I would be her. I had planned to be her during my whole pregnancy. I thought every mom I knew and followed was like her. Then I became a mom and learned I was nothing like her (it took me a bit longer to realize no mom is like her because she doesn’t exist) and that fairy-tale version of motherhood I sold myself died with her.
At Campowerment, a weekend sleepaway camp retreat for women and my happy place, I was lucky enough to meet the fabulous Melissa D’Arabian. You may know her as the winner of the fifth season of The Next Food Network Star, but what you might not know about her is that in addition to being a TV host, author, speaker, wife, and mom to four girls (I love this badass woman!), she considers herself to be in the trench buddy business.
You’re probably asking yourself, what the eff is a trench buddy? I asked myself the same question when she mentioned the term during her workshop at camp. It turns out the term trench buddy articulates the very reason I do what I do—write so openly and honestly about my experience battling and overcoming postpartum depression. A trench buddy is someone who can look you in the eye and say, “I know what you’re going through. I’ve been there too. You’re not alone.” How powerful is that—to build such a meaningful connection with another human being. In my case, with other moms struggling with postpartum depression.
To the moms with postpartum depression: I want you to know that everyday I am in the trenches with you, fighting next to you, fighting for you, looking you in the eye, holding your hand, embracing you, and telling you, “I know what you’re going through. I know it’s dark down and lonely down there. I’ve been there. You will get through it. I got through it. We will get through this together. We are deeply connected through our shared experience and I want you to know you are not alone and it will be okay. Maybe not today. Maybe not tomorrow. But eventually, it will get better. I know it will get better because I got better. I support you down there in the trenches. I fight next to you, with you, and for you down there in the trenches.”
People may call what happens at midlife “a crisis” but it’s not. It’s an unraveling—a time when you feel a desperate pull to live the life you want to live, not the one you’re “supposed” to live. The unraveling is a time when you are challenged by the universe to let go of who you think you are supposed to be and to embrace who you are. Clearly the universe decided motherhood would be the perfect time for my unraveling…
Authenticity is the daily practice of letting go of who we think we’re supposed to be and embracing who we are…Caution: If you trade in your authenticity for safety, you may experience the following: anxiety, depression, eating disorders, addiction, rage, blame, resentment, and inexplicable grief. I wish someone showed me that label during pregnancy. It would have said: “Severe postpartum depression and crippling anxiety…”
When we believe “we must be this” we ignore who or what we actually are, our capacity and our limitations. We start from the image of perfection, and of course, from perfection, there is nowhere else to go but down…At some point, most of us begin to believe the expectations about who we’re supposed to be, what we’re supposed to look like, what we’re supposed to do, how much we’re supposed to be and how little we’re supposed to be. We also develop fear of rejecting those expectations. We constantly see evidence that if we do reject these expectations, we will experience very painful disconnections and rejection. So we internalize these expectations and they become an emotional prison. Moms aren’t perfect? I was supposed to be the perfect mom. Thank you, Pinterest, Facebook, and Instagram. Emotional prison equals one year of postpartum depression…