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“The First Year: Mama Sings the Blues”

It was Facebook that put me over the edge.

One day, around the sixth week of Emily’s life, after we had just about recovered from her stay in the ER at 21 days (see Spinal Tap from last week), a Facebook friend (who’s someone I actually do know and like, even) sent me a message commenting on a recent photo I had uploaded of Emily.

“Hi Andrea!” she wrote. “Emily is so cute! Don’t you just love motherhood? Isn’t it the best?” As I read this message I chuckled to myself and thought: “This woman has got to be stark raving mad. Is she kidding? I have a six-week old baby with colic who has just been released from NYU intensive care, and she thinks I love motherhood?” I felt like replying: “Gabrielle, are you off your rocker?” I didn’t feel like a mother. I am a milking cow, a diaper changing machine, and a wizard of rocking, shushing, swinging and swaddling, with no sleep, running around like a Tasmanian devil to try and write my blog, keep up with my friends, and still maintain a relationship with my husband. Not to mention I think I am clinically depressed. I am in hell!!!

Instead, I wrote: ”Thanks for the note about Emily, I think she’s pretty adorable, too. But as to your question about motherhood, I’ll say this: Do I love Emily? More than I have ever loved anyone in my days on this earth. Do I love being a mother at the moment? Not on your life. Have a nice day!”

Look, it’s just not all peachy in the beginning (at least for me it wasn’t), and I didn’t feel like lying about it. Now, this is in no way meant to convey a sense of ingratitude for my Emily, or lack of love for her, but to let in the fresh cold air of truth about the early stages of motherhood. It’s not hard. It’s hell. By the time Emily was six weeks old I had reached rock bottom. I was a complete and utter wreck.

As you know if you read last week’s column, I was still recovering from Emily’s hospital visit and also suffering from the stress of being a clueless new parent (when every new behavior is cause for a phone call to the doctor). On top of that, I had just been diagnosed with mastitis, a painful and serious breast infection that gave me a high fever and flu-like symptoms and that on top of it all made me feel as though a manic school of piranhas were gorging on my breasts every time Emily ate. Oh, and I was told I had to nurse through the infection or it would get worse. As an aside, a friend who was raised on a dairy farm recently told me that they killed their cows that got mastitis on his farm because they couldn’t be milked any longer. When I told him I had mastitis he told me I was lucky I wasn’t a cow. Grand, I thought. I’ll count my blessings that I don’t moo.

Anyway, it was around this time that I also realized that I might be more than just a sleep-deprived, stressed out mom with mastitis. There was something else going on. I was really blue, and all the time. In fact, I was so desperately sad that I actually felt hollow. It was painful. But I felt like I could manage until I lost my appetite. When I could barely get down a half a piece of toast, I started to get really concerned. By the time I was six weeks post partum, I had dropped so much weight that I was ten pounds lighter than before I got pregnant. That’s when I knew this was more than just a Baby Blues stage. I was skinny, but I knew I was in trouble.

I had read about Post Partum Depression, but I thought, well, that’s not going to happen to me. I am a happy, optimistic person. I have a great support system, a fantastic husband, wonderful friends and family! I’ve been through years of therapy. I am healthy and strong. And I am so excited to have this baby, there is no way I’ll be depressed. I thought I was in the clear. Well, I was dead wrong.

The feeling of loneliness was overwhelming. One day I was someone with an active rigorous social life, and the next I was strapped to my house, tethered by my boob to my daughter, unable to do anything at all for myself. No gym, no movies, no dinners, no talks with friends. I felt like I was on an island and the rest of the world was going on without me. I was overwhelmed by the feeling that I had lost myself and would never find her again.

It’s not surprising when you think about it. Before I had Emily I lived a life known as the Andrea Strong show. It was about me, me, me, me, me, and me. I did what I wanted, when I wanted, for as long as I wanted. I went to the theater, the movies, to dinners five nights a week with friends and colleagues. I went for long runs and languished in yoga class. Craig and I took weekends away, spent Sundays in bed. And then, May 6, 2009, 5:02pm came along and Poof! It was all gone. In an instant I was a mother. (Begin the Emily show.)

While this should not have come as a surprise to me (after all I knew it was coming for about 9 months), I was not prepared for the changes in my life. And honestly, I don’t think anyone can be. It’s like thinking you’ll know what it feels like to jump out of a plane when you go skydiving for the first time. You just don’t know ‘till you do it.

It takes you away from yourself. I felt so alone not because of a lack of support—Craig was a champ, my mom was there for me, too, and my friends tried their best—but their support wasn’t enough, because I didn’t even feel connected to myself. I had lost me, and after that I had no comfort zone. I was out on a cold dark ledge of new life, and I didn’t realize at the time that the sun would eventually shine on me again. All I knew at the moment was the feeling of being all alone and lost, floating away without an anchor. That’s when the tears started, and they just didn’t stop. And these were not just the weepy woe-is-me tears, but torrents and torrents of suffocating, uncontrollable sobs.

There were days when I’d be walking down the street and all of a sudden I’d be overcome and start sobbing for no reason at all. I would have to pull off to the side and hide somewhere, afraid I’d run into a friend who’d see me crying and think I was crazy (even though I was pretty sure I was). Luckily it was sunny out so sunglasses helped hide my swollen eyes, but I was not well. After a few days of this, I knew I needed help. And fast. I couldn’t take feeling this way for much longer. And I wasn’t only feeling depressed. I felt so horribly guilty, too. I loved Emily so much, I had been so blessed to have her, and I didn’t want to make her sad. I felt like the worst mother and I didn’t want my bad energy rubbing off on her. I wanted to be myself again. I felt like I needed to post an ad on Craig’s List: “Looking for me! Please let me know where I went! Thanks much.”

Instead, I posted a notice on my local parent’s group and was brutally honest. I wrote that I was feeling really lousy and thought I might have PPD and asked for advice on how to get un-depressed. Within 24 hours my inbox was flooded with responses from mothers who had suffered through PPD, pouring their hearts out online telling me how scary and horrible it had been for them, offering advice, support, and incredible amounts of compassion. I was shocked not only by the number of responses I got, but by the genuine thoughtfulness and support I got from these women whom I had never met. Of course I cried.  

But I also I took their advice. I went to a new mom’s support group and planned a weekly get-together with some of the new moms whom I had met in my birthing class. That helped, a lot.
I also got a referral to a psychiatrist with a specialty in PPD and paid her a visit. After an hour consultation she gave me a diagnosis of “borderline” PPD, and she sent me off with a prescription for Zoloft and a follow up appointment in a month.  While I was tempted to try the Zoloft, I was wary of taking anything while breastfeeding (even though it is supposed to be safe), and I decided to wait until I had weaned to take it. And then, as it turns out, I started to feel better, and I never did fill that scrip.

While the depression did not go away right away, it did lessen as the weeks went by, and by Emily’s three-month birthday, I was feeling all right again. I think part of it was that Emily started to sleep through the night (see Sleepless in Brooklyn for more on that adventure), which really helped my ability to function. Those mommy get-togethers were really wonderful, too. It helped to be able to talk about all those baby-related issues and feelings that my non-mom friends would nod at but couldn’t really understand. I needed to bond with other women who were going through it too. While my old friends are still dear, these women have become friends who in a very short time, I have really cherished.
But I think that what really banished the depression more than anything was finally letting go of my quest to continue to be the old me. Many nights I would force myself to go out to dinner even though I was drained and exhausted. Then I would sit at the table at some fancy restaurant of the moment thinking of Emily, desperate to get back to her. And as soon as I got back home, I was desperate to get out and be the old me again. I was waging an internal war of attrition—old me versus new me—and it was exhausting. It wasn’t until I declared that war over, that I found some peace.

In a review of Aldea, a dinner with three of my closest friends that took place when Emily was eight weeks old, I wrote:

“I think the hardest part of this all—aside from the sleep deprivation which is tantamount at times to torture—has been to accept that I am not who I was two months ago. I can’t roll back time and somehow peel off motherhood and return to who I was. And at 40 years old, that’s hard to deal with. Really hard. But I think the only way to embrace this new chapter is to stop trying to keep things the same.

While I haven’t quite mastered the acceptance of my new self, I’ve been feeling better, feeling like I will come out feeling the abundant joys of motherhood minus the sadness of losing my old life. I know that there will be a way to have a new life that incorporates parts of the old life. I know that this new life will hold just as many joys (if not more) as my old one if I let it happen. And it will happen. Emily will grow and so will I. So for now, I am here, taking it day by day, saying goodbye to an old friend, but finding a precious new one in the eyes of my daughter.”

Nine months later, I can tell you with absolute joyful certainly that I did in fact find an incredible new friend in my daughter. And you know what? I think maybe she found one, too.

Here’s to our mothers.

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“mama sings the blues”

As usual, you made me cry. My life has changed also because of my precious Emily.

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