by Caitlin Briggs
I am a perfectionist and an over-achiever by nature. I am a former paramedic, a project manager, and a scientist. I am always in control, I rarely ever panic, and I’m typically the one people look to when things get overwhelming or scary. I usually excel at everything I do, and I took pride in that. I never expected any of it to change, and it all did when I had my first baby.
I had my first child 3 weeks after I defended my doctoral thesis. I had to be induced at 41+3 weeks, and my son was a vacuum delivery. I didn’t love my son immediately; I was very protective of him, but it was hard to be in love with a person I had just met, even though I’d carried him for almost a year. However, I figured that would come with time.
My recovery was difficult. In addition to tearing during delivery, I developed a pruritic urticarial papules and plaques of pregnancy (PUPPP) rash within a week after giving birth. I was covered in horribly itchy hives from my neck to my feet. I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t hold my baby. I scratched myself until I was bloody. Steroids made it worse. My doctors told me I would have to just “wait it out”. It was miserable. In addition, I was having troubles breastfeeding. I over-produced milk, had several rounds of mastitis, and my son had problems latching initially. I was overwhelmed, itchy, and exhausted. Motherhood was like a punch in the gut to me. People would gush about how awesome it was, and I would nod along, but I was worried that people would find out I was a fraud, and that motherhood was the one thing I wasn’t successful at and honestly didn’t really like.
Within 3-4 weeks post delivery, I became very depressed. My ongoing health issues were taking their toll on me. I resented my son; none of this would have happened if I hadn’t had him. Then, I felt guilty for resenting him. This turned into a deep paranoia that if people knew how I felt, they’d take my baby away from me. And even if I wasn’t wholly in love with him, I wanted him. I wouldn’t let him out of my sight. I didn’t want anyone to hold him but me. I cried constantly. My husband suggested I call my midwife and talk about what was happening, but I refused. I lied on the post-partum quiz they give you six weeks after birth. I didn’t want anyone to know what was going on. They’d take my baby and everyone would know I wasn’t able to hack this motherhood thing. I couldn’t handle being exposed like that. Things became steadily worse, to the point that my husband was hiding knives and pain medicine, because I sobbed frequently that I wanted to die and for the pain to stop. He was worried I’d hurt myself.
Somehow, I pushed through. At around six months, things got marginally better. My rash was gone. My baby slept through the night. I started to feel like me again. The paranoia and the depression would come back when we went through sleep regressions or changed our nursing patterns, but it largely became manageable, compared to what happened after I gave birth. I eventually came out on the other side.
When we discussed having a second child, my husband told me it wouldn’t happen unless I told my midwife what I went through with our first. What had happened the first time scared him deeply; he didn’t want to be a widower with two children. I agreed and am incredibly lucky to have had wonderful midwives; they supported me, watched me for the PUPPPs rash, and helped me get in touch with the UNC Perinatal Mood Disorder clinic. I was monitored for PPD/PPA until I gave birth. Shortly after having my second son, a nurse saw some behavior from me that concerned her. As all my healthcare professionals were aware of my history, I had a visit from the UNC psychiatric team later that same day and started medication for PPD/PPA. I was on the medication until I finished breastfeeding when my son was 18 months old with regular visits to my doctor at the UNC Perinatal Mood Disorder clinic. While it wasn’t a cure all, and I did still have some challenges, my second experience was radically different from my first. I finally understood why people enjoyed having babies. Unlike with my eldest, I have memories of my second child’s infancy. That fact is both happy and heartbreaking.
I am forever grateful that I survived my first experience with PPD. It’s a miracle that I am still alive, given how dark of a hole I was in. I’m grateful that my husband took the stance that he did with my second pregnancy; because of him, I was able to be honest about my struggles. I’m thankful that I had amazing healthcare professionals who took care of me, advocated for me, and took my concerns seriously, without judging me. I’ve learned that going through this doesn’t make me a failure. I’m a much stronger person because of my experiences. I’m no longer ashamed of what happened to me, and I’ve made it a point to be more vocal about my experiences, especially to new moms, so that others know they aren’t alone. Having moms be more open about experiences with perinatal and postnatal mood disorders is sorely needed. I often wonder if my first experience would have happened the way it did if someone had said to me “You know, this isn’t easy and if you’re struggling, it’s OK. How can I help?”. Knowing you’re not alone is incredibly important.
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