I asked a mama I hardly know if I could hold her baby. She looked relieved and handed him up to me from the chair where she was helping her preschooler with a craft. I lifted that baby bundle and started the head-to-shoulder-stand-and-bounce, and his lights were out in less than a minute. Then I was on to sniffing the top of his sleepy little noggin.
In the moment I looked down to see his eyes close and his mouth open in deep sleep, I was transported to that feeling of relief that comes the moment a baby gives in and zonks out. But that wasn’t all I remembered as I settled into a rocking chair. I remembered the intense strife and a kind of turmoil that came with my own mothering in the early years.
They said it would go fast. They said to cherish every moment. They said I would want these years back. It goes by in a blink.
They may be right about a lot of mothers, but these adages are not true for me. I don’t want it back. It didn’t fly by. Even now as I look back, my kids older and more independent, I don’t think of those baby years as a blink. More like a hard nightmare.
I have never felt more alone, actually. That’s because those of us with depression and anxiety after having a baby feel utterly isolated in a foreign life. We’re afraid to feel as bad as we feel, but we’re being swallowed by illness. We’re afraid to talk about it and afraid we’re the only broken and terrible mothers. We hope “they” are right. We hope it will go by in a blink, and then we’re sick to the very core of the mother soul, with guilt for feeling that way.
When my firstborn came along, I was paralyzed with fears. These were beyond the worries of any average new mother. Everything was a threat. Every fear bubbled to the surface. Every scary thought was a constant torture for my heart and soul. I could hardly breathe, hardly sleep, hardly eat. This is how the postpartum period was for me, and I’ve learned since, for so many more. We just don’t like to talk about it, for the shame, but here I am, telling you so you feel less alone.
I was in a tailspin in those first years of mothering. I went through the motions, cared for my kids to a perfectionist degree, and seemed fine to the outside world. The reality was that I had severe postpartum anxiety and depression, a broken marriage and I was drinking too much. I was on edge all the time. I felt nothing even close to a belief that anything I was doing mattered, and I certainly didn’t believe I was good for my children.
Mother’s Day, in those early years, was filled with beautiful moments I treasured—breakfast in bed, flowers and adorable little drawings. Yes, I still had those moments that swelled my grateful heart, every day actually. But they sat alongside a deep disgust for myself—a person I believed to be a hopeless fraud. I look back and I see how joy and sorrow can co-exist in one person at the same time, taking turns holding one another down, and then rolling in circles in an underwater dance.
When I was standing there bouncing that baby boy the other day, it all came flooding back. It could make me sad and ashamed, but it doesn’t—because I believe God is grace and God is mine and I am grace and so is God and we spin it all together and I am held above water. So I was standing there, bouncing that boy like a baby whisperer, and the memories even verged on feeling good. I survived something terribly hard that was never the fault of me, or my babies. It just was. And now, remembering, I was at ease.
Grace came like this: After my second baby and before my third, I quit drinking. I quit hiding. I got help for anxiety and depression. I started to recover, to breathe and to string more joy moments together than sorrow moments. I have always seen the extraordinary in the mundane daily grind. I have always deeply loved my children, even when I felt they might be better off without me. Those were lies of postpartum mental illness. I quit self-medicating, and I found my way to loving even my messiest parts. I sum up this time of healing in one paragraph, as if it all happened in a blink. But no, no—creating beauty never happens in a blink.
I held another mama’s tiny son the other day, and I remembered that with the arrival of my babies, I began and we are all better for it.