The Weight On My Shoulders—And When It Lifted

Gail Johnson

Reprinted from "Having a Baby" issue of Visions Journal, 2012, 7 (3), pp. 19-20

stock photoWhen I was pregnant with my first child, I’d never been happier. Although I’d always been prone to anxiety, I’d overcome much of it by the time I met my then-future husband. I was feeling healthier, fitter and stronger, physically and mentally, than ever before. My pregnancy was perfect.

My delivery? Not so much.

After 16 hours of labour—labour that should have never happened in the first place—the night doctor came on shift, gave me a quick examination and said a C-section was urgent. My baby was transverse, meaning he was lying horizontally across my abdomen, making a vaginal delivery physically impossible.

I burst into tears.

I didn’t stop crying for about six months.

I shed those initial tears because I’d envisioned a natural birth, and it never occurred to me that I might need to have surgery. I was filled with an immense sense of grief over not getting to experience such a quintessential moment of womanhood.

Although I was blessed to have a healthy boy in my arms, I wasn’t the same person leaving that hospital as I was going in. I went home with a new baby and a severe case of postpartum depression (PPD). The diagnosis came some time later, but the effects of the PPD were immediate.

I cried and cried and cried. I was exhausted, but I couldn’t sleep. I devoted every ounce of energy I had to ensuring my son was fed, changed and put down for a nap, all in that order, in a rigorous routine.

But I couldn’t concentrate on anything else. I shut out friends and family members. I didn’t want to go out, anywhere, not for walks or to the park or for coffee with my husband. I couldn’t focus on cooking and relied mostly on my spouse’s efforts and fast food (being a health-conscious foodie, that last factor was a sure sign that something was wrong).

I was anxiety personified. I worried about breastfeeding, even though it was fine. I worried about my son’s health, even though it was fine. I worried about money, even though we were fine. My mind would ultimately become locked on the subject of finances, with an endlessly replaying loop in my head. My husband and I had just purchased our first home, and in my sleep-deprived state, I was convinced we’d made a grave, irreparable error.

So I nursed and worried, worried and nursed.

Several hellish months like this passed. Finally my husband and I decided to go to emergency, where we saw and came under the care of an extraordinary, young, affable and able psychiatrist. He prescribed medication, but more importantly, he offered support. He never appeared to be in a rush, but rather took time to listen. He offered my whole family compassion.

Almost exactly six months after my son was born, I felt like me again. I can’t explain why I felt the weight lift off my shoulders on that particular fall day, but it was a very distinct moment. A cognitive-behavioural psychologist my husband and I had been seeing, at the recommendation of the psychiatrist, claimed that PPD has a distinct beginning and a distinct ending. This certainly seemed true for me. It also probably helped that I was getting used to the rigours of caring for a newborn and learned how to function during the day despite getting little sleep at night.

What still haunts me . . .

Looking back at the experience, I certainly learned a lot, and not just about why lack of sleep is considered a torture technique.

Say the term postpartum depression and the first question that usually comes up is: “Did you want to hurt your baby?” It pains me to think that people around me might have been worried, even remotely, that my child was ever in any danger. He wasn’t.

Media reports about women who kill their newborn babies don’t help. Those rare, terrible stories create harsh and misleading stereotypes (and in such instances, women are more likely to be suffering from postpartum psychosis than postpartum depression).

Then there were people’s reactions to my state of health (or lack thereof). We had a unique frame of reference, given that my husband had been through two rounds of cancer before he turned 35, enduring a stem-cell transplant following his relapse. Throughout his ordeal, we were inundated with offers of all kinds of support from all kinds of people, some of whom we knew well and others we didn’t know at all.

People tend to be in quiet awe of cancer survivors, who gain a kind of heroic status. But it’s different with mental illness. People usually don’t know what to say, so they end up saying nothing at all. They tend to retreat. Although we were fortunate to have a few friends who brought us home-cooked meals, more commonly, people don’t really think about sending food or flowers when the problem is depression.

That silence only makes someone who has PPD more self-conscious and ashamed. I think that’s the element that still hurts the most: I’m embarrassed. I wonder if people—friends, coworkers, my husband’s pals—see me differently, if they view me, to this day, as unstable or, well, ‘crazy.’

My son is now seven and a brother to a five-year-old. I had a scheduled C-section for my second birth, and while it wasn’t “natural,” I chose to have an elective C-section because I didn’t want to risk going through the same kind of PPD twice. While vaginal birth is always an option, and is even encouraged after an initial C-section, I was too scared of something going wrong, resulting in another terrible postpartum period. To me, an elective C-section seemed safer. My obstetrician was supportive of me. My second child was delivered with a whole lot of joy—which persisted.

That first experience sometimes still haunts me. But mostly I feel incredibly lucky to have a family and a life that I love. I’ve never been happier.

About the author

Gail is a mother of two, fitness instructor and award-winning journalist living in Vancouver