Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Just Show Up: A Love Story

The following is a guest post from my very dear friend Joy.  Her son, Nathaniel, and Max are the best of buds.  Her post is an incredibly brave and moving account of her struggle with, and ultimate triumph over, postpartum depression.  It is a vitally important, and riveting, read and I could not be more honored to present it here at Gaddy Daddy.  Thank you Joy.  To the rest of you: read on, you'll be glad you did.

I don’t remember the exact moment I fell in love with my son. It might have been when he appeared to be listening intently as I read him my favorite book from childhood, The Velveteen Rabbit. It might have been when he he nuzzled his face against mine. It might have been when he reached out and grabbed my finger when I was holding him in his baby carrier. But I know it wasn’t the first time I held him, and the shock I felt at not experiencing the rush of love I had expected was staggering.

Even though I had a C-section, I still expected to see my son right away. I imagined he’d be lifted over the curtain and placed onto my chest. He would open his eyes and look at me, and I would look at him, and the vast collective wisdom of countless generations of mothers who had come before me would beam into my heart. It did not happen that way.

Instead, my son and I had our first meeting in the recovery room at the hospital, hours after his birth. My parents and my husband were there. A nice nurse kept asking me where I was on the pain scale from one to ten. Someone must have handed the baby to me at some point, but the memory is elusive, just beyond my reach.

The last thing I remembered clearly was being in the operating room. The baby had just been delivered but he wasn’t crying yet—the nurses were still cleaning out his mouth. I was shaking violently, either from fear or from the drugs that had been pumped into my system for hours, and my arms kept falling off the table. I begged the anesthesiologist, who was seated beside me, to do something for my nausea. Before she added another drug to my IV, I heard a nurse asking my doctor the reason for the C-section, presumably for hospital paperwork. “It’s late and I wanted to go home,” he said. I suppose he was joking, but after 36 hours of labor, I wasn’t really in the mood to laugh. I lost consciousness before I heard Nathaniel’s first cry.

In the blurry weeks that followed, I went over and over the events of that day in my mind, like a crime scene investigator, trying to figure out exactly when something had gone horribly wrong. Because something was clearly horribly wrong. When I held Nathaniel, I felt a pounding, all-consuming anxiety. One word thrummed through my head like a drum beat: Escape. Escape. Escape. I wanted to put Nathaniel in his crib, walk out the door, and never come back. When we took him for his first check-up, I sincerely hoped the doctor would see I was not up for the challenge of motherhood and allow us to leave the baby there, so he could be given to a real mother who could take care of him. A real mother who—let’s be honest—wanted to take care of him.

What kind of mother was I? What kind of person was I? You’re a monster. I told myself. A monster who doesn’t love her own child. It didn’t make sense. I had always thought of myself as having a stronger-than-average capacity for compassion. I had often patted myself on the back for being the kind of woman who was just born to be a mother. But here I was, desperately plotting my escape from the role I had craved most in life. Was I truly the most selfish woman in New York City? Was I as evil and broken as I felt?

People had been so happy for me when I was pregnant, and now I wondered if they all secretly hated me and wanted me to suffer. Had they known all along that I would fail at this? It seemed unlikely, but I couldn’t come up with any other way to explain why someone who truly cared about me hadn't warned me that I was just not mother material.

When my husband took pictures of me with the baby, I tried to force my face into a smile, but my eyes told the truth. They were flat and empty. My voice sounded like it was coming from down a long tunnel. I had no appetite. Food tasted wrong.

A few friends suggested that I might have postpartum depression, but I didn’t think that could be it. That felt like a crutch, an excuse. Besides, I wasn’t crying all the time. I wasn’t crying at all. I was just sitting there, either numb or panicking, incapable of doing anything right. I wasn’t sick. I was useless.

The irony was that I had wanted a baby desperately for years. When I announced my pregnancy, a cousin told me, “We didn’t know if you’d ever get married, but we always knew you’d be a mother.” I knew it, too. But now that it had happened, all I could think about was how badly I was screwing it up. I can’t do this. I won’t do it. I can’t do this. I won’t do it. These words ran through my mind day after day, hour after hour, minute after minute. Every time the phone rang, I hoped it was someone calling to rescue me. I wanted to be taken away, to be fixed. Friends came and visited, but they always left. “Take me with you,” I remember begging one of them. I tried to pretend I was joking, but I wasn’t.

When I was feeling worse, not better, after a few weeks, I called a psychopharmacologist I had seen a few years back. She was German and straightforward, and she assured me that with the right medication, I would feel just like my old self. I didn’t believe her. My old self was gone—I was sure of that.

I went back to a therapist I had seen before my marriage, but she had become, over time, more of a friend than a counselor. I was too ashamed for her to see me in my current state, and I sensed she didn’t know what to do to help me. She sat beside me on the couch and cried for me because I couldn’t cry for myself. I didn’t go back to see her again.

Next I ended up with a Freudian psychoanalyst who was recommended by my father’s cousin, a psychiatrist. Dr. Freud, as my husband called him, was kind and reassuring, but he wanted to talk about my childhood, and I wanted to focus on what was happening in the moment. I saw him several times, and he did have some astute insights, but I needed more. By this point Nathaniel was over two months old. I feared that if I didn’t find the right help, I would never bond with him, and I would never be able to look into his eyes with sincere, selfless devotion. Also, my maternity leave was ending and I had to return to work. I needed to take a more aggressive approach.

A good friend had given me the phone number of the postpartum depression hotline in New York City, and I carried it with me for weeks before I got up the nerve to call. When I finally did, I left a message and the kindest woman called me back. She assured me that I did have postpartum depression, and that it was surmountable. The other doctors I had seen told me that, too, but she was the first one I really believed. She told me she heard women say exactly what I was saying all the time, and that was a tremendous comfort. I had felt so alone in my dark, ugly thoughts and feelings, and here was someone telling me that she had personally talked to other women who had gone through exactly what I was going through. They had gotten better, and I would get better, too.

The woman from the hotline suggested a therapist specializing in postpartum depression. When I called the therapist, she took the time to speak with me on the phone and to reassure me. She told me that the fact that I experienced guilt for my negative feelings about motherhood was a good sign. It meant I didn’t want to feel that way. And she told me she had had postpartum depression, too, and she had gotten over it and had gone on to have a second child. On my first visit to see her, she gave me her own personal copy of Brooke Shields’ book about postpartum depression, Down Came the Rain. It was marked with the therapist’s notes she had written to herself during her own depression. I read the book immediately and found it heartening and reassuring.

With this therapist’s help, and with the help of the right medication prescribed for me by the psychiatrist she recommended, I started to feel better. It didn’t happen all at once. But it happened.

And something else helped me, too: A line from an article I read in New York Magazine about Rosanne Cash. When describing her work ethic, she said, “Just show up, just do it. Even if you feel like shit and you think you’re terrible and you’ll never get better and it will never go anywhere, just show up and do it. And, eventually, something happens.” That spoke to me. I felt like a terrible mother and I didn’t know what I was doing. I couldn’t figure out which cry meant, “I’m hungry” and which cry meant “I’m tired.” I couldn’t get the expensive Moby baby wrap to work. I didn’t know how often to bathe the baby, or when to put him down for a nap, or whether to put him in pajamas or to let him sleep in a diaper. I was sure that if left alone in my care, he would die. But when my mind started with its refrain of I can’t do it. I won’t do it. I can’t do it. I won’t do it, I thought of that quote from Rosanne Cash. Just show up, I told myself instead. Just do it. So I did. And she was right: something happened. I started to get the hang of it.

By the time my son was born, I had read countless interviews with both mothers and fathers who, when asked what surprised them most about parenthood, answered that it was the tremendous amount of love they felt the moment they first saw their babies. Idiots! I thought. Of course you felt what way. How else could you possibly feel? I imagined that when I first held my baby, I would be flooded with a love so massive and pure that it would render me completely selfless.

I was certain I would gaze into his eyes for the first time and recognize him as I recognized my own mother. But I didn’t recognize him. He was a little stranger. Thinking back on it now, I don’t remember how he felt in my arms when he was tiny. Sometimes I find myself thinking, I wish I had known Nathaniel when he was first born. And of course that’s foolish, because I was right there. But also, I wasn’t.

He’s just nine months old now, and I’m still coming to terms with what happened during the earliest days of his life. To see us together these days, you’d never know. When he smiles, my heart bursts, fireworks-style, into a thousand tiny stars. I love nothing more than snuggling with him or crawling behind him on the floor or reading to him. And I guess I’ll never know what exactly went wrong, whether I was traumatized by the C-section or if I experienced some sort of hormonal crash or if people with my Type-A personality—those of us who like to do things perfectly on the first try, those of us who like to be in control—are just destined for a certain degree of panic when we become mothers and lose control of absolutely everything.

I thought I would fall in love with my baby the first time he lay in my arms. But that didn’t happen. It couldn’t happen until the thing that broke in me when he came into the world was fixed. But I love him now, boundlessly and without reservation. And maybe what matters most isn’t the moment we fall in love, but what we do with that love once it takes hold. 

Joy and Nathaniel

If you, or someone who know, suffers from postpartum depression, help is available.  The New York hotline is: 631-422-2255.  The national hotline is: 800-PPD-MOMS.  Please call.


  1. Joy,

    I am a good friend of Jake, Stewart and Max. I have a almost 4 month old named Felix.

    Thank you for sharing your story. It is written with such beautiful sincerity. I plan on sharing this with my friends who I know will find great comfort in it!

  2. Great post and well-written! I also had some post-partum depression with my son but not for as long. I remember looking at him in the car seat on the way back home from the hospital and thinking, OH MY GOD!!What have I done now! I have no idea what to do with a baby! (And I really didn't - my husband had to show me how to change a diaper!)I was panic-stricken. I also had a c-section with full anesthesia and didn't get to see my son for a while. I practically had to beg to get them to bring him to me. Very odd. So maybe there's something to that. I remember being in recovery and the first thing I asked was if the baby was OK. She said yes and I asked if it was a boy or girl. "Hmmm..." she said. "I'm not sure." And I remember saying, Can you find out please? But I remember thinking "HELLO!! How about checking that out for me you moron!!"

  3. Joy, that was honestly the most touching, powerful writing I've read in as long as I can remember. Thank you so much for your honesty. This article can help a lot of terrified, sad women out there, and I hope they are somehow able to find it.

    Jacob, this is a wonderful blog. Congratulations on becoming a father! Your Max is sure a handsome little guy!

  4. This is quite an informative and emotional post too. Thanks for sharing.

    Take the test Are You Able To Control Your Emotions and find out how well you control your emotions.

  5. What a beautiful post. Joy, I have no doubt that your words will help someone the way Roseanne Cash's helped you.

  6. Dear Joy,
    What a well-done account OF postpartum depression!

    You describe your emotions and the process of recovery so well. I am a grandmother of two who survived post partum depression following the birth of my daughter Lisa who is now a mother and a good friend of Jacob Drill. Your account brings back the pain I endured as well as how transient it was. There is hope for those who suffer as there is so much help available.

    Ruth Graham

  7. Thank you all so much for your supportive comments! I am grateful that you took the time not only to read my essay, but to share your thoughts. There is so much shame and silence surrounding this issue, but maybe if we can get it out into the open a bit more, fewer women--and families--will suffer.