There are many triggers for postpartum mood disorders, but one that isn’t spoken about as often is infertility treatments. Many of the women in my support group, which I now volunteer with, dealt with a long journey to get pregnant. However, Christy has the longest journey of anyone I know personally, and this is her story. I want to mention how very courageous she is to share her story about postpartum mood issues AND infertility; these are two topics that our society still keeps fairly quiet, but here is a woman who is willing to talk, and I’m so thankful for that.
Christy is from my same hometown of Greenville, NC. We speak the same “language”: we know about Bill’s hotdogs, the best in North Carolina, and ECU tailgating (Go Pirates!) and that good BBQ is made with vinegar-based sauce, so interviewing her was a delight and it was easy for me, like talking with an old friend. In the south, we still do Sip-n-Sees, an old southern tradition of coming by to drink sweet tea and see the new baby. We like to monogram everything down here, from burp clothes to bloomers. The dominant talk about babies uses words like “precious” and “blessing.” We don’t talk about the dark side of motherhood. But Christy has the wonderful trait to tell it like it is with a southern flair; she’s blunt, funny, and kind.
She was brave to speak with me about maternal mental health, and I was honored.
I interviewed Christy at six months postpartum and she was just beginning to break through the challenges of those first few months and enjoy Annalee, her newest daughter. “I know that sounds bad,” Christy was quick to say after admitting those first six months were full of struggles. But it doesn’t sound “bad” at all—it sounds honest. For Christy, those first six months were marked by anxiety, confusion, exhaustion, and joy. Motherhood is a mixed bag for most of us.
Christy’s story begins eight years ago when she and her husband began to try and conceive after their first daughter, Abigail, was one years old. Christy got pregnant quickly with Abigail, so she wasn’t very concerned when a year passed without getting pregnant this second time around. However, her midwife was concerned and Christy began her tumultuous journey with infertility that would continue for close to a decade—“eight years went by with all kinds of treatment, Clomid and this drug and that drug, and then we started insemination.” Christy described those years again and again as “a rollercoaster ride.” Her mood was up and down due to the medications and the anticipation and disappointment of each attempt at pregnancy. “I couldn’t step into a Babies R Us. If a friend was having a baby shower, they got a gift card. It was just too hard,” Christy admitted. So when they tried two more rounds of IUIs, Christy, Kevin (her husband), and Abigail were “blown away” to hear she was pregnant.
From that instant onward, Christy felt like she “wanted to soak up every single second. I don’t know if I’ll ever do this again. I didn’t want to let a single second go by without embracing it.” So after eight years of waiting and nine months of pregnancy, baby Annalee entered into this world and “then it was over, and I was kind of sad that I wasn’t pregnant anymore. I had wanted to be pregnant for so, so long.” For Christy, none of it could last long enough after the drawn-out wait and anticipation of another child.
Christy’s postpartum mood was more anxiety than depression, although she didn’t really use these words herself. She described it as being “cranky” and “withdrawn.”
Christy found herself at the hospital every few days due to Annalee having jaundice. The anxiety began to build. Another factor that lead to this growing anxiety was Christy’s determination to breastfeed. During all of these hospital visits, Christy continued to nurse yet had to supplement as well due to her supply. The mixed messages she received about nursing and supplementing added to her stress. Then, one night, she “just started bawling, and that’s not like me at all, and I didn’t know why I was crying. I knew from the first couple of weeks that I was struggling, but I never talked about it or called a doctor. I just pushed through.” And she did, through clogged ducts and thrush and jaundice and anxiety.
Christy also suffered from intrusive thoughts during pregnancy and postpartum. The main repetitive thought was Annalee falling down the stairs. While pregnant, Christy would envision Annalee as a toddler walking by the stairs and falling down. “I’ve gotten so that I don’t even like Abigail [her older daughter] playing near the stairs or leaning over the stairwell,” confided Christy. These thoughts continued postpartum. No one was allowed to walk up and down the steps with Annalee except Christy and her husband. This desire to hold tight to Annalee manifested itself in other ways too: “I felt judged because I was irritable and selfish with her. I had a hard time sharing Annalee with most people other than Kevin and Abigail. I was very choosy about who I wanted to visit.” Christy, who is normally a very busy and social person, began to withdraw. She felt safer and calmer without the crowds of visitors that are expected to come and visit.
Our interview was the first time Christy spoke about these feelings and her struggle. She filled out the Edinburgh, the screening test for PPD given by doctors, and she felt like she answered the questions honestly: “I didn’t want to hurt myself or my child.” But the questions didn’t get at what she was feeling: intense overwhelm and unease. Christy explained “I don’t know what the questions could have been, but if my pediatrician has asked, ‘Do you think you need meds?’ I would have said yes, but I didn’t have the courage to ask for them.” Many women feel afraid to ask about medications. They think it’s a sign of weakness and they feel ashamed. Christy, in particular, struggled with asking for this assistance as she grew up with addiction in her family: “I have so many irrational fears wrapped up in that because I don’t want people to view me as an addict.” But the fact remains that Christy was never even diagnosed or given any resources, many of which are not medication. She’s part of the vast majority of women who slip through the huge gaps in our maternal health system.
So for those first four months, “I quietly struggled with no relief.”
For Christy, and for many women that I’ve spoken with, returning to work is what finally helped her mood. This is difficult to talk about. Society tells mothers we should mourn leaving our babies and that returning to work should be difficult, and that is the case for some. However, many women thrive once they go back to their work environment, where they are competent leaders. While at home, Christy felt like she “wasn’t measuring up.” At work as an office manager and paralegal, Christy felt like a leader and in control of her environment. At home, “you’re totally out of control and that is uncomfortable for me and my personality.” While I’ve seen many studies comparing postpartum mood disorders across different races, classes, and countries, I can’t find a study about personality types, but I find that the majority of women I interview, who have experienced PPDA, are type-A, usually career-driven and have perfectionist or controlling tendencies. These are attributes that are extremely beneficial in the workplace, but they can make mothering very uncomfortable. So returning to work helped Christy begin to feel like herself again.
But no one experiences postpartum anxiety and depression without it leaving a lasting impact. Christy now is very careful about how she treats new moms, and she’s also conscientious about what she says to those who are trying to conceive. She realizes that “people are silent about their struggles.” Christy is combating this silence and shame by telling the truth about her story: “The important thing is to be true. A lot of people have these same feelings, and I don’t want them to feel alone.” Christy has a deep faith in God, and her postpartum experience also influenced her faith: “As Christians, we want to stay strong and faithful, never doubting God’s abilities, but the truth is we struggle; we’re human, and what is now in my heart is to let women of faith know that it’s okay to struggle as long as we don’t stay there. We need to reach out and get help, but God always loves us where we are.” Christy hopes to begin speaking to small groups of women who struggle with infertility. And this is how we make change—little by little. Christy is a warrior mom, though, and that’s what we do.