At 17, Stacey married. After being married for six years, and at the age of 23, Stacey and Charlie chose to have a child. During her freshman year of college, she carried a baby boy. They were excited and acknowledged that they were “idiots” about this parenting thing, and did what many of us do—“read every parenting book and took every available class.” They were as prepared as they could be.
After only four hours of labor, Jones was born, but a there was a drastic change in the mood of the room—from calm to chaotic—as Stacey got to the final stages of labor. A nurse kept yelling with each one of Stacey’s pushes “There’s no heart beat.” This panic was how Jones entered the world and how Stacey entered motherhood. The cord had been wrapped around his neck.But then suddenly, Jones was healthy and fine, and the new family felt like they’d “dodged a bullet.”
After a brief sigh of relief, only a few weeks later Jones was losing weight due to projectile vomiting after each feeding. Stacey visited the pediatrician and talked with family members, and no one was able to figure out what was wrong with baby Jones. One family member even suggested Stacey was “probably making him sick by being too overprotective.” It’s amazing how one sentence can stick with us over a decade later. A new mother is in such a fragile, vulnerable state, and when you add a sick baby to that equation, she is totally exposed to her inability to control anything, and that is terrifying. I also had relatives ignite some of my anxieties or tell me to “buck up” during those darkest weeks. When you are trying to help a new mother, keep one word in mind—compassion—that is what she needs.
Due to all the vomiting, Jones became extremely dehydrated and was rushed to the ICU. He was diagnosed with pyloric stenosis, a rare condition that affects the opening between the stomach and small intestine, and had surgery the next morning. Stacey’s worries were not just a new mother’s anxieties. Something was wrong with Jones. And the truth is, if a mother thinks something is wrong, we should listen to her; she’s usually right. Again and again, I hear from women that no one listened to her concerns and no one helped her problem solve the issues during these newborn months. And even if a mother is worrying over a symptom that doesn’t result in a medical condition, that mother is still anxious and worried, and providers need to calm her fears, talk with her, and guide her to support.
Then the first year passed in a blur, as it usually does, but “something was always a little wrong” with Jones. He never hit a milestone on time, but no one was really concerned besides Stacey, so she felt anxious and paranoid. At twelve months, Jones had an hour-long seizure, and “the doctors told us that he would probably have severe brain damage and might not live at all.” Stacey lived in this limbo for a year and then at around two-years-old, Jones was diagnosed with autism and the doctors said “he would probably never speak, never walk, and never go to school.”
Stacey found out the same week that she was pregnant with her second child.
During this time, all of these traumatic events, Stacey never realized she was depressed: “I loved my child. I loved my husband. I simply felt ill. I withdrew from the world around me and remember feeling terrible because I would place my son in front of the television for an hour so I could lie down. I didn’t actually sleep, because I couldn’t sleep (severe anxiety plagued me when I tried to rest), but I lay there because I felt paralyzed, as though I couldn’t get up. Slowly, I began to lose contact with friends and loved ones. I changed my courses so I could go to school solely online.”
And so with each child, all three, Stacey felt like she “wanted to crawl out of her own skin…I woke up every day thinking that I just wanted to go back to sleep and wake up as someone else.” And also with each child, the feelings of dread began to “ebb after a year,” but Stacey experienced so much drastic change, from children’s illnesses to the loss of her first husband, that those feelings collided some with other situational stressors. Yet Stacey does “feel a physical difference between sadness/depression and postpartum depression.”
With Jones and Elliot, Stacey had a very supportive partner, who encouraged her to join the world again, taking her on walks and helping care for the children. While Stacey still did grapple with PPDA after her first two births, she was able to recover due to her partner’s support. With Marshall, her youngest child, Stacey was in a new marriage and without that same support. This third time, she was “isolated from friends and family and had nothing to do but stew over how bad I felt.” The lack of support from her partner and distance from family made Stacey’s third bout with postpartum depression the most difficult. Because Stacey has had multiple children amidst different scenarios and varying levels of stress, she’s a good example of the way in which outside stressors can affect postpartum mood disorders, but they don’t determine it. Lack of support and isolation are triggers for PPDA, and in Stacey’s case, lack of support wasn’t the sole cause of her PPDA (as evident in her first two pregnancies), but lack of support intensified her PPDA or made it more difficult for her to recover that third time. I’m always asking questions about triggers, and while I’m always learning new information about causes for PPDA, I’m also always reminded that PPDA doesn’t discriminate—black, white, rick, poor, married, single, healthy babies, sick babies, breastfeeding, bottle-feeding. So there are some triggers that may intensify PPDA, but it’s an illness that won’t be pinned down.
PPDA is a moving target.
At about three months postpartum with her third child, Stacey “hit rock bottom.” She was up early packing lunches for the two older children, Jones and Elliot, and Marshall, the baby, began to cry. Stacey also began to weep as she “didn’t feel she had it in her to walk upstairs and pick him up and comfort him.” Stacey made herself see a therapist twice a week, attend a Bible study, and begin working again. And then one day, all of this obligations became things she looked forward to. She woke up and wanted to “open the blinds and make her bed.” She felt a desire to “get going” again.
So now Stacey is a single mom and “things aren’t perfect,” but she no longer suffers from the “physical pain” of PPDA. She’s reaching out to others for support and help, so while she’s “doing it alone, she doesn’t feel alone anymore.” I think one of the main signals of recovery is what Stacey said last in our interview—“I enjoy my children again.”