There is this palpable silence I perceive when I reflect on what I knew of the postpartum time. I remember my mom saying that the two weeks after giving birth to her first child (me) were the hardest two weeks of her life and encouraged me to be “prepared” for this. I thought I heard her when she told me this at some point around the middle of my pregnancy, but I also took it with a grain of salt. There were a lot of circumstances she was struggling with that wouldn’t be my experience. The thing is, even when it’s relatively easy (in the sense of having supportive friends and family, financial resources, a background in mental health, the list goes on…) it is SO. FREAKIN. HARD! I am tempted to say, I wish I had “prepared” myself, but when I actually think about what that would have looked like, it becomes clear that there is really no way to prepare for this time. For the sleeplessness, the hormonal shifts and waves, the anxiety, the changing relationship to your partner, to yourself, the dismantling and reconstructing of your identity as an individual and in relation to others, the immensity and intensity of the love you feel for this new being. Nothing can prepare you!
The one thing I will say that would have offered some sense of normalcy, which I think I really craved during this time when it felt like nothing would ever be normal again, was having a mirror. Someone close to me who had recently gone through it. I had no close friends who had had babies, and I am the first in my family. My sister was around during my early postpartum period. She saw the rawness and the upheaval and the struggle. At the time, I felt almost ashamed that she witnessed that. Looking back on it, and now that she has her own baby, I see that this was exactly how it needed to be. She has reflected on how helpful it was to have seen me go through that time, even though it was extremely challenging for me.
My sister’s postpartum experience has been very different from mine, and she has not had all of the mental health challenges that I had. At times I have felt envious, as she is the closest example I have to compare. But it is also teaching me that comparison of postpartum experiences can be futile and damaging, because it can add a layer of shame. Looking back now, I see that what I was experiencing was PPD, and that truly nothing is comparable to the specific ways in which this sneaks up and pulls the rug out from under us. I have been reluctant to label it PPD, even as a mental health professional and even as someone who believes in transparency, and that my truth can benefit others. This is just more evidence of how stigmatized it still is, and how much intention and work it takes to de-stigmatize this very real and very normal condition.
I am now committed to doing that work of de-stigmatizing, because I recognize how having a voice of compassion and deep understanding could be transformative during this time. I hope to be that mirror to other women in my life who are on the road to becoming mothers. Having the opportunity to gather with other women and reflect on this time and share the light and darkness of this period of motherhood is a blessing, and is so immensely important. I am personally looking forward to Sabrina’s talk. Opening the door to these conversations can be a crucial element of healing from some of the shame and deep silence surrounding postpartum.
By, Julia Alter
Birth Love Family