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When Postpartum Depression Lasts

Last summer, my son's teacher, Gillian, had a baby. I'd known Gillian and her husband for five years. From my vantage point -- minivan, overdue library books, early bedtime -- they always looked sweetly inexperienced at being adults. Although our friendship remained tethered to the classroom, I felt protective of them, and then excited when I heard news of the birth.

Two days after Gillian delivered, I sent a note saying that should she need to talk about how bad things were, she could talk to me. I couldn't help it. In my experience, having a new baby was a lonely trial, friendless, sunless, sleepless.

My sons today are 12 and 8, our relationships blissful and complicated in a dozen different directions, but my first winter months as a mother still have the residue of a curse, a haunting. By choice, I lived thousands of miles from a difficult family, and few of my friends had children. I was without a guide, and every demand of the baby's felt overwhelming.

I delivered my first son in late November. Right up until we arrived at the hospital, my husband and I were in love and in love with everything. Then I labored for more than two days, pushing through nameless hours as the baby's shoulder lodged in the birth canal. After Ezekiel was born, I stayed two extra days in the hospital, craving the solicitous hands, the sitz baths, the food that appeared. Outside, historic snows muffled the streets. The day we were leaving, the baby screamed and writhed on the bed. A nurse came in and tightened a blanket around his spastic limbs, and he fell asleep. I didn't want to leave, didn't know how we'd do the blanket at home.

Those first weeks, the baby shredded me with his hunger, his presence a magnet of need. My sloppy, undone shirts carried the odors of sweat and spitup. With my husband gone for work, I couldn't pay a bill or section an orange, cemented into one chair by the nursing sessions. I always had to pee. That's what I remember -- how cold my ankles were as I sat in his room at dawn; how little I cared to know my husband's experience, our marriage reduced to negotiations and terse reminders.

On one of my first outings with Ezekiel (who was, by then, 6 weeks old), I picked my way over hardened berms of snow on a walk to town, one hand on the BabyBjörn. When I came to the bridge that crossed the river, I stood and looked at the black water. I had the impulse to throw him in. His drop would end in seconds, and the swallowing river would take him. My power warmed me, overwriting the numb history of the past weeks. I quivered between responsibility and excruciating urge. I moved my feet: move, go forward, walk into the next moment, which will be better than this one. I continued across the bridge and didn't look at the river. My hands craved the baby, and I cupped them around his body. I loved him, and this was how hard it was.

No one named postpartum depression for me, nor would I have let them, determined to live with the consequences of the bleak separation from family, of my withdrawal from my friends and husband. When Ezekiel was 8 months old, I stopped nursing, a tortured decision I made in desperation to restore balance to my life. The hormones did their peculiar dance, and the depression lifted. I could at last delight in my baby's entire being, share wonder again with my husband.

A few months later, a friend had her baby and came to visit. She sat on my couch, and she paid no attention to her infant, who was asleep in her lap. She stared hard at me, trying not to cry, and I leaned forward and held her hands and said, "It's going to get better." Amazed, I watched the effect of these words, the wash of relief and exhaustion. For years after, she'd remind me what a help I was, and I'd get to feel like a hero.