When Postpartum Depression Lasts
One mom’s story of why the experience of new motherhood resonates in our lives -- even years later
I wanted to see Gillian so I could tell her I knew what a sordid time life was with a newborn. We picked an afternoon when my kids were at school, and I went to her house. She opened the door, beaming wide, the baby propped over her shoulder; but I noticed the wood floor, sun shining onto it through the French doors, dust-free, crumb-free. Her hair was clean. Her laptop stood open on the empty dining table.
I had brought lunch, burritos to eat one-handed. I remembered being only one-handed, impaired for months, it seemed. Gillian set a bouncy seat atop the kitchen table. We sat with our plates, eye level with the baby.
"How are things?" I asked with gravity and empathy. Gillian poured hot sauce on her food and described her relaxed days and the dinner she'd cooked last night for her in-laws.
"I don't want to tell my friends," she said, "but she's sleeping six hours at a stretch." Her gaze found her daughter over and over. She praised her in-laws, so helpful and available, told me how excited she was for her mother's next visit, listed the nonstop help of friends and acquaintances. Her story of becoming a mother was about family and support and glorious spring and strength and new pain and two pushes. Two pushes. "Don't tell anyone that," I said, meaner than I meant to be.
Gillian scooped up her daughter, and we went out for a walk. Still focused on giving her the relief I had wanted so badly, I offered to carry the baby. She felt heavy, her squirming limbs demanding, which set off a small panic in me. I returned her. Gillian was talking about the baby's fits of evening crying and how sad she felt when she couldn't figure out what to do. "But you do know what to do," I said. "You're an amazing mother."
Back at the house, Gillian fell into the couch and lifted her shirt, bringing the baby up against her, looking lovely and drowsy. I let myself out. I'd expected her to feel alone and desperate, and she didn't. I'd expected that she'd need my support, that no matter how many good minutes she had, the bad hours would overwhelm her. I needed her to be like me, so that I could be the wise one now, the healed and the mighty; then my loneliness and depression wouldn't have been for naught. I wanted to be the one to teach her that it would get better.
Instead, she reminded me of what I'd never recover, opening an ancient grief. In the intervening years, I've tried to spin that trauma into a necessary trial, one that made me more compassionate. But the unadorned truth, freshly confronted in Gillian's house, is that motherhood's first months gouged a terrible pit in my heart. Becoming a mother was nothing like I'd anticipated.
As I walked to school to pick up the boys, I thought about everything my sons and I have built together. In that hole in my heart, my sons have conjured sunrise, carved magnificent canyons. I know the loss will always be part of me, but my children, too, will always be part of me, stronger and more beautiful than anything I could have planned.
Susanna Sonnenberg is the author of the memoir Her Last Death (Scribner). She lives in Montana.