The transition from two children to three was, for me, the easiest of all.
This is what I tell people, and in a lot of senses it’s true. I was already 100% buried in chaos with my two older toddler girls, so the addition of one newborn boy just didn’t register a lot of overwhelm. I usually compare it to throwing a bucket of water into the ocean. You just don’t notice the level rise at all. And then there was Brian. He was as chill as babies come: a self-soother from the beginning, with a calming vibe that I can’t quite explain.
But then there’s the other side of the birth of Brian.
I’ve struggled with depression on and off throughout my adult life, so I had been on guard, especially after my firstborn, against postpartum depression. I was pleasantly surprised after my first when it wasn’t a problem as it had been for so many of my friends, nor was it an issue when I had my second less than a year and a half later. By my third, I figured I had dodged the PPD bullet and I would be fine.
I was sort of right. There were no classic depression symptoms, but almost immediately following his birth, I just felt… activated. All the time. I’m Highly Sensitive (I feel stupid capitalizing that, but it really is a thing) so I’m familiar enough with the sensory overwhelm that leads to mental and emotional chaos, but this was all. the. time. My skin felt tingly. My heart raced. My scalp felt weird. my arms felt hot. My stomach wasn’t right. The physical anxiety symptoms put my brain on the hunt for rational explanations for my discomfort. There were none, except the three small people and one other big person who lived in my house. I felt CRAZY. I became irritable. I couldn’t sleep.
Mamas- you know the newborn phase, right? I hadn’t slept in six months because pregnancy is lame. I caused expensive damage to more than one car because I was so chronically exhausted that my brain refused to function, but still I had to go places and do things. Now I’ve had the baby and, while sleep is interrupted, my body is supposed to be able to take advantage of the opportunities I have, right? Except instead of sleeping, I was laying awake feeling nothing but irritation for being awake. My body refused to to settle down and rest.
The sleep deprivation fed into irritability and substandard mothering and generally crappy days. Here I have three children I adore, a husband who is absolutely God’s best gift to me, and anxiety sucking every last particle of joy from it all.
When I recognized the problem, I made the call without any further thought. I asked to talk to a midwife and the words tumbled out. “The anxiety is debilitating and sucking all the fun out of my otherwise awesome life. I don’t have time or margin for this. I need to be on something. I’ve taken Celexa for depression before, so if that’s a reasonable SSRI for breastfeeding, I know it works for my body. I even have some from four years ago that I can start taking now…”
Julie didn’t want me to take the expired meds, but got me in for a quick consult, checked that I was getting therapy (they’re most effective in combination, but I was in the middle of some therapy for something else already, so it was covered) and wrote me a prescription. I texted my husband to let him know what was going on—he certainly knew something was wrong, but I don’t think either of us knew precisely what until then, and I was so busy fixing it that I didn’t really loop him in until it was more or less managed. He texted me back something like, “I think that’s really courageous. I’m glad you’re getting help.” Bless him. I started to feel better before very long at all, because, in my body, this med works on anxiety way faster than it worked on depression.
In a lot of ways, I feel like my case, because of how suddenly and severely it hit me, wound up being a lot milder than so many women experience. I’m grateful that I saw it and got help for it within just a few weeks. I’m grateful I’d dealt with (and been medicated for) depression already, so I didn’t have to break through any weirdness about mental illness this time.
The point is this: you don’t have to tough it out. You get one shot at this newborn and I don’t want your memories of this time to be a blur of irritation and or simmering rage. If your body and brain feel wrong, talk to somebody. You’re not weird, and you’re certainly not the first mama your provider has seen who needs some support while all the hormones and everything get back into alignment. If you’re worried about the medication and effects on a breastfeeding baby, please stop. the effects are negligible and are certainly outweighed by the benefit of having a mama who is present and emotionally able to engage in the work of mothering.
If you have been toughing it out, please don’t beat yourself up. You’re not a bad mom. You’re doing your best, and you’ll both recover, and still… please talk to somebody. It’s worth it. Promise. You have enough going on without adding problems with brain chemistry to the mix—get that one sorted out.
And for the bunch of people who are going to tell me (and maybe you) to find more natural ways to handle this or pray more or meditate to fix it, please stop. If you want to try things before you try medication, that’s awesome. If it works for you and you want to recommend it to a struggling friend? Go for it. But do not shame mamas out of getting the help that they need. Sadness and worry can be spiritual or lifestyle problems. I get it. But clinical anxiety and depression are legitimate physical and chemical ones, so please, please let those of us dealing with them get the medical attention required for our actual problems. Deal? Cool.