Sleep, Mental Health and Finding the Path back to JOY

It’s no surprise that becoming a mother is a huge life change. Everyone knows that, and we were ready for it. We bought the stuff – the crib, the wrap, the tiny booties and the diapers. I was prepared for the poopy diapers and the constant worrying and even for the multitude of nighttime needs. What I was unprepared for, was losing myself.

I experienced the usual “baby blues” that I was warned about. I remember walking (hobbling to be truthful) through my front door after being released from the hospital, standing in my front entry with a 3 day old baby, a sore body and swollen feet, and bawling my eyes out. It would hit me now and then – that uncontrollable urge to cry, the confusion and forgetfulness. Again, I expected it. I was ready for that.

What I wasn’t ready for, was my extremely fussy and hungry baby, and for the overwhelming guilt I felt when I couldn’t feed him enough. You see, he was a big newborn. 9lbs 3oz. He did some damage coming into the world and I suffered for it. I was very low on iron and in a lot of pain. Breastfeeding wasn’t easy and he was hungry. Like ridiculously hungry. I did the work. I saw lactation consultants and tried to eat the right foods. I tried to “relax” and just let my miraculous body do what nature intended for it to do (because we all know that is SO easy to do when your world is imploding.)

We reached a point where my son’s hunger and discomfort (yes, we were also blessed with some pinched nerve difficulties) led him to wake up every hour at night, asking for food that I couldn’t give him and looking for comfort. For him, that comfort was sleeping on my chest in a recliner in his room. Not a restful sleep for mama, but anything for my baby, right? Because this is what we do as mothers. Whatever it takes. We give and give and give until there’s nothing left. Until we’re a fractured shell of the person we were. And we don’t even realize it’s happening until we are so far gone that we don’t recognize ourselves.

You see, that guilt that I felt over not being able to nurse him was the beginning of something much bigger. Looking back, I can see how detached I felt from everything. How I loved my son but didn’t brim with that earth shattering joyful love that I was promised while pregnant. I did fun things with him, danced and talked with him, offered him sensory toys and played peek-a-boo with him, but I don’t think I was totally present. It’s as if I was doing these things because I was expected to, and not necessarily because I wanted to. It’s hard to explain, even now, how I could be happy and sad at the same time.

Part of my struggle was because I wasn’t sleeping. None of us were. Our days and nights ran together in a blur of fighting for sleep and naps, and worrying that we weren’t doing it right. With that worry came the guilt. The all encompassing “everything is my fault” guilt. The “I should know how to do this!” guilt. I felt bad for everything. I felt bad when I was pinned under a sleeping newborn on the couch and not cleaning the bathroom (which desperately needed it.) I felt bad for not having anything prepared or even considered for supper when my husband got home from work. I felt bad for not wanting to shower. I felt bad when I didn’t enjoy every magical moment of my new son’s life. I felt bad for not being happier.

The truth is, I was depressed. And tired. And falling apart. And putting myself last.

When my son was 6 months old, we hired Sleepwell Baby. I can’t even explain how much that helped. Here was this person, telling me that everything was ok and I wasn’t going to irreparably damage my child by teaching him how to sleep somewhere other than on my chest (thanks for the fear tactics, Google & horrible advice forums!!) and that doing something to improve my own quality of life rather than solely focusing on my baby was going to make me a better mother. And it did. Sleep was my ticket to finally healing my body. Sleep changed my fussy baby into a happy drooling baby. Sleep put me back in bed with my husband. It was life changing for us and I can’t thank them enough for it. It didn’t fix everything though.

When my son was 2 years old, I broke down during a conversation with my husband. It was while my son was napping and I recall things getting really out of control for no real reason. Suddenly I was crying over literally nothing. The flood gates opened. I admitted that maybe I wasn’t cut out to be a mother because anything this difficult and unnatural feeling surely can’t be a right fit. I remember saying “I’m just not good enough at it.” I was still going through the motions and I had what seemed to be the perfect (and most adorable) child and husband, but I was watching my happy moments through the haze of an observer, never fully feeling anything. We decided that I needed help and I made an appointment with a counselor.

At our first appointment, she asked “So what brings you in today?” and I couldn’t even get words out. I just ugly cried and said I didn’t exactly know, but I knew that something wasn’t right. That I didn’t feel like myself. Over the next weeks and months, we worked through what I now know was my Post Partum Depression and I’ve come out the other side. I’m a better wife and mother, but the most important thing is that I’m me again. I recognize myself. I feel things fully again. I’m present.

I’m not sure how things got so out of control for me. I once mentioned my emotional state to my doctor at a routine visit for my son, and she attributed it to the “baby blues.” I didn’t press the issue. Don’t make waves, right? I put on a brave face for the lactation consultants at our frequent visits. We were always focused on my son and how I could do more for him. Nobody ever seemed to want to know how I was holding up, so I didn’t offer. They praised me for being “such a good mom!” and trying to breastfeed for so long. The health nurses weighed and measured him, wanted to know how much he was pooping and peeing, and at the end of the appointment would always ask “And how are you doing?” while they busily wrote their notes down and checked the time. I was an afterthought. And I was ok living in that role. At the time, I don’t think I even knew that what I was feeling wasn’t “normal.” I’ve never been a mother before. Maybe this is what you’re supposed to feel.

It’s not.

I think my main obstacle in getting the help I so desperately needed wasn’t a lack of support or resources available to me. It was allowing myself to ask for help. You see, I’m the one who helps people. I’m the one who saves the day and fixes the problem. I “have it together.” I run a business. I’m an intelligent and talented woman. I’m strong. That didn’t fit with what I was feeling and so I kept it hidden. Nobody around me knew I was trying not to drown because I didn’t let them know. I certainly don’t think my husband knew the full weight of my PPD until I broke down that afternoon with him. I let him see it and everything changed.

I’m better now. I still get emotional when I talk about my “dark days,” but it’s no longer coming from a place of guilt or shame. I feel some anger now. Anger that I lived for more than 2 years in a way that wasn’t healthy or necessary. Anger that nobody recognized how my deteriorating mental health was affecting my family. Anger that I missed out on that feeling of exploding and all encompassing love for my child for so long. (It’s there now. I get it.) I look at him and I could burst from it. And it took nearly 3 years to get here.

This anger that I feel will fade and this will soon just be something that I went through. I do think it’s important to talk about though. This experience will affect my choice to have more children or not. It will also most certainly affect my husband’s choice to have more children or not. He’s gone through it too, but in a different way. He had a front row seat to my decline. I can’t imagine how scary that was, but the fact that we’re talking about it changes everything.

So do that. Talk about it. Talk to your friends or your doctor or a counselor or your parents. Put it out there and start getting some help. Because that Earth shattering love is worth it.

This article was written by Erin Francais, Concierge at Sleepwell Baby. Erin is a mom to one rambunctious boy and divides her time between her family, her photography business, and working for Sleepwell Baby. Erin semi-regularly eats Doritos for lunch, loves telling people what to do, and would rather clean toilets than do dishes.

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