Each week the Reckon Women newsletter includes a column from women in the South, in collaboration with See Jane Write. Click here to join the Reckon Women Facebook group.
By Eleanor Billington
“Please, please don’t leave me alone.” These were the words I spoke to my spouse as he headed to work while I stood in the doorway holding our four-week-old baby girl. I was ashamed of my desperation, yet I couldn’t imagine spending hours with nothing but my anxious thoughts and this tiny, screaming thing.
She would not eat. Born a couple of weeks early with a poor suck reflex, she refused to nurse or take a bottle. We fed her like a baby bird with a small syringe that held two ounces of milk at a time.
We met with pediatricians, tongue tie specialists, and lactation consultants, but for weeks and weeks after her birth, nothing changed. We tried different bottles, feeding positions, and types of formula, and I cut all dairy and soy from my diet in case her refusal was due to allergy. Again, nothing changed.
I still remember one pediatrician trying to give her a bottle after she had not eaten for nearly 10 hours, and she just spat it back out and wailed. “I’ve not really seen anything like this,” the doctor said. “Just keep trying.”
I was done trying. I had been pumping milk 12 times a day for weeks, and I was sleeping a total of four hours every 24 hours.
My spouse and family provided as much support as they could, but we were all too exhausted–and focused on feeding the baby–to see how truly sick I had become. I weighed less than I did before I was pregnant, and I was struggling to speak. I just didn’t have the energy for it.
At my six-week postpartum appointment, I took the EDPS (Edinburgh Postnatal Depression Scale) survey, returned it to the nurse, and waited. A few moments later, three doctors briskly entered the room. Based on my results, they were concerned for my safety.
I was prescribed an antidepressant, but unfortunately, it worsened my symptoms considerably.
By the time I found a drug that helped, my daughter was nearly three months old, and it was already time for me to return to work.
I should have asked for help at the beginning of my postpartum journey, but when you’re depressed and chronically anxious, it’s impossible to recognize your own illness.
I was lucky that the six-week postpartum visit flagged my condition, but I might have been saved weeks of agony and debilitating anxiety if I had been screened earlier at home. (This is standard practice in many other countries.)
When I had my second child two years later, the first thing I packed in my hospital bag was my antidepressant. I was determined to have a different experience; however, I still felt guilty about needing help.
Why did I think that help equaled failure? Why was I terrified to tell friends and extended family that I was on medication? What was I protecting?
I was protecting a myth, an unrealistic narrative that mothers should magically be able to manage everything thrown at them, especially those baffling and exhausting early months with a newborn. I was protecting the idea that women should be valued only because of their relationships to others, especially that of a mother and child.
I am learning to tell a different story. I am learning to remind myself and my community that we must actively work to remove the stigma around postpartum depression. I am learning that my first few months as a mother do not define my worth as a woman. I hope to teach my daughter the same.
Eleanor Billington is a freelance editor and arts administrator living in Brussels. She grew up in Eastern Tennessee in the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains.