I’m so happy to bring you this guest post from my friend and fellow PPD survivor Cait Marchand!
Three months after the birth of my daughter I am starting to think it might be safe to hope that this time around I have escaped postpartum depression.
But after more than a decade of struggle with depression, premenstrual dysphoric disorder, and postpartum depression, letting down my guard is a dangerous thing. I proceed with caution.
I thought about using the analogy of Bambi’s mother, carefully entering the meadow… but that didn’t turn out well for her, so maybe something else. Let’s go with putting weight on a limb for the first time after an injury. As the pressure builds you watch carefully for any warning signs.
This is my life now. Gently, gently reenter the world of normal responsibilities and watch, watch with every ounce of concentration, for that first whisper of the monster Depression. We want to catch it early if it needs catching.
This hypervigilance, the constant observation and analysis of my own thoughts and emotions, has made me both actor and onlooker in my own life. I do and think and then I examine. Sometimes a stray thought will strike me as “not normal” and I’ll have to dissect it carefully before moving along.
And what I’ve discovered is that there’s plenty of overlap between PPD thoughts and “normal” thoughts. Because nothing about newborns is “normal.” Newborns are weird and scary, and you don’t have to have an illness to think so.
Let’s talk about babies. Cute little bundles of joy, right? Right. Also terrifying.
And I don’t just mean because we’re worried for their health and safety. I mean they themselves are super weird.
They are like aliens from another planet: mysterious visitors from the land before conception and after death. We focus on how strange and frightening this world must be to them, but don’t like to mention that these emissaries from eternity are strange and frightening to us.
Babies have dark eyes, filled up with iris. They move in strange jerks. They wail and sound more akin to cats than humans. My new daughter does a really great impression of an injured rabbit, too. Or a teeny, tiny piglet. And these are just for starters. That’s just your normal average level of baby scariness. This is my fifth child and they’ve all provided new opportunities to feel at sea, disconnected, and frightened.
My second child went on a nursing strike after one week of perfect feedings. He would actively fight to get away from me when I tried to feed him. We attended his baptism with a tiny, dehydrated, quiet baby, too hungry and exhausted to cry. He would weep hours and hours into the night for hunger and still refuse the food he was offered.
He didn’t want me. He was afraid of me. We were strangers to each other. After a month we switched him to formula and life improved. But that month was a devastating lesson in how hard communication and connection can be with babies.
This time around my daughter decided to go the full opposite from her brother. She would nurse unceasingly and because her mouth was so small it was excruciating. I would literally (and I mean literally literally) scream and cry as I bled to feed my child. And all she did was look up at me with those strange, dark eyes and demand more.
She was pitiless. Of course she was pitiless. She’s a newborn. But that was the sensation for me. Looking down at this beautiful snuggly baby who did not care one bit that she was torturing me. More, more, more!
Maybe years of tv and movies and Gerber babies on boxes have taught us all to expect a three month old or a six month old from day one.
My little one is just hitting that mark and I see her features start to clarify out of the rolls of fat. Her eyes focus on mine instead of rolling off to the side or crossing humorously over her own nose. She smiles, she coos. She is becoming a resident of this world, a familiar and comfortable little human just like all the rest. That’s a little bit sad.
Don’t get me wrong — there is something supernatural and glorious about the fierce, hot ball of Life that is a newborn. They radiate the terrifying gift of immortality, a message from God of His creative love. But like anything magical, it isn’t comfortable or safe.
So why do I share this? Why write a blog post about how strange babies are, for women who may be struggling to connect with their child?
Well, it’s because I’ve been there. I’ve been in the pit of postpartum depression and felt that there was antagonism between myself and my little one. Felt that he was “crying just to punish me.” Felt like I should look at her and only feel rapturous love, not ambivalence; see beauty, and not strangeness.
By no means do I wish to diminish that experience or suggest it isn’t important to speak up and seek help. But I do think it’s reassuring to know in what ways you are “normal.” Many of your thoughts and feelings are shared with every other mom in the world, even those who don’t bear the cross of PPD.
So here’s my encouragement for you from the other side. It’s not all in your head. It isn’t just your illness. It isn’t just you.
Babies are weird and that’s ok. It’s more than ok. In some ways it’s exactly as it should be. When we can be totally blasé about the enormity of a newborn, well then there might really be something to worry about.
Caitlin Marchand writes for Catholic Exchange and blogs about her faith and life at The Unrepeatables. She is a mother of 5 beautiful children on earth and 2 special boys in Heaven. A graduate of Christendom College, she is a proud born-and-raised Canadian who happily went into exile to live with her beloved husband. She has called many states home in her adventures as an Air Force wife.