by Hallie Rogers, PCD(DONA), CLC
Most of us have heard many “birth stories”: narratives parents weave to commemorate the arrival of a new baby. Typically beginning with early labor, birth stories are the emotional and factual account of how a new little human was birthed, and can be an important part of a woman processing her own agency, role, and part in that story. My husband and I have had three beautiful births, each different than the others. While we treasure our memories of those life-changing nights and days, in my experience, it’s my postpartum stories that have truly influenced my life and had a greater impact on my family. This is my first time sharing my postpartum story–my own weaving together of my three postpartum experiences. Why? Because I want to model my belief that a woman’s postpartum story is just as important and valuable as her birth story.
Our first child (G) came almost four weeks early. We were not prepared, emotionally or literally. We have a photo of our tiny G sleeping in her car seat just after we arrived home that first time, the room around her total chaos with opened boxes, papers, and gift wrap everywhere. As my husband took that photo, we both expressed to each other how we felt completely incompetent and at a loss for what to do now. How could they send us home with this tiny person? We couldn’t possibly know what we were doing. Those first two weeks were intense, with serious physical healing necessary for me that greatly limited my mobility. Breastfeeding was challenging right from the beginning, and I remember sitting in the bathtub one afternoon crying to my mom on the phone, telling her I’d been asking myself, “What did we get ourselves into?” It was clear that in those first few weeks, I was experiencing what’s called “the baby blues,” which is a normal reaction to the overwhelming hormonal and circumstantial adjustments women have to make following the birth of a baby. I struggled initially the first few weeks, but things got easier. G was born in May, and since my husband was a teacher, starting about 4 weeks after G’s birth, he was able to be home with us all summer long. Life with baby quickly got so, so much better, and we had a wonderful summer learning how to parent together. I had the luxury of unconditional, encouraging support every day. To make it even more incredible, that support came from the man I loved the most in the whole world, and I got to learn from him and watch him settle into parenthood alongside me.
Fast forward 16 months later to our second child (M), who also came a bit early. Born in September, it was not ideal timing for a family with two parents working in education, but she decided to debut on a gorgeous crisp fall day. Right away, M was a force to be reckoned with. Breastfeeding was much easier this time (she nursed like a champ!), but as the weeks went on, we could tell something wasn’t working for her. After researching on our own and talking with her doctor and some friends from La Leche League, we discovered M was intolerant of the cow proteins in my diet. I went dairy free for the next five months so that I could continue to breastfeed M, and while I didn’t mind doing it for her, it was not easy.
My postpartum time after M’s birth coincided with my decision to leave work and stay home with our children for a while, my husband’s return to a demanding job and classes in a post-graduate program at a university, and the chilling and darkening of the seasons in our northern climate. In those early weeks, I remember being unable to sleep while the rest of the house was sleeping. In retrospect, I was experiencing relatively significant postpartum anxiety, followed later–in the winter months–by depression. While there certainly were times of joy in those first 6-8 months after M was born, there were definitely moments I wish I hadn’t had to have, particularly with two little ones looking on and feeling the effects of a sad mom. I remember sitting on the living room floor in January with the toddler playing with the baby as I just wept, for no particular reason and with no particular remedy. I felt a deep sadness, emptiness, and loneliness, and I didn’t know how to get myself out of it. I felt guilty for not loving every minute of being home with our kids, I felt ashamed of my sadness, and yet–because it was different than the depression I had had as a college student–I couldn’t see the forest for the trees and did not recognize what I was dealing with in those moments. I made excuses for why I felt sad, and failed to reach out for the help I needed. Eventually, days got longer, baby M got older, and things got easier. That summer was a good one.
Unfortunately, however, my postpartum mental health issues reared their ugly heads again as M and I weaned that fall. As my body shifted from its lactating to non-lactating state, my hormones contributed to the return of anxiety, resulting in panic attacks during the day, night after night of insomnia, general worry over things I typically don’t worry about, and even heart palpitations. A few months later, I was able to feel “normal” again, and I thought my depression and anxiety were done and gone.
After many months and much thought and discussion, my husband and I decided to have another child. We were absolutely in love with the beautiful daughters we had been blessed with, and were excited to welcome another little person into our family. By the end of the first trimester with baby #3 (L), though, I could tell there was already some anxiety mounting inside me with each passing week. I decided to try to “head it off at the pass” by talking to a counselor who specializes in perinatal mood disorders and works mostly with mothers. This was helpful, and I began to see some improvement through therapy with her, as well as the use of a prescription light box I sat in front of every morning at 5:30.
That January, however, I began to slip into what would become the deepest, scariest depression I’ve ever experienced. While I was never suicidal, it was definitely the darkest time of my life in terms of mental health. I began to see a counselor again, and with her guidance and that of my doctor, I was able to see that medication was necessary. For weeks and months I had tried every non-pharmaceutical thing I knew of to try to treat my perinatal depression and anxiety, and it had simply reached a point when those methods weren’t enough. I also began to work on a postpartum plan. I knew that for me, the postpartum time was likely to be a challenge again. So, I decided to have my placenta encapsulated this time around, to see if it would alleviate some of my symptoms and allow me to gradually “come down” from the hormone high point of birth, as well as replenish and sustain my own levels of iron a bit more easily. We also decided to hire a postpartum doula. I didn’t know postpartum doulas existed when we had our first two babies, but between baby #2 and baby #3, I had not only learned about them, but had become certified and began working as one myself. I knew the vast benefits of having trained, nonjudgmental support after baby arrives, so we arranged for our postpartum doula to come be with me and our children while my husband was working and other family was not available to help. I also asked friends and family members to help us by bringing us a meal after L arrived, and so many people generously responded. It was incredible to feel so loved and supported by so many people, and their food nourished our bodies and our souls.
My medication, my counselor, and my placenta were all helpful to me after L was born, but I truly believe that it was the support of other people that was the key factor to this postpartum time being worlds different than the last, and worlds different than even a few weeks prior to birth, when my depression in pregnancy was so serious. I honestly remember crying tears of joy and relief in those first weeks after birth, and I remember telling my husband, “This is what it’s supposed to be like. I am so, so happy. This is what postpartum should be.” They say the third time’s the charm, and for me, it seemed to be. I was able to come out of a darkness and into the light of a new phase of motherhood, eased into it with the support of our doula and many dear friends and family members who loved us into a new peace as a family of five.
Hallie Rogers is a certified postpartum doula and a certified lactation counselor, and seeks to provide a wonderful, supported postpartum experience to the families whom she serves. She lives in St. Paul with her husband and three young children. You can find out more about her doula and lactation services, read other blog posts, and contact her at www.betterbeginningsmn.com.