Repainting My Postpartum Portrait
Her love was full-throated and all encompassing and unadorned.
Every day she blew through her entire reserve.
In September I was now 6 months postpartum and I honestly look about as good as I’ve ever looked. The doctor’s office decided not to press charges. I was finally reveling in that precious love drug that is oxytocin and I was ecstatically taking my son everywhere in town, showing him off. We’d taken our first airplane trip to Chicago and several other day trips around Colorado. Motherhood felt relatively effortless, peaceful, slow and delicious.
I was hiking up my favorite trail near Aspen and at least two dozen people remark at how great the baby and I look and a few even stop and ask if we want our picture taken. I beam. The sun is shining. My world is peaceful. I am truly happy.
What the hell happened to Crazy-tits McGee?!
I know what you’re asking: “Is this chick on drugs? Can you take that many antidepressants while nursing? Is she faking this shit for a good story?”
That’s fair y’all. Allow me to explain.
In the months since my nervous breakdown in June, I took several critical steps to secure a more positive and healthy existence for me and my son.
Most of these were things I never thought I’d do; but I also never thought I’d be as unstable and volatile as I’d been in that doctor’s office.
Here’s what happened.
Oh, yeah. And in case you were wondering, these tips are NOT for everybody.
* The only thing that matters is that you get the help you need the moment you really need it. Having the police involved with my PPD was a swift kick in the already-sore behind I needed.
** PPD causes some women to hurt or kill themselves or their children. Don’t let it get that bad. But don’t categorically take my advice just because it worked for me. Tailor your postpartum care to you and your family’s unique needs and finances. And above all, know that you’re normal. Normal. Normal. Thank God we live in a time where the internet allows lonely, suffering new moms to cut past the crap and admit to one another – this is really damn hard and I’m so (insert emotion here) I could just die! Your family won’t always allow you to admit this. Your friends will tell you to suck it up. Your husband will lack empathy for what he sees as a crazy hormonal spider’s web he wants nothing to do with. Other mothers will talk about how they’re having the time of their lives and they love their swollen breasts and have never felt sexier and lighter. To hell with all of them. Find your tribe. Find your safe place. Find your own little corner in your own little room and nest there until you feel better.
Baby Got Back: A Comprehensive Body Overhaul
Having recovered from a devastating eating disorder several years ago, I’m no stranger to fortifying the physical body as a tool to manage my spiritual and emotional self.
Over the first few months after my son was born, I suppressed my own exhaustion with a potent cocktail of sincere adoration for my son and a steady drip of oxytocin to my brain from nursing. In addition to causing healing uterine contractions, oxytocin is a hormone that helps with the “letdown” of milk. Most notably, it also causes women to bond with their babies. It’s a hormone that is calming and can explain why mothers develop severely tweaked necks gazing at their suckling babies. Oxytocin ultimately explains why cavewomen felt the urge to protect and care for even the most impossibly ill-timed or inconvenient babies.
It’s also worth mentioning that estrogen and progesterone levels plummet to post-menopausal levels after birth, as the source of these hormones was the placenta. Over time they return to normal levels, but mommy will certainly miss the mood-elevating effect of progesterone for a period.
I rightfully had a ton of grace for my body after giving birth. I took it easy, followed doctor’s orders, and didn’t give much thought to “losing baby weight”. When PPD became evident, I realized that I needed to give my body the same antidepressant as I had in my pre-maternal life. It was time to exercise… wisely.
Now, exercise would be changing a lot for me. Running and jumping rope (ironically, my two favorite pre-baby exercises) were out of the question due to the saggy baggy hanging ominously in between my legs. Therefore my son and I became avid hikers. We’d hike up mountains, alongside rivers, and around the hilly, opulent neighborhoods in Aspen, a 45-minute drive from my home. Stanford University Researchers found that hiking gets creativity flowing. It is linked to more healing than I can list here, but most importantly it helps with depression. One study even found that hiking significantly reduced depression, hopelessness, and suicide ideation in patients who’d already had one or more suicide attempts.
Have you ever done the Strengthsfinder Assessment? In addition to hiking, I developed a maxim that kept me dedicated to something that nurtured one of my inmost urges. The Strengthsfinder Assessment couldn’t have been more spot-on; it found my strengths to be Achiever, Significance, and Context. In short, I like to accomplish things, I take joy in the feeling of contributing something of significance, and I love to weave lessons from history into the fabric of the present.
My new maxim really scratched that Achiever itch. At least five days a week, I’d do 350 repetitions of something. Anything physical. It could be 350 lunges or squats; 350 sit-ups, 350 seconds of planking, 350 pushups.
In short, the 350 Rule has changed my life. I’m not sporting a wicked six-pack. Far from it! My belly is still a puzzling puddle of Jell-O below the belly button despite my supremely healthy lifestyle.
However, the 350 Rule has empowered me to feel overwhelming joy that comes from exercise. Studies show that exercise improves mood whether you’re going light, moderate, or extreme in your training.
Exercise causes an increase of serotonin and dopamine in the brain, thereby improving your mood.
*Don’t exercise to get skinny if you suffer from PPD. That’s adding insult to injury, literally. Exercise to get the creative juices flowing, to get your blood circulating and for the boundless energy exercise provides even the most exhausted new mommies.
The Walking Dead
In the year before I got pregnant I took over a small tea company that was already on life-support. The owner of the company fired nearly the entire staff the week I took over, which meant that as the CEO I had the pleasure of managing customer support into the wee hours of the morning while I re-staffed our company. I had the joy of uncovering wire fraud from an affiliate who had been siphoning profit from our sales pages for nearly 9 months. I’d also had the joy of receiving countless disorganized boxes of financial statements and product information as a gentle initiation to the world of running a tea company. I told the owner of the company I’d keep it alive for 3-6 months but that it wasn’t my dream come true.
Approximately a year and a half after I took over said tea company, my son was born. Sales were stable but not awesome. I’d performed a small miracle keeping the company afloat despite the inventory being stuck in a harbor somewhere unable to escape customs for six months of that year. I was optimistic and working my face off, but admittedly very burnt out.
The new baby was up most of the night and he decided to take his nice, long naps during phone calls I had to be on with my staff every morning. I was getting no sleep at night and I wasn’t napping during the day.
In addition, my husband – a relentless extrovert who apparently shrivels up and dies when there aren’t people staying in our home – had invited guests from the time my son was 31 days old until he was 90 days old. I was perpetually changing beds, entertaining, cooking, and cleaning (nearly none of these gems helped me cook or clean up after meals, choosing instead to revert to another room to chat or smoke weed for their Colorado visit). I grew to hate the guests who arrived, ate, smoked, left cups everywhere, and then wanted to chat me up about my work in the few moments I had to sit down and feed the baby. There was no free time. There was no sitting around in my underwear nursing the child. There was certainly no nursing my mangled self.
My body wasn’t healing quickly from the traumatic birth and I was starting to actually feel brain dead. I couldn’t summon simple words to mind in daily conversation. I’d search for a simple word like “door handle” or “colander” for up to minutes before it would pop up in my mind.
I was suffering severe nightmares about my labor and any time I did fall asleep the baby woke me up violently. Even as I write this article I am aware that I’ve spent 18 months getting violently woken up every time I’ve fallen asleep. More on that in a moment…
As mentioned earlier, my family was far away and my husband was unable or unwilling to watch the baby in order to let me sleep.
Many mothers told me to sleep train my son. I downloaded the apps on my phone, read all the top books, and began a rigorous feeding and napping schedule. My son hated it and wasn’t getting the comfort he needed. In addition, he wasn’t spending the night in his bassinet no matter how exhausted he was.
Sleep deprivation is nothing to fool around with. It creates a disconnect in your brain that causes decreased heart variability and stress response. Your prefrontal cortex is impaired; making sleep deprivation much like being drunk or otherwise intoxicated. You lose your ability to replenish and heal. Your body is in survival mode. You get sick more. You get more irritable. And you forget the word colander no matter how hard you try to remember it.
Here’s how we tackled this ubiquitously nightmarish aspect of motherhood…
When my son was 3.5 months old, I sold the tea company. Now in the afternoons I could catch an hour or so nap with my son. I started to see the edges soften around my bruised brain and personality. Finally, at 5.5 months postpartum I brought my son in the bed with me in a broad, sweeping act of defiance to everybody and everything that said, “don’t do it!” I had to. I wasn’t getting the sleep I needed and my son and I sucked royally at sleep training. So I did what I needed and suddenly life got infinitely easier. I even got 2-3 hour stretches once in a while.
The effervescent teacher Alison Armstrong has noted that women are incapable of shining when they’re sleep deprived. She goes as far as to say they can’t even be in their feminine when they’re lacking sleep.
She’s so spot-on. I’m not sweet, graceful, caring, compassionate, or patient when I’m sleep deprived. I’m a zombie.
In my case, I was actually on the verge of becoming institutionalized from my lack of sleep when my son was 3 months old. The lack of compassion and care from those around me exacerbated this exhaustion.
So I finally did what I needed to do. It’s not the right way for everybody, but it worked for me.
Now my son is 18 months old and he’s still in the bed. I’m pretty used to the sleeplessness and I function at a 9.5/10 almost every day – without caffeine. I nurse him all night but we periodically get four or more hour stretches of sleep. I still nap with him at least once a week and, you know what? We’re both a lot damn happier and healthier.