Story’s birth wasn’t anything like my type-A personality had planned for. I had prayed and planned for a natural, unmediated birth, but as I labored throughout the night and day I watched the birth I had envisioned slip out of sight. Thankfully, my C-section resulted in little pain, Story was able to latch and begin breastfeeding, and the rest of our visit went well.
However, our first night home was rough. I couldn't get Story settled, and I didn’t want to wake either my husband Seth or my mother because in my eyes I should know what she needed. 5am came and my mother awoke and ushered me to bed, I was exhausted. When I woke up 3 hours later, that was the first time I remember that anxious feeling - my heart was racing as I jumped out of bed to make sure that Story was okay. Sure enough, she was perfectly content in my mom's arms, but I couldn't get myself to fully relax.
Fast forward to a couple of days later. Our dear friends Scott and Susy came over to see Story and check in on us. As I began talking, I couldn't control my tears. I completely broke down. I recall saying something to Susy along the lines of "I feel like I might have made a mistake." The fear that I had entered into parenthood before I was ready gripped me like a vice. I felt trapped. I literally felt like I had walked into a season of life I wasn't prepared for. The crying was constant. The anxiety was never-ending. I remember looking at Story and feeling like I didn't have the physical strength to pick her up. I just wanted things to go back to normal. I felt like I was a terrible mother. Story was such a content baby, rarely making a fuss but I had this overwhelming feeling that I didn’t have to tools to care for her. It terrified me. Her precious life was in my hands - what was I to do?
Then she started to lose weight. The doctor suggested that I begin supplementing with formula. It was almost too much for me to bear I was her mother, the one that was supposed to be providing her with the nutrition she needed to grow and thrive, and I couldn't even do that. The feeling of failure sank in. Feedings felt as if they went on forever as I fed her from both breasts and then gave her a bottle. I was exhausted. I was at my breaking point. Susy ended up writing Seth an email after they had been at our house. She expressed a great deal of concern for me, and suggested that I was perhaps dealing with more than just the "baby blues." She sent him a link to a site called Postpartum Progress where they list the symptoms of PPD and PPA. I remember as Seth and I looked over the list together, tears streaming down my face as I mentally checked off almost every symptom. We knew I needed to get help. Roughly two weeks after Story was born, I had an appointment with my OB to discuss my mental and emotional state. I remember looking at my swollen face in the mirror and not recognizing myself. My OB was kind, but I don't think she saw the severity of my state in that first appointment. She prescribed Zoloft, which is a fairly mild antidepressant, and a pretty typical "first try" when it comes to mental health medication.
Within a few days the panic attacks started. I knew I couldn't be alone, and I was more than Seth could handle. My mom drove down to Nashville from Cincinnati to pick me and Story up. I felt a surge of peace, but my emotions were shot. At this time, I also made the decision to quit breastfeeding so that I could begin taking Xanax and allow my body more time to rest. Typically, it takes about 2 weeks for any type of antidepressant to cycle through your body, and having never taken any type of mental health medication before, it was a bizarre experience. My mom began to take care of Story and myself.
My morning routine began with panic attacks. My mom being the strong woman she is would wrap me up in her arms as she’d rock me and pray for me. She’d brushed my hair back while I sobbed, such a rock in the middle of a tumultuous time. At this point I had already lost all of my baby weight and even weighed less than before pregnancy. My mother would encourage me to eat, making me breakfast and fresh juice. I had a mix of good moments with mostly bad days. My days were filled with holding Story and sobbing. I couldn’t understand why. Why I had to suffer, why I couldn’t be the mother I imagined I’d be. I was worried that Story would suffer later on in life because of my PPD and PPA. One weekend, Seth came up to visit us, and I remember having a horrible panic attack where I was clinging to my dad, screaming that I thought I was going crazy. Having a medical background, my dad urged Seth to call my doctor and have them change my prescription. He could tell that I was having a negative reaction to Zoloft, and that it was indeed making my mental state worse.
The next several weeks are all a blur. I went back down to Nashville and began seeing a counselor, and was given more antidepressants. The day of my 30th birthday was horrible. I had one of my worst panic attacks that evening, and it was all Seth could do to just get me into the shower to calm me down. None of the medications seemed to be "working." I was referred to a psychiatrist, and he started me on Effexor XR. I also went back up to Cincinnati to be with my parents once more, and then back down to Nashville. Our support system was so strong. Many of our friends and family took turns with Story’s late night feedings, sleeping on the floor next to her Moses basket. Ultimately, I had to learn how to be a parent apart from my parents, but I wasn't ready to be on my own with Story. I tried to do "normal" things, but it was so difficult because I was as far from myself as I could be. I remember Susy coming over to clean our house and stock our fridge because I couldn't. She then had Story and I come spend the afternoon and night at her house so I could rest all day in their guest room while she took care of Story. I will never forget how vulnerable I felt as I laid curled up in a ball on that bed, my eyes closed but unable to sleep.
Shortly thereafter, my sister Therese came and stayed with us for two weeks. I’m so thankful for her. As a professional counselor and as my sister, she was a huge resource. She knew how to refocus my thoughts, and continuously saved me from the downward spiral of another panic attack. She had me realign my focus on one thing a day in addition to taking care of Story. She helped me acknowledge that my ideal picture of motherhood wasn’t real and wasn’t healthy. I didn’t need a packed schedule to prove I was being an effective mother - just taking care of Story was enough. My mom-in-law then came down and stayed with me for a week, and afterwards my parents hired a postpartum doula to stay with me while Seth was at work.
I was cared for by two doulas from the same group, Leanne and Brittany, but Leanne spent the majority of the time with me. She was amazing. Leanne would make sure my physical needs were met while at the same time encouraging me in my own mothering. She helped instill in my a confidence I didn't realize I had. She became a true friend. I began taking some natural supplements as well - Vitamin D being at the top of the list. And I also switched counselors - I was now seeing a counselor from Hope Clinic for Women who specialized in perinatal mood disorders. Slowly, I found life again. I remember laughing and suddenly thinking, "Wait...is this okay? Am I okay?" I was outside running. I was fixing myself lunch. I was smiling at Story. And it all felt glorious. As I look back, I don't remember there being a particular "lightbulb moment" where I became myself again. It was a gradual progression. And the more Story grew, the stronger our bond became.
I know that when I was in the thick of my struggle, it was hard to believe those who told me I'd get better - in fact, I'm not so sure I ever actually believed anyone. But I did hold on with all my strength to the truth that despite this broken world, the Lord promised me hope and a future. I am forever indebted to all those who were a part of my healing process. If you are struggling, know that there is hope. Reach out to those around you. Talk openly with family and friends. There are far too many mamas out there who are feeling ashamed and afraid. You are not alone. You will get better. And if you have a day where hope feels too far out of reach, think of me and remember that I was once right where you are. You will move forward, I promise. One step at a time. And you know what? Your sweet baby will be okay too.
Kelly and her husband are now expecting their third baby.
Written by: Kelly Williams
Photography Credit: Life in Balance Photography, Thrive Photography