There was a time, about five years into my career as a specialist at a community hospital, when my life seemed almost perfect. I was experienced enough at my job that it was no longer terrifying. I had an amazingly supportive partner who enjoyed travelling, restaurants, and outdoor activities as much as I did. Although ambivalent initially, my husband wanted to start a family, so I was happy when I found out I was pregnant.
I’d prided myself on being an extremely organized, mentally and physically tough person. I’d finished a famously difficult residency program. My pregnancy was straightforward. I continued to work full-time and go running even into my third trimester. In fact, I only experienced nausea and vomiting once, after dinner at an “all you can eat” sushi restaurant. I only went on mat leave after an episode of presyncope while wearing a lead apron in the fluoroscopy suite performing a particularly challenging procedure.
It didn’t throw me when my obstetrician told me I needed a C section for a low-lying placenta. In fact, I was happy that I could avoid labour. I was secretly terrified about the birth process after an obstetrics/gynecology clerkship rotation on the high-risk unit of a 700-bed teaching hospital.
The day my daughter decided to be born, she came so early that my husband and I hadn’t even had time to purchase any baby stuff other than a crib. We rushed to the hospital and after my C section, I was surprised at how skinny this tiny baby was, and how unbelievably loud her crying was.
The first few days were a blur; I was tired but excited. Despite reading lots of books, watching videos, and attending the recommended prenatal classes, both my husband and I felt unprepared.
The first clue that something was wrong was that I couldn’t breastfeed. Even after holding the baby on my breast for what seemed like hours and her trying hard to feed, no milk came out. The lactation consultation was reassuring, saying that it was normal after a C section, especially after only 34 weeks, and that it would take time for the hormones to “kick in.” This consultant mentioned proudly that she’d had nine babies and breastfed all of them till they were at least three years old.
The hours and days seemed to crawl by as our baby looked at us with an angry, hungry face and screamed. Even after I developed mastitis, and started medications to produce more breast milk, she continued to lose weight. Our daughter looked nothing like the babies on the pampers commercials. I didn’t think it was possible for a baby to look even scrawnier than when she was born. My husband looked frustrated and I felt terribly guilty inside as I asked the nurses for formula. “It will make it harder for the milk to come,” they warned.
It was quite painful knowing the benefits of breast milk versus formula and feeling like a total failure because I couldn’t give my daughter those health advantages.
After we went home, my life became a set routine that involved a lot of laundry, pumping milk, taking medications to make me produce more milk, and laying in bed unsuccessfully trying to sleep. There were visits from friends and family who cheered me up. Public health nurses came and checked on us, but I couldn’t stop worrying. I had thoughts about what would happen if I dropped the baby or fell asleep while trying to breastfeed, or if the baby was still underweight, and was she making enough wet diapers? What if she got brain damage from malnutrition? Her cry was particularly piercing at night. There were times neither my husband nor I were able to console her.
I wished that we’d had family around, or close friends who’d had babies who could talk us through the difficult nights. It happened gradually, but there came a point in time when I was no longer interested in my usual interests like reading, or eating out at restaurants, or going for runs. I was so exhausted that I gave up on pumping breast milk and started feeding our daughter formula exclusively at three months.
As winter turned into spring, my daughter developed frequent coughs and a runny nose. I wondered, when my daughter was sick with a respiratory tract infection and went to ER, if this was my fault for not passing on protective antibodies.
Although the weather was nice, I didn’t want to go outside, and if I had to, there was panic in my stomach that my baby might start screaming uncontrollably at some point. The joy and wonder of the early days in hospital were long gone. I missed my old pre-pregnancy life. My husband, being a kind and sensitive individual, knew there was something wrong with me, but he was unable to articulate it.
At some point, my sister came from out of town for a visit. By then, I had lost significant weight and my hair was falling out. I lay in bed for hours staring at the ceiling but not able to sleep. My sister, who is a physician, recognized that I was depressed and suggested I make an appointment to see my GP. I requested counselling through the Doctors of BC helpline. I hadn’t wanted to start antidepressants, but I realized that I couldn’t look after my daughter if I were barely functional.
Fortunately, after a couple of months, my parents came out to Vancouver to stay with us and my mother (with whom I normally don’t get along very well) was amazing with the baby. I was able to feel rested again, even after only four hours of sleep. I regained interest in going for walks and going out to eat at restaurants. I stopped ignoring my friends who called. It was as if I’d been sleepwalking and now I had woken up. I really do feel there was a chemical imbalance, because the antidepressants made a huge difference.
I really wish I’d realized earlier that I had postpartum depression. It felt like I lost significant time that I could have enjoyed with my baby. I hope by sharing my story that others may recognize this in themselves or their family members or friends.