Postpartum From The Pulpit: Maternity Leave, Postpartum Depression And My First Year Of Parenthood
When Charles Dickens opened his classic novel” A Tale Of Two Cities” with “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” I’m convinced he was talking about the first year of parenthood.
I look back on it now from the vantage point of my son’s first birthday, the vanilla-buttercream cake he smashed with glee still sitting lopsided in our refrigerator. It seems unfathomable that the beautiful toddler who has my eyes and my husband’s smile entered our world one year ago. He tore open our lives in ways both predictable and unexpected, and showed us just how complicated and sacred becoming a parent could be.
I was fortunate to have a healthy pregnancy, access to excellent health care and a stellar support system. Additionally, I was privileged to be granted 12 weeks of paid maternity leave in my position as a full-time congregational rabbi. Yet my leave started with the delivery from hell: Sixty hours from water breaking until our son was vacuumed out of me. It’s the type of labor you read about deep in the comments section of a parenting blog; I wish it on absolutely none of you.
Following that slow, painful labor I was roughed up in a way I’d never been before. My body was a mess, but my mind –- well, my mind was a war zone. It would take weeks before I realized this; in those early days no one really talks about when you’re home on the couch, your hair tangled and dirty, not really sure when you last ate a full meal. Your focus –- everyone’s focus -– is on your newborn child.
We came home from the hospital on a frigid December evening, my husband holding me as I tiptoed down our driveway, each step more painful than the last. That first evening, I walked through the front door of our home and into a life I was completely unprepared for. If only someone -– anyone -– had taken me aside to explain the true transformation about to take place.
For the first 31 years of my life I moved at a certain pace; I am, by nature and training, ambitious and hardworking, determined and devoted to the personal and professional commitments that make up my existence. Prior to parenthood, I moved fast. I achieved, and highly. I experienced the beginnings of career success.
Yet when maternity leave began, the pace I had known for so long slowed to a turtle’s crawl, and now I had a tiny, demanding little person with an unpredictable sleep pattern along for the ride. (And there were frequent bathroom stops.) It was a radical shift, and I didn’t always handle it with grace.
Then there were the postpartum challenges.
It didn’t register prior to my son’s birth just how many things could go wrong after delivery. Labor went as well as any 60-hour labor could reasonably go, but when it came to breastfeeding, nothing went right.
Within two weeks I noticed something was very wrong with one breast. Or maybe it was both -– I can’t remember. There was searing pain, an unsatisfied customer who never seemed “full” no matter how much time he spent sucking away, a giant red welt on one breast and clogged ducts in the other, hours of intimacy with a hospital-grade breast pump, a physical therapist who literally massaged the milk out with an ultrasound machine, and eventually a visit to the cancer center to confirm that the mass on the scan wasn’t a malignant tumor.
I look back on it now and wonder why no one -– not the people I love, my OB-GYN, the pediatrician, mohel or, really anyone who interacted with me in those days -– thought to suggest I might develop depression enduring half the things I just listed.
Call it what you will –- mommy martyrdom, toxic assumptions, overwhelming nursing pressure –- but the mentality I carried with me at all times was, I must make this breastfeeding thing work.
I tried. Oh, how I tried. The routine we created was unsustainable: every two hours, every single day, morning, noon and night, I would strap a pump to my chest and get out as much as possible while someone -– my husband, one of our parents, a visiting friend –- would feed my son a bottle of breast milk. Looking back, I spent so little time interacting with or even holding our son; instead I was holed up in our bathroom with old gossip magazines and a machine draining liquid from my body.
No one thought this was abnormal. No one saw this as problematic. No one batted an eye as I slowly sank into myself –- as I withdrew, sullen and exhausted, into the shell that housed me.
As we settled into that terrible routine, I started to see our son as an awful houseguest; a passive-aggressive intruder into what had once been a serene and controlled environment. That he was the loudest force of nature I’d ever heard didn’t help. In the beginning his impressive pipes yielded laughter from our family and friends, but over time his voice would pierce the depths of my soul, his cries a constant trigger for something I couldn’t articulate. It would fill our entire home with this harsh, haunting noise. Those cries wrapped me in an emotion I’d never felt; it was like being suffocated by disbelief and resentment.
My well-intentioned mother would remind me constantly of the instant love she felt for my brother and me shortly after we were born. But between our son’s cries and the lack of discernible satisfaction on his little face, that feeling of instant love felt unattainable and impossible.
And in those fleeting moments of respite, when I wasn’t rushing from the pump to the bathroom to the kitchen to his bedroom, when I could just remember that I was a human being with thoughts and feelings and a body that had been through the roller coaster ride of childbirth — those were the moments when I felt absolutely miserable.
And then, one night, I finally snapped.
It was about six weeks after our son was born. It was a really, really rough night. One of those nights where nothing I did would possibly soothe our son, who cried and cried, louder and louder, until I hit my limit.
At about 3 a.m. I set him down in his crib. I walked out of his room into ours and announced to my sleeping husband, “I just can’t do this anymore.” I started crying and shaking. I felt that horrific mixture of anxiety, terror and loneliness –- like you’re the only person on Earth who’s ever felt this level of pain.
My husband acted immediately.
The diagnosis of postpartum depression came the next morning in the office of my OB-GYN. Recommendations were made, medications were prescribed, suggestions for therapists were offered. The doctor told me several times not to see myself as a failure, but I couldn’t help it. I felt awful — like the world’s worst parent. “I couldn’t make this work,” I thought. “I couldn’t endure this marathon on my own when so many billions of women before me could.”
I had no idea in that moment how lucky I was to receive the diagnosis and have my husband at my side when it came. All I saw was darkness; all I felt was hopelessness.
“It will never get better,” I thought. “It’s all been a huge mistake.”
Whether it was an act of God, an act of faith, or all those in my closest circle working together as a team to bring me back to life, I got better quicker than any one of us anticipated. The medication was the right fit immediately. The therapist was awesome; not only was she a specialist in postpartum depression, but she ALSO “got” me right away. My loved ones took over the heavy lifting for our son: night feeds, tougher moments, even diaper changes. They knew I needed time -– to decompress, sleep and have as much positive bonding time with him as possible.
The same week I received the diagnosis I began weaning off the breast pump, shutting down my milk supply. I was hesitant -– still the remnants of breastfeeding pressure lingered -– but once my doctor made the suggestion and my husband assured me it was the right thing for our family, I took that leap. It was liberating, but I felt enormous guilt. To this day I still have pangs of longing for a positive memory of breastfeeding. Yet for me, and countless others, formula is like manna sent from heaven above.
Eventually our son started day care. Two weeks later I went back to work, shaky but eager to get back into a routine. To my surprise, the return was a blessing, a daily opportunity to engage in the meaningful relationship building that drew me to become a rabbi.
Time wore on and we began to find a rhythm. Our son began sleeping through the night. We started to really enjoy being parents. Bigger and bigger he grew, increasingly more active, curious and fun. At a certain point, I don’t remember when, I couldn’t possibly imagine my life without this sweet boy in it. Coming to that realization floored me. It made me appreciate the gift of being a parent –- and what I went through to arrive at that moment -– with a profound sense of gratitude.
And so, on Rosh Hashanah this past October, I stood before the largest synagogue in the Northwest United States and shared a sermon on what I’d been through: the painful adjustment to parenthood, diagnosis of postpartum depression, maternity leave I never anticipated, and why it all mattered to every soul in that room. I rooted my words in Genesis and the earliest tales of our ancestors, their stories of pain and loss, suffering in silence and -– ultimately -– their triumphs. I talked about mental illness, and how hard parenthood really is, and how significant and necessary and timely it is to end the stigma around these things we don’t feel we can talk about, especially the tremendous challenge of raising a family in America today.
For the first time in my life I heard a congregation applaud at the end of a sermon; I was overwhelmed by what followed. For weeks afterward, men and women of all ages reached out with gratitude and grace. They shared struggles, fears and previously unspoken challenges they endured. They shared how the sermon changed the way they spoke with and related to the new parents in their lives. They told me how it gave them courage to open up to their loved ones, that it inspired more authentic vulnerability and compassion.
The most memorable and moving response, however, came from a new mother in Tennessee recovering from postpartum depression and anxiety. How she got a copy of my sermon I may never know, but I’ll never forget her words: “I feel it is my obligation to educate others, especially women, about the realities of postpartum mood disorders… how to battle the stigma of experiencing the lowest point of your life as you are trying to celebrate new life. Please know that you have touched a stranger’s heart and made me feel not so much a stranger at all.”
And that, right there, is what makes it all come together, isn’t it? Her words shine a spotlight on that basic concept that speaking up and sharing difficulties we’ve endured eradicates stigma and shame; it connects us more deeply to one another. It reminds us of our fundamental need for a community, a “village” and support network. It reminds us that when we face a challenging time, what makes it all that much more manageable is the knowledge that we’re not alone. The fact that someone, somewhere, has gone through it, or is currently going through it, too, keeps us going. It assuages our fears and slices through our isolation. It makes our hardships feel just a little bit less burdensome. It helps us move forward and, in time, learn to help others.
That’s why telling our stories, raising our voices and amplifying messages of resilience are all so important.
Because when we do, we normalize the tremendous challenge of parenthood. We nudge the dial further along toward paid family leave for all parents. We hold people in their grief and fear, their loneliness and despair. We affirm for others that they will get through what they face and perhaps find comfort in the most unlikely of places. We support. We strengthen. We assist. We empathize. We extend our hearts and souls toward others.
And when we embark on this together, collectively engaged in this sacred work, we make this mysterious, often complicated thing called life that much more manageable, meaningful and real.
When Parents Struggle:
• Learn how to identify challenges and better support new parents through Postpartum Support International.
•Support the work of NAMI, the National Alliance On Mental Illness, and utilize its resources on depression to educate, empower and act.
• Learn more about potential proposals coming before your state’s legislature for paid family and medical leave.