“‘Will you please text your therapist?’
It was early March 2020. I was three days postpartum, on my way home with my husband, Mitchell, and our brand new daughter, Charlotte, after her first post-hospital pediatrician appointment. I was feeling guilty about wanting to quit breastfeeding. It wasn’t natural or blissful the way I had imagined it would be; it was painful and I was dreading every time my daughter started gnawing on her fists, indicating she was hungry. I had cried in pain through an entire feeding session the night before, and my husband was gently trying to persuade me to switch to formula, that breastmilk wasn’t worth the pain I was putting myself through.
‘I’m fine, it’s just the hormone crash,’ I said, trying to act as if the question hadn’t just brought tears to my eyes. ‘I’ll be okay once everything levels out.’
He didn’t bring it up again, and I didn’t text my therapist.
My parents were waiting for us at home, staying with us during our first week as we eased into our new roles as parents — helping console Charlotte in the middle of the night so we could sleep, fixing bottles once we decided to switch to formula, and helping cook and clean the house. Before they left, my dad said, ‘You know, she really is a pretty easy baby.’
I didn’t want them to go, even if she was easy, because I felt so overwhelmed and afraid I couldn’t handle this adorable, squishy human being entirely dependent on me. But I continued to blame my crashing hormones and the baby blues the nurses at the hospital warned me would likely appear, and tried to put on a brave face.
And I didn’t text my therapist.
Mitchell went back to work a week after Charlotte was born, and I was terrified to be alone with her. I thought I couldn’t handle doing everything she needed, being fed every 2-3 hours (and the clock toward the next feeding starts when the feeding begins, not when it ends), changing diapers, and trying to get her to nap. In a panic, I begged my mom to come back and stay with me that first day he went back to work. I couldn’t put my finger on it, but I was just so afraid of being by myself with my baby. That first day she stayed with me, but I did all the work so I knew I could handle it. I just felt so much better and more relaxed with someone else there.
Charlotte was starting to feel less and less easy, and I felt like I was treading water but barely keeping my head from slipping under. I tried to put her down for naps in the pack-and-play in our living room while I slept on the couch, but it felt as if I had just barely shut my weary eyes (I was too tired to even get my contact lenses in) before she started rustling and crying, wanting to be held. Everyone told me to, ‘Sleep when the baby sleeps,’ but I was terrified of letting her sleep anywhere besides flat on her back in an empty safe space, and she wouldn’t sleep there. She wanted to be held constantly, and nothing – not a tight swaddle, or the expensive swing I had decided on after hours of pros and cons and comparisons, or the bouncer – was a substitute for my arms. That advice only works when your baby actually sleeps in the safe place she’s supposed to be in.
She wasn’t big enough for the baby carrier we had, so I would surround myself on the couch with a bunch of snacks and food I could eat easily with one hand, and settle in for the day, binging The Great British Baking Show on Netflix, because that’s the only place I could be. When Mitchell would come home from work in the evening and take over, I’d go take a shower and sob, feeling like I was failing at motherhood because it just seemed like it was such an easier adjustment for everyone else, and this was so very difficult for me. Charlotte was getting harder and harder to keep happy, and I was doubting myself more and more every hour.
Parenting During Covid
After a week back at the office, Mitchell texted me to tell me he was packing up his cubicle; he was being sent home to work remotely indefinitely, due to the COVID-19 pandemic which had been lurking in the background of our new life as parents. I learned the Big Ten men’s basketball tournament had been canceled while I was in the middle of a pumping session, and the first case in Indiana had actually been found at the hospital I delivered at. I cried with relief when he texted me he’d be home. I would finally have someone who could hold Charlotte so I could take care of my basic needs, like eating a normal lunch and taking a shower.
We watched press conferences with the state governor and from the White House, learned about flattening the curve, and at a pediatrician appointment for Charlotte, I was handed my first fabric mask after both of us had our temperatures taken before being allowed to go up the elevators. We found out we’d be entering lockdown when Charlotte was three weeks old, when she was becoming more and more agitated after feedings and was beginning to cry every evening like clockwork. We were now cut off from our support network, as our family members were nearly all essential workers who were working day in and day out with the public.
And I still didn’t text my therapist.
Even though I was no longer home by myself, I still felt like I was drowning. Mitchell’s office had never had a remote work policy before, and I had to pretend he wasn’t home at all because he had to keep track of his time and submit what he had been working on and when he had done it. Charlotte was getting to the point where she would arch her back and scream in pain after her bottles, and she was starting to cry inconsolably during the day, not just in the evenings. Everyone had told me newborns were snuggly little squishes who just ate and slept all day, and I was beginning to think mine was broken or, more likely in my mind, I was just a really horrible mom to have such an unhappy baby.
Thrush And Silent Reflux
Her pain after eating was becoming more and more obvious, and we were suspecting some kind of intolerance or reflux. One night she screamed in pain from around 6:00 p.m. Something was clearly wrong, and we texted my pharmacist’s parents asking what we should do. They suggested a small dose of Infant Tylenol. When Mitchell got the bottle out of the cabinet, I froze.
What if we give her too much and she overdoses and dies? She’s so small. It would be so easy to give her too much.
I was terrified of giving her Tylenol, and I broke down in tears as my baby wailed in pain and I felt paralyzed by my own horrifying thoughts to do anything about it. I finally caved in around 10:00 that night, after four hours of her wailing. Mitchell gave her a small amount, and it was enough to soothe her to where we could all get some sleep until it was the next time for her to be fed. A pediatrician appointment in the morning confirmed a diagnosis of silent reflux, where instead of forcefully ejecting her bottles, she was swallowing her spit-up. The acid was scorching her throat both on the way up and then on the way back down. She also had a case of thrush, and we were prescribed both an antacid for the reflux and an antifungal for the thrush.
My mind was tormenting me with a barrage of angry thoughts. ‘It’s your fault she has thrush. How could you not have noticed the white residue on her tongue wasn’t formula and wasn’t going away? What kind of mother doesn’t notice her baby is in pain from reflux for weeks? You can’t console her. You’ve made a huge mistake. You’re doing a terrible job. You’re not cut out for this, and you’re a bad mom.’
The antifungal cleared up the thrush and the antacid was starting to take the pain away from the silent reflux, but they weren’t touching the relentless, inconsolable crying we were beginning to recognize as colic. Sometimes bicycling Charlotte’s legs worked, sometimes bouncing on an exercise ball worked, sometimes walking up and down the hall bouncing her against our shoulder worked, and sometimes swaying and swinging and shushing worked.
Sometimes none of it worked, and we sobbed together as I begged her to stop crying.
We were isolated from our support network, unable to leave our home unless it was to go to the pediatrician so we could do our part to flatten the curve, and we were now forced to ride out colic and reflux and first-time parenthood alone. I was beginning to shut down emotionally and felt numb to everything around me. Mitchell and I alternated nighttime wakeups since we had switched to formula, but even when it was my turn, he would get up with me and sleep in the daybed in the nursery, because I had become convinced I wouldn’t be able to console Charlotte if she got upset after eating.
We tried to keep her happy, tried to get out ahead of the witching hours, switched formula, got her on reflux medication, and sometimes it all seemed like it was for nothing. Her screams were endless. We collapsed into bed each night; many times I cried myself to sleep after being battered by an endless barrage of angry thoughts telling me I was a burden to my husband and a failure to my daughter. I spent endless naps and nighttime feedings googling in the dark, trying to find remedies for colic, only to break down into hopeless tears when the main suggestion was, ‘Tough it out until it disappears around 4 months, take breaks, and ask for help when you need it.’
We had no breaks. We couldn’t call for help. Due to the pandemic lockdowns, we were alone and on-call 24/7. At the time, there wasn’t enough known about COVID-19 to know what an acceptable level of risk was, and I was terrified of Charlotte getting seriously ill, having to be admitted to the NICU, and Mitchell and I not being able to be with her because of visitor restrictions.
Around the time when she was 4 weeks old, I got a call from my OB’s office; due to the pandemic, they were changing my postpartum appointment from in-person to virtual. At that moment, it felt like my one tether to the outside world, the one thing that would be about me and my health, was snatched from me. I begged the receptionist to stay in-person and tried every reason I could think of for why it had to be in-person. I had stitches that needed to be checked and I wanted an implant form of birth control, but there was nothing that could be done. Postpartum appointments were now virtual, and it was out of their hands. I hung up the phone and wept on the couch. I had just experienced the biggest medical event of my life, I had stitches I wasn’t entirely sure were healed, and I couldn’t get the form of birth control I wanted. How was this okay?
I met my breaking point around a week later, one morning when I woke up before Charlotte and decided to start on some laundry (when you have an infant with reflux, everyone is changing outfits several times a day), and I heard her start to wake up and cry in our bedroom. I collapsed against the washing machine and started to sob. From his desk next to the laundry room, Mitchell looked over at me with concern etched all over his face. All I could choke out between sobs was, ‘I can’t do this anymore.’
He immediately took the rest of the day off work, scooped Charlotte out of her bassinet, and told me to go into our room, shut the door and crank up the white noise machine so I couldn’t hear anything, and sleep. When I woke up, he begged me to get help because something wasn’t right.
This time, I listened.
When I spoke to my OB over the phone, she asked how I was doing mentally and it felt like a wall broke down inside me. Everything flooded out — I was anxious, afraid, sad all the time, numb to everything around me, and I felt like I wasn’t coping well with anything. She heard my concerns and reassured me everything was okay, that I likely had postpartum depression, and I didn’t have to feel this way and could start feeling better. She coordinated with my primary care physician (they are both in the same hospital network and their offices are actually only a floor apart), and my primary care doctor got me on a telehealth call the next day. She confirmed my diagnosis of postpartum depression and prescribed me an antidepressant. My therapist also emailed me and let me know she was going to a telehealth platform as well, and I was able to get back on her schedule.
As the antidepressant reached therapeutic levels in my system and I started learning new coping skills for dealing with depression, it felt like the fog that had enveloped me since we brought Charlotte home started to lift. The world had color again, and while it didn’t stop her colic, I felt like I could handle things again. My antidepressant and therapy saved me and lifted the darkness I had spent the first 8 weeks of my daughter’s life shrouded in.
This is always the part where I feel lucky. Even in the midst of a global pandemic, I got help. My OB heard my concerns, my primary care physician got me an appointment right away, and my therapist got me back on her schedule as soon as I asked and mentioned I had postpartum depression. Many, many parents are not that lucky, and they slip through the cracks without a diagnosis or treatment, suffering in silence and believing this is what it feels like to be a new parent.
I am now just over two years out from my postpartum depression diagnosis. Charlotte’s colic disappeared when she was around 5 months old, and she is now a vivacious, brilliant, hilarious 2-and-a-half-year-old, and being her mom is one of the greatest joys of my life. She makes me laugh and I adore watching her discover the world around her.
Becoming a parent during a pandemic to an infant with colic and reflux is by far the hardest thing I have ever done. I think I likely would have still had postpartum depression because I have a lot of risk factors, including a history of anxiety, but I believe the isolation due to lockdown made it so much worse. My experience has made me into a fierce advocate for perinatal mental health, and it is my dream that every parent receives the level of support and care I did. I want parents who are experiencing a perinatal mood and anxiety disorder like postpartum depression or postpartum anxiety to know they are not alone, and they can get better.
This has made me brave in ways I never thought were possible, from sharing my story to hundreds of providers during a Postpartum Support International training to leading a Climb Out of the Darkness event to creating a blog and social media presence to let other parents know they are not alone. You deserve so much more than to try and parent while suffering in silence and shame. You deserve to live in the light, and to be well and whole.”
This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Courtney Ginder from Fishers, Indiana. You can follow her journey on Instagram, Facebook, and her website. Submit your own story here, and be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories, and YouTube for our best videos.
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