It was 97 degrees when I went into labor, when I waited on an underground subway platform for an uptown F train to the hospital. I wasn’t surprised. I had done everything I could to kickstart labor: I ate an entire pineapple and walked almost two miles (stopping only once to buy an unsweetened iced tea, and use their restroom). I tried nipple stimulation and masturbation. At 39 weeks, and in the midst of our fifth heat wave that summer, I was done. I needed the pregnancy portion of my life to be over and the parenting portion to begin.
The hospital was cool. Any woman who has been pregnant through the summer months knows what a surprise it is to feel cool, or even comfortable, at the end. And it was the thing I was most thankful for after 34 hours of labor, but as nice as it was, I remember immediately being concerned for my daughter because our apartment was warm, too warm, for a newborn child.
We had two air conditioning units in our two-bedroom apartment, one in our living room and one in our bedroom, but that didn’t say much since the sun rose in Amelia’s room and set in our kitchen. Unless you were sitting right in front of a unit it was hot; it was always disgustingly hot. I would walk around the apartment in my nursing bra and underwear, stuffed with a hospital-grade maxi pad, and still sweat. Looking back, I don’t remember if it was the heat or the fact that I finally had a day alone with Amelia, but I cried. I cried not because I was sad or lonely or lost (all of which were also true) but I cried because I couldn’t help it. It was instinctual, like a cough or a sneeze, and the tears came in torrents: three, four, five times a day.
Postpartum depression (PPD), also called postnatal depression, is a specific type of depression which affects women after childbirth. Symptoms include sadness, low energy, changes in sleeping and eating habits, reduced sex drive, crying, anger, anxiety, and irritability.
Some symptoms seemed par for the parenting course, like low energy and sleeplessness, but it was the others I couldn’t ignore. I was anxious all the time, though my anxiety was always at its worst on weekdays, just before my husband would leave for work. I cried heavy, heaving sobs as he walked down the hallway, well before the deadbolt slid into place. I cried if I spilled a glass of water or if my coffee got cold. I cried if there were too many dishes. I cried my cat threw up and I had to clean it. I cried because I was crying. Before long, the tears turned to anger and everything made me mad: a dirty floor, a cranky baby, a husband who had the luxury of going to work while I was stuck at home elbow-deep in shitty diapers and spit-up.
Little things were easy enough. I could turn on the television — the voices would break up the maddening silence and drown out the tears (Amelia’s and mine) — go to the bathroom, and get the mail, but that was it. Life was going on around me.
I took to walking everyday, regardless of the weather. Amelia was shielded from the summer sun by overlapping canopies — one from her infant carrier and the other from the stroller itself — but I was always exposed to the elements. They say sunlight can have a positive effect on depression, but I don’t remember it helping. In fact, I don’t remember much about those days aside from a strange sunburn which only affected the back of my neck and tops of my shoulders, iced coffee, and how disgusting Foodtown, our local grocery store, was. (It was cleaner than most Brooklyn bodegas but still left a lot to be desired.) While I always stopped at the coffee shop for a reason, why I stopped at Foodtown was less obvious. I convinced myself it was for the cool, crisp air but I know there was more too it than that. I was hoping to be seen, hoping someone would give me advice I could actually use. I was hoping someone would see I needed help, and I was trying, in vain, to stay away from our house and from myself.
Having a history of depression I knew what was going on, but I kept pushing. I figured if I pushed long enough and hard enough I could get myself over this hump. I should be enjoying this. I should be happy. Snap out of it. Just be happy.
I knew better.
I watched the first year of my daughter’s life underwater. (It was like holding my eyes open in an overly chlorinated public pool. I could feel the phantom chemicals sting my corneas.) I choked back tears while she choked down Cheerios, butternut squash, and breast milk. I cried when she learned to smile and sit and stand and crawl. I cried when she said “mama.” I wasn’t a mama. Mamas loved their children unconditionally. Mamas loved being mamas. Not only wasn’t I a good mama, I wasn’t the mama she deserved.
One of my worst moments came after a particularly difficult day. Amelia was teething, and crying, and none of my attempts to soothe her worked. I offered her my bare breast. She latched on for a moment, closed her eyes, then released and returned to her screaming, flailing overtired state. I stared vacantly at the freshly painted closet door in front of me. I continued to rock her and closed my eyes, silent tears running down my cheeks. In the darkness I had a vision: I was holding Amelia tightly to my chest. My grip intensified and I held her, tighter and tighter, until her cries stopped and her body became limp. My eyes shot open. I placed Amelia safely in her crib and left the room. I sat down on the floor in our long, narrow hallway, knees to my chest, and sobbed. I slammed the high-polish wooden floors and white walls with my palms until my hands were red, swollen and shiny (much like the floors unnatural finish) and cried until my throat spasmed. Amelia screamed in her crib and I screamed into a towel I grabbed from the bathroom. It was then I decided I wanted to die; it was then I knew I needed to die.
I am lucky because I got help, because I hung on, but even two years later I can feel my defenses rising as the weather warm up: sweating reminds me of crying and crying reminds me of dying. I still cannot appreciate the heat and loathe when my knees stick together or I am forced to peel my thighs off of plastic patio furniture, but instead of fighting it I keep my thermostat set to 76 degrees, put on shorts and sunscreen, and head to the park where Amelia and I chase ducks and geese and pick flowers beneath the mid-day sun.
Work to own your mental illness, stop the stigma, and help others by joining the #snapshotsforsanity movement.
(A version of this post originally appeared in Postpartum Progress’s 2015 Mother’s Day Rally.)