Maternal Mental Health Research Collaborative
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Grieving the Postpartum Experience You Didn’t Have

Grieving your postpartum experience isn’t something you thought you’d do. In a culture that so openly celebrates motherhood and the wonderful experience we’re all supposed to have, it’s hard to separate fact from fiction. Apparently, we’re all missing something unless we have a baby. We can’t fulfill our roles as women without having had a baby and giving motherhood a try.

As you think about life with a baby it’s hard not to get caught up in the joy and excitement that comes along with pregnancy. Planning for nurseries, picking out tiny baby booties and researching the safest car seat, stroller and crib start to consume your thoughts.

As your bump starts to show, everyone asks how you feel, whether you know the gender of your baby and you’re told that you’re never going to be the same. You may smile and nod with excitement or you may start to feel anxious and hate the spotlight.

Your Postpartum Experience

Your pregnancy may be easy or it may be one of the most difficult experiences you’ve had. Regardless, you can’t wait for baby to arrive and to start your new adventure as a mom. It’s going to be amazing, and likely better than pregnancy especially in the third trimester, so let’s get that baby out and start the party.

But then you go into labor and 24 hours later, your little one makes its way into the world. You’re exhausted. All you want is a hot shower and toast with butter. You feel ambivalent towards your baby and figure it will pass once you’ve had a chance to get some sleep.

But the hospital you’ve delivered at has a Baby Friendly policy and won’t take your newborn to the nursery at night. They have to room with you. You struggle the first night, trying to get in and out of bed to feed and soothe your baby and don’t get a wink of sleep. Day two brings visitors to the hospital and your eventual discharge home. Exhausted, you try to breastfeed, get nowhere and wonder why you ever thought having a baby was a good idea.

This continues for two weeks. You try to anticipate baby’s needs and do all the things you think a good mom does. In the rare moments that you’re not with your baby, you’re doing laundry, trying to clean your kitchen and cook something that resembles food for your partner. You haven’t had a shower in four days, you’re still wearing the same clothes from last week and have only managed to get a few hours of sleep each night.

Your Postpartum Mood Falls Apart

They warned you about the baby blues, but your mood is out of control. You think that if you could just get a bit more sleep it would help. But lack of sleep doesn’t explain the feeling of utter despair that grows stronger every day. It’s not like anything you’ve experienced before; total hopelessness and a desire to escape, to run.

Shockingly, and out of nowhere, you’re full of rage so strong, and so powerful that you catch yourself screaming at your baby. Screaming. Full out screaming at the top of your lungs. You fall apart into a sobbing pile of tears and disgust at your own behavior.

As if this wasn’t bad enough, you have this strange tightness in your chest that scares you. It feels like a prickling, tingling sensation and you start to think there might be something wrong with your heart.

You take yourself to Urgent Care where they run a battery of tests and everything comes back as normal. The doctor you see says it seems like the feelings you’re having in your chest might be the result of anxiety. She suggests that you follow up with your OB and gives you a prescription for a week’s worth of Ativan to get you through to that appointment.

Living in a Nightmare

This is not what having a baby was going to be like. You had visions of taking care of your little one and starting Mommy and Me yoga classes. Or you planned to take a few months off and return to work as soon as you felt ready.

Instead you’re struggling to get out of bed, are boiling with anger and resentment towards your baby and your anxiety is getting so bad you can’t sleep. Oh, sleep. If you could just get a few more hours each night, it might make things better.

Your life is a nightmare. All you want to do is go back to before you were pregnant. Life was so easy. It was simple. There was no baby to take care of. You and your partner were happy. At least it seemed that way. You could go anywhere and do anything whenever you wanted.

Days and nights didn’t blend together into a blur of sleep deprived haze. Where are the feelings of love and joy that you’d been promised? Why can’t you seem to handle being a mom when everyone else seems to get it? You’re a failure, or so it seems.

Letting Go of What Never Was

As hard and painful as it is to realize and try to accept, the postpartum experience you had in mind was never guaranteed. Not one little bit. You were sold a vision, a dream, an expectation and you bought it without thinking twice.

Why would you think twice?

You’ve been conditioned since you were a child to think that you’d naturally have innate abilities to take care of a baby; that it would being you happiness and joy. And now that it’s here you realize that being a mom is hard. It’s gruelling and no one told you about this other side of the experience. It’s not like you would have really listened or understood anyway.

All you want to do is go back and get a chance to try again. Maybe another pregnancy or baby would give you that shot at perfect mothering. Maybe it would be bliss. But it could also be the same or worse than the first time. You’re caught in an endless loop of wishing you could go back, but then also being equally haunted by your experience. It was traumatic and pretending otherwise won’t help.

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Finding Time to Grieve

Between appointments with your doctor and therapist you’re starting to feel better. You’re working on finding the right medication to help with your depression and anxiety. You’re learning new coping skills and strategies that help you navigate through the waves of thoughts and emotions that still hit you. What you’ve yet to do is give yourself time and space to grieve. Yes, to grieve.

The experience you had in mind is so vastly different from what you actually went through that it’s left you feeling empty. You feel alone and like you lost something. It is nothing short of devastating; like a punch to the stomach that leaves you breathless.

As part of recovering from your postpartum experience, you first have to admit that it wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. Admit that you feel cheated and let down. That you are disappointed, angry and sad. And then you have to compassionately let yourself sit with that pain.

You sit with it to acknowledge it and to make space for the grieving process. To feel it. And to work on letting it go. Or maybe you invite it in and make friends rather than viewing it as the enemy.

Give Yourself Permission to Feel

Though grieving a loss is something no one likes, it’s an essential component to your recovery. If you don’t address it and give yourself permission to fully and completely grieve, it will always be present. Grieving doesn’t mean that you forget and move on. It means that you accept what happened. You don’t have to like it.

No one is asking you to do that. But what it does mean is that you give yourself the time and space you need to come to terms with how your reality didn’t match your expectations. You acknowledge that it’s not your fault. That how your relationship with your child started isn’t ideal or what you had in mind.

Remember that with this acknowledgement you give yourself the freedom to move forward, the freedom to live in the present and dream about the future. And learn to trust in the ongoing process of being a mother – the right mom for your child.

Shannon Hennig is the Program Director for the Maternal Mental Health Research Collaborative.