After Postpartum Depression, There’s No Shame in Only Having One Child
After a nightmare experience with postpartum depression, anxiety and PTSD, I have one child and I’ve put the reproductive stage of my life behind me. I was blessed with a magical little boy who turned five only a month ago. His status as an only child will stay, and it’s taken me the last five years to finally get to a place where this reality doesn’t make my heart hurt.
It Wasn’t Supposed to Be ‘One and Done’
Growing up with a younger brother, I always thought I would have at least two children. To me it just made sense that a “family” had a couple of kids attached to it. For most of my life, this was my assumption about how my life would play out.
When my husband and I were married we knew that children were certainly a part of our future, we just didn’t know how many. My husband is an only child and he appreciates the special connection he has with both his parents. His position was that if I wanted more than one child he was totally on board, but one was just fine.
We both agreed to have a baby and see what happened. Looking back at it now I have to laugh at our naivety, but we had no way of knowing what would happen postpartum. Little did we know that this measured approach would set the stage for our decision making about the number of children we’d have after my first pregnancy.
My Experience with Postpartum Depression & Anxiety
I fell face first into a struggle with my mental health while I was still pregnant. Without a proper diagnosis or treatment plan in place before I delivered, things escalated very quickly postpartum. I’d also had a traumatic birth experience which only made matters worse.
Less than 72 hours postpartum I found myself alone in a room at the emergency department of a local hospital, watching my husband carry my newborn son out the door. I’d been admitted and was waiting on a consultation with a psychiatrist to rule out postpartum psychosis. In the meantime my husband was left to organize care for our son, while I paced my hospital room experiencing multiple panic attacks.
The hospital stay didn’t help and only added to my trauma from labor and delivery. At the time I felt so ridiculous; being admitted to hospital because it appeared that couldn’t handle having a baby. The judgement, blame and self-critical talk that bounced around in my head during those long days and nights was incessant.
What I didn’t know at the time is that I was one of the 20% of women who have given birth to experience a postpartum mood disorder. I left the hospital with the wrong diagnosis and the wrong treatment plan. This error would only see my mental health deteriorate further during the first months of my son’s life. It took the better part of a year to finally find my footing again and walk out of the PPD fog.
Related: Broken By Birth Trauma
The Pressure to Have Another Child
The social pressure put on moms to have more babies is relentless. While I was still trying to figure out how to clip the infant car seat into my Honda CRV, people would ask when I was having another baby. They would comment about how adorable my son is and tell me that I shouldn’t stop at just one.
It’s funny to think about how we’ve been conditioned to think that having one of something, whether its a piece of cake, a new car or a baby is a bad thing. Just one baby? Do you want him to be lonely growing up? What happens when you and your husband are gone and he’s left with no other family?
Children aren’t commodities that we buy and sell. There isn’t a 30 day money back guarantee if you’re not happy. Having just one child is a momentous undertaking that changes you in ways you could never anticipate. When we make it seem like having “only one” child is a bad thing, we discount the experience of that specific mom and dad. There’s no consideration as to why they may have an only child and this can be deeply personal.
It could be that a couple is challenged with secondary infertility or other health considerations. Maybe they can’t afford to have another baby. It could be that their relationship is on the rocks and another baby would complicate things even further. It could also be that they just want one child.
Health Complications Make Pregnancy a Challenge
My depression and anxiety went on for so long without proper treatment, that I ended up with a chronic pain condition called fibromyalgia. I was in a state of constant stress, with cortisol pumping through my veins day and night for the better part of a year. I couldn’t eat, barely slept and at many points wondered if I could hang on much longer.
It took a lot of work to get the right diagnosis and to find medication to manage my mental health and chronic pain. Having finally found some relief the thought of another pregnancy at any point during my first two years postpartum nearly made me sick to my stomach.
That’s not to say that I didn’t entertain the thought of a second child many times. There were many nights where I would lay beside my son’s bed as he drifted off to sleep, sobbing over the fact that I couldn’t have any more children. While I’ve made a conscious decision to not try for another pregnancy, there are many indicators that I couldn’t maintain one.
Over the last five years my hormones have never fully stabilized. This is in part due to my fibromyalgia and the other is the medications that I’m on. Though my psychiatrist has said that I could wean off all of them to try for another baby – my response has repeatedly been a sound “no thanks! With no real menstrual cycle and a med list that’s longer than I’d like, another pregnancy just isn’t in the cards.
There’s No Shame in Having Only One Child
My heart has hurt at the idea of not having a second motherhood experience with another child. There won’t be anymore first birthdays or first words. This also means there won’t be any more teething, potty training or terrible twos, so it’s something of a trade off.
For many years I felt woefully inadequate as a mother to only one child. I felt ashamed of my entire experience and reluctance to try again. When people respond with a “oh, it couldn’t have been that bad”, or “you don’t know that it would happen again”, I stop and question myself. I look deeply in the mirror at my reflection and think about my experience. I think about my time in hospital. The cold, dark, sleepless nights that I lay on my living room floor having one panic attack after another.
No one can discount my experience. Yes, it was that bad. No, I don’t know that it would happen again, but my intuition tells me that it would. Intuition is something I’ve learned to rely on a lot more since becoming a mother. It has become a guiding light when I’m trying to figure out what to do with the most recent parenting challenge we’re trying to navigate. Intuitively, I know that I have nothing to be ashamed of when it comes to only having one child.
This decision belongs to me and my husband and isn’t a reflection of there being something wrong with us. We’re simply deciding what’s best for us as a family, not what’s best for others. No one will ever fully appreciate how close we came to losing everything to mental illness. It’s not a risk we’re willing to take – and the critics are just going to have to be okay with that.
Shannon Hennig is the Program Director of the Maternal Mental Health Research Collaborative. She blogs about mental health, life with a chronic illness and mothering a five year old on research4moms.com
Hi Shannon, thank you for sharing such a highly personal story. I too had severe PPD that was quickly heading into psychosis. Even years later when I think of that time in my life, it brings me sadness. I wasn’t prepared and didn’t know anyone else who had gone through that. Very lonely, scary time. This was before social media and I’m thankful that there are platforms today that women can support and help each other with something that is not talked about very often.