Monday, October 07, 2013


Last week, the tragic death of Miriam Carey briefly put postpartum depression in the news. We still don't know what led to the events that culminated in Carey's death, and I will not speculate on that here. But it made me think again about my own experiences postpartum, and perhaps now enough time has passed that I want to write about them in more detail. Already, the details are fading into the haze of early motherhood, and I would like to be able to remember my experiences more clearly.

I did not experience anything that I would characterize as postpartum depression, although I did have a hard time making the transition to motherhood. Looking back, it is impossible to separate the effects of chronic and severe sleep deprivation, hormonal changes, and the unexpected difficulties I had navigating societal expectations about mothers. There is no denying that I was a bit of a mess, but there was a lot of joy in the day to day. I chose to write mostly about the joy here, because I (mistakenly) thought that is what I'd most want to remember. It turns out, though, that the joy has stayed sharp in my memory much more than the difficult bits have. I did post occasionally about specific problems, and I also sometimes acknowledged the fact that I found the transition to motherhood harder than many other women do. Looking back through my earlier posts, I don't find that many details about the difficult bits, though. It wasn't so much that I didn't want to write about the details of why I found that transition hard as that I didn't know how to write about it. I still don't, really.

I know enough about depression to know that whatever was going on with me in my first year of motherhood, it wasn't that. I wish we had a better way to talk about how hard the first year (or two) of motherhood can be beyond discussion of postpartum depression. PPD is too important a topic to clutter with experiences like mine, but experiences like mine should be discussed, too.

The times postpartum I came closest to depression (and perhaps was indeed experiencing depression) were during weaning. I experienced quite strong effects on my mood anytime I dropped a nursing session. For this reason, I weaned very slowly. If dropping one session made me feel depressed, I didn't want to find out what going cold turkey would do.
Pumpkin, a few months post-weaning.

Even with the gradual approach, weaning was one of the hardest parts of motherhood for me, which always felt strange, since breastfeeding was one of my favorite parts of motherhood, once the early difficulties were past. It seemed strange to be suffering so much to end something I liked, but both times, I knew it was time to wean. With Pumpkin, I weaned because I was pregnant again and nursing was making my morning sickness worse. Also, I thought it would be best to be well and truly past nursing Pumpkin before the new baby arrived. With Petunia, I weaned in part because I was afraid that if I didn't take advantage of the window of opportunity that presented itself, we'd be that outlier mother-child pair that was still nursing when the kid was 7 and in part because I needed to introduce a little more space between me and her. She always was, and continues to be, a child who prefers snuggling mommy to anyone else. Usually, that is wonderful. Sometimes, though, it feels smothering.

Anyway, for a few weeks after each dropped nursing session, I felt lethargic and ineffectual, as if I couldn't do anything "right." Little setbacks at work or at home loomed unnaturally large. I was prone to crying jags over minor things, like forgetting to buy the kids' favorite flavor of yogurt. The heightened sense of anxiety that I remembered from pregnancy returned, and I was once again playing out detailed responses to ridiculous scenarios in my head at night, like "what would I do if a car crashed through the front of my house?"

I'm not sure how I was able to have the detachment needed to diagnose the problem. I can't remember how I figured it out. I think I might have read an off-hand comment about the possibility that weaning could cause depression. It was probably in a comment on AskMoxie, but I can't remember the post. Anyway, something made me recognize what was going on, and that helped quite a bit. I felt less crazy and out of control, because I had a reason for the weird things going on in my head, and, most importantly, a reason to think that the weirdness would end.
Petunia, a few months post-weaning, with Pumpkin.
Petunia is wearing that polka dot dress now.

Even once I knew what was going on, I didn't talk about it much. I left a few comments on blog posts mentioning the problems I had, and I mentioned it here a few times. But for the most part, I didn't talk about it. Friends in real life joshed me good-naturedly about how attached to breastfeeding I was, and how I was going to have to "give it up" eventually. Those comments hurt, but I never told them so. The thought of needing to explain what was going on with me was too exhausting, so I just smiled and pretended everything was fine.

And in the end, everything was fine. My kids are weaned. My moods went back to normal. All is well.

Still, I think we would be better off as a society if we found a way to acknowledge the varied realities of new motherhood, to talk about how becoming a mother can mess with your mind in a myriad of ways, and to get all new mothers support as they work through the changes that baby brings. We need to let mothers talk about what has been hard for them without trying to convince them that it shouldn't be hard. I have no idea how to make that happen, but I am pretty sure that it would help if more people talked openly about what early motherhood was like for them. This post is my attempt to start doing that. Feel free to join in, either in the comments or in a post of your own.


  1. I agree that it's very good to know that the transition to motherhood can be a struggle. The most helpful comment I got when I was pregnant was a female PI telling me at a conference that her first maternity leave was the worst time in her life. At the time I found that strange and sad; how can the time you get to know your baby be the worst in your life? But when I just had BlueEyes I could totally relate, and I remembered that comment every day. I felt comforted knowing that others felt the same way and that even though I would totally not call it postpartum depression, it was also not the most glorious time of my life.
    I have no experience weaning yet (BlueEyes nursed through my pregnancy and I'm due in a couple weeks), but it's good to know that weaning can also come with less than pleasant moods. Thanks for sharing this!

    1. I found my second maternity leave far more enjoyable than the first. Some of that was because Petunia was a more laid back baby, but a lot of it was probably because I was already comfortable as a mother. I hope your second leave is easier, too!

  2. I've been realizing how much harder I find motherhood generally since I weaned a year ago. The closeness of their bodies, the release of oxytocin (which i felt powerfully) melted all my stress away. I find that now when I can catch their wriggly bodies in a hug, it helps. But they are too busy to cuddle much, or for long. I just realized the other day how deeply the loss of nursing/babyhood has affected my mood and my mothering.

    I remember when my first was a baby how overwhelmed with anxiety I would get about the simplest things, like taking him to the grocery store. It was like a puzzle I couldn't figure out and it felt me into an anxiety spiral. I didn't know then that anxiety can be a symptom of depression. I never went anywhere with him when he was a small baby, and of course the isolation increased my unhappiness. I do remember those, along with the joy. The transition to motherhood was very difficult for me, which I found shocking. It took almost a full year to wear off. The second baby was a revelation - I just enjoyed him so much more.

    I saw a new mother last weekend with a three week old in a stroller. I admired the baby, which usually elicits smiles from the beaming parents. I looked up at the mother, and she was so dead-eyed and unsmiling, I felt like crying. I wanted to hug her. But of course she was a stranger, so I said nothing.

    1. Oh, yes- I forgot to write about the anxiety about going out. Pumpkin was a fairly high-strung baby, and prone to screaming fits. I felt so judged by other people when she melted down in public (even though in retrospect, I doubt I was getting much judgement at all) that I stayed inside far too much. And during my maternity leave, we were still in a small apartment. I'm sure that the crowded space and reluctance to go out when Pumpkin was awake (I did take at least one walk per day, but those were to get Pumpkin to nap) did not help my mental state at all.

  3. Thanks for this post.

    I weaned my son for good about a month ago and have been feeling all kinds of "off." I'm not sure it's hormonal in my case but perhaps...

    1. I'm sorry you are feeling "off." I think Erin is right, snuggles help, if you can get your son to give them.

  4. Anonymous6:10 AM

    This comment is not anything about the seriousness of ppd.

    But I wanted to let your readers know that there's nothing wrong with child-led weaning. The child actually does stop nursing on hir own without any intervention. It just tapers down so that it goes from constantly to a few times a day to a few times a week and then eventually they just forget how to do it and you're done.

    I don't think I got much good-natured joshing. I did get curious questions, or at least I treated them as curious questions, and I would explain. I guess I did get a couple of obnoxious comments, both from economist-colleague-friends at a conference shortly after the baby turned 1 after they cross-examined me about my future plans ("breastfeeding after a year? but that baby has teeth! teeth!" and "the WHO only says to two years because they don't have clean water" both from educated people who should know better than to be assholes), to which I replied that I didn't think it was any of their business. But two obnoxious comments over 2 years 9 months of breast-feeding isn't that much. Mostly people were either curious or supportive.

    On top of that, my being matter-of-fact and admitting to child-led weaning has resulted in lots of comments from people who were unsure about it to be more confident themselves to do what was right for them and their baby (like my GP!) or to get more support for nursing their next baby (like the ladies at daycare who had pressure to formula feed from day 1 from their moms). Heck, even one of my colleagues with a new baby thanked me recently when she was worried about the consequences of nursing in public (it's legal in my state-- there's a law and everything). I've had a lot more honest, "Good for you!" than anything else when people have asked how long I nursed my first one.

    I did child-led weaning because I have PCOS and nursing keeps the symptoms at bay. It keeps me skinny without effort. It is an easy way to stop crying, to comfort a baby who has just taken a tumble, or to help the baby fall asleep. There was no reason for me to stop, except eventually the baby isn't a baby anymore and is ready to stop on hir own. Not everybody has that same experience and some people are ready to encourage weaning earlier, and that's fine too.

    But don't let anybody pressure you into weaning before you're ready. It's a very personal choice, and people who argue that you shouldn't do it don't have any good reason.

    1. Oh, I certainly didn't mean to imply there is anything wrong with extended nursing or baby-led weaning! I nursed until 23 months and 28 months, and never got anything except admiration for that. I actually don't think there is anything wrong with nursing as long as both mother and child want- but I do think Petunia would still be nursing now (at 4) if I hadn't done some active weaning. That may be great for some mother-child pairs, but it wouldn't be great for me.

      Perhaps I only got teased about my weaning approach because I admitted we'd started, and then we were still "weaning" 6 months later.

      I think my weaning approach was somewhere in between child-led and the mother-led approaches. I generally just tried to distract them away from nursing. When they insisted, we'd still nurse. Until the last remaining usual nursing session. Both times, I had to actively say "no." Both times, the child protested strongly, so I let them keep nursing for another few weeks, and talked more about how we could still snuggle, etc, and then weaned without protest a few weeks later.

  5. Anonymous8:41 AM

    i think the weaning thing is happening to me now. totally minor, but I'm off since I dropped feedings last week. glad to hear it has happened to others!

  6. Anonymous12:11 PM

    I'm so glad you're bringing up this topic. I really had no idea what nursing could do to my brain. In my case, it was only when I stopped nursing/pumping that I could have a cogent thought. I didn't realize how much it was affecting me until it was over. I was constantly beating myself up over my ineptness which I attributed to sleep deprivation at the time but it was clearly more than that and I wish someone would have told me that so I could have been easier on myself. I didn't expect motherhood to be easy and wonderful all the time but I was still blindsided by the things no one talks about.

  7. Great post. I totally remember that Ask Moxie post, too! I think this is it:

    My thing was pregnancy depression. Ask Moxie was awesome for that, too. Yet another thing nobody ever talks about.

  8. Anonymous4:17 PM

    It's so interesting the way experiences are different. I hated breastfeeding... absolutely HATED it. I'm relying on science to keep me from ever having another child, but if I were to have one, I would probably not breastfeed. In addition the the fact that I just hated every single thing about it, it created a very asymmetric caretaking relationship that over 2 years later, I'm not sure my family unit has fully recovered from (although it's much, much better). I'm also bitter about how oversold the difference between breastfeeding and formula is, and how much the hospital literature I received consisted of propaganda rather than facts.

    In addition to that, I think current US culture is deeply hostile to healthy baby rearing. Babies are so rough, and new parents shouldn't be trying to do it on their own or juggling work and caretaking or worrying about affordable quality daycare.

    I also wish more hospitals had sleep coaches or at least references to sleep coaches the way so many have lactation coaches. We thought our baby was just a night owl who didn't need a lot of napping and couldn't fall asleep without being next to a warm person. Nope. We just didn't know how to sleep teach. Our sleep coach transformed our lives in two guided naps. Now our supposed night owl goes to bed dependably at 7, had two reliable naps as an infant, and has a reliable afternoon nap as a toddler. I was so sleep deprived at the point we hired the sleep coach, I don't know if or how I would have made it if we hadn't found out about the coach's existence or been able to afford her.

    -- Miriam

  9. Anonymous5:24 PM

    I love your posts and twitter feeds! long time lurker of your blog!!
    This is a timely post because the harsh memories of early motherhood are fading slowly. The problems with those memories fading away is also losing the lessons learned and the limits to my coping capabilities.
    I think there is such a rush for young mommies to 'get back to..'; even if you are a few months or week behind the expected norm there is so much societal pressure to catch up. I recall when my oldest was born...I got so much 'get back to' pressures-- get back to my pre-pregnancy weight (my dad), get back to each other having our own personal spaces (my husband), get back to normal sleeping patters (my inlaws). Looking back I wonder what the rush is all about.
    Depression, PPD, anxiety are all serious problems. We must celebrate and support moms who are pulling through all this. But your post reminded me that we must document and voice those stories and memories...because by documenting and voicing we acknowledge we are human, that sometimes it is unfair, that we are vulnerable...


  10. Dr. Confused3:32 AM

    I have a history of serious depressive episodes going back to high school. I also know that my mood is quite hormonally sensitive: I get weepy during PMS, and will not take birth control pills or any other hormonal contraceptive because one brand of pills once made me seriously depressed. So I was very much on the lookout for PPD. And then, pregnancy and breastfeeding turned out to be the times when my mental health were at their best.

    But after weaning, everything fell apart. I breastfed my daughter to age 2 (despite only having 8 weeks of maternity leave). I reduced the feedings one at a time with weeks or months in between, not to control my mood but just to make it easier on my daughter. None of those caused issues with my mental health, as far as I remember. But when we were really done, everything came crashing down. I had one of my worst depressions ever. I randomly cried during faculty meetings. I planned out my suicide and acquired the necessary equipment.

    I have since been on antidepressants, and have now weaned (ha!) myself off them and am doing ok. But yeah, I am pretty sure weaning depression is a real thing.

  11. scantee8:59 AM

    I never experienced postpartum depression but I did feel emotionally off kilter for about a year after the births of my two kids. Weaning had the opposite effect on me from most of the women here: I felt practically elated with each feeding I dropped. It wasn't until I fully weaned that I really felt like "myself" again and was able to regain the emotional balance I am accustomed to.

    Looking back at my experience breastfeeding my two kids (each for a year), I can say that whatever hormonal changes breastfeeding had on me, they were largely negative ones. I was an anxious, cranky mess while breastfeeding and felt like at least like a functioning member of society while not.

    I also hated my husband during the period I was breastfeeding and spent a lot of time contemplating divorce because he was such a INSENSITIVE, DISGUSTING, BEAST!!!1! Fortunately, those feelings also changed dramatically once I stopped.

  12. I find the range of experiences you all are describing fascinating. Thank you all for sharing!


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