It didn’t happen right away like it does in the movies. You know: the moment when you first lay eyes on your brand new baby and you instantly melt into tears of joy and love. Instead I felt empty—in shock—and completely outside of myself.
I remember thinking I should be crying, I should be so happy but instead my body, my baby, everything felt foreign. Of course there are multiple explanations why this didn’t happen. My son wasn’t immediately brought to my chest with the cord still intact; we didn’t get to go cheek-to-cheek to heal our Ren Meridians like I had been taught by my teachers. Instead, a team of Pediatric doctors were waiting to take him over to a separate area to check him out and syringe his lungs.
So maybe that’s why… but maybe not.
Nearly 50% of women don’t get that feeling of instant love for their baby immediately after labour.
Once it was finally time for me to hold him it was also time to nurse him. Before this moment, I had been really excited about the thought of breast feeding my baby. I had an air of ignorance about it and why it was best. Instead a nurse ripped down my gown and shoved my baby to my breast, while exclaiming "OHH, well that's not going to work."
The whole thing was absolutely traumatizing. I was unable to have him latch (and truthfully I was never able to do that on my own without the support of a shield and multiple lactation consultants), further compounded by the fact that I had low supply.
So maybe that's why… but maybe not.
I had meticulously planned every moment of my labour and what my first month with my baby would look like. I'd had my placenta encapsulated, I meditated, I hypno-birthed, I had my support system in place with friends and family. I did it all, but I still felt disconnected from everything. I later learned that nearly 50% of women don’t get that feeling of instant love for their baby immediately after labour.
Actually, my expectations of perfection and being an amazing mother that could do it all impeded my every move, and crushed me before I could even get going. And every day I waited for that movie moment, but it just didn’t come. I felt like I was failing. I couldn’t feed my baby like I was thought I was supposed to—I actually hated every single minute of it—and I desperately wanted to get back to who I had been before he arrived.
My midwives were so gentle with me. They encouraged me to whisper 'I love you' into my son's ear, even if I felt like I was faking it. It was incredibly hard to utter the words, but I did. It was hard because I felt like I was lying to myself and to him, which broke my heart even more. Afterwards I would just sit, cry, and pray that someday soon I wouldn’t feel like a fraud.
In desperation, and wanting to be good at something, I went back to my practice and patients when he was three weeks old to the day. I just had to feel good for a moment; I had to escape the feelings of not measuring up for just a little while. My patients were happy I was back, and momentarily, so was I.
Six weeks postpartum is statistically the highest incidence of postpartum depression affecting new mothers, and I was there.
And then it all hit me like a ton of bricks. At six weeks postpartum, I was at my wits' end and barrelling fast towards the dark side. I felt trapped by my commitments to my patients, I was beyond the heartbreak of not being able to connect to my son, and I was starting to have thoughts that I was a burden to those around me, and that they all would be better off without me. Six weeks postpartum is statistically the highest incidence of postpartum depression affecting new mothers, and I was there.
I had no idea that I would be here or feel this way. I was the expert! I was the one that was supposed to be helping others through this, not the one seeking help.
Support Systems Matter
What people won’t tell you is when you're in this place, you become scared. You want help, but you're terrified what that will mean. Thoughts will linger, like, “they will take my baby away from me,” or, “once someone finds out, they'll think I’m a walking time-bomb.” You start to lose trust in the bit of sanity you do have, and you second-guess every motive or action you do. That alone is enough to drive you crazy.
Thankfully, I had my rock of a husband witnessing me slip further away and reassuring me of my significance in his and our son's life, while gently nudging me in the directions of support that we had available to us. Our midwives are truly the reason I’m still here. They stuck with me and allowed me to find the resources I needed to find my way back myself and my family.
Others helped as well. My counsellor saw me regularly for months until I was able to cope, strategize, and love myself through this phase of my life and my new roles as a mother. My mom and mother-in-law were nonjudgmental, unconditional shoulders to cry on that always illuminated the possible and the positive.
My acupuncturist and teacher helped me rebalance my hormones and bring my body back into my awareness through acupuncture and herbs. As an Earth-dominant individual I’ve always been constitutionally Spleen Qi deficient, but at this time I was also so incredibly Blood deficient with Liver Qi stagnation I required a combination of herbal formulas—Gui Pi Tang, Si Wu Tang and Xiao Yao San—to help nourish and support my depleted body.
And finally my girlfriends, who didn’t care that I wasn’t perfect or doing everything right, helped to bring laughter and the spark of Fire back into my life. It takes a village and every single one of them kept me moving forward to the light until I found myself again.
The Turning Point
Then months after I expected it out of the blue it finally happened. A real, authentic “I LOVE YOU” to my son came through my body and out of my mouth with so much ease. I remember it so clearly. He was on the change table looking up at me and he smiled, let out a little coo, and then all of a sudden it was finally there: the warmth, the melt, the tears, and the love. It felt so good, and I finally understood what everyone was talking about.
That feeling, and those words, brought me to this place where I can affirm: even though it's tough, and you feel like you should give up, DON’T! If you’re experiencing postpartum depression, or even if you're not quite like yourself since your baby’s arrival, I want you to know:
- Postpartum depression is no joke. You need support: you can’t work through it on your own in silence.
- It’s not your fault. You’re not weak-minded or a bad mom because of it.
- It can happen to anyone. It doesn’t discriminate
- There are a million reasons why it happens. Ultimately it doesn’t matter why, it only matters that you seek support.
- It takes time to heal. There's no rush, nor finish line to cross.
- Your body has done so much up to this point, from growing a human being to birthing them into this world. Be gentle with her. Seek support from qualified practitioners that can help facilitate your healing—my personal faves are diet, herbs, supplements, and acupuncture.
- The feelings come in waves. Hormones are changing all of the time in that first year, they ebb and flow in intensity, and one day you may have it handled while next you won’t. It’s okay—keep reaching out for help.
- There is no right way to be a mom. Do the best you can; that’s all anyone can ask of you.
- Your baby loves you regardless. The end result, when you can feel it too, is so worth it. Keep seeking.
My Postpartum experience was one of the darkest times in my life. And yet it provided me with some of the most invaluable lessons that I’m so appreciative to have learned, lived, and now get to share with my clients and the wider world. My son is now six, and as I sit with this story from all those years ago I’m still brought to tears about that time in my life when I felt so uncertain about myself, my role, and purpose. I’m in awe of myself and my willingness to hang in there and fight for myself, my son, and the bond that became so strong between us.
I continue to support myself in the ways I did when he was so small: herbs, treatment, and counselling, while also choosing to design my practice so that is supportive of myself, my values, and my family. As a result of this experience I feel as though I am an even better doctor to my patients navigating the waters of welcoming babies, surrendering their old identities, and building bridges to becoming the mothers they wish to be. I encourage them to share their own stories with others as I have with you, so that the next new mom will know she’s not alone.
Dr. Ashley Abbs is a registered acupuncturist, writer, speaker, and mentor, and the owner of TerraSana Health in Calgary AB, Canada. She assists her clients in both her practice and online with the wisdom of Chinese Medicine, using the lens of 5 Element Philosophy to discover "Why They Are The Way They Are," so that they may trust their own inner wisdom and awaken their innate healing capabilities. You can learn more about Ashley at www.ashleyabbs.com or follow her on Instagram @ashleyabbs.