When my husband and I learned of the imminent arrival of our third child, we were in shock. Yes, we knew how things worked. Yes, we’d always considered, even expected, a third child. No, we were not ready for it right then. After our second was born, we said we’d definitely want to wait until she was older than our first had been before we welcomed number three, which was just over two and a half. The best laid plans . . .
Our second was eighteen months old when we found out I was pregnant. In the weeks that followed, we walked around in a stupor. As I went about my daily activities caring for the kids, I would find myself staring into space, lost in thoughts of third car seats, reconfiguring furniture in our already small house, finances, schedules. The phone would ring – my husband calling from work – and we would stare into space together, our shock suspended in the telephone lines. We knew we wanted this child and loved it already, but were totally caught off-guard by its timing.
It was also a difficult time in my extended family. My uncle was battling a terminal brain tumor. My announcement to my mother was made by way of my explanation for not visiting the ICU. He died a few days later. Four months later, my cousin was killed in a motorcycle accident. My grandmother’s devastation was complete. My mother’s own grief was wrapped up in worry for her mother.
Somehow, the days wound on, the months passing. Caring for two children while carrying my third was starting to take its physical toll. The usual aches and pains of pregnancy were amplified. My left hip and pelvis were giving me more pain than ever. As my due date approached, I felt extreme pressure, a heaviness, different than impending labor. Having nothing to compare it to, I just assumed it was my body’s worn-out response to doing this a third time.
In the delivery room, my midwife asked me if there’d be a fourth if we had another girl. “I hope not,” I’d said. By the time I was pushing, I was sure there wouldn’t be. Even after two natural births, I’d never experienced anything like it. I actually uttered the words that infuriate me when I hear them in television portrayals of labor: “I can’t do this.” But somehow I did. And the nurses placed a perfect little girl in my arms.
I’d like to say all the shock and worry evaporated as soon as I saw her face. She was gorgeous, I loved her, but I almost felt like a stranger observing the scene from afar. I still hadn’t wrapped my head around the idea of starting over again with a third child. And I wouldn’t get a chance to right away. In the hours and days following her birth, a new challenge presented itself: getting out of bed.
When the nurse came to get me the next morning, she asked if it was the first time I’d been out of bed. “No,” I answered, nonplussed, until I saw her face as she watched me move. My walk was more of a shuffle, getting in and out of bed was slower than glacial melt. Finally, after many such episodes throughout the day, she said, “Maybe we should send you for an x-ray to make sure you didn’t break anything.” Break anything? You’re not supposed to break anything when you have a baby – except your water. Now she was making me nervous.
An x-ray confirmed her suspicions – and my pain. I had a slight case of diastasis symphysis pubis. Thank God it was slight because it meant the ligaments in my pubic bone had separated. And as slight as it was, it was excruciating.
Once the adrenaline wore off and the soreness settled in, I couldn’t roll over in bed without crying. It took me 45 minutes to get out of bed early one morning when I didn’t wake my husband or call the nurse. My father brought me the old karate belt I’d left at their house to lash my legs together as I rotated them off the bed to come up to sitting. Hip adduction was simply impossible.
My husband had taken two weeks’ vacation to help with the baby. He didn’t know that, in addition, he’d be doing everything for the other kids, washing and folding clothes, preparing food, and helping me to and from the car like a little old lady. The helplessness that can afflict a new mother was magnified ten-fold by my handicap.
I told my mother-in-law, “I’m finding it hard not to feel sorry for myself.”
She said, “I don’t blame you.”
Her answer surprised me. Were things really that bad that I should be feeling sorry for myself?
Apparently so. I worked my way into some sort of routine with a newborn who fed at no particular time, a preschooler who had to be in school at a precise time, and a toddler who took off her shoes and socks whenever she felt like it. Weekly visits to a physical therapist worked me through a regimen that gave me a tenuous, yet workable, physicality. And yet, four months after the baby’s birth, I still couldn’t cope.
I would reach my breaking point over hair elastics stretched to theirs over the top of a dining room chair. God help the poor soul who dumped out the basket of toys I just filled. My two oldest would jump when I started screaming at the top of my lungs out of seemingly nowhere over seemingly nothing. I felt like a pot about to boil over and I was trying desperately to keep the lid on tight. It was a particularly grueling drop-off at preschool one morning that crystallized everything.
Sleet was just turning to snow as we pulled into the parking lot. I strapped the baby into the baby carrier on the front of me and moved around to the other side of the car. My toddler had already taken off the hat and mittens I’d fought to get on her at the house. I reached into the back seat where the preschooler was seated to depress the red button on her harness, instructing her to unclip the top part while I redressed the toddler’s extremities.
“I can’t, Mommy,” came the plaintive cry from the back seat as she stared out the window at the passing kids. I instructed her to focus on what she was doing and try again. This conversation repeated itself over and over like an audio loop, her despair and my frustration escalating each time. Finally, I lunged into the car, swearing like a sailor, the baby bobbing in her carrier like a cork on the ocean, undoing the strap and telling her to get out of the car.
Then I stopped. I scanned the parking lot around us for parents going to and from their cars. Had anyone heard me? Had they seen this terrible little episode? Shouldn’t I have known I was getting out of control before it was too late? Once my oldest was safely in the classroom and the rest of us safely home, I dissolved into tears recounting the story to my husband on the phone.
“I need help,” I said.
A few weeks later, I started a new kind of therapy. I met weekly with a licensed social worker to discuss and treat what finally had a name: postpartum depression.
At the end of my first visit, I said to her, “So, do I have postpartum?” In classic counselor speak, she replied, “Would you like me to say you have postpartum?” I laughed and she joined me. “I can go through the indicators if you’d like,” she said. One by one, she ticked off every single one of my circumstances: unexpected pregnancy, death of a loved one(s), stress, difficult delivery, physical trauma, demands of caring for other children, anxiety. “Does that make you feel better?” she asked. Oddly enough, it did. For the first time in months, I felt light leaving her office. I wasn’t a failure and I wasn’t crazy.
This perfect storm was not forecast, but at least now I had some sort of outlook for the future.