In the span of less than twenty four hours in December 2015, I lost my father and became a mother. It’s an unlikely confluence, so much so that medical professionals were honest with me in not being sure how to navigate it.
My OB-GYN, upon seeing my answers to the PPD questionnaire, remarked that while my responses raised major flags, it was hard to discern what part of it was post-partum depression and what part was just grief.
The therapist I was then urged to see agreed. “These are two major life-altering events – losing a parent and becoming a parent. I’m not sure there is any research on how they intersect.” I remember finding her answer oddly satisfying – as if her uncertainty gave me license to just feel what I was feeling. Whether it was run-of-the-mill depression (something I was no stranger to), post-partum depression, or grief started mattering less than the fact that it was here, real, and undeniable.
I knew one thing for certain. My daughter’s birth was the highlight of my life thus far. Her existence settled the question that plagued me since my first miscarriage. I was a mother to an impossibly beautiful little girl. I knew how fortunate I was. I expected my emotions from this point forward would just vacillate between different shades of total bliss.
My emotions didn’t cooperate. I felt panicky, like I everything I was doing was wrong. My daughter’s screams exacerbated this fear. Countless trips to the doctor confirmed that she was fine, medically speaking. I learned the power of shushing and bouncing and expected to feel some sense of satisfaction that I was getting better at this mothering thing.
Once again, my emotions didn’t cooperate. I continued to personalize every cry, berating myself for not being able to cultivate my idea of what a baby should be – a happily gurgling accessory. And at the same time, I cried. Torrents streamed down my face every change they got. Something would remind me of my father. A nap transfer would go awry. I’d pump less than expected for my freezer stash. I went through each day looking for evidence that I wasn’t good enough. My tears themselves became indicative of how badly I was failing – I was so far from the calm, collected, paragon of a mom I aspired to be for my daughter.
It was so incredibly hard. Even now, 18 months after her birth, as friends who had their first child around the same time as me start to announce their plans for a second, I can’t think about birth or maternity leave without feeling a sense of overwhelm so thorough it makes me wonder how I even got to this point.
Most things in life become easier when you are on the other side. Retrospect makes you think “that wasn’t so bad”. But I’m not there yet. And I honestly wonder if I will ever be. Because that nameless sadness that I experienced after birth was so total, so powerful, so persistent, that I’m simply not willing to face it again. You can assure me that this time would be different – that without the compounding loss, the lows wouldn’t be as low, that doing anything for the second time comes with more confidence and less anxiety – but the ugly truth is this: In that twenty four hour period, I learned something that is impossible to unlearn about life. There are no shortage of variations of unnamed sadness. Life is incredibly adept about coming up with combinations you’d never see coming. Thinking you’ve sampled the worst that is out there is nothing but hubris.
Thankfully, lately, I’ve started to be surprised by joy as well. Happiness, too, can compound. I am writing this because I have found that if I try, I can now unearth the contentment I used to feel in old pursuits – a fast run, a heavy lift, a good book, a clever doodle, a well penned sentence, and layer that with my life’s newest bliss – the small, sturdy body of my daughter nestled on my shoulder, her emerging voice declaring with wonder the things she sees and knows – ball, book, Bo, dada, mama. And to know these things simultaneously is almost too much goodness for one heart to contain.