The Real Story

Author’s Note: We’ve all got our stories. There are the polite small talk stories that we exchange with our work colleagues and parents at school drop-off. There are the sound bite stories that we post to Facebook. There are the made-up stories that we sometimes tell ourselves, the half-truth stories that we tell family and friends, the stories of omission that we communicate with our silence. And then there are the REAL stories – the awkward stories, the painful stories, the complicated stories, and the beautiful stories.

I have gone back and forth about whether to publish this post or not. Though I’ve mentioned my struggle with PPD in bits and pieces before, until now I haven’t really owned the whole, real, messy truth of it all. But after a great deal of contemplation and conversations with my husband and a few good friends, I came to realize that by NOT telling this story – the real story – I’m continuing to perpetuate a series of half-truths. By owning and telling the real story, however, I hope to move past the shame and regret and to empower others to tell their real stories too – whatever they may be. Because, honestly, the real stories are SO much better than all the other stories anyway.

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The other night, instead of reading a book before bed, my 7-year-old son Jackson picked up a photo album and announced that looking through old photos would be “our story” for the night.

The album that he chose consisted entirely of photos taken during the months leading up to his birth and the first six months of his life. It was filled with all of the typical baby photos – pictures of a expectant mom proudly displaying a new crib, a wrinkly newborn, a round-faced three month old flashing his first smiles, a five-month old on the beach. He turned the pages slowly, asking questions from time to time, but mostly he just looked at the photos, recreating the story of pregnancy, birth, and infancy in his mind.

As he flipped the pages of the photo album, I was happy to see that the photos told the story that a baby album should tell – a story of expectation, love, hope, innocence, and tenderness.

But this is a story of half-truths; there is another story – the real story – hidden inside this typical story of baby love.

If you look closely, you can catch glimpses of this hidden story, this darker story. Amidst the photos of a mother and son napping on the couch and new parents cuddling their newborn is the real story of a woman desperately lost, struggling miserably, and failing constantly.

Looking back, with some distance and increased self-awareness, I realize that the cloud of post-partum depression descended shortly after my son was born – even though I didn’t realize it at the time. Everything – from nursing to sleeping and even cuddling – felt lifeless and horribly wrong. Each day felt like a wave had washed over me and I was drowning, gasping for air and flailing my arms to stay afloat. Where was the euphoric new mom feeling I was supposed to have? Why wasn’t I happier, especially given that this life as a stay-at-home-mom was what I had always wanted? And why was I thinking such horrible, shameful thoughts?

Depression, confusion, loneliness, guilt, and shame all muddled up together, swirling and expanding to create the perfect emotional storm, a hurricane of sorts. I got pretty good at pretending, though – so good that I didn’t even acknowledge the depth of the problem until I began to resurface from the eye of the storm. I played the role of proud new mom, denied that I had a problem, and told myself that I was happy – because I knew that I should be happy. Only I most definitely was not.

Hints of the real story are scattered throughout these photos, however. You can see it in the haunted eyes that stare back at the camera on Christmas morning, in the stilted half-smiles that took all my energy to muster, and in the gloomy slouch of my shoulders.

You can see it in the worried and beaten look flickering across my husband’s eyes in a few of the photos. Because the real story of post-partum depression is not a solitary story and I wasn’t the only one to suffer. In some ways, my husband was suffering with his own PPD by proxy, I suppose. Sleep-deprived and exhausted, fearful of his wife’s unpredictable and volatile moods, confused about what to do and how to help, and overwhelmed with his new role as “sole provider,” the real story is that my husband was taken hostage by PPD too.

Fortunately, the real story is also one of recovery and resilience. Slowly – over a long period of time, in a two-steps-forward-one-step-back kind of way – I began to feel less like I was drowning and more like I was treading water until, eventually, I actually felt like I might be swimming. Sure, some days felt like swimming upstream, but I was swimming nonetheless. And if you closely at these photos, you might be able to see this part of the real story too when the darkness begins to fade from my eyes, the smiles become easier and less forced, my body is more straight and sure.

But no photo album could ever communicate the epilogue of the real story either. Just like the photos don’t show the extent of the desperation and sadness, no photo could ever capture the intense and downright fierce mama love that I feel for my son. There is an almost illogical protective bond between us, like a battle scar from our first several challenging months together. No photo could ever capture the gratitude and appreciation that I have for my husband, for his patience, support, and ability to always tell it like it is – and then to love me enough to bring me back to life. No photo could contain the relief that I felt when my second son was born three years later and, by the grace of God, we were spared the dark hurricane this time around.

And, fortunately, no photo is able to capture the shame and regret that I still feel today. The camera doesn’t see the tiny and oh-so-sharp knife that pierces my heart when I am around new parents, and photos don’t seem to show the vice grip clutching my heart whenever I hold a baby, reminding me of all the ways that I wish my experience had been different. The photos don’t capture this part of the real story either – the part where shame and regret linger even though the sadness, loneliness, and desperation are long gone. My head knows that I didn’t choose PPD, but I wonder if part of me – the heart part – won’t always feel like it was a character flaw, like I failed my son and my husband, like I was a less capable mom, and like I was robbed of something that every parent deserves – contentment and peace.

It would be easier, I suppose, (and certainly more pleasant) to adopt the half truth story, the one that people want to see, the one that I wish were real. But I am learning that by owning our stories and accepting our stories – regardless of how gritty and knotted they might be – we can take the first steps toward getting over the shame and regret. And that by telling our stories we can empower others to own, accept, and share their stories, as well.

Like I said, I’m happy that the photos tell the story that they are supposed to tell, that my son is able to look at them and marvel at his growth and development, and I hope that one day, when he’s grown, he will look at the photos and be reminded of his inherent worth and significance simply by virtue of the fact that he was born and he was loved.

But, I pray that one day, many years from now, my son might be wise enough, confident enough, and compassionate enough to look at these photos and know that they only tell a half truth, that don’t tell the real story. I pray that he will be able to understand and hold the real story: the story of an intentional and committed love, of falling in love over and over again, of desperation and forgiveness, of struggle and triumph, of hard-earned happiness and long-awaited contentment. I pray that he will know that the beauty of the real story lies not just in the growth of a baby, but in the growth of a faithful and dedicated family.

As thankful as I am for the half-truth traditional story that the photos tell, the real story is so much deeper and richer, so much stronger and more satisfying than any half-truth story – if for no other reason than the fact that it is our story.

So whatever your real story is – whether it’s picture perfect or dark and blemished – own it and accept it. And when you’re ready, tell your story – with kindness and tenderness – because inside the gnarled and complicated real story, there is a resilient peace and a quiet power. And with each real story shared comes a tiny slice of freedom. 

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28 Comments

    • Struggles do seem to be pretty universal, don’t they? I suppose, I’m hoping that by sharing some of mine that others might feel like it’s to share theirs as well.

  • Christie:

    Thank you for sharing. I had it myself and it took a few years to really get over it completely. And every person in my life felt it in one way or another. I hope you can find a way to release the guilt. You were doing the very best you could and he survived, as you did too. You used it to make yourself stronger. I can see it in your writing. That kind of pain does leave you the same as you were before it greets you, but it does give you something you did not have before. A knowing that you will fight for yourself and your family to have a better life. Dealing with your own pain teaches your children how to truly live. That is the greatest gift you can give your children. You are a strong, beautiful woman who is raising strong, beautiful boys who know what love looks like from every angle. What a gift you are.

    • Thank you for your kind and thoughtful comment, Marcy. You are so right – dealing with pain teaches our children how to live a full life and deal with life’s struggles. I have come a long way in releasing the shame, but I still have a ways to go in releasing the regret. Thanks again for your kind, beautiful words.

  • Thank you so much for bravely sharing your story. It was so similar to mine. I often wonder after my friends and acquaintances have babies now….are any of them like me? I promised myself I would always look out for signs of this because I would never want anyone to suffer in silence and shame the way I did, but it’s hard….you can’t really just go up to someone and ask if they are experiencing it. I think most women in the thick of it might actually deny it. I did. So, like you, I try to be open about my story and hope that others know that they can come to me if they need help.

    • I can relate to so much of what you write here. If someone had asked me if I was okay back then, I would have said “yes, of course” even though inside I was so not okay. Thanks for sharing your story and thoughts.

  • Thank you so much for your words. I have found them six years after what sounds like an eerily similar experience . . . I have been working through the shame and guilt for almost as long. I recently had my third son (PPD after second, what a shock as the first did not feel that way at all!) and what a journey – the anxiety over whether or not that struggle would come again, but knowing that the breath on the other side – the love, would surpass it all. Your comments on the effects on your husband especially hit home. Your words could so easily be my own. Thank you for being brave.

  • THANK YOU for sharing! I too, unknowingly suffered PPD with my first child and only realized the severity of it when I started getting better. Your phrasing about “constantly failing” resonated with me, because that is what I felt like, even though I knew/know I did my best. My son is now 6, and is well-adjusted and happy. I just had my second child, a girl, this last July and I was petrified of experiencing PPD again. I took pre-emptive steps in setting up a support system, including Counseling, if I needed it, but am thankful to say that I am not experiencing PPD with this one. It is SO different. When I smile at this baby, I actually FEEL the happiness in the smile, instead of smiling empty smiles because I felt that babies should see smiling faces, not sad ones.

    • Thank you for sharing your thoughts, Tiffany. I am so glad to hear that you got the help that you needed and that you are continuing to take care of your self emotionally. I appreciate your words so very much.

  • Thank you for deciding to publish this. It perfectly captures the way I felt after my second child was born, and has opened my eyes to how I should be looking at my real story.

  • I echo so many of your sentiments and so eloquently put – desperation and forgiveness, struggle and triumph. I too feel like it is my character flaws that led to it, (it being PND) or the way I handled it (didn’t handle it/refused to acknowledge it). I feel pangs of guilt and shame often and it doesn’t take much to bring those feelings to the surface. I sometimes wonder when you can really say you are ‘recovered’ from PND. I also hope my sons will have a depth of understanding when they are adults. Thank you for sharing x

    • Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts, Emma. There is certainly comfort in knowing that we aren’t alone in our feelings, isn’t there? I greatly appreciate you taking the time to comment.

  • Beautiful sentiments, beautifully written. There is something very powerful in honesty – and this honesty is full of kindness, compassion, generosity. A recognition that we need to hold each other’s hands if we’re going to get through life.

  • Thank you so much for sharing your story. I too went through ppd and ppocd. One day I hope to have another child but am very scared. You gave me hope that I can try again.

    • I can definitely understand the fear. Fortunately I did not have PPD with my second son and, in fact, my post-partum experience after my second son made me realize just how bad the PPD was after my first. Peace and blessings to you.

  • Did you do anything different the second time? I’m petrified of it being worse, but when I think back I don’t think it’s even possible. I had a very severe case.

    • No, I didn’t do anything different physically. My second son arrived after a long struggle with repetitive miscarriage and infertility so I was kind of a mess through all of that. I think that I was more prepared for the emotional toll the second time around, however, so I was quicker to ask for help when I needed it. That said, I think that hormones are largely responsible it. One of the best things we can do is be on the look out for it (in ourselves and in others) and get help as soon as we notice a problem.

  • Thank you- you have inspired me to sure my story and as you say it share I will link your page in when I tell my tale.

    Beautiful, vulnerable, honest, courageous. Thank you.

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