Culture

Craigslist Confessional: Have I already failed as a mother?

Struggling with anxiety and depression after giving birth.

Culture

Craigslist Confessional: Have I already failed as a mother?

Struggling with anxiety and depression after giving birth.
Culture

Craigslist Confessional: Have I already failed as a mother?

Struggling with anxiety and depression after giving birth.

This story is part of a series called Craigslist Confessional. Writer Helena Dea Bala started meeting people via a Craigslist ad in 2014 and has been documenting their lives ever since. By listening to their stories — anonymously and for free — she hopes to bear witness to her subjects’ lives, providing them with an outlet, a judgment-free ear, and a sense of catharsis. In sharing them with you, she wants to facilitate acceptance and understanding of issues that are seldom publicly discussed at the risk of fear, stigma, and ostracism. To share your story with Helena, e-mail her at helena@craigslistconfessional.com. Read prior Confessions here. Names and locations have been changed to protect her subjects’ anonymity.

“Having to give my baby anything but ‘the best’ felt like I failed as a mother before I’d even had the chance to start.”

Alyssa, 30

I’d always heard — from anyone who cared to comment on the subject — that having children is most rewarding thing I’d ever do. I had an uncomplicated pregnancy and a relatively easy childbirth. I had no idea when I left the hospital with my son how grueling, how unforgiving, and how painful the next months would be.

The trouble started in the postnatal ward. Forty-eight hours had passed since my son was born and my milk hadn’t come in. Yet, in spite of hearing my misgivings and doubts, every nurse and lactation consultant told me to keep putting him on the breast, that the colostrum was enough for my baby. I felt like I was the only one not in on some giant conspiracy to breastfeed — the pressure I felt was immense. I had planned on breastfeeding, of course, but my earnest reports of having no colostrum fell on deaf ears. I pumped for hours and didn’t produce a drop. I asked to supplement with formula and my request was totally dismissed.

We were discharged and during our next day pediatrician’s appointment, I found out that my baby had dropped quite a bit of weight — dangerously close to the cutoff for what’s considered normal. Since my milk still hadn’t come in, our pediatrician suggested that we supplement our son with formula. We did, of course, but I’ve never felt like more of a failure. All I’d heard since giving birth was “breast is best” like some sort of demented mantra programmed into the brain of every lactation consultant and nurse I encountered. Having to give my baby anything but “the best” felt like I was being selfish — like I failed as a mother before I even had the chance to start.

The experience sent me into a tailspin of anxiety. To encourage my supply, I was pumping breastmilk and storing it. When I wasn’t warming up formula for my son, I was sterilizing bottles and pumping equipment. It was a vicious cycle of feeding and preparing to feed for two weeks straight, with no end in sight. When my milk finally did come in, my son had trouble latching. I was recommended a nipple shield and eventually, we established a breastfeeding relationship. But as I got ready to breathe for the first time in a long while, I was told that using the shield would stunt my supply and discourage my son from bonding with me — that even though I was doing the best I could, it wasn’t quite enough.

So I abandoned the shield and cried through every feeding session for a few days straight. I told my husband, “I don’t think I can do this. This doesn’t feel natural.” And even though he’d been patient as a saint up until then, he soberly told me: “It is natural, and you need to keep going.” I was so consumed with feeding my son and making sure that he was getting enough to drink that I purchased a scale online and weighed him before and after each feed. The responsibility on my shoulders felt immense; I had failed him once, and I couldn’t bear doing it again.

This had such a terrible impact on me. On top of the rampant postpartum hormones, I was an anxious mess all the time. All I did, every day, was cry and feed my son. I felt guilty for not being happy or enjoying motherhood, and every time someone saw me cry, they told me not to because it would impact the baby. I was riddled with guilt for not loving my life and not loving my son yet. I felt, too, that we had made a giant mistake: I was not prepared to live this life for the rest of my life. I didn’t know to expect this. Nobody had told us. All I’d heard was how great it would be — not how I’d spend every waking hour watching for his chest to rise and fall, counting every ounce of weight he gained or lost, and worrying about whether he was sleeping enough or too much. I wanted so desperately to go back to how my life had been.

I got caught in this vortex of what I should be doing and feeling as a mom, and when my experience diverged from what I had heard and what others were telling me, I felt incredibly insufficient as a human and as a mother. The Internet certainly doesn’t help — it’s filled with worst case scenarios and millions of contradictory opinions. To make things worse: my body is a mess. I don’t smell like myself. I can’t even have coffee anymore — that was the only thing I looked forward to every day.

Things have settled down a little bit, but my anxiety is still at an all-time high. I cry every day. And I was never treated for anxiety before I had my son. When I confided in my doctor about my feelings, I was referred to a psychologist. His office called me back and told me there was a three month wait to see him. Three months! I went elsewhere for cognitive behavioral therapy, but it’s so hard to find reliable help these days. My therapist has already canceled our appointments twice and I’ve only ever met with her one time. Medicine is out of the question — it could cross into my breastmilk and affect my son. I just can’t take the risk. So, it really does feel like I’m in trouble. Some days, it’s worse than others.

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Helena Dea Bala is a former lobbyist turned professional listener. She lives in New York with her husband, Alex, and their dog, Stanley Zbornak.
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