How I came to hate attachment parenting

When Little Boy was an infant, I spent a lot of time online.  Trying to keep myself awake, mostly.  Somewhere amid the long dark nights, I found myself Googling “I hate attachment parenting.”  I needed affirmation for the black fire of anger that had arisen during pregnancy and spilled out everywhere during those newborn days.  I needed someone to tell me it was OK to parent in a way that really, truly worked for me and my baby.

This post is about where that black anger came from, and why I’ve had so much trouble letting it go.

Before I go any further, let me be very clear on one thing:  If you practice attachment parenting or any of its components because it is what works for your family, then this post is not about you.  All the core components of AP fall onto the spectrum of perfectly acceptable parenting behavior.  We did several of them ourselves: I breastfed Little Boy for 17 months; we frequently “wore” him around the house and neighborhood; we room-shared for the first few months.  Heck, most of those things are recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP).

No, when I say I hate attachment parenting, I mean that I hate Attachment Parenting™, the worldview that believes that it is the only acceptable way to parent.  I hate the naturalistic fallacy that has infected the white, liberal, middle-class approach to parenting, and I hate the misinterpretations and misappropriations of science that are used to back it up.

It started when I was pregnant.  As those of you who’ve read Little Boy’s birth story know, I was interested in “natural” birth—that is, giving birth without pain medication—until Little Boy flipped breech in the third trimester and it became clear that a C-section was likely.  I am the kind of person who likes to learn as much as I can in advance, so I did a lot of reading about “natural” childbirth.  Only… it turns out that there aren’t a ton of resources for women like me, women who want to skip the epidural but stay in the hospital.  It was always sort of assumed that if I was going that route, then of course I didn’t trust doctors and of course I’d probably really want to give birth at home.

Here’s the thing: I’m a trained scientist.  I may not be a medical expert, but I have enough background to read medical papers, and my university affiliation gives me access to the full text of most major journals.  I can tell when people are spewing bullshit, and my bullshit meter was blaring like a siren.  It was so easy for me to check that all the woo about homebirth was wrong.  And all this scary stuff that people were telling me about hospitals?  It hasn’t been true since before I was born.

Unfortunately, while it was easy to dismiss the stuff that was obviously fringe, it was much harder to ignore that which had crept into the mainstream.  One of my friends, a smart, educated woman, was reading Ina May Gaskin and planning to deliver at a local birth center.  So that couldn’t be that weird, right?  The local hospital’s birth classes were taught by doulas and lactation consultants; the hospital itself boasted that babies were expected to room-in full-time after birth.  So that was good, right?

Except… My OB was a wonderful, caring woman, and the lactation consultant who visited our hospital room was a jerk.  Full-time rooming-in was terrifying and exhausting.  All of the naturalistic stuff I’d been hearing just didn’t jive with my experiences.

The second step came with the breastfeeding.  The funny thing is, breastfeeding went really well for us.  No problems with supply, no issues with weight gain, nothing to feel guilty about.  So why does the über-pro-breastfeeding culture make me so angry?

Well, there was the way the lactation consultants in my breastfeeding class spent the first 10 minutes telling us how inferior formula was.  We’re here at this class—we’ve already decided that we want to breastfeed!  Plus they seemed to be going way beyond what the science actually says, twisting and stretching the facts to suit a certain narrative about good motherhood.  Like I’ve said, I hate it when people get the science wrong.

Yet again, I found that there was no place for me in mothering culture, no place for a mother who wanted to breastfeed but didn’t want the answer to everything to be “more boob.”  It has always been extremely important to my husband that he be an active parent, and so it was very important to us that both parents be able to soothe Little Boy.  I didn’t want to nurse every five minutes.  I can’t nurse every five minutes and keep my sanity.  And you know what?  Little Boy didn’t need to nurse every five minutes.

It turns out, though, that when you search for the answer to breastfeeding questions, the answer is always “more boob, more often.”  Even when that doesn’t make sense.  Even when it’s clear that baby isn’t hungry.  The top-listed resources, Dr. Sears and KellyMom and La Leche League, they all assume that of course mom is going to be with baby constantly, probably co-sleeping, and dad’s just there to help out.

Attachment Parents like to tell you that their parenting beliefs are all about “following your instincts.”  They’re just doing what they feel they should do!  But here’s the thing: my instincts about parenting were always on the side of “he’s fine, give him a minute.”  I never had an “instinct” to run to the baby the second he started crying.  I love snuggling with him, but my “instinct” is always to put him down so that I can do things for myself once in a while.

I made the mistake, during pregnancy, of joining my “birth month group” on BabyCenter.com.  Oh hell no—do not do that.  BabyCenter purports to be a mainstream resource, but in its fora I saw women excoriated for letting their babies cry for THREE whole minutes.  Horrors!  Apparently my instinct—that is was OK to let Little Boy fidget a bit while I set up my environment to be comfortable for nursing—made me a terrible mother.

I’ve never felt the need to stare into Little Boy’s eyes constantly while I nurse, or to be down on the floor with him every second of his playtime.  Quite the opposite, in fact: I need time to myself in order to literally stay sane enough to function.

What do you do, when the culture is telling you your “instincts” are wrong?

I was already pretty viciously anti-attachment-parenting by the time we sleep trained Little Boy, but that was the last straw.  Our baby, at the age of three months, was not interested in being nursed to sleep, nor in being rocked gently off to dreamland.  We know.  We tried those things.  As long as something worked, we were willing to do it—but nothing worked.  Little Boy resisted sleep, and woke from his naps cranky and tired.

Sleep training (we used the Ferber method) was a miracle.  It took only a few nights and surprisingly little crying.  Little Boy, it seems, wanted the space to be left alone to sleep, without rocking or singing or nipples in his face.  He was happier, we were happier, and I have never had any doubt that we did the right thing.

Sleeping training, though—from an attachment parenting perspective, that is the worst thing we could do.  Some commenters have implied that we should have waited until six months.  One woman online told me that I was lazy and clearly didn’t know how to soothe my baby!  (I do know how to soothe my baby.  It involves giving him peace and quiet.)  I have seen mothers adopt severe martyr complexes about what they endured to avoid “crying it out,” even more than the martyr complexes they take on about breastfeeding.

My baby needed to learned to sleep on his own.  Anyone who thinks otherwise can fuck off.

Much later, I checked out Dr. Sears’ The Baby Book, that bible of attachment parenting, from the library and read it, wondering if perhaps my impression of him had been wrong.  Nope.  The Baby Book is every bit what I thought it was, filled with dire warning about the “bad start” of an un-“natural” birth and a general snide message of “don’t you want to know that you did the best for your baby?”  The “best,” of course, being Dr. Sears’ tenants of attachment parenting.

I’ve noticed that Attachment Parents like to present an aura of being rebels, of going against the mainstream.  It’s one of the things that seems to appeal to them.  But are you kidding me?  I’m sure there are places where it’s some of this stuff is still unusual, but on the whole?  In the media?  Give it up, you guys, you already won!  The AAP is staunchly pro-breastfeeding.  Babywearing has been common for a quarter-century.  Bed-sharing remains controversial, but the AAP itself recommends room-sharing.  The classic baby-care guide What to Expect the First Year won’t even answer the question of how to put a three-month-old on a regular schedule.  Among the white, liberal, educated middle-class, the attachment parenting approach is already the norm.

In fact, that’s why it’s so hard to reject: because there are bits and pieces of it that are smart and good and true, or at least reasonable under some circumstances.  If it didn’t pretend to be based on science, I would laugh it off just as I laugh at the anti-vaccine crowd.  But it pretends to be The Right Answer, and it drives the guilt that underlies my approach to motherhood.

So there it is: the anger.  Little Boy is one year old, going on two; you’d think I could let all this go by this point.  But I still remember the deep black darkness of his early days, and I remember how much the feeling that I was doing something wrong contributed to that pain.  I felt alone and judged and hopeless, and the attachment parenting ethos is one reason why.

And now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to be a DEtached parent.

I made socks, and why that matters

My feet, in green stripey socks.

It’s self-striping yarn—they look a lot fancier than they are.

I learned how to knit socks about three years ago, not long after rediscovering knitting as a hobby.  (It’s a wonderful hobby for introverts.  It makes small talk roughly 87 bajillion times more tolerable.)  Socks turned out to be the perfect project for me: they’re wearable, yet a manageable size; challenging enough to be interesting, but not so hard as to frustrate; and there are only two yarn ends to weave in, if all goes well.  Plus, brightly colored socks have always been my thing.  Back in high school, I was known among my friends for always giving funky (store-bought) socks as gifts.

I cast on this particular pair of socks in May 2014.  I worked on them through many an evening night of television, and I brought them with me on our last big pre-kid vacation.

And then Little Boy was born, and I stopped knitting.

It wasn’t just the lack of time, although that was a big part of it.  It was the depression, and the way trying to figure out where I was on these socks seemed like an enormous and exhausting task.  I’d had some problems with the yarn on the second sock, and was worried about getting the toe in the right place, and about running out of yarn.  It just seemed so un-fun.  Why bother?

I tried, once, when Little Boy was three months old.  It wasn’t enjoyable.  I didn’t try again.

Finally, a few months back, I left this pair in a box, found a different pattern, and started a completely different pair of socks.  And all the fun I remembered came back.  Not right away, but it came back—the relaxing feel of having something to do with my hands, the pleasure of making something, the daydreaming of what to make next.

That new pair of socks isn’t quite finished, but I found myself suddenly motivated to pull these green ones back out.  As it turned out, there wasn’t anything complicated left to do at all, just a few rows of straight knitting and an easy toe.  All the ugh I’d imagined was just in my imagination.

Here’s why these socks matter: they’re another corner turned.  Another step back from depression.  Another step towards life.

P.S.  If you’d like to make your own pair of green socks, here’s the pattern on Ravelry.  (I love Ravelry.)

Post-apartment stress syndrome

When we first moved to the house, more than half a year ago, every noise set me on edge.  Cars revving.  Dogs barking.  Children shouting.  Leaf blowers blowing.  Even the steps of pigeons on the roof reverberated in my ears like the clanging of gongs.

And when there was no sound, my mind invented some.  I have stood in my silent closet, looking around for the source of the music that played faintly around the corners of my hearing, only to realize that there was no music at all.

I never used to be sensitive to noise, at least not outside the range of normal.  As a child, I found the echo of late-night train whistles to be soothing, not disturbing.  I have lived in a variety of dorm rooms with a variety of roommates, and while not all of those experiences were necessarily pleasant, noise levels were never a major issue.  Heck, for three semesters in college, my window looked directly across an alley to a popular fraternity.  I slept fine.  Getting homework done was never a problem.

Life in the apartment began as a death by a thousand cuts.  There were the neighbors who left their TV on talk shows all day, the sound of not-quite-understood words spilling over into our workspace / dining room.  There were the other neighbors who watched TV while going to bed, apparently clueless of the fact that they shared a wall with our bedroom and that we might, perhaps, also be trying to go to sleep.  There was the fact the slam of any door reverberated through the whole building.

There were occasional barking dogs, and sometimes there were dogs who would bark for hours, left alone on patios.  There was the woman who would let her toddler grandchild yell and shriek outside our windows with only the barest attempt at redirection.  There were the pre-teens who bounced basketballs off the walls, who stomped up and down the stairs, and whose preferred gathering spot was a few feet from our front door.  And then there were the neighbors who bought fancy new bass speakers because it somehow never occurred to them that enjoying loud bass on a nightly basis might not be the best idea in an apartment setting.  (Those were the same neighbors who, upon moving out, decided that the best time to move their bed was at 11 p.m.—and that the best way to do it was by dropping the mattress off the balcony immediately above our bedroom.)

You can’t really complain about these things, because then you’re That Neighbor Who Complains.  TV noise carries through walls; it just does.  Dogs bark.  Children play.  The neighbors with the fancy new speaker system turned it down when the apartment manager finally bothered to pass on our message about it.  The kid bouncing the basketball moved on when asked politely.

It got into my head, though.  Instead of getting used to the noise and tuning it out, my brain began to expect it and go looking for it.  It hoarded and guarded its quiet time, never knowing when it would next be interrupted by a bang or a bark or the irregular mumble of a TV.  It grew protective and angry and paranoid.

It would’ve just been another fact of life, something I would have had to learn to cope with, if it hadn’t been for the last set of upstairs neighbors.  I’ve written about them before—they were one of the major factors contributing to my postpartum depression, and to my husband’s.  Their thuds and bangs and bumps and stomps never stopped, not even at night.  It sounded like they were rearranging furniture on a daily basis.  Even earplugs couldn’t keep out the sound.  We woke when they woke, which was somewhere around 5:30 in the morning.

We left that apartment, at the cost of a buy-out fee of two months’ rent, with two months left on the lease.  The manager was puzzled—why not just keep living there for those two months, since we had to pay the rent anyway?  We couldn’t.  It was driving us literally insane.

I no longer hear phantom music.  Loud music, though—real music, thumping and bumping with bass—still triggers a fight-or-flight reaction.  Blood pressure rises.  Anxiety spikes.  Make it stop make it stop make it stop.  The memory of when the noises never stopped brings on the fear that they never will again.

It does stop, though.

And every day that goes by in a house with solid walls and normal, pleasant neighbors, I get a little bit more normal again.

Thanks to the mothers

This Mother’s Day, I’d like to say thank you to a group of moms who’ve meant a great deal to me this year: the mothers in my postpartum support group.  (For newer readers, you can read about my family’s struggle with postpartum depression here and here.)

Mothers who showed me that I wasn’t alone.

Mothers who promised me, when I first showed up, exhausted and miserable and feeling like I’d made a terrible mistake with my life, that it gets better.

Mothers whose words meant something because they’d lived through it and made it to the other side.

Mothers who encouraged me to make the phone calls I needed to make to see mental health professionals.

Mothers who breastfeed, and mothers who don’t.  Mothers who’ve also made the decision, after careful discussions with their doctors and pharmacists, to take antidepressants and continue nursing.

Mothers who gave me the last little push to start blogging after years of thinking about it, and who didn’t laugh as my enthusiasm grew.

Mothers who have been through so much more heartache than I can possibly imagine, and yet still listen to my tearful career angst with support and compassion.

Mothers with fantastic jobs and mothers who stay home; mothers of many children and mothers of just one.

Mothers who don’t judge.

Good mothers.

Strong mothers.

Thank you.

Happy Mother’s Day.

Dads get PPD, too: my husband’s story

As a society, we’ve slowly become more aware and understanding of postpartum depression (PPD) and other mood disorders in new mothers.  Gone are the days when unhappiness after the birth of a child was considered a character flaw and women were expected to “suck it up” in silence.  Today, many childcare books contain a section discussing the symptoms of PPD, and doctors routinely screen for it at postpartum check-ups.  Actually accessing good help remains problematic, but we have come a long way. 

Fathers, however, remain notably missing from the conversation – and when they do appear, it’s usually in the context of how to support a depressed partner.  But men get PPD, too.  Studies report that 10% of new dads experience postpartum depression (and I wouldn’t be surprised if that number turned out to be an underestimate). 

My husband is part of that 10%.  Very little of my postpartum depression story was news to him, but he was proud of me for sharing it.  He was motivated to write up his own story and has asked that I share it with you as well. 

I want to warn you that some of what he has to say may be upsetting, especially since his story is not fully resolved.  I’ll let him take it from here (with a few notes from me in italics):

Depression runs in my family, but until the last couple of years, it seemed that I successfully evaded it.  Instead of depression, I’ve suffered from “wonderfully” enormous anxiety issues, which have grown worse with age… but never depression on the order seen in my family, the kind that could lead to someone trying to take their life.  Looking back, I probably started showing small signs of depression with my anxiety a couple of years ago, but who knows if it would have otherwise grown into such a problem as it was to become when my wife was pregnant with our son.

When my wife became pregnant, I was excited.  We had been planning for nearly two years, and I’ve wanted strongly to be a parent for a very long time.  That excitement burned out, but it was eventually replaced with anticipation of some of the great beginning milestones in pregnancy:  telling our parents, seeing the first ultrasound, making our big announcements to the world, finding out the sex of the baby, etc.

I’m not sure when things started getting worse.  The last year is a foggy mess of blurred memories.  I’ll shamefully admit that I was disappointed when the ultrasound showed we were having a boy.  When I thought of myself as a parent, I often imagined having a daddy’s girl.  I didn’t have a close or even good relationship with my father growing up, and unfortunately, I haven’t seen a lot of close father-son relationships.  Such a relationship seems to be thought of as “unmanly” in our society.  (My brother and his two-year old son are an exception.)  I wanted that really close relationship, to be completely important in someone’s life, if only for a while.  Stupid TV, movies, and books for putting that romantic notion in my head.  BUT, we were having a son, and I got over it.

During the middle part of the pregnancy, my wife started to have down episodes.  I tried, but I couldn’t help like I could in the past.  When she wanted to be held, I could do that.  But sometimes she just wanted to be left alone and I just had to wait for things to pass.  As her episodes became more frequent, I became more and more frustrated.  My frustration would border inexplicably on anger, exacerbated by three additional things happening at this time.  One, we had new neighbors move in, who eventually made me want to break something (preferably of theirs) with every stomp/thump/bang they made.  Two, my restless leg syndrome, which I have had from childhood and which runs in the family, went from an hour-a-night, 1-to-3-nights-a-month problem to something that bothered me half the night, every night.  My sleep had already been problematic, as I had started waking up completely every 60-90 minutes all night every night in early grad school. (Note: My husband has already survived grad school and has a PhD.)  Restless legs meant I would either not fall asleep for hours, or I’d wake up after 90 minutes and then not be able to go back to sleep for several more hours.  I began sleeping on the couch because my constant movement in bed and my new loud snoring (from being so tired) made sleep even more unattainable for my depressed, anxious, and already-uncomfortable wife.  The cool living room and the ability to constantly move my legs back and forth made things better for a bit… until I started getting back problems from the couch.  An air mattress fixed the back problems, but this all still meant even less close time with my wife.  And finally, three, I was traveling across the country a lot for work during the later part of the pregnancy.  So not only was I missing doctor’s appointments, but I was also constantly changing my sleep schedule.

Put all of these things together with my anxiety issues, and I started to spiral headfirst (excuse the pun) into depression.  I felt further and further away from my wife, which I alternatingly felt guilty about or just numb.  I know I haven’t been truly happy for a long time, but now I only felt just okay down to downright miserable every minute of every day.  I felt like I was just barely treading water, and that it would be easy to just stop trying and let the world drown me.  As a coping mechanism, I withdrew further and turned to superficial things to release endorphins, like food, caffeine, and the internet.

The morning my son was to be born via C-section, I was sober and resentful.  I resented that we had to do a C-section that day because I was already beyond exhausted, and all I could think about was how any possibility of sleep before the next grueling set of months with a newborn was now gone.  Fortunately, when I stepped into the operating room, adrenaline kicked in and focused me.  My thoughts were on my wife and her well-being.  When my son was born, I was also ready to do everything that I could to be a perfect dad, including doing skin-to-skin while singing to him gently for 45 minutes while mommy was being sewn up, changing nearly every diaper in the hospital and the week after, waiting hand and foot on my immobile wife, and doing generally every little thing the nurses would let me do, all while sleeping on a tiny, cramped, two-person couch (which, by the way, sucked immensely for my restless legs).  (Note: He is not exaggerating here.  I would never have made it through the C-section, much less the first week, without his help.)

From here on, things are very blurry.  The lack of sleep meant I wasn’t forming long-term memories… and by the way, that’s a bitch of a thing when it comes to work.  It’s not fun when your boss has to explain things to you 3+ times.

From the time our son was born until he was about two weeks old, there were some hints of feeling, some occasions when I would look at this little boy and think, maybe I will eventually love you.  I felt that little bit of endorphins that are released when you hold such a tiny infant.  I was also driven with a singular purpose: to take care of my son and wife like no one else could.  I liked the feeling of being needed – because I felt like I was constantly being reminded wherever I looked that mom was the most important.  After all, the baby depends on her for food and comfort, and apparently daddy doesn’t know how to do anything.

After the first couple of weeks, things started taking a turn for the worse.  When the baby would cry, I wanted to pull my hair out.  I began being consumed by extremely dark thoughts, like how relieved I would be if he didn’t wake up, or if he accidentally drowned while taking a bath.  People would feel sorry for me, but it would be over.  My wife and I would probably separate because neither one of us would be able to handle the ensuing depression, and I would probably just walk away from everything I knew and become a hermit somewhere where no one could find me.  I recognized that these were unnatural thoughts and there was no way I was going to try to make them happen – I am incapable of that.  But I did occasionally push the swing a little harder than necessary, or pick him up a little faster than I should.

My work had instituted a paid parental leave policy two months prior to my son’s birth, and I was the first person to file for it.  The only problem was, no one knew how to pay for it, and many people weren’t happy about that.  So I became the center of the controversy.  Theoretically, I could have taken up to 6 weeks of full leave, or 12 weeks of half-time leave.  I had already arranged with my boss to take two weeks of vacation, so I chose to take two weeks of full leave and 2 weeks of half, for fear of angering her and others at work.  After my leave was over, and while my wife was still on her leave, working from home was only a matter of consuming enough caffeine and sugar, playing loud music on headphones, and trying to focus on small projects that didn’t require a lot of heavy thinking.  When she went back to work at 6 weeks, half of my work day was spent watching the baby while also trying to get work done.  If he didn’t want to sleep or was crying because he was bored (which was nearly every minute), I couldn’t work.  To partially make up for not working during these times, I would file for sick leave.  But I was perpetually self-conscious, afraid that my boss was not happy with me and would find out that I wasn’t getting anything done at home or at work.  She was hiring new postdocs, so what was to stop her from letting one go and hiring one more to replace me?  (In retrospect, she never really gave me any reason for this fear.  I’m apparently not horrible enough to put the work in for replacing.)

Still more time passed, and I started yelling at the top of my lungs, until I was hoarse, to no one in particular.  Sometimes at the baby from across the room, prompted by his crying, sometimes at the neighbors for being particularly awful.  (Note: The neighbors remained oblivious.)  I was angry A LOT.  When I wasn’t angry, I was serious and numb.  I couldn’t even feel love for anyone, not my wife, not my brother (who I used to feel the closest to outside of my wife), not my parents, no one.  All of this was not good for my wife, who was also suffering from PPD.  She was getting help through support groups and a psychiatrist, but I couldn’t bring myself to find anyone for help.

Anger was also interspersed with heavy thoughts of life and death.  As an agnostic, I don’t see evidence for an afterlife.  This pervades my thoughts and frightens the shit out of me, especially late at night.  During this time in my life, this morphed into me thinking, “What the hell does it matter if I die when I’m 100 or today?  Life doesn’t mean anything.  It has no purpose.  I don’t mean anything.”  I would have thoughts while driving about hammering the throttle and driving into a pole at full speed.  I know it probably scared my wife, but I did tell her about these thoughts.  (Note: It definitely did scare me.)

Still even more time passed, and my depression head-butted into my wife’s depression, resulting in loud arguments.  One night, I snapped completely, lost it, and just started crying uncontrollably.  This may not sound like a big thing, but for someone who hadn’t been able to shed a single tear for over a decade (not even when my grandfathers died), it was definitely a big thing… I did feel a bit better after, at least for a short while.  That same night, my wife and I decided to start sleep training the screaming child who was taking us two-and-half hours every night to put to bed.  THAT was the singularly best thing we could do for my condition.  He took to it right away, leaving us with a couple of hours to decompress every night.  I could start making more complicated meals again, sit and watch TV, etc.

Since sleep training at three months, I have started getting better.  With our son also sleeping through the night on his own, we were no longer spending half our night monitoring the baby for our shift.  (Note: Little Boy was now sleeping in a crib in his own room.)  My legs continued to be a problem, meaning I was still sleeping in another room, which weighed heavily on my wife.  I don’t blame her.  She missed me.  While my sleep was still very broken, just like it had been before the baby was born, at least I was getting some sleep now.  I was also able to start exercising again after three-and-a-half months off, something that’s a big big deal for someone who hasn’t ever stopped running for longer than a few weeks in over 20 years.

So, here I am.  My episodes of extreme depression have lessened and my time doing okay has lengthened.  I can act happy when needed (though not all the time) and I even have plenty of time when I’m not miserable.  I’ve even grown to miss my son when I’m away from him for a few hours.  His crying still cuts into me really easily and deeply, driving my blood pressure concerningly high, but he’s happy quite often now.  He’s constantly talking, and he has the biggest open-mouthed smile you can imagine when I walk into the room.  He shrieks with laughter when I nom his cheek or tickle him.  I love the little dude.  My anxieties about work have lessened to a smaller degree, mainly because they were a big problem before all of this.  However, I’m able to get some of the more-complicated projects done, even if it still requires my boss to explain very simple concepts to me several times.

BUT, I still have bad episodes, even if few and far in between.  I found myself thinking recently how easy it would be to down a bunch of pills, as one of my parents did when I was younger.  Fortunately, other family were present when it happened then, so we could rush that parent to the hospital, but I could do it when no one but the kid was present.  Fear of death and a conflicting worry about what would happen to my wife afterward (conflicting because the world ends when I cease to exist, so what does anything matter, yet how could I hurt her so much) have kept me from taking those final few steps, but it’s very disturbing that I could even get that far.  My wife is helping me find professional assistance.  I don’t see someone ever being able to help me with my thoughts on life and death, but I need someone to help me not contemplate going there sooner rather than later.  I want to be able to feel happy again.  I don’t even remember what the feeling is like.

We are still searching for a psychiatrist and/or therapist that can help my husband.  (The difficulty of finding good mental health care in this country deserves its own post, I think.)  He is also taking steps to see a sleep specialist, who will evaluate the physical issues that are preventing him from getting good rest.

If you are a new dad struggling with PPD, or a new mom worried about her partner, head to PostpartumMen for support and resources.

My postpartum depression story

It’s taken me a while to write this post, and a little while longer to be sure that I wanted to share it. 

Postpartum depression is a real and serious problem faced by many mothers and fathers.  It can begin up to a year or more after the arrival of a new baby.  If you or someone you know is struggling with postpartum depression, know that you are not alone and there is help available.  Postpartum Support International and Postpartum Progress have valuable resources, including a list of support groups in the U.S. and Canada.


This morning I spent about 15 minutes dancing with my Little Boy, holding him in my arms and twirling to the country music playing on the radio.  I wasn’t thinking about anything else I had to do or worrying about finding the time to do it.  We were simply happy.

Months ago, I was afraid that I would never be able to enjoy time with my child in this way.  I was suffering from postpartum depression, often referred to by the acronym PPD.

I attend a postpartum support group, and whenever a new mom begins attending, the moderator asks a few of those who are doing a little better to tell their story.  It was enormously helpful for me to hear someone else describe going through the same extra-crazy feelings, to know that I wasn’t alone.

This is my PPD story.

I knew I was at high risk for PPD, because I’ve struggled with depression my whole life.  Several months before trying to conceive, I tapered off the antidepressants I’d been taking for years; I wanted to stop them anyway, as I was doing reasonably well and had grown tired of the major side effects.  And it was a good decision.  Things went well for a while.

Then I started having depressive episodes.  I can’t pinpoint exactly when they began, but they were bad by the start of the third trimester and getting worse.  Something small would set me off and I’d spend an hour sobbing on the bed, my brain convinced that it would feel dark and terrible forever.  Legitimately upsetting news (like learning about a last-minute office switch) would ruin three or four days.  I was stressed about getting the nursery ready on time while simultaneously struggling to find the motivation to work on it.  And on top of it all, I felt guilty because I knew I was dragging my husband down with me.

I talked to my doctor – because that’s what the pamphlets always say to do, right?  “If you think you’re experiencing … talk to your doctor.”

“Well, we don’t like to prescribe meds in the third trimester.”  No problem, what about therapy?  “I don’t know which therapists take your insurance.  I’ll have my assistant look into it and call you back.”

The assistant never called me back.  All I got was a couple of super-generic pages of information, most of which weren’t even about perinatal mood disorders.

Little Boy arrived.  By the mysterious ways of hormones, I actually felt better.  Exhausted and weepy and anxious about the welfare of this tiny new creature, but not black with despair.  My OB-GYN asked about my mood at my two-week check-up, and I remember that I said very positive things.  I thought that maybe I was going to be OK.  Maybe I’d taken the worst mental hit during pregnancy.

Nope.

The initial weepiness seemed to slowly get darker.  I was getting anxious about going back to school at the end of my six-week maternity leave, because I knew I would be expected to get some work done despite being still too groggy to read even the abstract of a paper.  And Little Boy was starting to wake more frequently (which is normal baby behavior as you approach the period of “peak fussiness” at six weeks of age).

In Little Boy’s sixth week of life, he stopped sleeping for longer than 45 minutes at a time.  My husband and I traded off several-hour shifts in an attempt to ensure that both of us got at least a few hours of unbroken sleep, but it was exhausting.  The worst part, however, was the new neighbors.  We’d lived in that apartment for four years and had at least two, maybe three, sets of upstairs tenants, none of whom had disturbed us in any particular way.  One couple had played loud bass for a few nights and then apologized profusely when we’d asked them to turn it down.

The new neighbors were LOUD.  Constantly, incessantly loud.  They apparently stomped, slammed doors, dropped heavy things, and moved furniture every day and night.  We heard them moving around at 3 a.m. when we woke to feed Little Boy, and yet they all clomped around and woke us up at 6:30 every morning.  We heard them over white noise, over the TV, and even over earplugs.

Consequently, every time I lay down to sleep, I was bound to be awakened in short order by either the sound of a hungry Little Boy or a loud BANG! from upstairs.  It got to the point where I could no longer relax enough to actually fall asleep, so wound up was I with anticipation of the next sound.  The anxious thoughts simply wouldn’t turn off.

After a few days of this, I adopted the temporary solution of not trying to sleep at all during the day, so that I might fall asleep late at night from sheer exhaustion.  If we hadn’t been caring for a small baby who needed food at night, this might have been an OK idea.  But as it was, my sleep debt just kept accumulating and I found myself running out of energy to cope long before I ran out of hours to be awake.

This is the really hard part to say.

My Little Boy is a precious gift from the universe and I love him.  I always have and always will.  But during the blackest hours of his infancy, I regretted becoming a parent.  I was afraid that we had made a terrible mistake and ruined our lives forever; I was kicking myself for how much I had wanted this child.  There were moments when I wanted to walk out the door, leave my beautiful son and his wonderful father behind, and start a completely new life somewhere else.

It took a while to process this after I wrote it.  When my son smiled at me after his nap, I felt ashamed, as though he could somehow know that I had been ruminating about this dark time.  I debated deleting the whole post, thinking, ‘That time is past and hidden away.  Why bring it up again now?”  And, “Everything’s fine today.  Are you sure you aren’t being overdramatic about this whole PPD experience?”  And yet… things definitely weren’t fine in the early months.  To pretend they were – to say that it was just a minor thing – to bury it all deep inside – that would be to do a disservice to myself and every other mother and father who has suffered. 

I got help.  I drove across town to attend the only postpartum support group that didn’t meet during working hours.  They pointed me in the direction of a good psychiatrist, and the necessary phone calls were made so that I could avoid the typical multi-week wait to be seen.  Antidepressants take a while to kick in, but eventually you notice that the bad episodes are coming less frequently, and you are no longer dreading challenges but tackling them with calm acceptance.

The neighbors upstairs continued to be total jerks, but the medication made it possible for me to sleep.  Usually.  With a loud fan parked right next to my ear and a pillow over my head.   But the universe must have been looking out for us, because an opportunity arose to rent a single-family house from a friend.  Other amazing friends helped us move, and now we have a separate office, a master bedroom that isn’t under the stairs to someone else’s apartment, and windows that are more than a foot from the sidewalk.  Oh, and a garage.  And a yard.  And natural light in every room.  It’s also closer to school.  Seriously, I love this house.  We had to pay two month’s rent to break the lease on our apartment, which I can say unequivocally was the best money I have ever, ever spent.

As this all was happening, Little Boy got older.  He began to sleep for longer stretches of the night (more on that in future posts) and eventually his naps consolidated into a regular daily routine.   He became increasingly interactive, “talking” with us in an adorable baby voice.  At 3 months, he discovered the ability to entertain himself by kicking at the toys hanging from his play gym.  LIFE-CHANGING DISCOVERY.  Now I could do the dishes while he was awake.

Little Boy is still hard work, but our lives have found their new patterns.  He is a darling, happy, curious, excited little man, and I love watching him grow.  Wonderful moments like the one I described at the beginning happen on a daily basis.

There is hope.

3 things you shouldn’t say to a new parent

There are a LOT of “things you shouldn’t say to a new parent” lists floating around the internet, so it’s clearly a topic that new parents feel strongly about.  However, I haven’t found one that includes all of my biggest pet peeves in one place.  Hence this post.

I’m fortunate in that most of my friends and relatives are not jerks, and apparently I give off a sufficiently strong “don’t mess with me” vibe in public that strangers don’t try to randomly offer parenting advice.  As a result, I didn’t encounter many obviously judgmental comments, nor did many people try to ask overly-personal questions.  Most of the time the things on this list were said with good intentions, but please, please, PLEASE – stop saying them to new parents.

1.  “Enjoy every moment!”

No.  Just no.  Show me a person who enjoyed every single moment of their child’s infancy, and I will show who a person who is either lying or has an extremely selective memory.  Even if you are the happiest parent ever depicted on a Hallmark card, there has to be at least one night that you didn’t enjoy getting up at 3 a.m., or one time that you got tired of getting covered in spit-up.

The big reason why you shouldn’t say this, though, is postpartum depression (PPD).  At least 15% of new moms and 10% of new dads are dealing with PPD, and they’re just trying to make it through each moment.  Know what makes you feel even worse when you’re depressed?  Being told how happy you’re supposed to be.

Now that Little Boy is approaching his half-year birthday and I’m past the worst of my own PPD, I can see what these well-wishers were trying to say.  The early months of my child’s life seem in retrospect to have passed so quickly, even though I still remember how agonizingly long they felt at the time.  I can understand the impulse to tell new parents to make sure to cherish that time, to store away in memory how tiny a newborn is, how small and sad their cry, and how they snuggle in your arms in unwavering trust and love.

But I don’t tell those parents to “enjoy every moment.”

2.  “Sleep when the baby sleeps.”

Generally, this too is well-intentioned.  It shows up in a lot of baby care books, often followed by statements like, “The dishes can wait.”  And while the dishes can (usually) wait, there are a lot of reasons why sleeping when the baby sleeps isn’t a magic cure-all.

Maybe the baby only wants to sleep in your arms this week and will wake up complaining three minutes after you set him down.

Maybe when you try to go to bed, you end up lying awake staring at the ceiling, because you’re an adult human and your body isn’t used to going to sleep in the middle of the day.

Maybe the baby is only sleeping in 45-minute segments, so that you can’t finish a full sleep cycle and are awakened from deep sleep feeling worse than you would’ve if you hadn’t tried to sleep at all.

Maybe you have to eat.  Or pee.  Or shower.  Or call your mom because you’re desperate for some adult interaction.  Or call the insurance company because they screwed up your hospital bill for the third time.

3.  “But it’s all worth it, isn’t it?”

If you’re thinking of saying this to cheer up a parent who looks stressed and tired, don’t.  Again, PPD.  There is literally no way you can respond “no” to this and not feel like The World’s Worst Parent.  You probably feel like The World’s Worst Parent if you even considered that some tiny part of you might answer “no.”

This question was most awkward when asked by a non-parent.

Fellow parents, anything to add?  What were the most irritating things you heard when your kiddos were young?