I recently learned that a childhood friend of mine suffered from post partum depression after the birth of her first child. Like so many new moms, she didn’t recognize the symptoms right away, and it took her even longer to share her story once the depression had passed. Lots of accounts of PPD are floating around online, but I think this one is especially poignant for a few reasons:
- the author is a friend
- she is a childbirth educator, doula and all around mom-helper by trade
- her clever article sheds a different sort of light on what it feels like to be depressed at a time when you “should” be happy
A fairy tale for the not-so-fairy tale experience of post partum depression
Not so long ago, and not that far away, in a land of angels, there was a beautiful Princess who wanted nothing more than a baby of her own. Her Prince had not arrived yet, so she helped other mothers have their babies. Each time she watched a baby being born, she would say to herself quietly, ‘Someday, I will be on the other side, and the baby will be mine.’
She searched high and low for the father of her would-be children, but she lived in a strange land where the Princes were very busy with their hairstyles, and their Prince out-fits, and none of them seemed to be the right one. So the Princess kept at her calling, her work with mothers, and waited as patiently as she could, counting the days until her baby would come.
One day, the Princess met her Prince. She didn’t know right away, but the Prince stayed close, and in time it became clear they were destined to marry. Just 12 days after the wedding, the Princess welcomed a baby into her belly. There was much joy and celebration. Finally the Princess had her dream. A baby was coming to her!
One thing surprised the Princess very much. From her work, she thought she had a deep faith in birth and mothers. She expected to feel bliss, anticipation, and calm delight as she waited for her baby to arrive. Instead, she was very scared. She went to the woods and sat under a wise tree and asked the tree what she should do. Only silence came back to her.
So she began to gather the things she needed to have a baby. She built a place where all the mothers could come together to learn, and talk, and listen to one another. She learned she was not alone. She found a wise woman who would stand by her and help her birth her baby. The wise woman’s house was built into a tree, and she smelled like burning pinon bark. The wise woman said to the Princess: ‘I cannot carry you over the coals to motherhood. You must walk there alone.’
The day came when it was time for the Princess to give birth. She was very nervous. She tried to put it off. For days, she fought her body. “Not now, not now’ the Princess said. ‘Please, please, I want to bring your baby to you’ her body pleaded. ‘One more thing, one more task’ the Princess busied herself with distractions, scared to begin the walk.
Soon the Princess’s body began to take over. The Princess began to walk the birthing walk, not sure if she would make it through. The wise woman arrived and built a fire. She didn’t look at the Princess, but sang a simple song and busied herself. The Prince and the Princess worked through the pains together. The Princess couldn’t believe that everyone else was so calm. She was sure she was not going to have a baby. Something had to be wrong.
Finally the Princess found a place to bury her head so she couldn’t see anyone. She and her baby began to work together. She could hear the voices around her, but she was no longer listening. Her hand was on her baby’s hair. With each push, she knew he was closer. Soon her baby was at the gate, pressing towards his first breath, and finally she knew she could do it. The Princess was becoming a Queen, a mother, the mother to a tiny perfect son.
His eyes were her light. His smell was her breath. His life was her purpose.
They were in love.
In the days after the birth, The sun poured down on the healing Princess and her tiny boy. The little baby began to thrive, but the Princess did not. There was a darkness that seemed to hover around her. Her body had weakened after the long birth and her mind struggled to find its new way. Her baby needed milk at all hours of night, and the exhaustion took the Princess to a dark, dark place. Her tears flowed heavy. Her eyes became vacant. Months passed. The Queen, as a mother, felt older and sadder than she ever had as a Princess. How could this perfect angel boy, the love of all of her life, be bringing this sadness to her?
Then she remembered the Invisible Dragon.
There was a Dragon in the kingdom that could never be slain, because he was invisible. Many had tried, but he would always get away. He would enter a house, and sit very close to one member of the household and breathe his cold, nervous breath into their own breath. Slowly at first, and then more and more, until his breath was in their own lungs, and their own thoughts were no longer their own. The Dragon had visited her sister and her father, and each had taken a year to fight him out of their house.
The Queen took a deep breath. At the end of the breath, she felt it. It was the only way to know that the Invisible Dragon had arrived. If you took a very long breath, the Dragon’s breath could only fill part of your lungs and then the rest of your breath was your own. As her breath returned, the Queen felt a warm sadness as she connected to herself for the first time in a long while. She must have been too busy with the baby, and missed the cold gust of air as the Dragon entered her home.
The Queen knew what she had to do. She began to breathe. Full, deep breaths of fire. Soft slow ujayu breaths, all the breaths that she had learned from the kingdom’s breathing teachers. And the breath that the Dragon hated the most. The breath of loving-kindness. The Queen would picture herself in her own heart, calm and happy. She would surround herself with golden light. The Dragon hated this because he was a sad creature and couldn’t live that close to happiness. It made him sick.
Next, the Queen walked into the sunshine. Every day, she let the sun’s warm rays spill across her face. The Dragon really hated that. She breathed in Satisfaction. This caused the Dragon to cough and sputter. She looked into the eyes of the people around her, her son, her loving Prince, and her family. She asked them for help.
She began to nourish her body with the Kingdom’s best foods. She brought in the women who mothered mothers, and they prepared nourishing feasts for her. Dark green leaves from the kingdom’s garden, Saffron rice, warm coconut pudding. She filled her belly with good lentils and mung beans, and broths to nourish her blood. The village healer added herbs for her adrenals and her liver.
She went into her belly and drew the muscles back from the soft home she had created for her son. She knew her belly must be strong to leave no space for the Dragon. She went to her yoga practices and breath by breath, stretch by stretch, she found her body.
She taught her baby to sleep. She told him how much she had loved their special time together in the night, but that now it was time for both of them to sleep. That very night, her little son kept his eyes closed until sunrise. The Queen woke up happy.
And last, she talked to the Dragon. ‘Listen,’ she said, ‘I know why you’re here. I was moving very fast and needed you to teach me about slowing down and taking rest. I needed to face this darkness so I could guide others back from their own darkness, and know the darkest corners of my heart. But now I am ready to love and celebrate this baby that I have waited my whole life for. I cannot do that with your breath in my body. I thank you for your teaching, and I need to let you go. I will take your lesson of stillness with me. I will tell the other mothers about the ways to move through the darkness, and the importance of support, good food, and healers. I will take time every day to focus on my self, my breath, and my heart.’
The Dragon shed one invisible tear on the ground and galumphed out of her door. He was sad to go, as he loved the Princess, but he knew that what she said was true. Where true happiness was, he could not survive. He was a creature that fed on the dark. He went back to his cave and curled up in his cold stone bed.
The Queen felt something change. Her room looked different. She lifted the dirty clothing off the floor, and dusted off her shelves. She threw out a vase of putrid water and dead flowers and replaced it with three white daisies. She sprayed rose water into the air. She lifted her voice in a simple song that she used to sing to the baby while he nursed. She placed a picture of her beautiful son and her loving King near the window.
And she placed a velvet cushion in one corner to honor her breathing time and her stillness.
Just then she heard peals of laughter. Her King came in, their bright bubbly son in his arms, and gave her a kiss. He noticed her eyes were bright and calm. They gazed deep into each other’s eyes. “Mom-mom-mom-mom-mom!” her son said with a squeal.
Yes honey, I’m your mom-mom. She said and kissed him on the nose.
Epilogue: This fairy tale came about when I was trying to write about Postpartum depression. Writing about depression is difficult, as I didn’t feel like myself during that time. I didn’t journal, I didn’t blog. It’s like writing about a dream. Somehow the fairy tale structure felt more appropriate. I never expected to suffer from Postpartum depression. I had seen it in many mothers before me. I knew what to look for. But strangely when it hit, I didn’t recognize it. Partly, because I was depressed. And partly because I didn’t know what depression felt like. Like birth itself, I knew far more about diagnosing it from the outside than I knew about the inside. I know that in the next pregnancy and post partum period, my husband and I will create a lot more support, and a clear game plan, should that Dragon rear it’s ugly head again. And I’m already seeing my acupuncturist (www.drjakefratkin.com) to prepare (and repair) my body even before conceiving, and will continue that care throughout. As well, we will employ a post-partum doula to help after the birth, and a sleep consultant to help sleep happen as close to six months as possible (my son didn’t sleep through the night until seventeen months, which had a profound effect on my mental health.) I can happily say now, a week away from my son’s second birthday, that the Dragon has gone, and the joy is back. I wish for every mother to know how important it is to be mentally healthy during the time of childbearing and to find a great support team to help make that happen.