I Couldn’t Look at My Newborn Babies

Being a workaholic millennial, I was convinced, for a long time, that motherhood was a trap; a patriarchal scam that kept women in perpetual servitude to both earning and caregiving—and why would anyone do that to themselves in this society?

So, for a long time, I didn’t want children, though I held space for maybe in time, with the right person, with the right resources.

In time, the right person and the right resources became abundant, along with a subtle but insidious primal longing. I took the plunge. After a year of infertility, a PCOS diagnosis, and surgery, we went from two medicated cycles to two fetuses.

It would be twins.

Initially, the two-for-one-special was hard to swallow, much like any food at all for the first 18 weeks of pregnancy, but it settled in as the morning sickness began to wane and my belly grew two increasingly animated babies.

Brett Murphy Hunt Postpartum Depression
Brett Murphy Hunt pictured with her husband (L) and her newborn babies (R).
Brett Murphy Hunt

The remainder of the pregnancy, up until delivery, was mostly unremarkable, save for extra ultrasounds as expected with twins and a pesky two-vessel cord that doctors weren’t concerned about.

Then, at 32 weeks, my water broke prematurely while we were staying up in Vermont—I “PPROM’d” as I’d come to learn. I sat in the hospital day after day, leaking amniotic fluid, being pumped full of antibiotics, and hoping to avoid infection and get the babies to 34 weeks.

On the 12th day, sunrise saw me working from my hospital bed, as everyone expected from me. By midday, a fever and pain. And by evening, an emergency resulting in a chorioamnionitis diagnosis and subsequent C-section.

I’m skipping over a lot of painful details, but suffice it to say it was fast, traumatic, and landed my twins in the NICU.

On my back, arms spread, numbed, and crying, I saw both babies out of the corner of my eye as they were swiftly pulled out of me and taken immediately for evaluation. Hours later, I was wheeled into the NICU to behold them properly, the last to meet my children among relevant parties.

I would realize later that something was wrong immediately. I knew, intellectually, I loved these two 3lb beings, but the emotion didn’t flood me. Then again, as a first-time mother, I didn’t exactly know what to feel.

I was still catheterized and drugged as I touched my daughter’s face—as if she were a cute new puppy, but nothing more.

We remained in Vermont, staying with the babies in the UVM Medical Center NICU for several hours each day, which was 45 minutes from our Vermont residence in the Champlain Islands.

After three weeks, an infection scare, feeding troubles, temperature regulation issues, and lots of breast pumping, my daughter was ready to come home—just a few days before her brother.

What should have been a happy, momentous occasion evoked, from me, crippling anxiety and panic. I was to sit in the back seat with her on the way home, one of her NICU nurses told me, and I wondered why I didn’t want to.

Here’s a paradox for you: The first night home with my precious, healthy baby girl was the worst night of my entire 34 years. Every snort, every cry sent me into sheer panic. I couldn’t even look at her. The storm was kicking up. I writhed in bed, hyperventilating with tears and pain, both from the incision and the depths of my heart, waking up only briefly to see my husband burping her in the corner of our dark bedroom.

Something had overtaken me, grabbed me fully, and embodied me. I thumbed through the NICU family packet and read that what I was feeling could be the “baby blues,” a cutely alliterative, Dr.-Seuss-esque term that infantilizes the extreme emotional turmoil of new mothers.

In my haze, I had the half-thought that if baby blues were a faucet leak, I was experiencing a typhoon. The guidelines are a little less clear-cut for the latter.

My son came home three days later, and the torturous minutes of my new state of being creaked by as we made our way back to Massachusetts to stay with family.

I called my therapist and had my husband speak to her, explaining that the situation had become dire. I expressed wanting to die, to disappear. I felt the need to repeatedly sob and grasp my husband, apologizing for my existence, for my inadequacy.

It was as if a doppelganger were acting in my place, having disposed of every recognizable personality trait I possessed. I was possessed.

I attended newborn checkups shaking, in tears. I took that insert-expletive-here Edinburgh survey at least five times. I had episodes of extreme sobbing with that unbecoming heaving sound at the tail end of each breath.

Unable to get a grip, I would grab my husband’s arm as if I were clinging to life itself. I endured each interaction with the babies with the patience of someone gripping a scalding hot mug, dying to put it down.

A formerly confident businesswoman, professor, and writer, I became a subdued, bumbling shell. Early pictures reveal my shoulders hunched forward uncharacteristically, unable to square up to the world itself.

The weeks went by. I did all the things. My psychiatrist increased the Prozac by 5mg, then 10. I joined a support group, got two part-time nannies, which I am privileged to afford. I started EMDR for my traumatic birth experience.

My husband took over waking up with the babies most nights because I couldn’t handle it, so I even began sleeping through the whole night. Yet in the realm of darkness I remained. My feet felt stuck in molasses, my body engulfed in a wet shroud that weighed on me as I rose from bed each morning—through sheer willpower alone.

Most painfully, I knew the real me loved her children deeply, but I struggled to even be around them.

With an overwhelming hunch that something else was going on with my body, I consulted with my PCP to test my thyroid, my vitamins, and whatever else she thought relevant. Despite iron levels coming back clearly off, she seemed unconcerned.

As if I were nothing but a meme, not a suffering, desperate human, she effectively said: “I guess you could take some iron, some people are sensitive to that.” And that was that.

A deep fear danced in my mind: What happens when the help doesn’t work? While I was convinced I would remain deeply debilitated for the remainder of my years, a tiny sliver of my fighting spirit had yet to be squelched.

I consulted a functional medicine MD who ordered a full panel of levels, from hormones to vitamins and everything in between. She prescribed B12 injections for my extremely low levels as well as low-dose bio-identical progesterone pills. It seemed too simple, but I was out of options, and I trusted her confidence.

After almost five months of sheer torture, I was 60 percent better in 72 hours on this regiment. I was still a little fragile and anxious, but the dark thoughts, the what have I done and have I made a mistake becoming a mother trickery had evaporated.

I struggled to process the order of events that had occurred, how much pain I had endured reaching out in every way I knew how, only for the root of the problem to evade me repeatedly.

I was shaken to my core. The whole time, I had wondered what was so defective with me, personally, that the standard procedures didn’t take. Anonymous, depressed Redditor moms, whom I stalked incessantly in search of solidarity, claimed over and over how medication and therapy made them feel “so much better” and “like a different person.” Others claimed their post-partum depression disappeared as soon as they started sleeping.

And then, it hit me, amid a clarity of mind I hadn’t experienced in months: Terming all mentally afflicted mothers with “postpartum depression” is about as specific as proclaiming a surgery patient has “post-surgical complications.”

With the latter, you’d want to know: How? Where? and Can you give some context? before treating it. With the former, you hand over an SSRI prescription and say “find a therapist” as a panacea.

In my case, I had a vitamin deficiency and a severe hormone imbalance, the mental illness was just the symptom. In another woman’s case, the severe sleep deprivation may be the core of the problem, with depression and anxiety being the byproducts. Still another might be brainwashed by the “breast is best” propaganda machine, and situational anxiety episodes arise as a result.

As articles have repeated ad nauseam, women’s health remains underexplored, underfunded, and ignored. I ruminate on what women of lesser means and privilege than I are relegated to: A prison sentence of torture within their own mind, which could have possibly been fixed with adequate testing and $15 at CVS.

How many women need to jump off a bridge or strangle their children before we elevate the protocol for postpartum mental health?

We are a society preoccupied with inclusivity and details, yet we maintain archaic, catch-all diagnoses for women’s issues, tossing a singular label on all flavors of new moms.

Postpartum depression is not a linear, one-dimensional disorder; instead, it masks a multitude of difficulties that women of all walks of life experience differently, sometimes with overlapping symptoms of difficult mental health issues.

It’s not a matter of mere semantics; accurately pinpointing the underlying ailment is quite literally a life-or-death matter.

While I am fortunate to have stepped back into myself and begun experiencing deep love for my children as I once envisioned, I was right about one thing: For as long as we stay as we are, the underpinning of motherhood will remain a patriarchal trap that only the financially, mentally, and socioeconomically able can sometimes fumble through.

I imagine a world for my daughter where her care team tests and follows up on all relevant risk factors if she chooses to have a baby. But it has to start with caring about women’s health in the first place.

Brett Murphy Hunt owns Brett E. Murphy Tutoring & Consulting, Inc. She also teaches English at Northeastern University and MBA Courses at Assumption University. She has been published in the Los Angeles Times; Shakespeare in Southern Africa; River, River; The Horn Pond Review, and more. She lives in the Boston area.

All views expressed in this article are the author’s own.

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