Thank you Reena Burton for this intimate story of living in the shadows of postpartum depression. Your courage and compassion will resonate with so many mothers. Reena is also the artist of all the artwork in this article, you can learn more about her and her artwork in the author box below.
When I was in my last month of pregnancy, I had a dream.
I was in the forest, alone, and about to give birth. There was a heaviness in my body
that felt separate from the heaviness of my baby. It was so strong, like I was being
crushed by something enormous, but from the inside out. I felt paralyzed. As I began to
surrender to the earth, with a sense that I would soon be swallowed down into it, I heard
a rustling coming towards me.
It was footsteps. I felt something very large, and very furry, brush against my hip.
I looked up into the eyes of a beautiful brown bear. I wasn't afraid, even for a second. It
felt as if I'd known her all my life. It felt as if maybe I was her, or she was me? Her eyes
were dark, almond shaped, and stared deeply into my own swollen, tear-soaked pair.
She bent down, shoulders first, and I grasped a handful of her fur in my fingers. My
body felt like all the muscle had suddenly melted from it, but I limply wrapped my legs
around her back. I was just barely hanging on, but somehow as she stood and began to
walk forward, I knew I couldn't fall. Her stride was slow and steady as we weaved
through the branches, her giant padded paws crunching softly on the leaves beneath
them. With each step, her shoulders tilted and rocked me side to side; my body weight
softer, my soul's heaviness held.
I heard the rushing of water ahead, and birds chirping above. We had reached
the bank of a wide and shallow stream, the ground muddy and scattered with rocks. The bear eased me gently off her back, and sat as I lay limp across her feet. Within
seconds, I had given birth. My baby was here, on the outside, but I was painfully aware
of the heaviness still inside me. It felt like I was in quicksand, or filled with cement that
was slowly drying. My limbs were so heavy I could barely lift them to hold my baby. The
mud underneath seemed to be slowly encasing me, its thick density indistinguishable
from the boundary of my skin.
I knew, deep in my heart, I was no good for this child anymore. (I didn't know my
son's gender until he was born, but in my dream I had a daughter).
I had grown her, I had birthed her, and it had taken all of me. I had nothing left. The mere act of breathing felt painfully impossible. I was sure, in my bones, that this baby would be better off without me. I looked at the bear. Her own babies had appeared; three little cubs
wrestling at her feet as she sat, staring at me. She seemed to know, too.
With all the strength I could muster, and breaking every part of my heart, I handed her
my baby. She nestled softly in the bear's large, fluffy arms. The cubs sniffed and licked
her head. They looked... right, all together. They looked complete. Me, I was on the
outside now, looking in. I was a shell of hair and freckled skin, my womb still bloated but
empty. So empty it echoed, like an endless hollow cave inside me. I was just a shadow
of who I had been. Just a memory.
The weight was still crushing me. The water rushing by the bank was just a few
feet away. I couldn't get up, so I began to roll and crawl my way to the stream's edge.
The mud coated my skin as I wriggled my body in excruciating movement. As my body eased into the water, it felt slowly, incrementally lighter. Inching deeper, my unbearable
heaviness was replaced with a cool, flowing spaciousness. I rolled onto my back, feeling
the stream's rocks along my shoulders and hips, smooth from decades of washing away
the grit. I wanted to be one of those rocks.
I took one last glance at my baby, held and loved by her new bear family. My heart
broke again, for the last time. I turned my gaze towards the blue sky, scattered with
wispy clouds. I closed my eyes, and felt the water flow around me, then over me, and
finally, through me. Until there was no me anymore, only the stream. And I was just a
soft, fluid, moving part of it.
I didn't recognize it then, but I see now this dream represented the beginning of
my experience with postpartum depression. The heaviness, the overwhelming fatigue,
the feeling that my loved ones would be better off without me.
I had never experienced depression before, at least not to this extent. I had
however, experienced lifelong anxiety and panic attacks. The tight chest, the waking
nightmares, the hyperventilating, the blurred vision, the irrational fears. Since I'd known
what anxiety felt like, I recognized it when I felt it take hold in during my second
trimester. I had a sense of familiarity with what was happening in me, like running into
an old (and difficult) friend. There was already a foundation built in me, with blueprints
on how I could support myself.
I didn't have this relationship with depression. I couldn't recognize it, we'd never
really met before. Looking back, I can see that I had skated very close to it. I had come
right up to that dam quite a few times, but the pain had never broken through it. I would
just feel what I felt until it moved through me. It never cemented inside me to the point I
couldn't function. I had wondered at those times, is this maybe depression? But never
enough to label it as such. Never enough that I ended up at a doctors office in tears,
desperate for a medication to ease the pain, like I had with my anxiety many times over.
I didn't have any experience offering a comparison, as my belly grew larger and the
burden of sorrow began to settle, crushingly unmoving, on my heart.
So it was then, in those final weeks of oneness with my baby, that I dreamt of the
mama bear. And it was then the dam finally started to crack. I can see many reasons
why it happened then, and why it only continued to grow after my son was born. I can
point to many stresses (an unusual amount in a short period) that made me more
susceptible to PPD. I sometimes lean on these external situations as my for
struggling. But the truth is, I'm not really sure. It all made me more susceptible, for sure.
In terms of finding acceptance and permission, it's just beside the point. The less I focus
on my reasons, the more I'm really learning to love and accept myself in the journey of
Even now, my son is turning five next month, and I'm just coming out of one of
my worst bouts of PPD yet. Some people would say after five years it shouldn't be
"postpartum" anymore; it's just plain depression. And there is truth in that.
It may help to try and see this as the new normal for me. As long as I am calling it
postpartum, I'm expecting it to end at some point, and each time I have another bout, I
feel more confused and ashamed that it's still happening.
Then again, my amazing doula friend says that after you give birth you are
always postpartum, for the rest of your life. This feels more true to me, because there is no going back.
Just like I've had to grieve for and say goodbye to my body before
pregnancy. My abdomen that always stayed flat, no matter how many tacos I ate, and
now looks eternally four months pregnant. My pelvis before I had a constant base-level
discomfort, and my vagina before I had to ice it after making love. My breasts before
they were droopy, deflated, and different sized. My hair before it fell out and started
turning gray. My eyes before they were always shadowed with dark crescent moons
under them. These are things I have had to grieve and accept (er, am still learning to
If the rest of me is forever changed, it makes sense that my brain chemistry
might always be different too. I learned recently that once a neural pathway is formed in
the brain, it is forever there. That's why once the dam broke inside me, there's nothing
to stop my emotions from flowing right through that opening and into the sea of
The hardest part of PPD, for me, has been the shame I feel about it. Especially
my choice to take medication to help me function. I was lucky to find some mother friends early in the journey who share my parenting approach and lifestyle values. I found I could relate to them about things that my family and childhood friends didn't
really understand, like home birth and placenta encapsulation and vaccines. I've been
so grateful for this kinship in so many ways. We talk about herbal medicine and flower
essences and essential oils and yoni steams. We talk about self-care and sleep
deprivation and stay listening and Waldorf schooling. But we don't talk about depression
or anxiety, at least not using those terms. We especially don't talk about medication.
I've been on medication since two months postpartum. It has saved me. It has
saved my family. I also do acupuncture, get massage, go to therapy, meditate, pray,
take flower essences and herbs, keep crystals by my bed, and use essential oils like
crazy. And all of these things save me too, but sometimes they're just not enough for
me. I still need medication to function.
I often feel like I can belong to one camp or the other, but not both. I can be
earthy and holistic or I can be mainstream and medicated; it's very rare that I've found
anyone who accepts all aspects of me as a mother.
Is it possible to be a goddess-loving, organic-eating, moon-worshipping priestess and still need Zoloft to get out of bed every morning? Or Klonopin to not have a panic attack when I drive on the freeway? Or Imitrex for anxiety-induced migraines? Or Lexapro when the Zoloft stopped working? Or Wellbutrin when Lexapro wasn't enough? It must be. I'm living proof.
My friend, one of the few to share with me her mental health experiences and
who also takes medication, recently told me something so wise and comforting.
'There are many kinds of allies', she said. 'And some of them come in little bottles. My
reminder alarm to myself on my phone every morning says: take your mama's little
The longer I carry this burden of depression, the more I find that the very best
antidote is the opposite of shame: forgiveness.
Forgiveness of self, especially, and love of self. My counselor was recently describing to me the difference between sorrow and grief. As I understand it, grieving offers permission to feel whatever we are feeling, and allows it to pass through us. When our feelings are moving and flowing, they can be integrated into our cells, our heart, our psyche. We can feel what we need to feel, learn the lessons we need to learn, and then proceed forward in our life. Free to grow and love, informed with this new wisdom.
Alternatively, sorrow is the lack of permission to feel. It is the repression and
shame of our emotions that cause them to pool and cement, rather than flowing freely.
They can literally back up, like a giant lake, that can then freeze over. This solidifying of
our feelings is what creates that heavy sensation we feel when we become depressed.
I'm still learning how to give myself this permission to feel my feelings. To be an
emotional person experiencing life, and also be a mother. It's really fucking hard.
Something that shifted for me when I got pregnant, and ultimately triggered my postpartum depression, was suddenly being aware of how my emotions might be
impacting my baby.
There is so much pressure on pregnant women not to feel anything negative or
the baby will absorb it. So on top of any grief or pain or anxiety I felt while pregnant,
there was a new added layer of guilt that I was passing that on to my baby.
This is still hard for me, and as my son has grown more aware I feel such fear and guilt
about how my emotions will affect him. I'm working on balancing this with my own right
to feel and be well, and trying to use my emotions as a chance for him to learn about
feelings and instill acceptance about them.
I often think of my mama bear dream, and am always finding new and different
ways of interpreting it. Lately, I've been thinking that the "me" in my dream was my self
before I became a mother, and the mama bear was my self after I had become a
mother. The sense of loss and death I felt was the grief and release of who I had been
before, giving way to the person I would need to become.
Sometimes I even wonder if the baby was me too, my inner child, and my mama bear self needed to learn to mother her before I could mother my son. There are many ways to see it, just like there are many ways to see motherhood.
If there's one lesson my PPD has taught me about pregnancy, birth, and
motherhood; it's that the only way out is through. Recovery, well-being and balance
are a process, not a product. I have to practice forgiveness for myself and my
depression every. single. morning.
Mama, falling down is ok. It's normal. It';s part of it. Forgive yourself for the falls.
For the monstrous collisions and the epic wipeouts. Give yourself permission to find the
unique blend of tools that are going to help you get back up. Find your trusted people, and maybe you need three of them. Speak your truth; maybe it's the truth for others around you and your courage will liberate them, too.
Remember that retreating back into the shadow is not a failure; it is a season, like winter. Getting the right kinds help and support for you and your family is as natural and diverse a process as finding the right outerwear for your climate.
On those long, dark days when it seems winter will never end; remember that it
does, every damn year. The annual, unfailing return of spring is the most effective
talisman when lost in depression. Just as the sun will set later, the ice will melt away,
and the buds will break open; you, Mama Bear, will always come back into the light.
Check out more of Reena Burton's artwork here.
Click here to visit Postpartum Support International for resources and a free support line.