I spent most of my relationship with my husband living in two different countries. After 5 years of back and forth between the US and Canada, I officially immigrated in March 2016. A month later, I got pregnant. We planned it, we knew we’d gotten super lucky... but it was fast and a lot of changes all at once. I had just finished a PhD program and maternity leave in the US being such a joke, I decided not to look for a job. I just kept writing and focused on welcoming our baby. But as someone a bit obsessive when it comes to new projects, I quickly stopped writing and threw myself into the baby thing. The ‘To Do’ lists were endless. I don’t think I wanted everything to be perfect, but I wanted to be ready. I imagine I wanted to feel in control. And then Lou came on January 1st 2017. I had been hoping for a natural birth, but as with anything that has to do with babies, it didn’t happen that way. After 14 hours of labor, I demanded the epidural, which is a fucking miracle from God. I napped a bit and she was born around noon. I think I was happy. Stoned and bleeding, but happy. I remember there was a lot of people doing a lot of medical stuff in the room. Not as relaxing as I had envisioned – you know, expectations. It also meant a lot of people poking and touching me, which I hate regardless, but as someone who also went through sexual assault and domestic violence in a previous relationship, I just couldn’t handle it very well. The staff knew about my discomforts and were kind, but it was stressful. In the end, my first 24hrs of postpartum were mostly about filling out paperwork, doing tests to the baby, not being allowed to sleep with her in the bed for liability purposes, and fighting with the cafeteria to get food. I just wanted to be left alone with my child and my husband. I was really anxious and instead of letting go and enjoying my healthy baby, I kept focusing on what I had expected of the experience.
Coming back home, I felt a bit better. Mike used his two weeks of vacation to stay home with me and it was great. I think we were able to create a sort of bubble of love. We watched movies. We cried and listened to music. It was snowing and pretty outside. Then my mom came for two weeks when Mike went back to work. It was hard to let go of this little bubble. I fought it very aggressively. And for some reason, I didn’t want to let her help. Maybe it was a way to show her that I was in control. I eventually caved in, but too late. I remember one night we were giving Lou a bath. My mom had put a little washcloth on her belly so she didn’t get cold. I didn’t know to do that. And suddenly, I kind of realized the extent of my ignorance. If I didn’t know how to keep my daughter warm with a washcloth during bath time, what else didn’t I know? When my mom left, I found myself very lonely: I was a French-speaking Quebecer living in Triangle, VA. My walls were shaking because of bombing tests the Marines did on a daily basis at the Quantico base a few miles down the road. Trump had just been elected in the US while in Canada, we had playboy-Trudeau in office. My nipples were cracked, my vagina was a wreck, my baby wasn’t sleeping... In retrospect, everything was just fine – life with a newborn! – but it didn’t feel like that. I tried to do all the things for a while, but around her fourth month, I stopped showering and making the bed. I was worrying nonstop about her not gaining enough weight. I started having massive panic attacks at night. I eventually saw an amazing counselor who specializes in perinatal disorders. Within a week, she’d made me see a doctor who put me on meds. But they didn’t work and caused more attacks. One afternoon I was folding laundry while Mike and Lou were upstairs. I could hear them giggling together and it became suddenly very clear. I had to die: they no longer needed me. That night I checked myself in the ER.
Despite my efforts, I didn’t get better. After another week of not sleeping and crying all night, my counselor worked out a way for me to stay at the Perinatal and Mood disorder psychiatric unit at UNC. The only unit like that in the country. They only have room for 5 mothers at a time, so I got lucky to even be admitted. I packed a little bag and cried the whole 6-hour drive to North Carolina. I couldn’t believe I was about to check-in to a mental hospital. I couldn’t believe I was abandoning my family. I couldn’t believe I would only see them a couple hours a day, never at night, and have to pump around the clock to still be able to feed her. I was scared. But the thing is, I ended up loving the hospital. I was able to see specialized psychiatrists, to talk about the right meds, and risk vs benefits to breastfeeding moms. I met with counselors, did group therapy sessions, and painted my fingernails for no other reason than self-care. Mike would come with Lou at lunch and in the evening, and I was – surprisingly – relieved to see them leave at 7 pm. I met amazing women who were as hurt or even more than me. I had gotten my routine back and I thrived with the nurses’ help, which let’s be honest, are the true angels of every hospital. I have no shame in saying that they saved my life. Not because I wanted to die anymore, but because they told me to put my phone away, put Google and the mommy groups away, and to trust my gut. Again, I rationally knew all that, but because of them I finally understood that motherhood was something you learned, that there was a life after having babies, and that routine would come back eventually. I needed to be taught how to trust others and to care for myself.
There was one nurse in particular at the hospital – Carole – whom I adored. She was calm and motherly. If I had a question or was drowning in anxiety, she would be reassuring and empowering. She talked to the doctor so I could go outside and take walks with Lou and Mike, even if we weren’t allowed to leave the unit by ourselves. She switched her shift on my last day so she could hug me goodbye... When I came back home, my husband made me a bracelet engraved with the phrase "What would Carole do?" so I could remember to be kind to myself. I’d be lying if I said that life suddenly became super easy. I still had major fallbacks, therapy kicked my ass, and adjusting to meds took months. Eventually, the antidepressants kicked-in. I realized afterwards I should have been on them a long time ago. It didn’t change my creativity or make me 'lesser than.' It just helped me cope with day-to-day life and -- surprise, surprise! -- be more productive. Lou now has a happier mom. She’s almost walking, saying ‘Maman,' and learning to give me kisses. She’s turning one in a few weeks. And this project... well, this project grew in my mind one night at the hospital. I finally had room to think and dream, and today, I feel empowered because of it. It’s amazing to go to think, "This year I became a mother AND created a community that supports and acknowledges mothers." We are all in it together, despite our different experiences. So yeah. I end my first year postpartum with tired eyes, a full heart, and so many things to care for. Starting with myself.