Motherhood: Post-Partum Happiness

My good friend Britney Mills has compiled a collection of stories about motherhood that is now available on Amazon. And my story is in it!

The Motherhood Trek: Stories of the Smiles, Tears, and Surprises of Being a Mother

Check out the full book:


Here is my personal story that appears in the book.

Post-Partum Happiness

I became a mother without my own mother there to help me. No, she had not died. She and I were estranged because she hated my husband. But that’s not even the real reason. You see, I believe my mother has borderline personality disorder, although undiagnosed, as most borderlines are. Becoming a mother without my own mother, and with the shadow of her mental illness and the trauma of my childhood hanging over me, made for a difficult transition.

I remember holding my infant daughter on my lap facing me. I was overwhelmed, exhausted, alone, and confused. I had given up a good job in which I had many friends, positive feedback for my work, and a supportive network of professionals interested in the research and writing I did. Now I was home alone with a tiny person and I was failing. I did not know how to make her happy. She was a beautiful baby with lots of dark hair, but she cried a lot. I look back now and realize that she probably cried a lot because I had no idea what I was doing and I probably made her nervous. But in that moment, when I held her on my lap, the recent memories of all of the crying and attempted soothing floating through the back of my mind, I thought, “I just want you to be happy.”

And I cried, realizing that my own mother did not care whether or not I was happy at all. I was not happy.

But I was not alone. Soon after that, on a morning during which I was feeling overwhelmed and incapable, on a morning where I had not yet dressed or put on makeup (unusual for me as I’m an early riser and a fastidious groomer), I heard a knock on my door. I was embarrassed to open it in my state of dishevelment, but I did anyway. I needed to talk to somebody, and I had a feeling that this would fill that need.

A neighbor stood there, her arms holding out a gift. I immediately burst into tears and Brenda took over, coming into my house, putting her arms around me, and settling me on the couch. She held my daughter and told me her own story of becoming a mother. She too had been overwhelmed. She too had cried a lot. She too did not know how to soothe her oldest child. And she too remembered feeling alone.

Brenda stayed with me for an hour or so, answering my questions and suggesting that I talk with some of our other acquaintances about breastfeeding, as it was going but it was going painfully. I took her up on it. Another neighbor Kelly began calling me and visiting to make sure I felt like I was supported, and I quickly learned to breastfeed without pain. Brenda regularly called to see how I was doing, and even babysat my daughter a few times so that I could go to the store or get out of the house and feel like myself again.

One of the suggestions Brenda made was to visit my doctor and talk about my feelings. I did, and my doctor declared me to have nothing more than the “Baby Blues.”

Ten years and another daughter later, I found myself sitting in another doctor’s office for my yearly gynecological checkup. I could not stop crying, and the year before that, I had cried as well. My doctor gently suggested that maybe I was dealing with more than just stress. She knew about my childhood and the difficulties I had faced with my mother. She suggested that I try some medicine for depression.

I had been taught, from my mother with borderline personality disorder, that taking medicine was not something to be done with regularity. I was also taught, through several minor childhood illnesses, that my mother paid more attention to me when I was sick and that she liked it when her children were ill enough to be taken to the hospital. I also learned that therapy was not for normal people, and that we must pretend to be normal people as much as possible. When my sister visited a therapist in high school, my mother promptly removed my sister from care when the therapist suggested that my mother come in with her.

Mental illness has a complicated relationship with my family. On the one hand, it seems to run through the family like an unbreakable chain: alcoholic great grandparents who were abusive; a strong-willed and unkind grandfather; a great uncle who had killed himself; a grandmother who often locked herself in her room to “rest;” a cousin who had dropped out of work and college to deal with sadness and anger; an aunt and uncle who were abusive and unkind; a mother who also locked herself in her room and whose personality would swing from cheery and kind to dark and scary without warning; a sister who cut herself; an uncle who had committed suicide; and on it continues. On the other hand, we all tend to ignore it with a twisted sense of nobility about not needing help and not being “broken.”

Was it really that hard to believe that I may have been suffering from depression for the last ten years?

I thought back over how I had been feeling lately. Yes, with each birth I had gone through a period of sadness. With no sleep, that was normal, I thought. I loved my children. My girls were the most important accomplishment to me, although I was very close to finishing a dissertation for a Ph.D. Most of my thoughts were about trying to be a good mother, trying not to be my mother, and trying to be calm and happy all of the time. I had received a blessing years before telling me that I would accomplish much and that I would be good at many things, but that nothing would bring me more happiness and joy than being a good mother. I knew this was true. It was part of the fabric of my soul and childhood experiences to want to be a good mother, to want to be better than my own had been. The greatest desire of my childhood heart was to grow up and create a happy family, the opposite of what I had been raised in.

However, I had also recently started spending much of my time in my closet. I liked the back corner, where it was dark, where the clothes surrounded me, and where I could curl up into a ball and cry and pray. I could ask God about why I did not have a mother who loved me. I could ask God about Heavenly Mother. Was she there? Did she care? How could I feel her love to replace the love I did not have?

I often cried at the drop of a hat. I could handle my university responsibilities: teaching, research, and academic conferences, but I could not handle being at church, surrounded by people with seemingly loving families. I spent an entire summer crying at church because the themes of the lessons were about families. People shared their happiness at having an “eternal” family and how much they appreciated their parents raising them so well.

I found myself feeling angry, resentful, hurt, and left out. I sobbed through church, often inconsolably. I frequently went home early to crawl into bed or return to my corner in the dark closet where I felt safe and surrounded. It was there my husband and children would find me when they returned home. They were bewildered and worried.

When my doctor, with concern and love in her eyes, asked if I wanted to try some anti-depressants, I finally took her up on it, but I felt panicky. Would I become addicted? Did this mean that I was not strong enough to handle life? Did it make me a bad person? Or worse, a bad mother?

No. Taking anti-depressants did not mean any of that. It meant that I felt like myself again. It meant that I was better able to give my love and attention to my children to help them face their own difficulties. It meant that I could handle stress, especially emotional stress, from sources that once seemed villainous but were in reality innocuous.

In the two years since I have found a way to heal and be stronger, one of my daughters has been diagnosed with depression, and I have been able to make decisions for her health that are best for her, instead of making decisions out of fear or taboo leftover from my long family history of mental illness and shame.

I’d like to say that I’m a better mother now. But that’s not true. I have always been a good mother. Good mothers love their children, and I have always loved my children. I have simply found a way to care for myself and to love myself. Motherhood often seems to demand total self-sacrifice, but I have found that self-care is just as necessary and perhaps more important. I’ve always cared for my children, but now I can care for myself and we have been able to balance the difficulties of my own trauma and emotions with the challenges and milestones my children are experiencing.

We are happy, together.

18 thoughts on “Motherhood: Post-Partum Happiness

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  1. Emily, your experience is very touching and beautifully written. In so far as you are a mother, I think it to be doubly so. You appear to be a thoughtful and loving mother to your own daughters. But, as a writer, you are also a mother of works that shape ideas and experiences on a path paved in words. You do that very well too. As one familiar with depression, anxiety and suicide in my own life and family, I find many resonances with what you have shared. Thank you for another inspiring post. 🙂

      1. You are welcome, Emily. Trial and error have taught us much, a sifting of what is life-giving and what is not. At this stage of my life, in mid-forties, it’s like a mixed blessing, which, at times, can be a great resource in life too. 🙂

  2. Beautiful piece, Emily! And congratulations on having it included in the book! 🙂

    “The greatest desire of my childhood heart was to grow up and create a happy family, the opposite of what I had been raised in.” – This, you have achieved!

    1. I sure hope so! I think it is an ongoing process and I’ve learned that happiness is an accumulation and an action, not necessarily something that just I (as the mom) am responsible for. Thanks for the kind words!

  3. Thank you for sharing your story – there is medicine in it for everyone who reads it. I’m glad that it is included in the anthology (congratulations!), and mostly, I’m glad for your strong instinct and determination of self-love and self-care for yourself and your daughters!

    1. Thank you, Leslie! I do hope that by sharing that others will feel more able to talk openly about their own struggles. I suspect that so many of us go through this and yet nobody likes to admit it.

  4. Wonderful read! I may have to buy your friend’s book! I am expecting a little boy soon and it cures my worries to read other mommy’s stories.

  5. I’ve been consumed by work recently but something made me go into WordPress today and look up your blog, and then I clicked on this post. Wow. Very similar issues and thoughts have been on my mind lately, including and especially this morning, and I am grateful I found your words. I can relate to a lot of your feelings and experiences here. I am sorry to hear of your daughter’s diagnosis, but I am confident that with early and caring intervention (by you and your husband) she will be fine. I think my life would have had a different trajectory had I had support growing up. I’m sorry, too, that you’d been struggling with depression as a mother. I don’t think I had realized that, but I’m with you. Thanks so much for writing this, Emily. Much love to you!

    1. Love to you, too, Cecilia! Thank you for your thoughts. My daughter is doing much much better, and actually just “graduated” from therapy, so we are happy to see improvement. I hope you are doing well. I am glad you looked up my blog! I hope to see you blogging more soon, but I understand how work goes. I’ve been swamped too and my blog has definitely suffered.

      1. I’m so glad she’s doing much better! I imagine that many parents would miss the signs…it must be so easy to unless you have personal experience with depression.
        I am doing okay, and I have been thinking a lot about coming back to writing, maybe speaking out more about mental health/illness. So actually your post resonated with and encouraged me more than you know!
        I hope your new position is going well – congratulations again! (and congratulations on your entry in the book – I realized I hadn’t mentioned it!)

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