My children deserve a mother who’s engaged and of sound body and mind. And I deserve to leave behind the shame I’d felt.
My son came into this world screaming on February 15, 2019.His lungs were hearty, his body was both small and strong, and despite being 2 weeks early he was a “healthy” size and weight.
We bonded immediately.
He latched without issue. He was on my breast before my stitches were closed.
This, I assumed, was a good sign. I had struggled with my daughter. I didn’t know where to place her or how to hold her, and the uncertainty made me anxious. Her cries cut like a million daggers, and I felt like a failure — a “bad mom.”
But the hours I spent in the hospital with my son were (dare I say) pleasant. I felt calm and composed. Things weren’t just good, they were great.
We were going to be okay, I thought. I was going to be okay.
However, as the weeks went by — and sleep deprivation set in — things changed. My mood changed. And before I knew it, I was paralyzed by angst, sadness, and fear. I was talking to my psychiatrist about upping my meds.
The good news was that my antidepressants could be adjusted. They were considered “compatible” with breastfeeding. However, my anxiety medications were a no-go as were my mood stabilizers, which — my doctor warned — could be problematic because taking antidepressants alone can induce mania, psychosis, and other problems in people with bipolar disorder. But after weighing the benefits and the risks, I decided some medication was better than no medication.
Things were good for a while. My mood improved, and with the help of my psychiatrist, I was developing a solid self-care plan. And I was still breastfeeding, which I considered a real win.
But I began losing control shortly after my son hit 6 months. I was drinking more and sleeping less. My runs went from 3 to 6 miles overnight, without practice, preparation, or training.
I was spending impulsively and frivolously. In the span of 2 weeks, I purchased numerous outfits and an absurd amount of cartons, crates, and containers to “organize” my house — to attempt to take control of my space and life.
I bought a washer and dryer. We installed new shades and blinds. I got two tickets to a Broadway show. I booked a short family vacation.
I was also taking on more work than I could handle. I am a freelance writer, and I went from filing 4 or 5 stories a week to more than 10. But because my thoughts were racing and erratic, most needed edits.
I had plans and ideas but struggled with follow-through.
I knew I should call my doctor. I knew this frantic pace was one I could not maintain, and that eventually I would crash. My increased energy, confidence, and charisma would be swallowed by depression, darkness, and post-hypomanic remorse, but I was afraid because I also knew what this call would mean: I would have to stop breastfeeding.
My 7-month-old son would need to be weaned immediately, losing the nutrition and comfort he found in me. His mom.
But the truth is he was losing me to my mental illness. My mind was so distracted and displaced that he (and my daughter) weren’t getting an attentive or good mother. They weren’t getting the parent they deserve.
Plus, I was formula fed. My husband, brother, and mother were formula fed, and we all turned out fine. Formula provides babies with the nutrients they need to grow and thrive.
Did that make my decision easier? No.
I still felt an immense amount of guilt and shame because “breast is best,” right? I mean, that’s what I was told. That’s what I was led to believe. But the nutritional benefits of breast milk are of little concern if mom is not healthy. If I am not healthy.
My doctor continues to remind me I need to put my oxygen mask on first. And this analogy is one that has merit, and one which researchers are just beginning to understand.
A recent commentary in the journal Nursing for Women’s Health is advocating for more research into maternal stress, related not just to breastfeeding but to the intense pressure put on moms to nurse their babies.
“We need more research on what happens to a person who wants to breastfeed and who can’t. What do they feel? Is this a risk factor for postpartum depression?” asked Ana Diez-Sampedro, the author of the article and a clinical associate professor at the Florida International University Nicole Wertheim College of Nursing & Health Sciences.
“We think that for mothers, breastfeeding is the best option,” Diez-Sampedro continued. “But that’s not the case for some mothers.” That was not the case for me.
So, for the sake of myself and my children, I am weaning my baby. I am buying bottles, pre-mixed powders, and ready-to-drink formulas. I am getting back on my mental health meds because I deserve to be safe, stable, and healthy. My children deserve a mother who is engaged and of sound body and mind, and to be that person, I need help.
I need my meds.
Kimberly Zapata is a mother, writer, and mental health advocate. Her work has appeared on several sites, including the Washington Post, HuffPost, Oprah, Vice, Parents, Health, and Scary Mommy — to name a few — and when her nose isn’t buried in work (or a good book), Kimberly spends her free time running Greater Than: Illness, a nonprofit organization that aims to empower children and young adults struggling with mental health conditions. Follow Kimberly on Facebook or Twitter.