I’d like all new moms to know that right after giving birth is NOT the only time you may feel something like postpartum depression. We lack so much crucial information about the hormonal shifts and big emotional changes in the years after childbirth. There are several times when women may feel bigger, stronger emotional shifts: after the birth, when your period comes back, and when your baby stops nursing. Some women also start having pre-menstrual mood-related symptoms that they didn’t have before.
Toby was eight months old. It was a chilly January in New York, and we had just had a blissful Christmas vacation. But suddenly I started feeling bad. Out of nowhere, my mind started obsessing and worrying about inconsequential things; I had trouble sleeping (I’d wake up in the night and feel gripped with anxiety and fear); I began feeling very down, like that heavy feeling you get in your chest when you’re sad about something. Why? I had no idea. But I knew it wasn’t good.
Over the next couple weeks, I felt worse and worse. I felt guilty because I had a wonderful baby, a loving husband, and a great life on paper, yet I was inexplicably falling apart. Although I had loved taking care of Toby since he was born eight months before, it suddenly seemed exhausting to look after a child. I dreaded hearing his cries in the morning and having to get out of bed and face the day. I felt utterly overwhelmed and exhausted. Work projects seemed especially intimidating. Even the smallest work decisions seemed like insurmountable obstacles, and I was quickly moved to tears. I felt certain I would disappoint the people I was working with and for.
My self esteem plummeted, and I felt completely overwhelmed. I would read other blogs–Oh Happy Day, Swissmiss–and think, how are these women doing so much? How can they handle everything–job, family, life–and get it all done and seem so happy? What is wrong with me? I wondered.
Joanna later reveals that after abruptly weaning her son she experienced dramatic depression for about six weeks, and it ended with the return of her menstrual period. She describes the lack of information and awareness about this, how hard it was to get informed, and how much it would have helped to have known ahead of time that weaning can trigger depression. Read the whole piece; it is terrific.
Plus, she helped inspire this Huffington Post article on weaning and depression.
I had a related experience with a different ending. It triggered my attempt to understand postpartum and opened the door for me to make sense of my postpartum experience. My daughter was almost two.
Before I continue, I want to say, I know there are so many reasons why women wean at all different times. There is so much behind this choice that I will not address here. I don’t want to be critical of women who wean sooner or later than we did. Simply, this is my (and my daughter’s) story.
I never thought about weaning; I figured I would leave it up to my daughter. As I’ve mentioned before, a lot of “attachment parenting” techniques have worked well for us, but I’ve often felt conflicted when the alternative looks easier. Less carrying, sleeping alone, less baby-on-your-body. In the US, only 25% of babies are still breastfeeding at 12 months. So with a 22 month-old still nursing on demand, including every few hours at night, I felt like a bit of a freak. I thought I should try to wean her at night at least. Everyone else seemed to be getting a good night sleep at this age!
I read some gentle night weaning advice like this article by Dr. Jay Gordon. My heart and my mind were in conflict. My heart’s favorite line in the article was, “I don’t recommend any forced sleep changes during the first year of life,” and “Don’t believe anyone who says that babies who cuddle and nurse all night long ‘never’ learn to self soothe or become independent. This is simply not true but it sells books and the myths stay in our culture.” I read those lines over and over, trying to believe them. My mind was not entirely convinced.
So, I tried the method. I picked just 5 hours in the night to establish as non-nursing time. For the first several nights during that window I nursed her for a short time and then let her fall asleep on her own. This seemed to work but really wasn’t any different than normal. She’d nurse a bit and then roll over and sleep, nothing new. OK, next step. This involved no nursing at all, during the designated period. So from 11pm until 3am, no milky. No milky at all. She was supposed to fall asleep without nursing. And after a few days of this we’d be good to go.
That night, she cried for all five hours. She’d stop for a bit, toss and turn, but definitely not fall asleep, before starting to wimper, and then eventually crying again. She kicked and thrashed and squealed. She was lying right next to me, so I’d hug her or pat her. She wasn’t being abandoned in a separate room all alone. But she was not going to go to sleep with no milky. I tried sleeping in another room and letting Papi handle it. No change. Kick, thrash, scream.
For three nights I tried it. She cried for all five hours every night.
When I woke up, I felt kind of sick, like I was getting the flu. Also kind of weird nausea and sourness in my stomach. We tried to have a normal day, but I was so tired. I wanted to just lie in bed all day. It felt strangely like my first trimester of pregnancy. I thought maybe it was just a cold, but by the afternoon I was feeling this heavy and unexplainable sadness. Like a fog had settled down over me. I wasn’t pregnant, but it sure felt like it. Over the next few days I also experienced insomnia, anxiety, night sweats, chills, and more intense sadness.
A few days into this, my husband took my daughter out one afternoon. I became overwhelmed with panic and anxiety. It all had come on so quickly — feeling sick, sad, anxious. I wondered if it was related to not nursing at night. I had been nursing around the clock for two years, so could that have an impact? I Googled “weaning and depression” and I found nothing. I mean nothing. The only references were a few parent forums in which other moms briefly described similar experiences. No substantial information. I searched through my breastfeeding books, and surprisingly found nothing there either! Some mentioned that weaning can be difficult for mom psychologically, but no mention of physical or hormonal-type symptoms.
But this led me to reading about nursing in general. Just reading about the joys of nursing . . . the closeness, the intimacy, the warmth, the comfort and nurture for your child . . . had me weeping like a fountain in minutes. I realized weaning was not in my future. Not at night-time, not at all.
When my husband and daughter came home, I let her latch on and she stayed on the rest of the evening. And two or three times during the night. And the next day I felt so much better. While she was at daycare and we were separated for eight hours, I felt the sadness come back. But a few days later I got my period, so perhaps there was a big pre-menstrual link, and I finally felt like myself again.
Still, I hadn’t completely gotten rid of those doubts. Those wonderings about what other mothers were doing. Were non-nursing moms really sleeping well at night? Was I the only crazy one still nursing all night? I knew OF so many moms who had nursed toddlers until 2 years 7 months, 3 years, even 4 years. But none were nursing now, by my side, as co-mothers. Even in SF playgrounds I rarely ran into other moms with toddlers as big as mine draped across their bodies.
I had to seek out some company. It was then that I did my postpartum doula training, and just being around other breastfeeding fanatics helped a lot. I read a great book, Mothering Your Nursing Toddler, that really made an impact.
I thought more about our nursing relationship. It was the only thing my daughter really asked of me. She rarely had real tantrums over anything else. The days after I refused her at night she was so clingy and weepy. On normal days she was so adventurous and played on her own for hours. Our nursing closeness seemed to give her resiliency. And it hurt me so much to refuse her. So deeply. I wanted to hold her and never let go. I was fighting the strongest urge I felt as a mother. I felt a fierce and instinctive need to mother her physically. To hold her, to nurse her, even to heal myself by feeling our closeness. Nursing nourished both of us in a deeper way than any simple food source, or simple hug and kiss, could do.
I realized two more things. One is the simple fact that I spent my childhood scared of being alone in the dark at night. I still can creep myself out in the dark! I just couldn’t bare to refuse her comfort in the dark of the night.
The second is that tuning in to my daughter’s feelings was my greatest asset as a mother. She was asking to keep nursing and to keep sleeping with me at age two. And I was going to listen. We were engaged in an intimate relationship. A two-way relationship: I received the deepest love and comfort from her, too. By asking for love and getting it, she was learning how to give love and to connect with another person. To trust another person. I was being present with her within our loving relationship. This is a lesson for life. For me, getting eight hours of sleep holds no comparison. In fact, I slept more by providing a brief roll-over nursing than by refusing and trying to comfort her another way. I had to trust that this intensive night-time mothering would be temporary. I couldn’t do it forever, but I hoped I could do it as long as my daughter needed it.
And so our nursing relationship was not to end. It continued on this way, nursing pretty much on demand, including two to four times at night, until my daughter was about two years and five months. Then, many things began to shift. But that’s another story.