Breastfeeding Saved My Life: The Truth About Postpartum Mental Health

woman with a stroller outside in black and white

It’s hard to believe that anyone might say the words “breastfeeding saved my life,” but in my case, it did. 

It was always my dream, as it is with any new mom, to breastfeed my baby. In fact, during our first skin to skin in recovery after an emergency C-section, my son latched right on so beautifully, like a dream come true.

Then, the difficulty started.

Not with our breastfeeding journey, but with recovery for both myself and my son. I was required to have a blood transfusion after the emergency C-section, and I was very doped up on pain meds. Meanwhile, my son, who had a bowel movement in utero was dealing with his own troubles. We were constantly sucking goo out of his mouth, and he was taken for an emergency CT scan and gone for hours. I couldn’t nurse him.

I would be lying to say our hospital stay was flawless. It was HARD. My husband was completely exhausted, as was I, by the time we left the hospital three days later. Luckily, the one thing that was going right was my ability to breastfeed our baby. 

The Colicky Crying

mother crying with father holding babyAnd so it began. My son was crying. I was moving as quickly as I could physically go, which wasn’t that fast due to the C-section. I began crying and was already feeling like a failure as a mom. My baby wouldn’t sleep. All he did was cry nonstop.

I frantically called my mom and my older sister day after day, constantly in tears, not knowing how to soothe my sweet baby. I thought I could carry on working my part-time job postpartum while he slept each day, but HE DIDN’T SLEEP. I was forced to quit. I didn’t have any free and quiet time to focus on work between the feedings, crying, diaper changes, and pushing him in a stroller around and around my house to get him to sleep. Once he finally fell asleep, it only lasted for twenty minutes.  

We asked our pediatrician for months and got no answers for the colicky crying. My family kept urging me to feed him formula and to stop breastfeeding him. I didn’t budge. After desperation for sleep and for a possible solution to the crying, we tried formula twice. It made me cringe when I smelled it; this was not the path I personally wanted to take with my child. Luckily, my son was not a fan of it, and he only wanted breastmilk. 

The Difficulty Leaving the House

As if the crying and lack of sleep wasn’t enough, forget going out in public. That was a disaster almost every time. My son screamed at the top of his lungs in the car ride and in stores. I was so modest about breastfeeding in public, so I usually did it in my car to soothe him. That only lasted for a few moments before he would start to scream again at the top of his lungs.

I felt helpless and again like I was failing as a mom.

I couldn’t soothe my baby, I had lost the freedom to go anywhere in peace, I was completely exhausted, and his crying in the car while in motion made me want to crawl out of my skin. It was frustrating, and there wasn’t anything I could do about it. People in public stared at me hastily, like I was doing something wrong. This just made things worse. 

Relief did sometimes come occasionally: the mommy and me exercise class on the military installation at the time, the New Parent Support Program caseworker who visited me regularly at home, counseling through Cohen Veterans Network, and the USO story times. Being with other new moms who understood what I was going through, talking to my caseworker from ACS about the challenges I was having, regularly attending counseling sessions locally, and being around others who knew me pre-baby was therapeutic.

I also took a little time away. Every Saturday, I was able to attend an aqua cycling class on the military installation. It was the one moment a week I could feel like myself again and have time away from the baby. 

The Pandemic

Then, the pandemic hit. The whole country was frightened to go anywhere. EVERYTHING that gave me respite came to a screeching halt, and I had already been released from counseling.

This new way of America under isolation made me spiral even further down into depression, hopelessness, loneliness, and panic.

We started having food shortages in our area, and I couldn’t drag my baby in and out of stores to find food for my family. My spouse had to pick up things, or I had to wait until late in the evening when he was home and our baby was asleep to go out grocery shopping. 

Next, another bomb was dropped on my family: orders. My husband was given orders for 2-3 years in another state, very far away from my family. I panicked and didn’t know how I could do this even further away from everyone. I honestly didn’t know if a move that far away was a safe idea for me in the condition I was in mentally. I begged my husband to try to get the location of his assignment switched. He tried but the answer was, of course, “No.” 

Postpartum Depression

woman crying into a tissueI wanted to die every day. Not because I was selfish and not because I didn’t adore my child to pieces, but because the stress of motherhood was too much to bear.

I felt like a failure and that my son would be happier and better off without me. I was alone and isolated away from everyone and everything that pulled me through those tough moments. My son still didn’t sleep but in 2-3 hour increments at night on the good days. I felt like I was dying slowly from the lack of sleep, now going on for nine months. Every time I thought of dying, all I could think about was, “How will he eat? Who will feed him? He only likes my breast milk.” He depended on me, and that usually made me quickly turn those bad thoughts around. 

My husband worked 12 plus hours a day, almost seven days a week with 24 hour shifts at minimum once per month. There wasn’t a break in sight or even a glimpse that anything would get better. There was also an upcoming PCS on the forefront. I was completely overwhelmed and afraid to ask for help because in my mind, it would be very apparent that I couldn’t handle being a mother. I was literally a walking zombie in constant fight or flight mode during my son’s first year of life. It wasn’t pretty, and I never felt more unlike myself during that entire period. 

The postpartum depression was as real as the sleep deprivation. These two things are not a great combination as “sleep deprivation can exacerbate the symptoms of postpartum depression.” No sleep will do some crazy things to your ability to logically think. Not to mention, sleep is the basis for good health. We were all sucking in that department in my household. 

The Night that Changed Everything

I’ll never forget the night. My spouse and I got into a huge argument, and it really set me off. Now, along with the post partum depression, the sleep deprivation, and isolation, my marriage was hanging on by a tiny thread.

That was it. I wanted to end my life right then and there.

My baby was asleep in his nursery, and my husband was upstairs angry with me. I sat there, downstairs in our living room, and contemplated how I would take myself out quickly and quietly. Then, my baby cried out for me in a tone I had never heard before. It was as if he instinctively knew what I was up to. I stopped in my tracks and went to the nursery to see him there crying and reaching out for me. Tears streamed down my face as I held him so tightly and nursed him back to sleep.

At that moment, I knew that I could never ever leave my baby boy behind in such a tragic way. That’s when it stopped. I haven’t contemplated suicide again since. It was a wake up call to me. Had my son not needed me for his food supply and comfort, I wouldn’t be here.

Breastfeeding seriously saved my life.

It was at this point that I reached out for help from a mental health professional with Military One Source. I also confided in a childhood friend who went out of her way to make sure my family knew how serious my postpartum depression was. She was a blessing and even came to stay with me for a week while my husband was TDY and in another state. 

Looking back now, I would do a few things differently to proactively take the necessary precautions in advance for postpartum depression. 

    • Invest in a postpartum doula. I think having help once we got home from the hospital could have made a world of difference to my entire family, especially as I was recovering from a C-section. 
    • Placenta encapsulation. This is “supposed” to minimize the effects of postpartum depression, especially for those at risk, who already have a history of anxiety and depression. 
    • Support groups. This was something I slightly had, but Covid changed everything. I think other new mom support groups would be very helpful. 
    • Be honest with mental health clinicians. I was too embarrassed to admit fully just how much I was struggling that first year of motherhood to many people, including mental health counselors that I worked with. 
    • Spend more time outdoors. An outdoor swing for my son saved us on so many occasions. It made him stop crying, and it gave me fresh air and peace too. 
    • Join a Mommy and Me Fitness Group. When Covid-19 shut down all fitness centers and group fitness classes, it really took away an outlet for me. I still led classes online, but it wasn’t the same as being in-person. If I had it to do differently, I would spend the money and join a fitness group for moms such as: iStroll, Strong Strong Moms, or Fit4Mom.

If you or someone you know is suffering from symptoms of postpartum depression, please offer them compassion and encourage them to reach out for help.

Offer a meal, offer to hold the baby, rock the baby, or anything to give that mama a minute to take a hot shower, to breathe, and to get herself together. 

In addition, do not hesitate to contact mental health support through Military One Source, Cohen Veterans Network or through the Family Life Counselor within your spouse’s unit.