A member of the Marblehead Current’s Board of Directors, Virginia Buckingham is the former chief executive officer of the Massachusetts Port Authority, chief of staff to two Massachusetts governors, deputy editorial page editor for the Boston Herald and author of “On My Watch: A Memoir.”
Even as I write this, I feel it. The shame. The fear. The heart-wrenching anxiety of admitting that I worried I would hurt my baby. My precious-beloved-piece-of-my-soul baby. That I would drop him down the stairs, morphing to worry I would throw him down the stairs. That I would accidentally kick him if I left him on the play mat, morphing into visions of intentionally kicking him. Fear that I would accidentally smother him if we fell asleep in bed together morphing into intrusive thoughts of intentionally doing so.
Oh, if there had been stories in the media 24 years ago about postpartum issues affecting new moms, what a difference it would have made. If only someone could have stuck a newspaper article under my nose while I rocked my baby and sobbed in all-encompassing fear. If only someone said, “Read this. This is what is happening. It is pretty common, and no, you do not have the exceedingly rare form of postpartum called psychosis. You are not going to hurt your baby. Everything will be okay.”
I am at once heartened and devastated by the media coverage of the recent tragedy in Duxbury. There a young mom of three was likely so deep into psychosis that she must have thought killing her babies and then herself was the only answer to the horror that gripped her.
I am heartened because almost every piece of reporting I have read about Lindsay Clancy has been accompanied by thoughtful pieces about postpartum depression and access to resources, and reassurance that the extreme version she experienced is rare.
We should hail the progress that this recognition represents, and shoulder the sorrow that this young loving mother will possibly rot in prison the rest of her life rather than receive the compassionate mental health services she deserves.
Today’s response is a sharp departure from the media coverage a young Texas mother, Andrea Yates, received more than two decades ago. Back then, the country was shocked by the drowning of five young children at her hands.
I can still recall the photos of her in custody that flooded the media — the long brown hair, the round glasses, the blank stare. Prosecutors initially sought the death penalty.
Back to my small, painful story. My pregnancy was pretty unremarkable, albeit I had a high-stress job as chief of staff to a Massachusetts governor.
My labor was long and tedious until after several hours of little progress it became clear the baby was in distress, his heart rate dropping. An emergency cesarean section was scheduled.
It turned out the umbilical cord was wrapped around the baby’s neck, but the surgical delivery went well. I said, “Hi Jack” when a nurse finally laid him in my arms, and his huge blue eyes snapped open at the sound of my voice. My boy, my baby, my being.
The next days at home featured the abnormal normal of a newborn routine. Perhaps a hint of my obsessive nature peeked out as I ordered my adoring in-laws to sleep on the couch and chair in the family room near Jack’s port-a-crib when they were giving us a respite. I deemed the baby too little to sleep in his crib upstairs near the guest room and too small to even have an extra blanket covering him lest it creep up over his tiny mouth and nose.
The following week was my mother’s turn to help, and she, the mother of eight herself, nodded along as I gave the “sleep in the family room” instruction. The next morning, I found Jack upstairs asleep in his crib, under a blanket, and my mother asleep in the guest room. It’s a story that amuses me now, but back then, not so much.
Those “normal” high-anxiety moments of being responsible for a new baby descended into something more over the next couple of weeks, including the intrusive images of hurting him.
I finally sought help and was referred to a therapist who gave me the gift of not only compassion but education. What I had was referred to as Postpartum Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.
It was pretty common, she said, particularly with Type A women, women who were successful in every other part of their life.
“You’re not going to hurt your baby,” she said. “Everything will be okay.”
A prescription antidepressant resolved the postpartum issues, but not the shame I had around experiencing them. This is the first time I have ever publicly acknowledged them. I rarely if ever have talked about them to family and friends, even as I have very publicly described my experience of post-traumatic stress after the 9/11 attacks.
That’s how much stigma postpartum depression had but perhaps now that is finally receding.
If you are struggling, please know now what I wish I had known then — you are not alone.
Need help? Call the National Maternal Mental Health Hotline 833-943-5746 or Postpartum Support International, at 800-944-4773.
Virginia Buckingham is a weekly columnist and a member of the board of the directors of the Current.
Heart’s thanks, dear editor, for this heartfelt piece that took me back more than 40 years to my own first experience as a mother — a new mom curled up tight on the floor beside the bed in my nightgown, shaking with fear and depression and the sure knowledge that she should never have yearned for motherhood, that she would never succeed at it. How many of us experienced similar terrors in those early days of motherhood, and the fear of exposing ourselves as failures—or even possible dangers to our own newborns. The fact that you lay yours out so nakedly is not only a tribute to you as a human being and a mom, but a sign that some of our worst fears—tucked away and never aired—can be looked at in a different, and for many reassuring, light. What a gift you’ve offered today.
Your words moved me to tears, and if they don’t save lives, they will certainly spur healing and connection in your readers who “know.” It was years before I understood that PPD is a bit of a misnomer, that it can present as obsession and anxiety, too, not just sadness or disconnection from your baby. Moving forward, may we all share in the care of mothers and babies.