Shadow of a Stillborn: An Account of Postpartum Depression
I have delivered three baby girls: one naturally, weighing 10 pounds, my second stillborn at 36 weeks, and my third, screaming and healthy at 38 weeks, weighing 8 pounds, 5 ounces.
While in each delivery room and recovery room similar medical procedures were followed, the trauma of my second baby’s death visited me even in the joyous arrival of my third baby.
Beatrice Dianne, my much-loved, much-anticipated second daughter, died of a cord accident after an uneventful pregnancy. Just the week before the obstetrician couldn’t find her heartbeat on the Doppler, the nurse midwife had cheerfully declared me to have “a textbook pregnancy.”
Those textbook nine months crumbled when Beatrice slipped quietly from my body, silent and beautiful. My husband and I gave permission for the labs to run tests to determine the cause of her death. When it was determined that a true knot in the cord had killed Beatrice, and that there were no genetic abnormalities, we decided to try to conceive again right away.
Just 11 weeks later, we found out that we were expecting our third baby.
At the recommendation of my obstetrician, I met with a grief counselor at the Perinatal Behavioral Health Program at the local hospital. Thankfully, our shared loss had drawn my husband and I closer together, and I had a wonderful support network of friends.
There were rough points in the pregnancy, but the care we received from our OB and specialists went a long way in assuring us that we were doing everything possible to bring home a healthy baby. We had monthly, and then weekly, ultrasounds to monitor the cord and the baby’s health and growth.
The last few weeks, especially the gestational week of Beatrice’s death, I tried to keep busy. I prepared the nursery, washed all the baby clothes, completed a baby quilt, and wrapped up work at the office.
I went in for induction on December 19, 2006. When I walked into the labor and delivery room, the smell and sight of the same room where I had delivered Beatrice hit me; I grew faint and started to panic. With some deep breathing and encouragement from my husband, I was able to regain control.
After that first moment of fear, I had a wonderful labor and delivery. The nurses, who were notified of my last childbirth experience, were kind and sensitive.
I will never forget hearing Charlotte's first cry and seeing her moving. The relief in the room was palpable.
As the relief and joy coursed through my heart, exhaustion set in.
Within a few hours of Charlotte’s birth, I felt the onset of distinctly depressive feelings, which is not surprising given my loss only 10 months before. The natural high of giving birth wore off, and I felt a tightening in my chest. Then, I felt guilty for feeling depressed. Isn’t this what I had wanted for so long? A healthy baby?
Tears rushed to my eyes, and I decided to ask a nurse to take my daughter in the nursery. I thought that perhaps some sleep would help assuage my depression.
Unfortunately, the nursery was right next to my room, and I could hear my daughter’s frantic cries through the wall. This continued for more than ten minutes, but it felt like much longer. I finally pulled myself up and went to investigate. I found Charlotte frantically crying in her isolette as the nurse sat calmly filling out paperwork.
While I understand that night nurses who work in the nurseries must be somewhat desensitized to the sound of crying infants, the nurse’s lack of concern for my daughter struck me, and I knew I couldn’t leave her there.
I took her back to my room with me to try to feed her and rock her. As she struggled to latch onto my breast to nurse, she started to scream again. Grief for my dead baby and despair about my life welled up in me.
Try as I might, I could not control my sobbing. I knew that I needed help. I tried calling my husband but was unable to reach him at home, where he was staying with our 3-year old daughter.
I rang the call button, and the nurse from the night nursery came in to see what I needed. She looked visibly shaken by my tears, but also immobilized in the face of my sadness.
I could not have been clearer about my needs. I said, “I am feeling really sad and depressed. I need to talk to someone. Can you please get someone in here from the psych department who I can talk with about my feelings? I really need help.”
Looking confused and like she didn’t know quite what to do, the nurse didn’t ask me any questions to determine whether I was experiencing thoughts of hurting my baby or myself. She then proceeded to leave me sobbing, holding the baby.
She didn’t return for thirty minutes.
When she returned, she made no physical or emotional contact with me. She told me that she had not been able to track down a psych person, but that an OB/Gyn resident was delivering a baby and she would be down to see me after she finished with that.
Before leaving me with the baby again, she asked if I “wanted a Percocet” (a narcotic pain reliever). This after I had been very clear that I wasn’t in any physical pain, but that I needed to talk with someone. It was like we weren’t speaking the same language.
In desperation, I called one of my friends. It was 3 a.m., but she answered, and helped by listening and talking me through the worst of my sadness and depressive thoughts.
I have since determined, with my counselor, that my intense postpartum depression immediately following the birth of my daughter was a combination of three things: normal hormonal fluctuations after delivery; post traumatic stress disorder triggered by having the baby in the same place where my second daughter was stillborn; and feelings of loneliness and abandonment.
However, both in those hours of depression as well as now, what angered and scared me the most was being left alone with my infant daughter. Thankfully, I was not feeling the urge to harm myself or hurt her, but what if I had been?
I have never experienced such wracking terror and plummeting emotions as I did in those first hours after my baby's arrival. It was confusing, scary, and lonely. However, something good has come out of it.
With the encouragement of my friends and therapist, I told my story to the nurse manager at the hospital where I delivered my babies. She was very responsive to the problems I encountered in trying to get help, and new protocols were established to help women experiencing depression after delivery.
I took my nightmare as an opportunity to serve as an advocate for women suffering from postpartum depression or psychosis after delivery.
My hope is that the harrowing and lonely night I spent will be something other new moms can avoid because the nurses and doctors now have a clear order of steps to take to help someone who is depressed.