Imagine the anticipation of bringing a new life into the world – an entirely new being with a unique spirit, face, and personality. It is supposed to be one of the happiest times in your life. Pregnant friends around you are brimming over with anticipation and effervescing with joy. In many ways, it is viewed as a community event. Complete strangers start awkward conversations about family planning, share birthing horror stories with you, and try to touch your belly. Everyone talks to you about how excited they are for you. People throw you parties and buy you things.
Except you are not excited. Or happy. You are empty. You try to fake it. You really do try. You plaster a grimace on your face hoping it will pass for a smile. You nod your head when they ask you if you are excited. They talk to you about when the baby comes and you mumble something about baby snuggles and then waddle away as quickly as possible, hoping they don’t notice anything.
One of the most agonizing symptoms of my post-partum depression (that unfortunately began before my son was even born) was the annihilation of affection for my husband and children. It was just gone. Poof.
It was wretched.
The guilt, shame, and embarrassment that I felt (and still feel at times) that I no longer felt anything for them was an angry monster in the Post-partum Apocalypse threatening to destroy me. That monster dragged me to the very edge of life and tried to kill me.
I had made two nearly fatal mistakes. First, I mislabeled love a “feeling.” And since depression rendered me emotionally numb, I thought my love was gone. The idea of love as a feeling is dangerous. Feelings come and go. Feelings are transient. Feelings are inconstant. Love was never intended to be that. Love is a decision and once that decision has been made, it is intended to be permanent.
Second, I equated affection with love. They are not the same. They are just not. Affection is the bonus prize that may or may not come when we want it to, but that affection is not love. If it was, then any wind of change, any negative turn of events, any impediment could destroy it. Love is not affection. Love is work: Long, hard, exhausting, repetitive, often thankless work. My affection for my family was gone, but not a day passed in my time as a wife and a mother when I did not love my husband and our children.
I loved my infant son every time I fed him.
I loved him every time I forced myself to hold him or talk to him or smile at him.
I loved him through every exploded diaper change, every projectile vomiting episode, every late night feeding.
I loved him even when I felt nothing.
For me real love is going to the psych ward, taking my meds even though I don’t want to, going to therapy and talking about feelings. Real love is diaper changes that smell like raw sewage, and peekaboo for the 1,000,000th time, and late night bottles prepared through puffy, bleary eyes.
Love is what saved me from that guilt-shame-embarrassment monster who would have destroyed me. Love was the anchor that kept me tethered to life. Please do not underestimate the power of that love. Real love doesn’t just disappear when times get hard or even when your brain breaks. Real love endures.
Don’t get me wrong, affection feels great and losing it for a time was a miserable experience. But post-partum depression taught me that love is much more permanent, much more durable than I ever gave it credit for. When affection was incinerated by the nuclear warhead of depression, love was the crusty, undead, radioactive cockroach that emerged from the nuclear wasteland that was my heart and pulled me through the rebuilding process.
My heart overflows with gratitude every day that love is an action and not a feeling. On those days when I’m just not feeling it, that’s okay. The love is still there. Not even depression can kill that little cockroach. So if you are like me and some days or weeks or months the affection is gone, feed the love. Have faith, keep working, keep loving. The affection will come back eventually, and the love will be all the stronger.
Light the Darkness,