Sharing the Journey with Tonya Rosenberg

I’ve been waiting on pins and needles to share this interview! Tonya is the founder of the Online PPD Support Page and has built quite the support system over there. The typical population these days is in the low single digit thousands but that’s vastly more than the 50 women Tonya initially imagined gaining support from the dying site she took over quite some time ago. Now, there’s an amazing team of moderators (hey ladies!) who work very smoothly together to help keep the flow going without deterring the recovery of the women who visit the board. While I haven’t been active there for some time now, I am on the moderator team and am honored to be part of the group.

I am also honored to share Tonya’s interview with you – it’s worth it’s weight in gold, every single word is so intense, transparent, and informative. I read her interview on a rough morning with the kids and boy did it put things into perspective for me. I am always amazed at how that happens!

Enjoy the read and if you or someone you love are in need of some support and there’s nothing nearby or you just need to type some thoughts to get them off your chest, pop on over to the forums at the Online PPD Support Page. It’s like having your own best friend on-line! (Plus, don’t forget that recent study about peer support cutting the PPD risk in HALF – that’s right, HALF!)

Thanks, Tonya, for saving this invaluable resource from an early Internet grave. It’s meant so much to so many families and I know it will continue to do so for years to come. You my friend, ROCK.

Tell us a little about yourself – just who is Tonya as a woman?

Sometimes that’s a very difficult question to answer! I’m a woman who enjoys being 38 years old, as I’ve found some things have gotten better with age. I’m a wife, a mother, a friend, a sister, a daughter, and an individual. I have days in which I feel proud of things I’ve done, and other days when I feel I’ve not done enough – just like everyone probably feels from time to time.

Just like me, you are a two time survivor of Postpartum Mood Disorders. Share with us what your first path down this road looked (and felt) like.

It’s hard to believe that my first child is now 14 years old, and the journey I started on began so long ago!

I was, in hindsight, ripe for developing a postpartum mood disorder. I was a young woman who’d rushed into a marriage with an older man, who himself had a diagnosis of bipolar disorder at the time. My pregnancy was incredibly difficult – I dealt with hyperemesis (and the accompanying weight loss of 40 pounds in the first trimester alone, the multiple ER visits and hospital stays, the visits from home health care providers). I developed gestational diabetes.

During my pregnancy my husband at the time injured himself and was out of work, bringing our usual paycheck-to-paycheck life down to approximately half that income for a couple of months. We racked up a good deal of credit card debt during that time, compounded by the extra medical expenses incurred by my pregnancy and his injury. Near the end of my pregnancy, my paternal grandfather died from prostate cancer.

I was induced, because on top of everything else I started having some blood pressure problems. The birth itself probably wasn’t much different from many birth experiences – I had an epidural and an uneventful vaginal birth.

I remember being alone in the hospital room the first time, exhausted, and thinking that everyone was focused on the new baby – but I felt like the discarded packaging the baby came in. I felt oddly incomplete without the baby still in my now squishy belly, yet also strangely free at the same time.

Breastfeeding didn’t come naturally for me, and neither did motherhood in general. I felt overwhelmed, wrung out, guilty for not feeling the constant glowing love I “should” feel, and irritable. I was grateful when my (wonderful, amazing, fantastic) mother came over to take the baby for a bit so I could rest, yet it also compounded my feeling of being a horrible mother because I seemed to make the baby cry while my mom could calm and sooth and quiet her.

At just a few days old, I was hyper-vigilant about my baby. If she cried, I held her. If she was quiet, I was convinced she’d stopped breathing and would panic. One night in that first week I was sure she was breathing funny, and we wound up at the ER. I still remember the ER doctor laughing at me and chastising me by saying “ALL babies breathe funny.” But then he gave her a closer look and said he’d be back. I found out they were going to take her blood, and I was in charge of holding her steady while they poked her little foot and made her scream. I vividly remember crying along with her, apologizing for letting anyone hurt her. Results came back declaring she’d developed jaundice, and they wanted to keep her in the hospital. (I should mention the hospital I gave birth in was fantastic, but this hospital was the one closest to my house at the time and one I’d never go to again if I had any choice whatsoever!) They wanted to put her in the nursery and send me home, and I remember going into a total angry panic. I insisted they find a room with a bed, because I would not leave her alone in the hospital.

Being in the hospital with her was painful for me on so many levels. I was made to feel that my breast-milk actually caused the jaundice, and was instructed I would have to “pump and dump”, and that she’d be on a bottle of formula until she was well. I couldn’t hold her because she had to spend so much time in the clear plastic bassinet under the Bili-light. When it came time to feed her those bottles, I’d wind up in tears and hand her to a nurse to feed. Holding her with a bottle just made me feel like even MORE of a failure as a mother.

I struggled through, getting her back on breast-milk exclusively a few weeks after her hospitalization. I’m glad of that, because I truly believe (for me) breastfeeding saved my life. I had become more and more miserable to the point of being suicidal. The only things that stayed my hand in those low moments was the realization that she could only be fed by me (she never took a bottle or pacifier), and I couldn’t leave her behind to starve.

One day I got scared enough to call my doctor. She’d been crying and crying for hours, and I was about to lose my mind. I took her into her room and put her (probably not as gently as I could have) into the crib. I walked out, closed the door, and leaned against the wall just outside her door as she screamed. I closed my eyes, and the best way I can describe it is that I saw a movie play out in my mind. In my mind I could vividly see me walking back into her room, grabbing her tiny ankles, and slamming her head against the pristine white walls of her room. The graphic images of her in my hands, of red coating the walls, terrified me. I knew in that moment I couldn’t go another second alone – I was terrified of hurting her and would have very possibly hurt myself if I hadn’t picked up the phone instead.

I called my doctor, who got on the line immediately. I asked her if she could help me, and told her I was terrified of my thoughts. She soothed me and told me she had faith that I wouldn’t hurt my baby, that by knowing those thoughts were WRONG and was reaching out for help, that I wasn’t going to do anything bad. She told me to call my mom over, put the baby in the car-seat, and have my mom drive me to the office. The doctor said she’d make time for me whenever I got there.

Just saying out loud all the things I’d been feeling and thinking and fearing to my supportive and wonderful doctor helped to ease the weight I’d been feeling crushed under. With her help I began a treatment that involved an antidepressant and talk therapy.

It was a turning point in my life as a mother, and as a person.

Did you feel any more prepared the second time around? My second pregnancy was planned but my third was not. I was also still depressed during the second pregnancy which is what I ultimately felt led to my break a month after my daughter came home from the NICU. Was there a difference for you between your two experiences?

There were a lot of differences between my first and second postpartum experience. With my second child I still had challenges, of course. I had a new husband, a five year old daughter to care for, and I had moved across the country (and away from the loving support of my family and my doctor). On the other hand, finances weren’t a constant worry, my second husband is mentally much more healthy, and I only lost 14 pounds in the first trimester.

I knew that breast-milk does not cause jaundice, so I was ready to fight for the right to keep nursing if he developed it. I had educated myself quite a bit about postpartum mood disorders and knew I was at a higher risk, so I talked about that a lot with my new OBGYN. I also knew I was at risk for gestational diabetes again, so I worked harder to care for my health in that regard. (I still developed it, but I think it wasn’t as severe and that I managed it better.)

My second child was a very different baby than my first, too. He was quick to catch on with breastfeeding, he slept easily, and was just a more relaxed and happy baby. (I’ve since learned that my firstborn inherited bipolar disorder and a few other issues from my ex-husband, which actually goes a long way in explaining some of her behaviors even in infancy.) And my new husband was excited to be a new father, and did what he could to ease my burdens which made a huge difference as well.

I still wound up having postpartum depression, some anxiety, and intrusive thoughts, but I’d also opted to start back on antidepressants during the last bit of my pregnancy. I think, for me, it helped act as a bit of a cushion to soften the transitions my hormones went through.

As with any stresses that come towards us in life, one can choose to run or stand and fight. We’re both fighters dedicated to reaching behind us to help other struggling moms finding themselves where we used to be. At what point did you decide to become an advocate and get involved in supporting other moms?

It was rather by accident, truth be told! With my second pregnancy, I was away from all things familiar. So I turned to the Internet to search for resources for postpartum mood disorders. While there were a handful of sites that offered a bit of general information, there wasn’t much “out there” in terms of person-to-person support. I stumbled onto a website that had a very small email group, in which the babies were older and the mothers had left the PPMD world behind. The person who ran the place informed me within a few weeks of finding her that she was going to close the doors, so to speak.

I begged her to let it stay up, and asked if I could take up the reins. That was the beginning of my role as an advocate and supporter. None of the old site I took over remains today, but it was an important starting point and one I’m very grateful to have found when I found it.

I’d already been active on other on-line communities – even met my current husband on-line in a community for a couple of our favorite television shows at the time – and had seen how valuable and wonderful it could be to have this worldwide community of people from all sorts of backgrounds and experiences. It seemed a natural thing to take that concept and apply it to the postpartum site.

I started updating information, rebuilding the site bit by bit, adding things here and there, deleting outdated or irrelevant things, and playing with my image program to figure out how I wanted the site to look. I went through a few different designs before I struck on the current theme, but pink always seemed to factor into the mix. What can I say, it’s one of my favorite colors!

In essence, I went looking for people to support me. Somehow it became helpful for me to extend MY help to OTHERS – my support of fellow struggling moms seemed to put my own struggles in perspective, gave me a chance to focus outside of myself, enabled me to gain more education on the subject, and let me redefine who I was and who I wanted to become.

What are some of the things you do to take care of YOU?

I go to therapy at least once a week – except my therapy is called live comedy! Laughter is really good medicine, and I find that I get rather antsy if I miss a week or two of going out to see comedy. It’s also important for me, as a stay-at-home-mom, to get out around other adults. Going to comedy helps in that regard, too.
Reading is something I enjoy, so I often keep my eyes open for books to devour.

It’s been a struggle, but I try to make myself a priority. If I need sleep, I go to bed. If I feel restless, I take the dog for a walk or to the dog park. If I am hurting, I’ll allow myself to spend some time and money for a massage.

The hardest thing – the thing I still struggle with the most – is being gentle with myself. I have had to work on retraining my brain to stop the negative self-talk, to forgive myself if I mess up, and so on. I’m a work in progress. :)

Name three things that made you smile or laugh today.

Watching Nickelodeon with my kids made me laugh.

My dog Blackberry made me smile when she gave me lots of doggie kisses.

The crew of one of my favorite local radio shows were hilarious today.

As you navigate motherhood, what do you find the most challenging? The least?

The things I view as challenging can change from day to day! Some days I feel challenged by things like my kids purposely annoying each other, but then I’ll catch them being sweet and thoughtful. Sometimes my teenager presses my buttons by saying everything AS IF SHE IS YELLING AND ANGRY, but then she’ll say something really funny or profound. Sometimes my son will drive me up the wall because he seems incapable of being quiet for five minutes straight, but when he’s not feeling well he becomes quiet and just wants to curl up at my side.

I guess the biggest challenge I face as a mother is myself, to be honest. I challenge myself when I play the “shoulda, coulda, woulda” game, when I second guess myself, when I take ultimately unimportant things far too seriously. Alternately, I feel least challenged when I am able to adopt an attitude of letting go and having faith that things will be okay even if I’m not micromanaging every second of every day.

How did your husband handle your experiences with Postpartum? What effect did your struggle have on your marriage (if any?)

My first husband had his own issues with mental health, and did not handle things well. He did the best he could, I believe, but his own illness really limited how much he could handle. There were things that happened during and after the pregnancy that I think were harmful to the marriage, things for which I don’t think I ever really forgave. I needed support, and ultimately felt that I had an infant and an adult child to care for instead.

My second husband was a champ overall, but I definitely think it was difficult for him. I think even almost a decade later, there’s a part of him that probably hangs on to some of the things I did and said during the darker moments. I know from my viewpoint it gave me some perspective on the differences of a supportive, helpful partner versus a partner who doesn’t know how to be supportive or helpful – it’s made me appreciate him more, perhaps, that I would have without the postpartum issues.

Tell us a bit about the Online Postpartum Support Page. Has it exceeded even your wildest dreams in terms of sheer number of women who have found support there?

When I started out, I figured I’d consider myself lucky if over an extended period of time there were 50 or so moms who’d used the site and the on-line communication tools. I just wanted to talk to a few other moms who understood what I was going through, and to let them know they weren’t alone in their struggles. I never foresaw the website growing to the extent that it has over the years, and still often feel a little in awe of it. I often feel guilty about the site because I’m not very involved in it and haven’t been for a while, yet I’m also incredibly proud of the fact that I got this ball rolling and incredibly grateful for the women over the years who’ve recovered and decided to “pay it forward” by helping moms.

And last but not least, what advice would you give to an expectant mother (new or experienced) about Postpartum Mood Disorders?

I’d like all new and expectant mothers to be educated on all the facets of postpartum mood disorders (and all doctors, for that matter!) – awareness of potential vulnerabilities, the various ways a PPMD can express itself, knowledge that having a PPMD does NOT mean you are a bad mother, and so on.
I’d like these women to know that media lies to us! Babies don’t come out with perfectly shaped heads and evenly toned skin. Mothers don’t always instantly have a magical moment as soon as the baby is born where they are madly, deeply in love. Birth plans don’t always go as planned, and that’s okay.
I’d like moms to know, ultimately, that no matter what thought they have or what feeling they experience (positive and negative), they are not alone. There’s been another mother, many other mothers, who’ve thought or felt the same thing. There’s a certain power in the knowledge that you are not alone, I think.