The joke among my friends for many years was that a depressing day for me was the same as most people’s emotional state on a good day.
Then I turned 38, and I won’t go into details, but I reached a point where I couldn’t even talk to my life coach without crying, so she eventually suggestion medication. For the first time, I was depressed with a capital “D”.
Things turned around eventually, and in 2013 I got married, became pregnant with my first child, and moved to Portland… an excellent change of scenery after years in Los Angeles.
As my due date neared, I started to feel the old dark cloud edging back in. Everywhere I looked I saw stories on postpartum depression. People talked about it in my mama preparation classes and in prenatal yoga. I talked to my doctor about whether I could breastfeed and medicate once I had a child. I was convinced I was doomed to postpartum depression because the memories of my dark place were in the not-so-distant past.
It’s estimated close to a million women a year suffer from postpartum depression. The news loves to latch on to stories about women who really go off the deep end. Publications like the Huffington Post and the New York Times often have stories about “lonely mama syndrome” where women wax on about how isolating it is to be a new parent. Believe me when I say that I read every one of those articles word-for-word.
When my son arrived I was high with the euphoria of newborn love. But I was also weepy, overwhelmed, bleary eyed and hormone-whacked. One minute I was laughing at my baby pooping 12 times a day, and the next minute I was sobbing about my sore nipples and how exhausted I was. It didn’t help that my husband would just stand there looking at me like I was a stranger and say thing like, “Seriously what’s your problem? You are just sitting here nursing all day. It can’t be THAT tiring?” This, of course, was my mama-brained interpretation and would make me sob harder. The fear of depression was overwhelming.
On about week three after Mason was born, I found myself sitting in a new mama group inside in the middle of summer. I heard myself complaining about my husband and how he just didn’t understand how tired I was and how scared I was of getting depressed. Everything was scary. I was scared of people on the street, cars getting to close to us on the freeway, lead poisoning in our windows, pretty much everything in the world was out to get my beautiful new baby. And as I thought and talked more about all of this, I could feel the symptoms of depression lingering darkly around the edges of my newborn bliss.
As I looked out the window at the sunny July day I remember thinking, “What would happen if I got so depressed I couldn’t take care of Mason?” That’s when it dawned on me that the one thing that always made me feel a little better in the past when falling down the dark rabbit hole was sitting outside. Even if I did nothing, just sitting outside breathing fresh air made a difference.
Then I thought, “what if we could be having this same experience of talking to each other about nursing and dealing with our new lives and our fears outside, instead of in this cozy, safe little room?” While it was lovely, it was also too sheltered and was not helping all of my depression anxiety. I asked the group if anyone wanted to go on a little hike with me. Nothing hard, just a half-mile trail down the street from my house. There was just one thing, I didn’t really know how to use my carrier, so I was scared to go alone. And it wasn’t really a very good stroller trail.
The next week, armed with a ridiculous amount of stuff in my BOB stroller I went to a park near my house that had a mellow trail. For this “major” outing I brought a carrier, a days worth of diapers, diaper cream, water, food and who knows what else. Three women were waiting there at the trailhead and two more texted to say they were on the way. I was a bit shocked that they came. I was still nervous about carrying Mason, so I started out with the stroller on the hiking trail. Eventually we came to a place where it was obvious I needed to ditch the stroller and carry my son.
These veteran mamas helped me slide Mason into the carrier, and off we went. I only made it about another 15 minutes before I got tired and turned around, but it was exhilarating to feel the dirt under my feet for that half of a mile. I felt my spirits rising, and I knew I wanted to do it the next week.
The next day I woke up feeling overwhelmed about my husband working out of town for 3 weeks. That dark cloud was hovering in the back of my mind. Mark had gone out for the day, so I decided to go for a walk. I started with the neighborhood, pushing the stroller, but then as I neared the park, I decided to try stepping on to the trail. I locked up the stroller and asked a stranger passing by if she could help me buckle the back of my carrier.
I tried to act nonchalant like I totally did this all the time. There were so many things going through my mind. What if Mason had a blow out? Did I bring enough stuff? I couldn’t carry anything but a baby in the carrier. What if I needed to nurse. I had only nursed in the privacy of my home at that point and was still struggling with it. What if he slipped down in the carrier or I just dropped him? What if a scary homeless dude was on the path? What would I do?
As I got on trail, I felt the pressure still there in my chest, but with every step the fears and tears started melting away. It was so silent in the forest. The birds got louder, as did the bubbling water in the stream on the side of the trail. Everything was so green and lush in spite of the sweltering July heat. I felt Mason’s sweaty little nearly naked body snuggled up against me. I leaned down and kissed his head and breathed in the new baby smell. I moved so slowly, but with every step I felt a little lighter, a little calmer.
That day I walked all the way up the trail to the stone house, doubling the distance I had done with the group the previous day. Along the way Mason got hungry, and I stopped and asked a random couple to unbuckle the carrier. I took my wailing baby to a quiet place off the trail and sat down to nurse. I was nervous and not as graceful as I would have liked, but I did get enough milk in Mason to appease him and get back home. And when my husband came home and I announced that I went hiking alone, I felt so proud of myself.
The next week, ten women showed up to join me. It seemed I wasn’t alone in feeling the need to commune with nature and “hike it out”. As the weeks progressed my circle of friends widened and new faces showed up to hike with us. I also noticed something shifting in me. With every hike, I felt physically stronger and the dark clouds moved further and further away from me.
In June, we celebrated our son’s second birthday on a hike with 30 or so friends whom we had met through hiking with our children. It was a sweltering day, much like those first days I ventured into the woods with Mason. As we approached a shady forested stretch and I watched Mason running and laughing and looked around at all of the smiling families around me, all I could think was how happy I was. The simple act of putting one foot in front of the other in an effort to evade depression got me here.
It’s may be a cliché, but the first step truly is the hardest. Once you take it, you’ll notice how quickly the path will open up in front of you and the clouds will lift.
Tips for Successfully Getting on the Trail
- Create a regular hike/walk day.
- Try to plan at least two hikes a week. (If you plan two, you’ll likely make it to at least one.)
- Pack the night before so you don’t use the next morning’s chaos as an excuse to stay inside and skip it.
- Choose a mantra for the trail. As heavier thoughts or stressful things enter your mind, go back to that word and look at the trail.
- Try to leave the cell phone out of reach so you can enjoy the hike.
- Find a hike buddy who will help keep you accountable and get you out there.
- Don’t let your gear hold you back. Think used, think simple, think repurpose. I put my old cashmere socks on my baby’s legs over his clothes and booties to keep him warm on cold days!
- Keep it close to home. No need to go on an epic journey to find adventure. Some of my best days hiking were no more than a few miles from my house.
- Don’t get hung up with weather. Rainy day? Carry an umbrella on trail. Too hot? Look for shady trails and water features.
- Find groups like Hike it Baby (or start one in your area) to help get you out on days you just don’t feel like it.
Shanti Hodges hikes between 3-10 miles a week on average and tries to get outside with Mason at least 3 days a week year round. In spite of being viewed as a hike addict, she is not afraid to admit that she needs the Hike it Baby 30 Challenge to motivate herself out on the bad days! Her secret to getting out on days she’s not feeling it and there isn’t a challenge going on is to text a handful of her hike buddies and get them to guilt or motivate her out the door.
This article first appeared in Green Child Magazine. Check them out for awesome stories about healthy parenting.