*Trigger warning: This post discusses depression, PND, and suicide.
It’s International Women’s Day, and this morning my Facebook memories were filled with wonderful, empowering posts from March 8s past, but when I got to March 8, 2013, I found some posts I had forgotten belonged to this day, and the tears began to well. On this day in 2013, I said goodbye to a friend I met (oddly coincidentally) on Women’s Day in 2009 at a company breakfast. I had only been working there a few months, and was in the engineering department where there weren’t many women. I was seated between two women I didn’t know and, as I tend to do in these situations, I kept to myself and hoped someone else would break the ice.
Within minutes, the woman next to me turned, smiled, and introduced herself. She was Anna, she was from Poland, she worked in marketing. We chatted through the whole breakfast, and over the following years became friends. We performed “Thriller” dressed as zombies at the company Christmas party when I was four months pregnant. We laughed over lunches. We shared our experiences as foreigners in Norway, and as women in a male-dominated industry. She was exceptionally forthright—downright blunt, actually—but was always a source of sunshine in what is sometimes an all-too-dark country. She came to me when she learned she was pregnant, and we discussed a strategy for how she would tackle taking a break from a job she loved, and what might happen on her return after a year of parental leave. I was the employee representative at the time (a sort of union rep for non-union members), but we talked more as friends, and our mutual concerns over how motherhood can affect a career seemed to bring us closer.
The last time I saw Anna was at a tea party at a friend’s apartment. Everyone was dressed up, clad in pearls and gloves and fascinators. There were beautiful cupcakes, never before used wedding china, and two heavily pregnant women. Anna was one of them, due any day. Her husband hadn’t wanted to let her out of his sight, but she had insisted. Towards the end of the party, Anna went to use the bathroom, then we heard a very quiet voice saying, “Um, I think I need some help” from the hall. Anna’s water had broken. Her husband arrived in what seemed like seconds—to this day I wonder whether he hadn’t been waiting down the block the whole time—and she enjoyed the most beautiful send-off you could imagine: A dozen beautifully dressed pearl-clad women waving, laughing, weeping, and calling out wishes of luck and happiness. This image is the one I always think of when I remember Anna.
Three months went by, in which I had regular good intentions of making time to visit Anna and her baby boy. I had bought gifts for both of them, which sat ready in the hall cupboard waiting for me to make a time to meet her. I had Wednesdays off work to write the novel I was working on, and since she was on maternity leave, I could have taken the time then to arrange a visit. But I didn’t. I was fiercely protective of my writing time and determined to finish the book. And weekends were family-time for us both. I had all the excuses in the world. But if I’d known for one second what Anna was going through, I might have been on her doorstep daily, whether she wanted me there or not. When one of Anna’s best friends called me to tell me she had taken her own life, I couldn’t believe my ears. No, not Anna. She was so strong, so together . . .
No one will ever know exactly what Anna went through in those first three months of her son’s life. People who saw her only the week before said she’d seemed fine. That’s what she wanted the world to see, because inside she was terrified she was doing everything wrong, and that if anyone knew they might take her baby away. At least, that’s what we believe. Like I said, no one will ever know the quiet hell she was experiencing.
It has taken three years for me to get the courage up to write about Anna. I still don’t know if it’s the right thing to do. But just last month when another young woman I know, though this time not a close friend, took her own life after years of struggling with depression, I once again thought of Anna. Then, when I think about the messages women are given about being strong, having it all, leaning in . . . I realise that it all adds up to a tremendous amount of pressure. It’s a pressure I understand first-hand these days, because last year I spent four or five months under my own dark cloud of clinical depression that I told no one but my partner and a psychologist about. A couple of friends had hints, but for the most part I was determined to tackle it alone. A huge part of that was because I wanted to uphold the image people told me they had of me: strong, capable, formidable, unbreakable.
Neither did I open up about how hard motherhood was, especially during that first year when I spent every single day alone with my daughter. I never told anyone how judged I felt, how worried I was that I was getting it wrong, how every time something didn’t go to plan, I felt it was all my fault. My daughter wouldn’t sleep through the night because I couldn’t stomach “sleep training”. She had terrible eczema because I wasn’t assertive enough with the often-passive Norwegian medical system. She didn’t gain weight because I was getting the breastfeeding all wrong, producing too much milk, then not enough milk, not pumping enough, pumping too much . . . and a multitude of other doubts and fears that ate away at my brain on a 24-hour-a-day cycle. And the worst thing? This is all pretty much normal for modern mothers, because we are so determined to be strong and capable that we don’t—we can’t—reach out for help when we need it.
Maybe it was because I’d already been in therapy for months, maybe I’d finally learned my lesson, or maybe I was just too tired to go on being the kind of strong I thought I needed to be. I don’t know. But I discovered something when my fifteen-year relationship finally fell apart late last year: the strongest (and best) thing I could do was to call my closest friends and ask for help. They answered the call immediately. They arrived on my doorstep that very evening bearing Cheez Doodles, nail polish, chocolate, tissues, and giant squeeze-the-breath-out-of-you hugs. They couldn’t fix the situation, and they didn’t try. But they were there, and they would have done anything within their power to help me through. That knowledge was most of what I needed—the rest was that they reassured me immediately, and without me asking, that they didn’t think I was weak. They were angry for me, and confident that my future was all the brighter because it was back in my own hands, and they knew I had the strength to make goddamn champagne out of these ugly, rotten lemons. With those words to fortify me, and even though the tears would keep flowing for a while after, I felt stronger and more triumphant being part of a family of female friendship than I ever did standing alone against the storm.
So, on this International Women’s Day, I urge you to reassess your definition of strength. It should not be about doing everything alone and being celebrated for that. It should be defined by what we offer each other when one of us falters, and in the strength we find when we ask others to stand beside us, behind us, or between us and a threat.
Be strong enough to reach out when your world is crumbling, and be strong enough to extend your hand to someone who might be silently drowning in her own idea of what strength should be.