Reel Love: How Films Helped Me Through Postpartum Depression

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Every Wednesday, after my husband left for work, Everest and I headed out for a movie date.

“Wild” was a favorite, as were “If I Stay” and “The Hundred-Foot Journey,” because those were quiet, character-driven stories.

Everest didn’t much care what was on the screen: He was only 3 months old when we started going to the weekly parent movie mornings at our local theater. These were screenings of new releases that catered to parents with babies – the lights in the theater were turned up, the sound was lowered, and a changing table was situated in the aisle, right next to the designated stroller parking. A ticket was even cheaper than for a matinee.

Movies are an easy way for anyone to ditch reality for 120 or so minutes, but for me, they were a lifeline.

Pregnancy left me with a body that felt as foreign as a French film. I had an angry C-section incision that was stubborn to heal, a stone of anxiety clanging around in my chest, and hips packed with extra weight like a fanny pack I couldn’t remove. Then postpartum depression settled in and nearly shattered me.

I was sleep deprived and lonely. My husband and I live in the desert in California, far from our Midwestern families, and most of our friends are childless and busy. Some days the temperature swelled to 115 degrees, and I flattened the carpet as I paced the living room with my colicky baby.

The movie theater, however, was cool and dark. I nursed my son in my arms and rocked him in the gently reclining plush seat. He was calm there, and so was I. The film was almost an afterthought.

While depression threatened to drown me, movies helped me claw my way to the surface. With each weekly outing I felt relevant again, a part of society, and this simple act offered an enormous sense of accomplishment. I was a woman who could venture into the world and experience culture, and I could do it with my child.

This didn’t come without severe self-condemnation and doubt, however. At a screening of “The Judge,” Everest stretched his arms toward Robert Downey Jr. and gurgled, “Dada!” When my baby wriggled out of my arms and crawled away during “Aloha,” he actually stuck to the floor. Later, as I brushed popcorn from his fine, silky hair, I realized I could never in good conscience own a “No. 1 Mom” coffee mug.

As a woman who thrives on research, I set out to find support for my actions, and I failed. The American Academy of Pediatrics specifically discourages entertainment media for this age group, stating, “Young children learn best by interacting with people, not screens.” (Although even the pediatricians may be realizing that screens are here to stay: They softened their stance a bit this fall.)

During pregnancy, I was careful to follow every rule and cultivate the healthiest possible environment for my baby’s development – only to ruin him for life by exposing him to a lackluster performance by Ben Affleck. What kind of monster does that?

Early motherhood is a series of selfless acts, and I had already given Everest my body, my sleep, my milk and my heart. But here was one thing I simply couldn’t concede.

I weighed the unknown risks for my son at the theater against the known harm of stewing in depression at home, and I opted for my own self-interest. And it helped. Movies weren’t the only light at the end of the tunnel, but they were the tiny bulbs illuminating the exit row as I shuffled through the dark.

Everest is now 2 years old. His passions include blueberries, playground swings, books with maps, and one ratty stuffed fox. He’s smart and curious, and his language has progressed well beyond “Dada” to something that sounds more like an adorable cave man.

We stopped going to the movies for almost a year, when he was too squirmy and wild, but he’s old enough now to settle into a story. He sits quietly in his own theater seat, although he’s not heavy enough to prevent the bottom from flipping up. I have to pin it with my knee.

Since he’s more cognizant of the world around him, the films we see are more age appropriate, like “Finding Dory” and “The Secret Life of Pets,” and they are a less frequent treat. Each time he refuses to leave until the credits stop rolling.

Last week, when the movie was over, he pointed to the wide screen.

“Fun,” he said. “Everest happy.”

Remarkably, so was I.