Warning: This story describes an incident of child abuse and may be difficult for some to read.
After a completely sleepless night on November 20, 2010, Tami Revering, a pregnant stay-at-home mother of two sons born barely 14 months apart, got out of bed. That day, like most days, she would be caring not just for her children, but for her friend Angie Pengelly’s 2-year-old and 4-month-old baby, Anders.
Later, she loaded the four young children up and out of the house for a morning playgroup, then brought them back and laid the oldest three down for a nap. After giving the baby a bottle and laying him down for a nap, too, Revering sat down on the couch. “I remember just wanting to get a few minutes rest,” she says. “Just enough to carry me through the rest of the day.”
But the baby started to cry.
She tried rocking him, but he continued to cry. So Revering laid him back down and returned to the living room. Revering describes what happened next:
“I remember telling myself not to go back in there. The best way I can describe what was going on in my head sounds strange, but it is really the way I remember it. It was like I had a white light on one shoulder telling me to stay on the couch, the baby will be fine. I had a dark light on the other shoulder telling me to go to the baby and make it stop crying. Back and forth, I don’t remember how long I sat on the couch. Eventually the dark light won, and I got up, walked to the crib, picked up the baby, and shook him.”
Revering’s act of violence caused the baby to suffer a stroke, a seizure, and a skull fracture when she threw him on the bed after shaking him. It’s hard for the young mother to accurately capture what was going through her mind when she shook Anders.
“I remember as I was hurting him I just felt all of my pain, all of my isolation, all of my anger, all of my failures, rushing through my thoughts,” she told me over email. “In that moment, with all of those thoughts running thru my head, my thoughts were not focused on what I was doing to this poor innocent infant. And I hate myself still for that. It’s a feeling and a moment that is difficult for me to describe in words.”
After shaking Anders, Revering called 911 and confessed, leading to her immediate arrest and placement into solitary confinement for three days. According to her police report, Revering was hysterical, begging the cops to just “shoot her.” Eventually, she was diagnosed with postpartum depression and went through in-patient treatment at a psychiatric facility.
Although she once described what happened as saying she “snapped,” looking back, Revering says she doesn’t like using that word. “In a sense, maybe I did snap,” she explains. “But it makes it sound like it just happened out of nowhere. I think the old phrase ‘the straw that broke the camel’s back’ describes more of what happened.”
Revering, 34, who is now a stay-at-home mother of four children, 8, 7, 5, and 16 months, says looking back, she can see how her downward spiral was a slow and painful one.
“When I think back to the very beginning of when my PPD started, I felt so alone,” Revering told me. “I believed I must be the only mother on the planet who was having ‘scary’ mommy thoughts … thoughts that I hated being a mother, I didn’t love my babies, or that I was a horrible mother.”
Leah Jacobson, who was Revering’s roommate in college, first asked Revering to share her story on her website, The Guiding Star Project, because she believes that talking about what happened could save other women and babies.
“It still affects how I think about my own mental health,” Jacobson told me. “The idea of having a crying plan was totally new to me. I wouldn’t have given myself permission before to walk out on a screaming baby, and now I know that is sometimes the best thing to do. Truly, if Tami Revering could shake a baby, any of us could.”
When I read Revering’s story, I had the same feelings as Jacobson did, because if I’m being honest, I know I have been one step away from “snapping.”
I distinctly remember a time after my second was born with colic. She never stopped crying or spitting up, and no matter what I cut out of my diet, she was miserable. I felt like a failure and never slept. One afternoon, when my 2-year-old was resisting her nap, I felt an anger rise up inside of me like nothing I had ever felt before. It scared me so much that I still feel guilty about it to this day.
The way that Revering describes how postpartum depression warps your thinking is so chilling, because I understand exactly what she means.
“It convinced me that this person I was becoming was always me,” she explains. “It had me convinced that my true personality was an angry and agitated person. That old me, the Tami before kids, that wasn’t really me at all. This was who I always was. Becoming a mother just brought out my real personality, or so I had convinced myself.”
Revering was actually spurred to begin speaking about her story by Angie, who sent Revering a letter while she was in jail telling her that she had forgiven her. “Her grace still amazes me to this day,” Revering says. “Reading her letter only reinforced the fact that I needed to do something.”
Revering began speaking about her experience, sometimes with Angie — being careful to point out that she takes full responsibility for her actions and not seeking help — in order to explain how to recognize the signs of postpartum depression, how to seek treatment, and how to prevent baby shaking.
Revering also believes that there is so, so much more we can do to help mothers who are suffering, starting with educating partners more and making a plan for the moment you get frustrated by a baby crying. Women who are in the throes of the depression often can’t recognize what’s happening to them and sometimes, intervention is absolutely necessary.
“The best advice I would give to partners would be take all of her changes in mood, behavior, anything that seems not like her, seriously,” pleads Revering. “Sit down and talk with her, and really listen to her. Look into her eyes and ask her, ‘NO, how are you really doing?’ It’s so easy for most of us women to say we are fine, I think if my husband sat me down and asked me that and really pressed for my true feelings, that would have made an impact on me.”
Revering’s story is also an important and sobering wake-up call for us to realize that “self-care” is not just a cutesy little buzz word. It’s real and it’s necessary.
Another huge factor? Remaining isolated as a stay-at-home mom. If she could go back in time, Revering says she would join groups and surround herself with a supportive, understanding group of people.
But in the end, no matter how much you try to prevent it, postpartum depression can happen to anyone and leaving it untreated can have terrible consequences. Which is why Revering is bravely sharing her story.
“I want to erase all stigma in regards to mental health,” Revering says. “I was so embarrassed about the thoughts I was having and how I was feeling, I felt so alone. And I don’t want any other women to ever have to feel how I felt.”
Today, Revering calls now-6-year-old Anders’ recovery a “miracle.” And although the kindergartener will be on seizure medication for the rest of his life and has immense damage to his brain, he is for all intents and purposes, a normal little boy.
“The neurologists have said that when you look at his brain scan and you look at him, it seems impossible,” Revering notes. “The extensive damage in his brain shows them that he should not be able to run, talk, and play. And he does all of those and more.”
And as for Revering, who pleaded guilty to first-degree assault and served a one-year jail sentence along with a 20-year weekly probation, she hopes to reach the place where she can fully forgive herself someday.
“There are days that I think I have forgiven myself and days that I think I have not,” says Revering. “I’d like to think I can one day get to that point.”
To read Revering’s story in full, please visit The Guiding Star Project.