We stumble into motherhood told that being a parent is like having your own heart walking outside of your body. We love our children so much that it hurts. And with that love comes a lot of worry. It’s part of the job description. But what about when worry takes over? What about the worry that leaves you in a state of panic trying to catch your breath? What if the worry is with you day and night? Yes, we all worry, but sometimes that worry can turn into something so much bigger. And no mom should have to fight it alone.
Postpartum anxiety, the cousin to the better known postpartum depression, can be hard to pinpoint because a lot of the symptoms are also expected responses to the emotional upheaval that is motherhood. Worry, sleeplessness, hyper vigilance. These are adaptive responses us mamas have to keep our babies safe. But despite that worry having a purpose, for some it becomes all consuming. Constantly on edge, unable to stop those intrusive thoughts. For many, postpartum anxiety accompanies postpartum depression. However for some, like myself, it stands alone. The American Pregnancy Association estimates about 10% of moms experience Postpartum Anxiety. I was one of those mamas.
Looking back, I can see that my anxiety started to manifest while I was pregnant with Kennedy. I would find myself spending the time between my bouts of morning sickness googling every symptom or sign I could think of. With a high-risk pregnancy, I had a lot to worry about. I assumed all this was normal, but I now see that I couldn’t enjoy my pregnancy with all the worry running through me. Then Kennedy was born, and that love I had for her while inside me just exploded the second I held her in my arms. So did that worry. My heart was full, and I never wanted to let her go. I loved her so much that just the mere thought of anything happening to her left me frozen with fear.
The anxiety set in almost the second we walked through the door after leaving the hospital. Here was this incredible tiny human and it was my job to protect her, to keep her alive. That overwhelming feeling of new motherhood was so intense, and so scary. The combination of sleep deprivation and hormones created a tidal wave of emotions. I calculated every possible way she could get hurt or sick. I would inspect every inch of her to make sure nothing changed. I would stay awake during those rare opportunities for sleep to make sure she was breathing. I wouldn’t let anyone hold her out of my sight. I dissected every parenting website for what was normal and what was not. I don’t even want to count the amount of times we spoke to the on-call doctor that first month. I think every one assumed, myself included, that these fears would ease once we got into a groove. Once the hormones settled down. Once I got some decent sleep. But the anxiety didn’t subside, it only intensified.
My anxiety wasn’t unfounded, just heightened and all consuming. Kennedy was a high needs baby. She had legitimate feeding issues (her referral to the Failure to Thrive clinic was when I noticed a huge spike in my anxiety). I hadn’t had a decent chunk of sleep in months. But no one needs to validate why they feel how they feel, because all our feelings are valid no matter where they stem from. I just felt a sense of impending doom, not just in my mind but through my whole body. My chest felt like it was being crushed with a cement block while my legs would turn to jello. I had dealt with depression in the past, and this felt nothing like that. I was able to care for Kennedy, to meet all her needs and then some. But there was never a break from my anxiety to take care of me. I would convince myself that it was normal for new moms to worry and that this must just be typical of every postpartum experience. It took me a long time to learn that my anxiety exceeded what was the healthy norm. It took me even longer to get help for it.
Looking back, I know there are parts of my personality that are naturally anxious. I’m a perfectionist and put a lot of pressure on myself. However, the anxiety I felt upon Kennedy’s birth was nothing like I had ever experienced. My mind never stopped. I spent hours upon hours thinking of worst-case scenarios while my heart raced and my body trembled. I remember mornings crying with Kennedy sleeping lightly in my arms, begging my husband not to leave me alone with my thoughts. I’d cry while Kennedy napped, several times calling my husband hyperventilating, trying to convince him that something was wrong. He would try to reassure me, but often that reassurance just left me feeling lonelier. Kennedy would wake and I’d plaster on a smile and chatter away to her, praying my daughter didn’t notice my red swollen eyes. Praying these horrible moments weren’t affecting her. Praying she couldn’t tell that my unconditional love for her led me to crippling thoughts that I just couldn’t stop. I’d use all my energy to keep myself together until the next nap, where my anxiety would once again take over and consume me.
The focus of my anxiety shifted as Kennedy aged. When she was a newborn it was more about her safety and everything that could happen to her. As she got older, I obsessed about her development and those darn milestones. It felt like I had no control over where my thoughts went, and despite all efforts they always were the worst-case scenarios.
There was so much fear trapped inside my body that some days the only way I could breath was by yelling at my husband. It was like every fear I had was being expressed through this rage that was not a normal part of my personality. He took the brunt of my feelings. I wanted him to fix everything but to stop trying to fix everything. I wanted him to go away but also hold me tight. I wanted him to feel the panic and the fear that was taking over my body yet also be the rock and remain optimistic. None of that was fair, and it could have destroyed us. Thankfully he saw strength in me that I thought had disappeared. Despite the tears, the rage, the fear- he knew I was still there. I will be forever grateful that he didn’t give up on us and loved me through one of the most difficult periods of my life.
It was my dear husband who made the first call. Since I didn’t feel depressed, I didn’t think anyone could help. I was scared I would be told I was being crazy, or to “just stop worrying”. But the call he made changed my life. He reached out to a postpartum therapist that taught me how to breathe again. Since Kennedy wouldn’t ride in a car or let me out of her sight, my therapist came to my house once, sometimes twice, a week. We’d sit on the couch with my dogs piled on top of her, or we’d pace the house together as Kennedy insisted on constantly moving- and I’d let it all out. I spilled out every fear that was trapped inside my head, even if it seemed so irrational or silly. Despite being a social worker myself, she taught me skills that I had never applied to my life. I discovered mindfulness. I started journaling. I took up running. I made a rule that I was not allowed to google anything I was having anxiety about- instead handing that job over to my husband or emailing my doctor (you can find any answer to validate your fears if you google hard enough!). Most importantly I learned to sit with the fear, to look at it straight on. I learned not to judge myself for feeling so anxious and afraid. They were my fears, they were valid, and some days all I could do to not let them consume me was to keep breathing.
There wasn’t a day where I woke up and no longer felt any anxiety. The panic subsided by the time Kennedy turned one, but I’m still a worrier and don’t see that ever changing. There are days I know not to look at the news or hop on Facebook because I know I will be triggered. Despite those efforts, there are still times where that intense fear creeps in without explanation and takes over. But instead of being constant, it is momentary. If I find myself stuck in my head, Kennedy and I get out of the house and do something extra fun. I make sure to connect with other moms so I don’t feel so alone. I open up to my husband. I go to therapy. Kennedy and I even practice mindfulness together, because I need reminders to breath just as much as a preschooler does!
If you are feeling any signs or symptoms of any postpartum mood disorder, reach out. Don’t stop until you find the support you deserve. You don’t have to be alone with your thoughts. Call your doctor, find a therapist, talk with your family and friends. Your feelings are not silly or invalid. There is no shame in asking for help. You are not alone and you do not have to suffer. Postpartum Anxiety consumed me, but I can now look back and see that it was part of my experience and gave me the skills I need to tackle those every day mom worries. After all, worrying is part of the job, but it doesn’t have to be the whole job.