I honestly expected to tango with postpartum depression. Really. I was ready for it. I had the card to a therapist recommended by my midwife. I had plans established with my family and friends for what it would look like if someone thought my baby blues might be more than that. Having struggled with depression some in college, I truly assumed that the waves of melancholy, the overwhelming weight of motherhood, and countless other symptoms would take over my life as quickly as this new little squirmy [amazing] person had.
I had an incredibly anxious pregnancy (I'm sure terms like "advanced maternal age," "geriatric pregnancy," and "untested pelvis" had nothing to do with my worries) that I survived without the help of my regular anxiety medication. Looking back, the days of obsessing over the single slice of deli turkey I had allowed myself to eat or the hysterics I launched into at the slightest hint of thinking the baby had stopped moving... perhaps those were signs I should have paid more attention to in terms of my own mental health. Or just normal pregnancy stuff. I don't know. I was new to this whole thing.
So while I steeled myself for postpartum depression, I was completely unprepared for the wave of crippling postpartum anxiety and OCD that reduced me, on a regular basis, to tears.
It started innocently enough:
- Checking that our son was breathing. I get it. New parents (and veteran ones) do that. But checking that our son was breathing every 10 minutes... unable to put him down because something might appear out of thin air to block his face...
- The car seat. Stopping on our first drive to make sure that he was snug, and that his hat hadn't slipped down over his face (and clearly that meant it might cover his nose and mouth and he would suffocate while 3 feet away from me). Stopping 4 or 5 times on a single trip home, pretty much every time I went out alone...
- The cleaning mania. I remember, distinctly, chatting with a good friend about sorting out our son's clothes, and how wonderful it was to be getting things organized in a real way now that he had arrived. Two days after his arrival. She scoffed and told me to get back into bed. But I could not keep still. I had to be cleaning, organizing.
- The claustrophobia. In the two weeks my husband was home, all I wanted was to go out. I begged and pleaded for him to take us somewhere - anywhere - and thus, at 12 days old, our son went on his first mini-roadtrip.
- The clothes. I was obsessed that he did not have enough clothes. Luckily for our bank account, I am an avid thrifter and lover of hand-me-downs, so my obsession about the number of necessary onesies did not break the bank. But I remember worrying - constantly - that he had enough clothing, and that somehow not having enough of particular items would make me a bad parent.
I didn't consider sleeplessness to be an issue. We had a new baby. I readily threatened harm to the next person who told me to "sleep while the baby sleeps." I didn't think about loss of appetite as a symptom of anything except the general exhaustion my husband and I felt. And I certainly didn't want to consider my struggles with breastfeeding as part of a larger issue that would, within a month or two, reduce me to a sobbing, terrified mess when faced with the thought of being home alone with our son.
Looking back, I can see myself gradually, and then more quickly, spiraling into extreme anxiety. I know that hormones were the major factor - coupled with such a major life change as the amazing little boy we brought home from the hospital - but I was, in no way, prepared for what would happen next.
Intrusive thoughts are horrifyingly real and, in my case [and for so many other women], paralyzing. As I passed the days of my maternity leave, navigating this crazy new realm of motherhood, I grew increasingly concerned about him. I was afraid to bathe him alone because he might slip in the tub. I was afraid to have him in the kitchen because he somehow might be hurt on something left on the counter or a stray item in the sink. All burp clothes and blankets were swiftly banished for fear of suffocation. Everything seemed dangerous. And what I told myself was that I was adjusting to motherhood; all parents worry, and I was just learning how to be a parent and I would, in time, let these worries go, and not see the entire world as a constant threat.
And I was mostly able to talk myself down, until one day, perhaps three months after our son was born. That day, I was especially tense. Not because he was ill, or acting differently - I was terrified of him being hurt in our basement. As I fought to push this thought away, my mind reeled - all I could see was graphic flashes of him down there - and suddenly, I was sobbing, wondering aloud to our three month old what kind of mother had such thoughts. My parents came over that afternoon, and I talked with my mother, who did her best to make me feel better. I talked with my husband when he got home from work, and he sat next to me as I reached out to our midwives for help. At that point, I needed to reach out to my regular doctor, and we started the conversation about what I was dealing with: postpartum anxiety.
As I write this, I recall days where I felt fine. And I recall many days where I was terrified to do anything. I was terrified to be home because something might happen, and I would have to live with myself after whatever harm befell our son. I was terrified to leave the house, for fear of a car accident, or something happening at the grocery store. My maternity leave - this irreplaceable time with our incredible little son - became a lonely prison while my husband was at work and my family was away. I felt unhinged; I cried for hours as I fought to push away intrusive thoughts. I rarely slept. I worried constantly about everything, but our son's safety in particular. I dreaded weekdays and only felt safe on the weekends. And one Saturday, I was left home alone, and I shrieked and wailed that we were not safe home alone together, because I was clearly unfit to parent. But mostly, I was terrified that someone would figure it out - that I was, in fact, a horrible parent, and that I would lose the little boy who is the most precious thing in my world. I worked so hard to hide that I was not okay, because honestly, what kind of parent worries incessantly about such irrational things?
I went to my doctor. I started an anxiety medication. I talked to my friends and family. I leaned on my husband for support. I stopped nursing (which was an entire other saga), perhaps two months later, and felt my hormones realign and more my old personality gradually return. I stopped being afraid to be with our son. I started to accept that this would pass; that it was not going to be so hard forever, and looked forward to feeling more like me everyday.
But as people ask about my maternity leave, and I want to be honest about my early experiences in motherhood, I talk about my reality at the time. And so many people have, essentially, trivialized my journey through postpartum anxiety. Telling me that all parents worry isn't helpful. Telling me that it's just hormones - equally useless. Telling me a story about when you had to stop the car because you couldn't remember if you packed a bottle or not - not the same thing as my carseat checking behaviors. And I know that all of this came from a good place - friends and family trying to empathize, and share in the challenging bond that is parenting - but making me explain just how terrible things were for me and my family when I was in the thick of it - not at all helpful. In fact, many times when the someone's tone flipped into the condescending, "oh, you're being silly" mode, it was insulting, and hurtful, and many times made me relive the helplessness I felt in those months.
When I share my story, it is not so you can validate it. It is not so you can sign off that my worries, my fears, and my tears were terrifying enough. What's helpful? The awesome mom friends and dad friends who say, "I wish you'd said something. I experienced..." or the ones that honestly could not relate but silently listened without judgement. Because the judgement or explaining it all away as "normal" worries or hormones are reasons women don't open up about these experiences, and why postpartum depression, anxiety, and OCD are whispered about.
But I also know how insanely lonely it was to be trapped in my own head. I watched the days of my leave tick away as I could do nothing but worry and cry. And I know how alienating it was to feel like the only bad parent in a sea of amazing ones. And I know that having to justify my mental health to anyone certainly didn't help me work through it and get back to feeling like myself. So, all of you mamas out there feeling the anxiety - it will break. The fear will lift. And what you are feeling is very real to you - but you are doing it all right. Find your support. Fight to get back to feeling like you. Don't be embarrassed. You are far from alone, and you can get through this. And there's a lovely squish to snuggle in the meantime.