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During my pregnancy, I really felt I had adequately prepared (ok maybe over prepared) for motherhood. I'd read all the baby books, attended all the prenatal classes, and accumulated all the baby things (literally who knew babies could use so many things?!). However, I came to find out that there was one important piece of motherhood preparation that I'd completely overlooked--my mental health. My OB-GYN and I had in fact discussed postpartum depression, in referencing my past battles with depression and anxiety, but I do not ever remember specifically discussing postpartum anxiety which, as I ventured into motherhood, lead me to a very dark, very lonely, and very isolated place.
As we departed the hospital, my husband and I shared a nervous excitement to get our newborn son Teddy home and start our new lives together as a family. But after that first night alone, without the constant reassuring checks from the pediatric nurses, lactation consultants, and physicians, and as I struggled to breastfeed what I would come to find out was a severely lip and tongue-tied newborn, feelings of anxiety started to slowly seep in. Over the next few days those feelings of anxiousness only amplified as Teddy became increasingly colicky and inconsolable, and I became increasingly exhausted and frustrated. I referred back to my Happiest Baby on the Block book, my infant skills classes, and my pediatrician's instructions, but nothing seemed to be helping. Add in hormone imbalances and the inescapable exhaustion that all new parents face, and that initial nervous excitement gave way to incessant worry, spinning thoughts, and intense paranoia.
With every moment devoted to caring for Teddy, there was little time to take inventory on my thoughts and my health, and before I knew it, both started to slip away from me. I'd always found mental focus and clarity through yoga, but with swollen hemorrhoids, nether-region stitches, and loose-woman-parts making embarrassing noises during movement, the last thing I felt like doing was squeezing my chafed, raw, and cracked nipples into a sports bra. Instead, when I tried to leave him for a moment to do something for myself, I would succumb to the nagging feeling that I should be doing things for him. Pumping breast milk, cleaning bottles, doing laundry, googling reasons for colic, emptying diaper genies, refilling baby wipes--the mommy-to-do checklist in my head was never-ending. And as Teddy spent more and more of each day fussing, I spent more and more of each day in search of guidance from anyone or anything, including, but not limited to, Google searches, mommy texts, and input from strangers in the grocery store line.
Gradually, every single thing started to feel insurmountable, alien, and exasperatingly difficult. Going out to the store induced pangs of anxiety and paranoia that something terrible would happen to us on the way. Having visits from friends conjured dread-filled panic because I was sure people would think Teddy was miserable, and as such, that I was a terrible mother. Meeting other mommy friends for lunch or coffee (the very few times I did) made me feel lonely and isolated as I watched them (seemingly) effortlessly calm their crying babies while I (also seemingly) failed to help Teddy. 'They make it look so easy,' I thought, 'I must be the only one failing at this.' And so, I'd retreat to the confines of our home, embarrassed and ashamed at my inadequacy and sad and guilt-ridden over Teddy's colic. Sitting alone in our studio apartment, with my husband at work, I would search Teddy's blurry eyes for some unrequited assuredness that I was doing a good job. Instead, they rolled haphazardly around his new environment and we both wondered what the fuck was going on? Where were we? How did we get here? Was this how it was supposed to be? Surely not. I'd never seen this part documented from moms on Instagram!
I remember trying to stay strong until my husband returned from work each evening, and then too weary to hold back tears, I'd give way to the constant clenching pull at the back of my throat in a five-minute shower that left me heaving sobs of delirious exhaustion. I rarely left Teddy's side throughout the day, so worried that something would happen to him, and those five stolen minutes were my only solace, and it existed at just barely more than dire emptiness. I leaned, propped up against the cool shower wall, scarcely able to stand, weak from hunger, my caloric reserves exasperated by breastfeeding, but too tired to cook. I remember my aunt tried to send me a meal delivery service and I politely declined wondering how the hell she thought I had time to chop a vegetable when I had to take care of a baby?! Was she crazy?! Under the streaming hot water, I listened emptily as my husband also unsuccessfully tried to quell Teddy's cries in the other room. I stood drenched and paralyzed, anxiously wanting to run to Teddy, to expertly comprehend and provide to him what he needed, but instead remained immobile, afraid, and crying because I knew I couldn't identify, much less fulfill his needs, and therefore, I was a huge mom-failure. Hearing my muffled sobs from the other room, my husband would set Teddy down safely, and open the bathroom door, and meet my vacant eyes with a look of stunned sadness. He'd grab a towel and turn off the water, and take me in his arms. He'd tell me it was ok, and it would pass, and I was doing great. Great. Great?! If this was great, then what did really bad look like? Always the positive one, I remember him saying 'the doctor said postpartum depression could last up to two weeks after birth--so that means you only have x amount of days left!' Part of me wanted to believe him because only x amount of days seemed like something I could handle, but I had enough past experience to know that you can't put a calendar date on when feelings like this would, if ever, subside without medical intervention. At that time, I reasoned that even if I reached out for help, I wasn't going to take medication (for personal reasons and for breastfeeding reasons) and that because I didn't feel "detached" or "disconnected" from Teddy (if anything, I may have felt too connected), that I really wasn't experiencing postpartum depression. I'd just tough it out. I could get through it.
I couldn't get through it. Things finally culminated four months in when I'd convinced myself that my diet was to blame for his colic. Racked with guilt over switching to formula, but certain I'd found a cure for his colic, I made the decision to abruptly stop breastfeeding. I went to sleep with cabbage leaves stuffed into my nursing bra, and woke up to empty, deflated, pancake breasts. Just. Like. That. I didn't know at the time, but with that sudden cessation of breast milk production, my hormones would go HAYWIRE. For the next few days, I would cry and sob, then calm down, and then cry and sob, and then calm down, over and over again. Feelings of anxiousness and paranoia swelled louder and louder as I watched my husband bottle-feed our baby, and then I broke out into an all out panic attack. I looked at my husband and I told him I wasn't ok and I needed help. (I need to stress I was never and am still not pro-breastfeeding or anti-formula, and those feelings and perceptions were just another example of the anxiety I was feeling over everything single thing.)
Luckily, I had reached out to a friend who happened to be a psychologist over the previous weeks who provided a link to Postpartum International, a website specializing in providing and matching resources for men and women experiencing postpartum depression, anxiety and/or psychosis. Shaking and crying, I dialed a number for a provider in my area, and thankfully, she answered. This stranger kindly talked me through my panic attack, informing me of hormonal shifts during the cessation of breast milk production, and the symptoms of postpartum anxiety that I agreed I was feeling. Giving me something tangible, she scheduled an appointment for the following week, and though I wasn't even a patient yet, called periodically over the weekend to check in with me. I will be forever grateful for her free kindness and her intuitive perception that I needed help. In the end, while I fought taking medication for another month (again, for personal reasons), I finally realized it was something I needed in order to heal and that there's no shame in that. Now, with weekly therapy sessions and daily medication, I am feeling back to myself and providing Teddy the maternal care I always hoped I could. Furthermore, I have grown confidence in my mothering abilities, and strength in my faith that I know my son best.
Now, at ten months postpartum, I can say that all those feelings of worry and anxiety have completely dissipated. I'm extremely happy to report that by six months, Teddy also grew out of his daily (or half-hourly as I remember it) tantrums, over what, I still have no idea. Colic? Gas? Hunger? Overstimulation? Too little breast milk? Fourth trimester? Digestion? My diet? All of the above? None of the above? Who knows. What I do know is that he has become literally the happiest baby on the block! Strangers stop me all the time to tell me what a happy, smiling baby I have and I laugh to myself as I think back to how treacherous and isolating those first four months of our lives felt. I have a deep seated gratitude for the place we've reached together, knowing that there will never be an end to the internal struggles I will face as a mother, or as a parent. In the end, aside from reading What to Expect When You're Expecting cover to cover, I wish I'd asked my OB-GYN more questions about postpartum mental health and spent more time understanding possible signs of postpartum anxiety and the steps I could've taken in advance to seek help earlier. Looking back, there are several signs I should've headed much sooner:
7 Signs I needed Help for Postpartum Anxiety:
- Incessant worry - Obviously it's perfectly normal to worry about a new baby but I started to take this worry to a whole new level. I would worry about everything. Is he too hot? Too cold? Getting enough to eat? Losing weight? Getting too much to eat? Were his clothes fitting looser? Tighter? Too tight? Could he breathe? Running a fever? Allergic to dairy? Allergic to eggs (which he is)? Getting an ear infection? Once I'd analyze and overcome one worrisome thought, another would pop up in it's place. These thoughts became all-consuming and draining. Looking back, I wish I'd recognized that once those thoughts became overwhelming and incessant, to seek help.
- Constant Reassurance Checks - It was a terribly lonely place to see other moms enjoying time with their children while I struggled to feel like I was doing anything helpful for my son, other than change his soiled diapers. I felt like his punching bag all day long, and which I also felt was my motherly duty to take on. In my efforts to solve his colicky crying, or any other health issue I perceived, I found myself constantly seeking reassurance from other mothers. I would email, text or IG chat any mother I knew (or even didn't know), to consult their advice on everything I was doing. Once I had input from one mom, I text the next mom and asked for her input. And another and another. This went on for hours, sometimes days, which really only fed more anxious thoughts to consider and more anxiety over my mothering skills and decisions. Looking back, I wish I'd just trusted my intuition and gut because at the end of the day, I knew what was best for my child.
- Spinning thoughts - O.M.G. I became dizzy at all the spinning, cyclical thoughts about colic causes, sleep cycles, or hunger cues. I would cycle through the same thoughts over and over, all day long. Then my husband would come home and I'd go over all those spinning thoughts with him, he'd then offer input, and then I'd analyze his answers over and over. I'd lay awake at night, exhausted, knowing I needed to steal some sleep, but instead still cycling through the same thoughts and how I'd do things differently the following day. Now I realize that I was so lost in my anxious mind that while I spent my days physically with Teddy, mentally, I was checked out and unavailable to him.
- Inability to look ahead - When I would be holding Teddy as he cried (or sometimes as we both cried), I felt trapped in these moments. I truly thought this was how life would be forever and had an inability to look ahead. Viewing my current situation as 'forever', I would be overwhelmed with anxiety and sadness. What I understand now is that this time is certainly fleeting, and in most cases, this too shall pass (and in my case, it did).
- Unrealistic worry that something terrible will happen- This may sound crazy but I began to feel hesitant and anxious to leave my house, or even go for a walk around the block, because I was so scared something terrible would happen. What if I didn't look before crossing the street and we were hit by a car? What if I dropped his carseat when putting him into the car? What if I got in a wreck while I was driving? What if? What if? What if? This was legitimately my daily thought pattern--running through tons of terrifying scenarios. As a result, I'd often decide that rather than going out, I'd just remain in the privacy of my own home where I could keep constant watch over him and nothing bad could happen. Which then left me alone again to cycle through my anxious thoughts. Now I realize that believing these terrible possibilities to be so true that you refuse to take action, is where it became really unhealthy.
- Situational anxiety and paranoia - I'm from the South where a 'sip n' see' is a totally normal event, but because of his crying spells, his general fussiness, and my inability to calm him, the thought of having someone visit filled me with anxiety and paranoia. I felt terrible for not wanting people to come see Teddy, but even so, I would think of any excuse to avoid a visit. Of course, family and close friends came despite my excuses, and I was so embarrassed at his constant fussing and my inability to do anything about it that I was convinced that they were thinking I was a bad mother and had no idea how to care for my child. I would be lost in paranoid thoughts during their visit, convinced that they were thinking horrible things about my mothering skills and how sorry they probably felt for my son. Looking back, of course babies cry, and most people understand that, and it's not something to be embarrassed about or think of yourself as any less of a mother.
- Physical exhaustion - Being exhausted as a new mom is totally normal, but I really believe that lack of sleep affects each person differently. Instead of 'sleeping when the baby sleeps' (#asif) I'd struggle to fall asleep. I'd worry he'd be suffocating from S.I.D.S., that he needed to eat soon, that he needed a diaper change. I'd lay awake listening for his breathing. Then, thoughts racing, I'd start Googling. This is how I became certain my diet was to blame for a few of his issues, and so I eliminated soy, dairy, gluten, wheat and eggs and I started to lose weight. This not only resulted in more exhaustion, but also contributed to a lack of breast milk production, which contributed to more crying from Teddy (and me), which contributed to more worry, which contributed to less sleep. Looking back, I wish I'd consulted healthcare professionals to discuss my concerns rather than all-night Google chat forums.
3 Things I Wish I'd Done Differently:
- Set realistic expectations - Or better yet, forget all expectations! And for sure leave social media at the door. It sounds ridiculous, but I hadn't spent much time around infants and most of my ideas of what mommy hood was going to be like came from IG. I thought I'd throw my hair up into a messy bun, push my Uppababy stoller to Starbucks and spend leisurely afternoons sipping lattes with Teddy peacefully resting on my chest. Reality was, and still is, exhausting, messy and unkept.
- Prepare options in advance - After my physician commented that I may be susceptible to experiencing postpartum depression, I wish I would've asked more questions and delved deeper into possibilities of postpartum anxiety and all aspects of postpartum mental health. With that, I wish I'd at least prepared a list of a few therapists to contact in the event that I did experience symptoms. When you're in the thick of it, the last thing you want to do is spend hours Googling doctors in the area, reading reviews, checking rates and calling your insurance company.
- Talk to someone sooner - While I did reach out to my girlfriends, my husband, and even my mom, I don't think anyone realized how bad I was feeling. Luckily that one friend listened intently and made a few recommendations. I'm glad I said something, but I wish I'd had more confidence in myself and my realizations that these thoughts may not be healthy and said something louder, sooner. Or I wish someone would've been like 'hey, this is a cry for help,' and she needs a hand whether that's me finding her an appointment or me coming over and taking care of Teddy for a few hours. I had one friend, Mary, who sensed my desperation and drove two hours each way, brought me my favorite coffee, and watched Teddy while she demanded I take a bath and try to sleep. When of course I couldn't, she listened patiently as I rambled on and on about my concerns and to this day, I will never forget her just being there for me (#rideordie).
I want to stress that I'm not a physician, I'm not a nurse, and I'm not a therapist. I am just a mother expressing my experiences with postpartum anxiety, some postpartum depression, and maybe even a hint of postpartum psychosis. The signs I discussed here were only the signs that I personally experienced, and was diagnosed with, and that I wish I'd taken more seriously or expressed more carefully to someone sooner. Every mother's or father's experiences with parenthood, postpartum anxiety and/or postpartum depression are different. At the end of it all, I'm thankful for this experience because now I know what to look for in the future, and how to offer help to a friend in need. If you have any advice you'd like to share or your own insight into postpartum anxiety, please comment below or send me an email. You can always read more at my blog The Ginger Journeys.