A couple of weeks ago, I was having a wonderful conversation with a young friend. She’s an amazing person, full of hope and love and wonder. She embraces adventure and finds joy in the most minute of places. We were talking about life and moving forward from our current spaces. I began to discuss the fears of my life, the heaviness of the unknown. I tried my best to describe the fear of knowing that as much as I want to be present in every second of my children’s lives, to protect them from anything that might cause them harm, I simply cannot. The knowledge of my lack of ability to be their protector in every instance is a heavy one, a physical sensation I have grown to embrace. Because my young friend is full of love, she encouraged me to let go of the fear, as though it was a handbag I could hang in my closet to use only on special occasions. I giggled a bit and retorted. "Fear really isn’t the best word, but it’s the most accessible to explain the feeling." She asked what a better word would be, and I replied, simply, "Motherhood."
There is so much about parenting that no one tells us, so many things we don’t know to expect. I remember, before having my first baby thinking often that what I saw parents experiencing would never happen to me. I would never let my kids watch lots of television. I would never get angry. I would never lose my patience with my children. HA! I’m 0 for 3. I had no way of knowing what it would really feel like to be a mother until I became one. And as I move through my journey, I am beginning to understand that there are parts of this that even if they wanted to tell me, there just aren’t good words to use.
Elizabeth Stone once said that having a child is "To decide forever to have your heart go walking outside of your body." That quote always fascinated me before I had a baby. I thought that surely she was exaggerating. Surely she was being overly dramatic to scare me. She wasn’t. Not even a little bit.
The worry of this job can be overwhelming at times. When you bring a baby home you begin to notice a bigger worry than perhaps you’ve ever had before. You become aware of things you never noticed. You see the world through different eyes and notice things like public bathrooms that don’t have changing tables, pointy ends of furniture, the judging eyes of total strangers, the constant feelings of self-doubt. The worry of this job; sometimes it’s scary as hell. The stakes are higher than ever before.
Our generation of mothers is experiencing a different type of worry and fear than the mothers that came before us. It might not be that the world is a more violent and frightening place than it has been; but it is certain that we have more access to information. As social media takes over our lives and we carry headline news stories around in our pockets we as mothers are uniquely situated to wonder, “How am I going to explain this to them? How will I protect them?” We don’t have to wonder about the terrible choices that other people make, we only have to scroll through our news feeds to pay witness to them. Being a mother is scary enough without knowing full well what there is to be afraid of every waking second.
Worry is part of the job description; it’s normal and expected. All moms worry. Some moms do more than worry, though. Some moms (about 20%) exist outside of the realm of normal worry and experience full-on symptoms of Postpartum Anxiety or another mood disorder. Postpartum Anxiety is much more intense than regular mom worry. Moms with anxiety can experience feelings of restlessness, like they have to be busy doing something at all times. Sometimes they have physical symptoms like nausea, a racing heart, headaches, and even panic attacks. New mom worry doesn’t involve panic attacks--those are a red flag that there is something more going on. Moms struggling with anxiety sometimes feel like they have to constantly check things: is the baby monitor on? Is the baby sleeping? Breathing? Is the door locked? Are the lights on? Did I turn off the oven? Over and over and over. Anxiety steals our appetites and our sleep, no matter how tired we are. Anxiety makes us scared. Like, for real scared. So scared that we can’t leave the house or don’t want anyone else to hold the baby. Anxiety is a jerk; a playground bully. Anxiety fills us with dread and robs us of our joy.
Postpartum mood disorders are a common complication of childbirth. They are completely treatable. Suffering in silence isn’t a required part of motherhood. Feeling isolated and alone can be detrimental to a mom’s mental health. There is help available. If you are concerned that maybe your worry is more than just worry, talk about it. Ask for help, don’t wait for it to go away on its own, it probably won’t. You will get better. You will. And when you do you can embrace the normal worry of motherhood with greater ease and join the rest of us who are all scared too.
About the Author
Beth Shelton, LMSW, CPD is a Certified Postpartum Doula with Homecoming Postpartum Services and a Maternal Mental Health therapist with Appleseeds, Inc. Beth enjoys chasing her children and her chickens around her backyard, appreciates a long hike, and has a slightly inconvenient obsession with tie-dying.