When I was pregnant I was very concerned with postpartum depression. It was all over the internet, how terrible and insidious it is, how it sneaks-up on you and taints those precious first months of motherhood. But I was not going to let it sneak up on me. After I had my baby I monitored my moods closely. At four in the morning I’d be sobbing and asking myself, “Why are you crying? Are you depressed? No, you haven’t slept in two days. That’s not depression, that’s exhaustion.”
I did not know about the variety of postpartum mood disorders, including postpartum anxiety.
To be clear, anxiety is not just worry. Worry is natural when you have a newborn, especially if it’s your first. Here’s this totally helpless little person and you - you! who still sometimes feels like you need an adult around to take care of stuff - are tasked with keeping it alive and healthy. The early days are full of second guessing. Is the baby eating enough? Eating too much? Is she supposed to sleep this long? Why won’t she sleep???
This is all normal new parent worry. My worry became abnormal. It became all-encompassing.
It’s difficult to describe what it feels like to have anxiety, but here goes: you know when you’re standing at the top of a very tall building and you look over the edge and your body has an instinctive, physical reaction? The logical part of your brain is saying, “It’s okay. There’s a railing here. You’re not going to fall.” But another part of your brain, the part designed to make you aware of danger, is saying, “You’re not safe, and you should feel afraid.”
For me anxiety is like that, except all the time. I felt afraid, therefore there must be something to fear, and I needed to figure out what it was. Thus began the cyclical nightmare.
It started with terrible news stories into which I would insert myself. If a toddler stumbled into a drier or swallowed a battery or found a gun and pulled the trigger, I would imagine it happening to my daughter in vivid, horrible detail. I’m not in the habit of leaving loaded weapons around, but anxiety has no use for logic. Eventually I didn’t need to read terrible stories. My brain started making things up.
In parking lots, I imagined getting carjacked and watching a stranger drive away with my daughter in the backseat.
Walking through my neighborhood, I pictured wild dogs appearing and tearing her to pieces.
I watched her sleep, sometimes for hours, because I knew if I took my eyes off of her for even a minute she was going to die. These were not idle thoughts. These were, or at least they felt like, premonitions. These were things I needed to think about, to plan for, constantly. Anxiety makes your fears, no matter how irrational, feel like truth, and it’s suffocating.
Before we got on this carousel, I thought of all the ways it could kill us.
I didn’t know why I felt this way. I read and re-read lists of postpartum depression symptoms, hoping something would click. As it worsened, I came up with two theories: I was either a bad mother or very crazy. I wasn’t sure which was worse, so I kept it all to myself, hoping it might go away on its own. It didn’t. I was nine months into this increasingly hellish mental landscape when some late night, insomnia-fueled Googling led me to the phrase “postpartum anxiety.” It was like when the storm breaks and the first rays of the sun shine through. This was real. I was not alone. I could get better.
Coming clean to my husband about what had been going on in my head for the better part of a year was a scary first step, but having some backup, even just a name for it, made all the difference. He was incredibly supportive, even going so far as to research therapists for me. It’s been over a year since I started counseling, and even though I still struggle with generalized anxiety, I am miles better than I was. I still have intrusive thoughts, but my days are dotted with them rather than consumed by them. Now I can look at my daughter and enjoy the view.
The “baby blues” and new parent worry are real. Having a baby stirs up some totally normal but very intense feelings that often go away on their own. If you think what you’re feeling is more than that, please visit the excellent resource Postpartum Progress for more information on postpartum mood disorders. And know that this isn’t your fault, that you’re not alone, and it can get better.