That was the overwhelming feeling I experienced after the birth of my daughter in 2009. I could not have loved another human being more than I loved her, yet somehow I felt as though someone had died. In fact, someone HAD died, and it was my old “self”. I struggled with an identity loss like I’ve never felt before….who was I? I was a wife, a career woman, and now a MOTHER. But where was I in the midst? I was fully unprepared for the substantial way in which my life would forever change and I could not go back.
Looking back on it now, my “post-partum” difficulties started well before the post-partum phase. I was 29 years old and wanted nothing more in my life than to be a mother. My husband and I had a great marriage, and adding a little bundle of joy just seemed to complete the picture. But once I got pregnant, the next 8 months were tumultuous, with horrible nausea for the first 4 months, and persistent pain in my lower abdomen. I constantly worried that I would lose the baby, and began having obsessive thoughts about everything I ate, the position I slept in, the products I used on my hair and skin, and every movement I made in a single day. Other women told me how wonderful they felt when they were pregnant, and I felt horrible. Right here is where my story should change, as society should be shattering this silence of motherhood and be promoting the voice of all women. But unfortunately, we are trained from the time we are little girls to grow up, becomes wives and mommies, and to love every single minute of it. In our generation of women, haven’t we been told that we can do it all? What a slippery slope that is…we can do it all, yet there is little support for us when we don’t quite know HOW to do it all. And so by NOT being able to do it all, or love it all, my pregnancy was where my journey with perinatal mood difficulties began.
My second trimester arrived and everyone offered opinions. From breastfeeding, to delivery style, to attachment and vaccines, everybody had something to say to me about who I should be as a mother and how I should do it. These opinions were rarely offered as gentle encouragement, but as statements of fact, with thinly veiled judgments simmering beneath them. “Well, you KNOW, if you don’t nurse, then your baby will get sick all the time.” “If you put your baby in daycare, you’re just letting other people raise her.” “If you have a C-Section, your baby won’t be bathed with all the wonderful hormones that make her attached to you.” “If you vaccinate your child on a traditional schedule you’re injecting her with dangerous chemicals and putting her at risk for autism.” Time and time again, what I knew were well-intentioned comments from caring people, quickly became a basis for my own inner turmoil. Surely these women as experienced mothers must know a thing or two. And so the rumination continued.
At my 28 week appointment, I knew something was wrong. My doctor indicated that all of those pains and pressure I had been worried about were in fact contractions, which were resulting in pre-term labor. I ended up on a cocktail of medications to prevent me from delivering a one pound baby, and spent 2 weeks in the hospital on bedrest. I remember the nurses writing my “goal” on the gleaming dry erase board hanging on the wall across from my hospital bed. “29 Weeks” it read. Really? That was my goal? To make it one more week? All I could think about were all of the potential things that could go wrong from this point forward. I was an ideal patient, lying still on my left side, and only getting up for less than 30 minutes a day to use the restroom. Bedrest continued for 6 weeks at home with 2 hours per day of contraction monitoring. I was allowed to shower only every few days, had to drink 14-15 glasses of water per day, and couldn’t do anything to promote contractions, because my uterus was “irritable.” Each week, I celebrated the tiny victories…30, 31, 32…only a few more weeks until I would be full-term. I watched every TV show and rerun. My magazines had holes in them where my fingers wore through the pages. I knew the shape and location of every last piece of popcorn on the ceiling, and the way in which the fabric weaved on my couch cushions. Again, the well-intentioned people offered their thoughts; “Well, at least on bedrest you can just relax and watch TV all day!” Little did they understand that with nothing to do but be still every day with my own thoughts, the anxiety continued. I was hypervigilant, and scared to death of losing my baby.
At 36 weeks, I was allowed to go off bedrest, and my beautiful little girl arrived a mere 3 days later at only 5 and a half pounds. She had very little of that precious additional baby fat that they gain during the last month in utero. Because of this, she had trouble controlling her body temperature. During her first pediatrician well visit at 4 days old, she experienced a sudden temperature dip which resulted in repeated apnea episodes, and which placed her in the PICU for 4 days. I felt my heart drop as she turned blue, and as we rode amongst beeps and sirens in the ambulance to the hospital. I watched helplessly as she had blood drawn, was catheterized for a urine sample, and dropped to my knees when they took her from my arms to a “sterile environment” where I was not allowed, so they could perform a spinal tap. All the tests came back to support that she had simply gotten “too cold” while undressed for a few minutes at the doctor’s office. But this experience was traumatizing for me. What if it happened again? Everyone always said, “Sleep while the baby sleeps,” but what if she stopped breathing in her sleep? What if her room was too cold? The doctor told us we did not need an apnea monitor, but how could I ever go home without one?
Once we finally had her back home, the ruminations and anxiety continued. We bought a special monitor that told us not only the temperature of her room, but also whether or not she was moving. Many nights we would experience false alarms and run into her room on pure adrenaline, to find her cuddled in a small ball at the top of her crib, away from the sensor. I didn’t care if I had 1000 false alarms so long as we didn’t miss the real thing, if it ever were to happen. I remember when she was a few months old, we had another couple over for dinner. As she slept, the monitor went off with a false alarm. I vividly recall those well-intentioned comments again, questioning why we would put ourselves through such an alarm when she hadn’t had an apnea spell for months. “That alarm would drive me crazy,” the husband said wryly. I tried to put into words how my heart and soul was sleeping 20 feet away from me in that tiny crib and I could not bear to risk any harm to her…but the explanation sounded hollow and lacked the gravity of the fear I felt inside of me with every waking moment. No one understood the depths of the vast ocean of anxiety that was swallowing me.
At about 6 weeks of age, we began on a journey of 9 months of acid reflux and milk protein intolerance. She cried day and night and I remember asking my pediatrician, “Will she always be in a bad mood? Is this her personality?” At that time I was in the trenches of significant anxiety, but my daughter’s pediatrician didn’t see it…she simply replied in an offhand manner, “I don’t know.” As with the friends and coworkers, she meant well, as I don’t think she understood the importance of the answer to that question for me…if she were to always be a fussy baby then surely I must be a horrible mother. But no one would have guessed I ever felt this way. I certainly didn’t phrase the question in a way which enabled her to sense my anxiety. I asked in a lighthearted manner, because part of me could not bear to let her see how lost as a mother I was. On the inside, it terrified me to hear her answer. How could she have ever known how I felt? I looked the part of the happy and healthy mother; fresh highlights and haircut, perfectly manicured nails, my daughter cocooned in an adorable onesie and soft blanket. Didn’t mothers with perinatal mood disorders look disheveled? Appear sad? Have trouble caring for their baby? And didn’t “those” moms want to hurt their babies? If anything, I was obsessed with all the possible dangers that COULD befall my child….so much so that I could barely breathe.
Little did my daughter’s pediatrician know, or anyone else for that matter, my anxiety had risen to heights which I have never experienced. I felt alone, scared, and just plain sad. I obsessed over my baby’s eating and sleeping, keeping an hourly journal where I documented what she ate, her body temperature, how often she went to the bathroom, her disposition, and what I ate since I was nursing and I knew my diet impacted her moods. Nursing was difficult, and didn’t go the way the books and movies told me it would go. I felt guilty and terrible at the new “MOM” part of my identity. How did everyone else make it seem so easy? How was I failing so horribly?
At about two months in, I finally decided that enough was enough and I needed to be honest with myself and with others. I started reaching out to other mothers who I knew would be candid with me. I looked to other mothers who, like me, could admit that being a mother was hard, hard work, and there were aspects of it which they just did not enjoy, or which they were scared about. I steered clear of the books and articles and even other new moms who told me that motherhood was pure bliss, because it made me feel bad about myself and my personal journey. I found comfort in other mothers who loved their little ones more than anything, as I did, and knew that even though I felt scared, or lonely, or overwhelmed, that I was indeed a good mother. Most importantly, I was human, and it was critical for me to acknowledge that I had feelings as an individual, which might contrasts society’s push to view motherhood as magical 100 percent of the time.
When my daughter was about 6 months old, I continued to struggle to feel like “myself”. I went to the Postpartum Support International website and armed myself with knowledge. I sought out my primary care doctor as well as a therapist. In both cases, I was told, “Oh you’re normal, and things are going to get better now that she is six months old. This is just an extension of anxiety you already had.” Again, I truly believe that both doctors were well-intentioned, but both also completely missed the mark. While I now agree that perinatal mood and anxiety disorders are much more common than previous statistics lead us to believe, I also know that what I felt was not “normal”.
Given the difficulties I had finding support from the medical and counseling community, I continued to seek support for my anxiety in the ways I knew how; spending time with my husband and family, getting together with other moms who would be “real” with me, and trying to find something that was “mine” and which enabled me to have some sliver of identity outside my “roles” in life. I also decided to throw caution to the wind, and not worry about how I sounded, what I looked like, or how others would perceive me. I decided to be honest, share my feelings, voice the hardships, and admit that I was far from the “perfect mom.” It took me a solid year and a half before I felt like myself again, but what I realized was that a “new me” had emerged. The me before motherhood was a tiny caterpillar who wrapped itself into a cocoon once my daughter arrived. Anxiety, loneliness, and obsessive thinking insulated me for some time, until I emerged as a butterfly. It’s a different version of me, but one which is so much more beautiful, and while I have been changed into a “mother”, my core remains the same.
Today I am on the other side of it, and I realize that anxiety and obsessive-compulsive symptoms are just as real and prevalent for new mothers as depression is. Furthermore, it’s the mothers who look well-polished, put together and “in control” that we need to worry about the most. By controlling every aspect of their lives and appearance, they can gain some sense of security over the fact that their new life as a mother feels so terribly chaotic. If there is any message I can share, it is this: Moms with perinatal psychological disorders are not always the sad, crying types who fail to bond with their babies. They are not always the mothers who want to harm themselves or their children. Sometimes they are the moms you’d never suspect were suffocating on the inside, and they love their babies so much sometimes that it hurts.
My name is Brittany, and I am a survivor of post-partum anxiety. I live in Tampa, Florida with my wonderful husband, and our beautiful little princess, who is 4 years old and the light of our lives. Motherhood surely changes us as women, but if we can support each other and break this code of silence, we will all be able to move forward in a positive direction.