At 7:11 AM on one Friday in 2008, I met my daughter for the first time…
Despite enduring an incredibly chaotic delivery, once I saw her, everything clicked into place in my heart. There really is no way you can emotionally prepare for motherhood. You can’t prepare for the moment when you meet the life you’ve been dreaming about for so long, but once you’re there everything shifts.
That first day was full of wonder, love, and bliss as my husband and I shared in the joy of welcoming Hannah Elizabeth into our lives.
For me, that joy lasted approximately 22 hours…
Early the next morning in the hospital I was nursing Hannah, and when I went to burp her something strange and unexpected happened where she couldn’t clear her throat. I watched as she struggled for breath, and I tried desperately to help her. As I watched her little face turn deep shades of red then purple, I felt white-hot flames rip through every nerve ending in my body.
I yelled for my husband to call the nurse, and when the nurse came in she quickly grabbed the booger-ball gadget and cleared her mouth. And Hannah was back to breathing instantly.
The nurse cheerfully explained that sometimes these things happen and it is easy to clear out the mucus. To her, what just happened was no big deal. But I sat there in shock and horror, watching this young nurse who seemed totally unfazed by what felt to me like a life-or-death moment, bouncing my daughter back to sleep.
Terrible thoughts flooded my brain, thoughts along the line of: “What have I gotten myself into? Clearly I don’t know what I am doing, I almost killed her! I am not going to be able to keep this baby alive.”
Even worse, those white-hot flames of panic that rushed through me? It seemed like they never turned off completely. It was as if something switched in my brain, and after that moment I felt as if I might never relax again.
Fearful that I couldn’t keep my daughter alive, I asked the nurse to take her to the nursery for me. The day before I could not have imagined parting with my girl for 2 seconds and I refused to send her to the nursery at all. Now, I believed it was the only way to keep her safe.
When the doctor told us we could be discharged that night, I almost cried.
Seriously? They were going to send us home?
They must not be aware that our home did not have a staff of nurses and doctors who could swoop in and save Hannah.
Did they not know she struggled for breath this morning and I couldn’t help her?
Couldn’t they see that keeping her alive was clearly going to be a big challenge?
At the same time, I also felt intense embarrassment for feeling this way. I mean, my husband and I wanted to bring a child into this world. How could I be feeling THIS scared? I rationalized that every new mom MUST feel this way, and it was just time for me to put my big girl panties on and jump into life as a mom.
I hope that most of you reading this are thinking to yourself, “Nope, not every mom feels this way. I didn’t.”
Because it wasn’t normal. Not by a long shot. But when you are in the throes of postpartum anxiety, it is really hard to have a grasp on reality. My reality was that my body felt like it had panic running through it at all times.
And this feeling of panic told my brain that something was wrong, and so my brain worried constantly about what must be wrong.
I stayed up most nights, under the excuse that I wanted to read, but the truth was that I felt like I had to stay awake to make sure Hannah didn’t stop breathing.
You know what makes postpartum anxiety worse? Not getting at least a 4-hour chunk of sleep. So you can imagine as days went on, I became more and more frantic, even though my daughter was thriving.
Since I was a nervous wreck and I wasn’t sleeping, I also was barely producing any milk to nurse my daughter. I know every mom feels the intense pressure to breastfeed, so this became my new obsession. I worked with a lactation consultant, which only increased my anxiety. I started taking every supplement under the sun to help with milk production.
I was pumping constantly on top of nursing.
A dear friend of mine is a nutritionist, and I constantly sobbed to her about my fears of not getting enough nourishment into my daughter. My sweet friend was so patient, constantly writing out the numbers to show me that Hannah was, in fact, fine—and growing—and suggest that perhaps I didn’t need to be so worried.
Yet my body still just wouldn’t—couldn’t—relax.
My body still screamed that something was, in fact, wrong, things were not fine, and I wasn’t taking care of my daughter right.
Every time I went to Hannah’s pediatrician for her check-ups, I found myself in tears for no reason. I would be smiling—hearing her tell me Hannah was healthy and fine—but I couldn’t stop the tears that would stream down my face.
My incredibly patient and trusting pediatrician would always ask if I was doing okay.
I knew all about postpartum depression—I am a psychologist after all. That said, I knew I didn’t fit any of the criteria. I wasn’t sad. I wasn’t hopeless. I didn’t want to hurt myself or my baby. I didn’t feel disconnected to her. Quite the opposite, in fact.
I felt like I cared too much. I loved her so much that I feared something terrible would happen to her—and it would be my fault.
I was, however, embarrassed and ashamed that I felt this way, so I always told my pediatrician that I was fine—just tired.
I imagined my maternity leave would be a time of catching up on life and really enjoying a slower pace of newborn life.
Instead, I stopped calling people so much. My time was consumed with researching infant development. To this day, I still credit the internet with exploding my worries into a full-blown panic—Google is anxiety’s worst nightmare.
I feared the night. It was at my 6-week check-up that my OB asked me if I was struggling with the baby blues.
I had a major act of bravery: I was vulnerable and shared concern. I told her I didn’t have the blues, but I did think I worried about my daughter a lot more than I thought I would.
She told me that there are different forms of postpartum depression, and high anxiety can be one of the forms. It was as if she just threw me a life vest into the ocean where I had been treading water in for weeks.
I was suddenly able to look at my thoughts and feelings differently.
What if the problem wasn’t that my healthy daughter was about to stop breathing for no reason, or that missing an itty-bitty ounce of milk could mean her demise? What if I didn’t need to keep constant vigilance on her breathing to stay alive, what if it didn’t need to be so hard?
I went home and immediately started researching. I started Googling anxiety after pregnancy. This time, Google was my friend.
I had to dig through a lot of information on postpartum depression until I finally hit gold. I saw an article on “The Other Postpartum Disorder.” I finally had a name: postpartum anxiety.
Why hadn’t I learned about this in grad school? Why was this not included in the pamphlet on postpartum depression that the hospital sent home? I quickly learned that postpartum anxiety (also known as PPA) is actually more common than postpartum depression, yet rarely discussed and wasn’t well researched at the time of my daughter’s birth.
Current numbers reflect that around 15% of women will experience postpartum anxiety. While I think it’s fantastic that postpartum depression gets so much awareness, it was upsetting to me that something just as devastating and more prevalent got such little coverage.
We now know there are other forms of postpartum mental health problems including Postpartum Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder.
I was ready to fight this.
It was time for me to face my reality and battle my anxiety head-on. My daughter deserved more, my husband deserved more. I deserved more.
This was not me, and I needed to get back to myself, so I started with the basics. Sleep.
I knew I had to face my fear of sleeping on the job of making sure my Hannah kept breathing. I enlisted my husband. He was more than happy to let me go to bed early and take the first shift. The first few nights were so hard.
I remember lying in bed and hearing her cry. The white-hot panic shot through my veins.
I would lay there pouring sweet, breathing deeply, yet repeating my mantra: Just because it feels like something is wrong, doesn’t mean there is.
I reminded myself that my body was trying to trick me into thinking something dangerous was happening when in reality everything was fine. I turned a loud fan on to drown any noise out. And soon enough, I learned how to fall asleep again.
After several nights of waking up to discover somehow my daughter was still alive even though I had slept instead of checking her breathing, I began to get my brain back. Experts now know that getting at least 4 hours of uninterrupted sleep can have a significant improvement with PPA. Enlisting help so you can get as much sleep as possible can be life-changing.
I also decided it was time I started talking.
I needed to tell my nearest and dearest that I was not, in fact, doing very well.
I started to share my “crazy” and said out loud some of the things I worried about. I was met with various reactions. Sometimes I was met with “Me too! Isn’t that the worst?” Sometimes I was met with laughter. And you know what? Both helped immensely.
When a friend laughed at my worries, it was my signal that yes, in fact, my thought was unrealistic, and I needed to let it go. My friends understood, and they became my litmus test for when I couldn’t tell if I was having an intrusive thought or something within the range of normal worry.
It is really hard to have to push yourself to keep living when every inch of your body tells you to tragedy is about to strike. Yet the more I did it, the easier it became. I learned to trust my thoughts instead of my feelings, and I no longer felt so alone and ashamed.
Finding a therapist who specializes in treating postpartum work is highly recommended. Utilizing CBT, ACT, and DBT skills can help anyone learn to manage anxiety and not feel trapped.
Exercise, meditation, mindfulness, and medication can also be helpful parts of the equation and having a professional help you find your tools to overcome PPA can help you start living better faster.
Then one morning I woke up, and the white-hot panic was gone.
Just like that, as if overnight a switch flipped. I felt like myself. My neighbor was over with her daughter that morning, and I remember saying to her, “I feel so different today. I feel like me for the first time in a long time.”
It was such a relief. When my daughter was 11 months old, we were overjoyed to discover we were expecting our son. I knew that I was now at a higher risk of experiencing postpartum anxiety or depression after Hannah, so I came up with a clear strategy.
At my first pregnancy visit with my OB, I told her that all about the anxiety I experienced postpartum and we decided I would start taking Zoloft the day my son was born.
I recruited my tribe. I asked my mom to come stay with us for the first 3 weeks.
My husband understood the importance of me getting sleep and was happy to take the first night shift. He loved it in fact, as it was his one-on-one bonding time.
I told my close group of friends that I was scared. I asked them to check in with me about my anxiety and help keep me in check.
This time, I was not alone. If you or someone you know are in the throws of postpartum anxiety, I hope my story resonates with you. It’s time we start talking more about postpartum anxiety to ensure that every woman gets the help she needs to get through such a difficult time.
We can fight this, together.