I awoke gasping for air. It was as if the weight of everything I feared had become a huge mass on my chest. My husband rushed to my side and held me tightly as the panic peaked and then slowly declined. I shook with chills knowing the day was beginning all over again. How did I get here? It was only a baby.
Days before we had welcomed our first child into this world, a beautiful healthy son—a son I had dreamed about since I was 13. I didn’t know much back then but I knew the future held motherhood. I had counted down the days in anticipation of meeting my child, but not this. Not this thing that hung over me, this panic.
It was a hard delivery, and I pushed and strained with everything I had and still no baby. After three hours of pushing, I became desperate to get him out or I felt I would likely die from trying. But at last he came. The exhaustion was so intense that my Hollywood moment never arrived. Instead of joy, anxiety was birthed alongside my son. And so began my journey of postpartum anxiety (PPA).
PPA is definitely a force to be reckoned with after delivery. I think a lot of moms have heard about postpartum depression and the so-called “baby blues.” We’ve heard our doctors warn us to be on the lookout for prolonged sadness, excessive crying and lack of bonding. Anxiety is none of those things initially and can disguise itself as new mom worries, but in reality it is when the worry goes awry that we have a problem. I think it still surprises me how fast and strongly it came on.
When the nurse wheeled us out the next day after delivery, I begged her for any advice, just something, anything, to let me know that I was going to be OK. It was 11 at night in January. (I promise you it will always be either cold, dark or rainy when you come to terms with possibility that you may have a mental illness.) That was the longest drive home of our lives. No one spoke, but enough was swirling around in our heads. My husband fearing for my health and me fearing the impending dam break in my mind.
PPA can come in many forms. For me, it was all just too much change. I just couldn’t wrap my head around being a caretaker of a tiny human. I worried about him sleeping. Would he die of SIDS? I worried about pumping and nursing and proper latching. I worried about napping and what if he napped too much that he didn’t sleep that night. I worried he wasn’t getting enough food and that I was starving him. I feared what it would be like to be a family of three now. Was I too selfish to include him in my daily activities? Would my husband and I ever date again? This baby wasn’t going away, and 18 years seemed long.
Then my fears became more irrational. I feared something bad or harmful would come to him because of me. But mostly, I feared I didn’t love him, because I felt nothing in my heart, and that fear absolutely wrecked my soul. I have never felt so sorry for a little baby in all my life. He deserved the world, and I couldn’t give it to him because I was so worried I would fail.
Anxiety is a liar and a thief. It will rob you so quickly that you won’t know what is missing until days, weeks or months later. For me, it was the first two months of my son’s life. They were gone, just like that. I went through the daily chores of caring for a newborn, all the while in my mind a fierce battle occurring. I could not and would not calm down enough to just rest and enjoy a new life. I was sick with fear and finally I’d had enough. I called doctors, counselors and friends. I needed people to tell me they’d been there or that I would come out of this. Some succeeded and some failed. It is not a perfect system nor a perfect formula to get better. There are also no magic pills. It is hard work, faith and just time.
Please know that things will change for the better. If you are currently in the thick of it, then I am sure the idea of feeling “normal” again seems too far away to hope for. And that’s OK because you’ll get there. It comes in many time frames. Do not beat yourself up if yours takes a bit longer than others. It also may not be a grand-turning-of-the-tides kind of day but instead a quiet uneventful one.
I remember the day things began to change for me. My mother had just left for the night, and I was by myself with my son. I had not wanted her to go because my fears were loudest when I was alone, but something changed that night. I held my son and began to read him a book. He stared at the pages, and for the first time, my heart—my real heart—began to show itself again. Hope had pushed itself through the darkness to the surface and sunlight. I was going to be OK. We were going to be okay.
When I look back on my journey, I am sad that anxiety took from me the newness of having a baby. My first days of being a mom weren’t coffee and sleepless nights; they were battle days of just trying to thrive. If I let myself, I feel shame that I didn’t bond quickly with my son, but then I have to remind myself that I was a different kind of strong for him. My strong came from fighting. Fighting through the days of panic and exhaustion as well as doctor’s appointments, pills, and counseling sessions so that I could be the mom I knew I always was. Those days of fighting are my battle scars. Although scars remind us all of pain, they also can be reminders of how far we’ve come. And that is what I pray others choose to hold fast too.