When I gave birth to my daughter in the wee hours of Halloween morning, I was filled with unexpected emotion. I cried tears of joy and the first words I said were, “She’s SO cute!” Over the next 24 hours in the hospital, I was running on adrenaline. I hardly slept because I wanted to spread the news and take photos and snuggle with her and welcome visitors and have a spicy Italian sub paired with a glass of wine for the first time in 10 months. I was incredibly happy.
But by the end of the second day in the hospital, a singular thought shattered my euphoria: This helpless creature was MY responsibility.
Every time I set her down in the hospital bassinet, she’d roll to her side and fuss until I picked her up again. At 3 a.m. I finally asked the nurses to take her for a while so I could sleep, but as they were about to cart her to the nursery, she started crying again, and they left her with me. There was no break. I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t breathe.
After another restless night, I began to dread the thought of going home. What would I do without the help of the nurses? How could I relax when medical experts and lactation consultants were no longer a call button away? My husband and I had no family in the city, so we were essentially on our own. What had felt almost like a vacation the first day in the hospital was now coming into focus as my very real, very permanent life.
My husband took it all in stride, buckling our daughter into her car seat and driving carefully and calmly home as she wailed in the back seat. I thought I would feel better once we were back in our condo with familiar surroundings, but the opposite was true. Many a parent jokes about the overwhelming experience of taking a baby home from the hospital. “Wait a minute?” they say with a chuckle. “You expect me to take care of a tiny human being by myself?”
But I wasn’t just overwhelmed…I was f*cking terrified.
Bringing a new life into the world will always be one of the most special and magical experiences of my life, but as a person with a history of anxiety who doesn’t do well with change, the experience will also go down as one of the scariest. One day, my life made complete sense; the next day, it didn’t. I went from having a lot of control to having very little. I went from feeling confident in who I was to feeling completely lost. I couldn’t even look at the spot on the couch where I had lay just days before timing my contractions without bursting into tears. That spot represented the past, the known. Now the strange and unfamiliar surrounded me, suffocating any sense of normalcy.
My fear in those raw early days covered a lot of ground. Even though I spent hour after hour with my husband, I missed him. I ached for the easy, familiar life we had. I felt panicked about taking care of my beautiful baby. I loved her so much, but she intimidated the hell out of me. To help me get some decent rest, my husband would take the baby from 8 p.m. to 2 a.m., bringing her to our bedroom for feedings as needed. I would fall asleep alone, clutching to the feeling of my old self, then wake up to the sound of my daughter’s whimpers, heart thudding in my chest as I remembered my new reality.
And then there was the guilt. I had wanted a baby for years. I’d had a stress-free pregnancy that was easily one of the happiest times of my life. And now I had this perfect, healthy baby, yet all I did was worry and miss my old life. I thought of the many women who couldn’t get pregnant, who had miscarriages or stillbirths, or whose babies faced harrowing medical ordeals after birth. These women were dealing with unimaginable challenges, fear and pain, and here I was with nothing to complain about, hanging by a thread. The shame gutted me, adding another ingredient to my strange cocktail of “baby blues” and natural anxiety.
I thought these feelings would never end, but time marched on, as it always does. My husband and I lived by the hour, focusing on the immediate. Soon a week passed, then a month. Things didn’t get better and better each day, but the gradual trajectory pointed up. By 7 weeks postpartum, I finally broke through the darkness to see some light. I had a bit more confidence, a bit more perspective and much more properly balanced hormones.
One night around this time, I woke to the whimpers of my daughter as my husband carried her down the hall to our room. Instead of panicking, my heart swelled at the thought of getting this special middle-of-the-night time with her. That’s when I realized it was going to be okay—she was and I was. I was still scared to death, still unsure, still walking blindly forward, but I could finally see that being completely terrified didn’t mean I couldn’t also be completely happy.