This Is What It's Like To Have Postpartum Anxiety
It all started for me during pregnancy. Even before that, if I’m being honest.
When we decided that we’d like to try to have a baby, I began to fixate and obsess on things related to my cycle. “Was I ovulating?” “Why did I ovulate late this month?” “Does that mean I have an issue?” “Am I infertile?” “I get pimples around my chin, and occasionally have hair around my belly button: Do I have PCOS?” “I must have PCOS?”
My thoughts (and corresponding internet searches) began to obsess over infertility.
I’d get so worked up thinking about it that I’d have myself in tears: Convinced I was infertile and that I’d never conceive. So I made an appointment with my gynecologist. His reassurance that I was totally normal did nothing for me. I demanded an ultrasound. The ultrasound was inconclusive for infertility, but still, that constant worry followed me.
Every time I’d hear about someone else making a pregnancy announcement, I’d get emotional. I’d cry to myself. I unfollowed anyone on social media who had the potential to get pregnant because I didn’t want to be barraged by the pregnancy announcements. I was so fixated on the theory that I must be infertile that I became resentful towards anyone that was sharing the joy of their pregnancy. My husband and I carpool to work together, and during the ride home one afternoon, he shared with me that he’d just found out our close friends were expecting. Instead of feeling happy for them, I forced out an “oh that’s great,” as I fought off tears for the entire ride home.
I thought, “If I could just get pregnant, I’d be able to stop worrying.”
And then, just like that, only three months into trying, I found out I’d conceived.
It was the longest three months of my life.
The initial joy, though, was short lived.
I did not breathe the sigh of relief I’d anticipated.
Instead, I insisted that we not tell anyone. I knew of too many folks who had miscarried or lost their babies. No one should know until I said so. I became extremely protective over the information.
So my husband and I carried this secret. A secret we should’ve wanted to share with family. A secret that I guarded intensely.
With the surge of hormones in my first trimester, came excessive anxiety over the pregnancy.
I had light brown spotting. The doctor said it was nothing to worry about. But Google said I was likely to miscarry. I went home and wept. “This pregnancy is doomed,” I thought. I prepared myself for the worst.
I had an ultrasound at six weeks. The heartbeat was a little low, but no big deal (according to the tech). “Just come back in two weeks – it will be higher then,” she recommended.
Google, though, said that the heartbeat should be higher for the age of the pregnancy.
Again, I believed completely that the pregnancy was going to fail.
I worried and cried often. I checked for bleeding obsessively. Any sign at all of the faintest brown spot on my panties and I was a weeping mess.
When I finally made it to 12 weeks, the point at which most women start sharing the news publicly, I begrudgingly disclosed my secret to only immediate family and my best friends, and only at the insistence of my husband (he thought I was being ridiculous to hide it for that long). It wasn’t the joyful announcement you see in the movies, though. It was one fraught with anxiety. I meekly shared the news, and often times, couldn’t even do so myself. I asked my mother to share it with the rest of my family, and had my husband share with only his parents and siblings. I then swore those privileged few to secrecy and demanded they not say a word.
I was outed at a family wedding at 16 weeks because I wasn’t drinking. I’d managed to conceal my belly under a billowy dress, and thought my role as “designated driver” would ward off any unwanted inquiries about my preference for “water on the rocks” that evening instead of my usual Coors Light. My husband’s cousin approached me and very publicly asked if I was pregnant. I felt my throat closing as I quietly nodded “yes,” and then begged him not share the information with everyone else.
“I just need to get to 20 weeks,” I thought, “Then I can finally just stop worrying.”
But when I made it to 20 weeks, I felt no better.
I was still hesitant to share the news with outsiders (I didn’t even share with my coworkers until it was blatantly obvious that I was pregnant). All the while, Google kept feeding me stories of pregnancy loss with every odd symptom I encountered. I left work one day after not feeling the baby move for a few hours. I called the hospital in a panic, arrived in tears – hyperventilating – and demanding that they check the baby. They calmed me down and told me everything was fine. When the nurse asked if I had been experiencing anxiety throughout the pregnancy, I lied.
“No – just this time, since I didn’t feel her moving.” I went home, cried some more, and then fell asleep, exhausted from the entire experience and ashamed that I had been dishonest about my feelings. From there on out, I neurotically checked for movement every free moment I had – poking and prodding my belly, and drinking sugary beverages to encourage a kick or jab.
I refused to buy any clothing or items for the baby with fear that, if I lost her, I’d have a house full of baby stuff and no baby. I incessantly declined a baby shower and would feel sick to my stomach when receiving an impromptu gift from a well-meaning friend or relative. I’d thank them, but would promptly stuff the unopened gift into an inconspicuous closet upstairs when I got home. I didn’t want to get my hopes up.
Sometimes, I’d feel this desire to just let my guard down and embrace the pregnancy, but my mind would immediately race back to the fact that “so-and-so lost their baby at 33 weeks,” reminding me that nothing was guaranteed.
At my pregnancy appointments, they’d ask about anxiety or depression: “No,” I’d insist, with a laid-back smile. To anyone on the outside, I looked like any other pregnant lady in the waiting room. But prior to each appointment, I’d nervously wait in anticipation, preparing myself for the worst when they checked the fetal heart tones. I ran through the experience of what I would do if there was no heartbeat so frequently that, by the time I got to each appointment, my stomach was in knots.
“If I can just make it to delivery,” I thought, “I’ll stop worrying.”
But the baby’s birth came and went. And the anxiety did not subside.
“Was she breathing when she was sleeping?” “Are there any blankets in her crib that can suffocate her?” If my husband would offer to take a night shift, I’d worry incessantly that he’d fall asleep with her on his chest after a feeding and that she’d end up suffocating. Unable to ignore that feeling of dread, I’d drag myself out of bed for every night feeding, determined to guarantee her safety. In the end, all it guaranteed was extreme sleep deprivation on top of my relentless worrying.
She had a milk protein allergy at four weeks old that caused blood in her stool. I researched every possible cause, convinced she had a serious intestinal condition.
Then came her eczema at three months old. “Is it caused by allergies?” “Is she allergic to the dogs?” “Oh my God we’re gonna have to get rid of our dogs.” The message boards all said we were selfish for keeping our dogs if she was allergic. I stressed over this so intensely that I’d be crying on the way to work, crying while putting the baby to bed, crying in the shower. I’d worry about it until I literally couldn’t manage to hide it any longer and would just have a weeping meltdown before falling asleep at night. I made my husband promise that if she was allergic to the dogs, he’d build them an outside kennel to live in.
“If her skin will just clear up, I can stop worrying.”
Her skin did eventually clear up – it was an allergy to diapers, not dogs.
But the anxiety remained.
Then came the concerns about my own health.
First there was a pain in the area of my ovary while running.
The doctor said it was likely scar tissue from my C-section. She gave me a script for an ultrasound, which showed a totally normal ovary, but a mildly thickened endometrium. “No big deal,” the doctor said, “Just follow up in a month with a second ultrasound to confirm that it’s thinned out.” But Google said a thickened endometrium meant uterine cancer.
“If I can just make it to the follow-up ultrasound in three weeks, and it shows a clear result, I can relax.” The follow-up ultrasound showed a thin, normal endometrium. All was well. But the worry? It was not gone.
Next, I had pain in my breast. Google and all the message boards said breast cancer. I self-checked so obsessively that I was feeling my boob for the majority of every day. “I think I feel a lump?” I went to two visits with my gynecologist. She didn’t feel anything suspicious either time. “If we can just get a look in there and make sure it’s nothing, I’ll be able to relax about it,” I said. She ordered an ultrasound to confirm for my peace of mind: The images showed a normal boob.
But again, worry followed.
I’d feel one thing, and visit the doctor, who would confirm everything seemed fine.
But good old reliable Google would have a different diagnosis for me.
Feeling a little lightheaded after staring at the computer screen all day? “Brain tumor.” Tingling in hands and feet? “Multiple Sclerosis.”
To this day, I am still dealing with this, and on to see my third doctor related to the tingling in my hands and feet. Two PCP physicians evaluated me and said they couldn’t find anything wrong other than a mild B12 deficiency. The neurologist I’m seeing also couldn’t find anything wrong during my physical exam. He’s ordered every blood test under the sun and an MRI to verify his diagnosis, but he, too, thinks B12 deficiency. My upcoming MRI appointment has me both physically and emotionally spent from worrying. I’ll remain that way until the results are revealed.
I’m able to calm myself down enough most days to get through the work day and appear like I’ve totally got my shit together, but in the evenings, when I’m home with the baby, the anxiety rears its head. There are days I just break down in tears for a whole evening because I look at my baby and all I see is her growing up without a mother. I look at my husband and I fear that he’ll have to raise her alone because I’m going to succumb to whatever issue I’m dealing with. I fixate on every symptom; I read every article I can find until I’m convinced that what is going on is not going to end well. I know even writing this how absurd it all sounds, but when the anxiety starts rising, there’s nothing I can do to stop thinking about it. It literally takes my breath away.
I don’t know how this started.
It could’ve been my dad always being neurotic about his health.
It could’ve been the loss of one of my best friends at age 25 to bone cancer.
It has recently been exacerbated by the diagnosis of a 34-year-old family member with a brain tumor.
What I do know is that since being pregnant and having a baby, it has gotten so much worse.
The doctors poll me about depression. I don’t feel depressed. I don’t feel unhappy.
But I do feel overwhelmed with issues related to my health. I cry because I’m terrified of potential outcomes. It’s like I literally haven’t stopped worrying since before conceiving this baby over a year ago. That, in itself, is absolutely exhausting.
It leaves me with nothing left at the end of the day.
It leaves me with minimal patience to deal with a teething 7-month-old.
It causes me to miss out on time with my daughter and husband because, while I might be physically present, mentally I’m obsessing over every sensation and deliberating over whether it’s another symptom of a terminal illness.
I’d heard a million times over about postpartum depression, but never about postpartum anxiety. After reading more about it, I feel better knowing that while I might have had a bit of an anxiety issue before conceiving, the pregnancy and postpartum hormone fluctuations can actually make those compulsions so much worse. This isn’t just me being “crazy.” This is something beyond my control.
I’m sharing this not because I want folks to feel bad for me, but because someone else out there is likely dealing with the same concerns. Just know that you’re not alone.
You’re not alone in that you’ve harbored the weight of this struggle independently, keeping it from your spouse. You’re not alone in that you’ve filled out every PPD form at your pediatrician visits and lied when answering the questions about anxiety. You’re not alone in that you’re ashamed to discuss this with a doctor.
The past six months have made it blatantly obvious that I need to get this under control.
I am a mother, a wife, a dog mom, a friend, a daughter, and so many other great things. But I’m also a victim of postpartum anxiety. There is no shame in finding a better way to lift this cloud of worry that hangs over me. There is no shame in asking for help.