Mental Health

My Postpartum Anxiety Doesn't Define Me As A Mom

Take it from someone who’s been to some very dark places as a mom and clawed her way out: You’re just as worthy as anyone else.

Written by Carley Fortune
Alina Rudya/Bell Collective/DigitalVision/Getty Images

Trigger warning: This piece contains descriptions of postpartum OCD.

I never dreamed about becoming a mom. In fact, when I was nineteen, I declared I wouldn’t have children unless I could afford to send them away to boarding school. I didn’t play with baby dolls as a child; I preferred My Little Ponies and braiding Totally Hair Barbie’s ankle-length tresses. I babysat once (under duress), and the kid threw up — that was the end of that. In my twenties, when people recounted their birth stories, I often felt physically uncomfortable. Before becoming a parent at 32, I’d held precisely one infant: my best friend’s son. All of which is to say: I didn’t enter parenthood believing I was a natural.

My husband and I met in undergrad, and I don’t remember ever discussing marriage or children back then. Both seemed inevitable and not urgent. I was more concerned about rising at work, paying off my student debt, and figuring out a way into Toronto’s bonkers housing market. Before I became an author, I was a journalist, and since media is notoriously fickle, we waited to try to conceive until I felt I could step away without tanking my career.

Penguin Random House

Then, one wintry day, we met our friends and their newborn in the park. The baby snoozed in the stroller while our dog frolicked, and on the way home, my husband and I decided we were ready to handle a sleepy newborn, too.

When I was pregnant, I earnestly told people I was looking forward to my year-long maternity leave so I could “focus on family” for a change. I experienced generalized anxiety but strangely enough, I didn’t fret over giving birth or becoming a parent. I’d timed it perfectly! Whatever happened, happened! We’d figure it out!


Motherhood was a disaster from the moment my water broke. I’ll tell an overly detailed version of this story to anyone who shows the slightest bit of interest, but for you, I’ll keep it short. My contractions were epic — to the point where they wouldn’t let up for minutes on end, cutting off the baby’s oxygen for dangerous lengths of time. He had to get out of my body, and he had to get out fast. Max was ripped into this world with the aid of forceps. His poor head! My poor crotch! My epidural had been topped-up earlier in the day for an emergency c-section (the doctors decided against it at the last minute), so I didn’t feel those monster contractions whatsoever. The third-degree tear? It was like a zipper through my vagina. I remember thinking, That’s not going to be good. And it wasn’t.

I was forced to attend an information class at the hospital the following day. I begged the nurse to let my husband go instead. This was hard — I hate admitting weakness. But I was in too much pain. I was so tired. I could barely walk. I didn’t feel right. My request was denied. I shuffled to the small windowless room, c-section mommies power-walking around me, and listened bleary-eyed as the nurse listed what could go wrong for the infants and parents when we were discharged. When she spoke about post-partum psychosis, I could feel my brain latching onto her descriptions of moms harming their newborns. When we went home that evening, I sat in the rocker attempting (unsuccessfully) to breastfeed, and my body began to shake. My mom wrapped me in blankets and brought me a slice of homemade peach pie, and I felt a little better. But when I lay down in bed, the house began to shake. An earthquake, I thought. My husband assured me there was no earthquake, that nothing was shaking. I was exhausted, but I couldn’t sleep. All I could think about was what the nurse had said earlier. Horrifying images of my baby began to flash in my mind. It was happening. I was going crazy.

My earliest days as a new parent were tough. Breastfeeding was impossible, the baby lost too much weight, and then he was admitted to the children’s hospital with an infection. At the same time, I was plagued by truly disturbing images and ideas. I don’t like to describe all the ways I imagined I could hurt my son; it’s the stuff of nightmares. My mom stayed with us for the first two weeks of his life, and when she left, I was scared to be alone with him. I was terrified I was going to do something awful, and that I’d have no control over it. I was worried if I told someone, I’d be locked away. Also, I was pretty sure my breast pump was saying “seek help” over and over when I used it. (With a clearer mind, I have since confirmed it really did sound like this!)

I’m an A-student. A gold-star seeker. A perfectionist who’s never perfect enough. Becoming a parent shattered my entire identity. I was a mom. The worst kind of mom. A mom who thinks the most despicable things you can possibly think as a parent. By the time the baby was three months old, I couldn’t handle it anymore. I told my husband what was happening in my mind, and I told my doctor. These two acts were incredibly difficult. They also saved me.

It turned out I was suffering from postpartum OCD, an anxiety disorder we don’t hear much about. I have two children now, and no medical practitioner mentioned it as a possibility during either pregnancy (though there was plenty of info about distinguishing baby blues from postpartum depression). Postpartum OCD can affect anyone in a parenting role, but because of limited reporting (admitting to thoughts of harming your baby is no easy feat), it’s not quite clear how many of us go through it.

Postpartum OCD is treatable, both with therapy and with medication. For me, talking about it helped relieve most of my symptoms. When I became pregnant with our second child, I knew it might come for me again, and I was prepared. I elected to have a c-section so my delivery would (fingers crossed) be as smooth as possible. I was in therapy and had a bedside table drawer full of grounding technique instructions. I mustered the courage to tell my mom about the OCD so she could help support us. And when the thoughts came (and they did come), I knew to see them as just that — thoughts — and send them on their way.

While the postpartum OCD subsided, my general anxiety became worse. It felt like every single problem I could possibly face in my life needed solving right now. I had been considering quitting my job to write full-time, but my fears about money became suffocating. Even the thought of making school lunches for two children in the distant future was overwhelming. Eventually, though, that improved too, with the help of tearful conversations with my husband and my mom, and sessions with my wonderful therapist.

Like many of us, I often feel like a mediocre parent, but it’s never because of my anxiety. It’s the opposite. I’m a better mother because of what I’ve faced and what I continue to work on. I’m a more empathetic person than I was before. I know that sharing the scary stuff in our heads with someone we trust can be life-saving, and I strive to be the kind of someone my kids can trust. If one of my children finds that their brain mistreats them, I’ll be better prepared to help. When I’m struggling, I know where to find support. And one day, when my boys are old enough, I’ll sit them down and tell them what I went through so that they will hopefully understand there’s nothing in their heads that could make me love them any less.

I didn’t see myself as a natural at motherhood all those years ago, and honestly, I’m still stumbling my way through it most of the time. I think most of us are. The secret, I’ve learned, is that when we inevitably trip and fall, we muster our courage and ask for help.

Carley Fortune is an award-winning Canadian journalist who’s worked as an editor for Refinery29, The Globe and Mail, Chatelaine, and Toronto Life. She is the author of the New York Times and #1 Globe and Mail bestselling book, Every Summer After. Her second book, Meet Me at the Lake, comes out on May 2, 2023. She lives in Toronto with her husband and two sons.