My Journey to the Other Side of Postpartum Anxiety
We’re going on a bear hunt,
We’re going to catch a big one,
What a beautiful day!
We’re not scared!
My four month old’s chubby fingers grasped at the board book trying to pull it to her drooling mouth. I read this story to her every day, bouncing her on my legs to the rhythm of the chant. You know the one. No matter who first read this book to you, there is a common meter that we all fall into:
On the outside I looked fine. I was an attentive, loving new mom. I was so proud of myself for bringing a life into this world. And my daughter, (the cutest baby I’d ever seen btw) made my heart want to burst. But on the inside…well, I’ll get to that.
Let’s rewind for a moment.
It all started the day I gave birth to our daughter…
I was high on adrenaline and love. I was euphoric with all the mama hormones and wanted to look at, kiss and snuggle this baby from that moment into eternity. She was perfect. A baby we had prayed for and I had actually had a dream about years before. She was ours. God’s gift to us.
My husband, baby girl, and me, spent several days in the hospital bonding, getting lactation support and trying to land on a middle name. We pointed out the smallest thing about her. “Did you see that? She just yawned!” “Oh, my gosh her first poo! Good job, sweetie!”
My excitement made it impossible for me to sleep more than 20 minutes at a time. It didn’t help that a nurse would come in just as I was about to fall sleep and say, “Now, we need to weigh baby at 12am, so I’ll be back in a few hours.”
“Oh, okay…” I’d agree as she left. But I’d lay on that plastic hospital bed with its crunchy sheets and think, “I don’t want to be asleep when she comes for my baby.”
So I stayed awake.
On the third day, as part of our discharge checklist, we were required to watch a short “Shaken Babies” documentary and some SIDs propaganda, and here is where my joy as a new mom started to curdle. The “Shaken Babies” documentary showed CGI rendered images of people shaking babies and how brain damage is caused from the brain violently hitting the walls of the skull. Then real-life heartbroken mothers whose babies had been shaken by family members and daycare providers tearfully told stories of loss. A stern, male pediatrician came on and looking straight into the camera warned: “Anyone can shake their baby.”
I sobbed on the hospital bed, and my husband held me and agreed that it was horrible that people did that but it wasn’t going to happen to our baby.
But it didn’t feel like it was okay. Those movies opened a door into my already exhausted and hormonal imagination that I found nearly impossible to close.
The night we brought our daughter home, I couldn’t sleep. Worrying that she might stop breathing, I stayed awake. I stayed awake after laboring for three days and not sleeping more than a few hours in the hospital afterward. I tried to tell myself that she would be fine, that I needed to rest so that I could take care of her. I would try to sleep but I just couldn’t. My body was flushed with anxiety, my mind replaying images of the CGI shaken babies. What if someone shook my baby? The doctor said anyone can shake their baby, what if I shake my baby? I don’t want to, but what if I do?
And so I didn’t sleep.
Family and friends offered to come and help. They wanted to hold my baby so I could rest, but I didn’t want to let her out of my sight. If I did, she might stop breathing, remember? This reality that I was living in was as real to me as my own name.
I only felt safe when she was right next to me in bed, so that I could watch her, but I was afraid to fall asleep because parents can roll over on their babies, right? Thats what the SIDs experts said. And so I stayed awake.
Things came to a head when we took our daughter to her first pediatrician appointment when she was five days old. My husband tried to trim her nails with clippers a few minutes before we had to leave and accidentally nicked the tip of her skin. It started to bleed, she began to wail…
I began to sob, my heart aching at the sight of my baby’s bleeding finger. My body went into crisis mode and I felt like we were horrible parents and try as we might we’d never be good enough, careful enough, or protective enough.
My husband felt terrible, but with the help of a band-aide and lots of soothing words and kisses, she stopped crying and we were on our way.
By the time we sat in the doctors office I was so exhausted that I could barely keep my eyes open as I tried to talk to our pediatrician about my concerns about SIDs. I was so tired that I literally felt like I was going to fall over and die. On the way home, we passed a house that we had looked at with our realtor before we found our house by the river.
“Remember when we looked at that house?” Keegan asked.
“Yah,” I said through half open lids, “but we didn’t want it because it was gross.”
My vocabulary at it’s finest, people.
“Gross,” Keegan repeated and started laughing. Soon his laughter turned to hysterics.
“Why are you fake laughing?” I looked at him trying to figure it out.
“I’m not fake laughing, everything’s funny because I’m so tired.”
Something inside me clamped down hard. Tired? Him? Tired?
Wasn’t I the one who had pushed this baby out of my body after three days of labor? Wasn’t I the one who was sacrificing her sleep so that our baby wouldn’t die? Wasn’t I the one setting my alarm for every three hours throughout the night to feed her while he slept? And to add insult to injury I wanted him to get sleep so that he’d have more energy to help during the day. But apparently that sacrifice was wasted because he was still tired. In that moment I thought, “Jesus take the wheel, because I am going to start chucking all the maxi pads in my purse at this man’s clueless face!”
“How are you tired?” I asked, my voice dangerous.
Keegan’s face froze and he fell silent.
I knew I’d hurt him, and I was glad. Message received. I waited for an apology. Something to the tune of, “Oh, sorry, babe, I didn’t mean it. I’m definitely not as tired as you. You’re are the Queen of Self-Sacrifice and Womanliness and I am but a humble mortal.”
Time stretched with elastic tension. And no apology came. My words cycled in my memory over and over to hum of the Toyota’s AC.
“How are you tired?” said with scorn as though I didn’t love this man.
And I did—I DO—love this man. Why did I want to hurt him? When did we stop becoming a team? I knew then that I was wrong. So wrong. But I was still too angry and too exhausted to say any of that.
It was then that I asked myself one important question: What do I really want?
And what I wanted. What I really wanted was for us to be a team. So I opened my mouth and said.
“I’m sorry.” Even though I only halfway meant it.
Silence. I looked over and saw him swallow, tears shining in his eyes.
Here’s the thing folks: my husband has only cried like three and a half times in seven years. I actually kind of love it when he does because I’m a crier. But in that moment, I hated it because it signaled to me how deeply I’d hurt him.
“I just love you,” he said with all the simple sincerity that made me fall in love with him years before. “I just want to love you and I feel like I’m not doing that very well. And I don’t know what to do.”
In that moment, I saw the situation from his point of view. Him holding my hand during labor. Him bringing me dozens of cups of water, making me food, drawing me baths, praying for me in the middle of the night when I shared my fears about SIDs and shaken babies. He was putting forth every effort he could to help me through this, and still my anxiety was twisting him into an enemy.
If you’re reading this and you are relating to my story, I have so much compassion for you! Anxiety and depression brought on by postpartum hormones is like being betrayed by your own body just when you needed it the most. It’s unfair because you’ve already fought so hard to bring life into the world and you don’t have the energy to fight another battle. It wasn’t a problem I was creating, nor was it an experience I was familiar navigating. It took me several days to even realize that the wrongness that I felt physically, mentally and emotionally were even called panic attacks.
At the onset of a panic attack, my mouth would go dry, my skin frigid and numb, and the world would shrink into something tight and terrifying. It was like I paid for a ticket to ride the Lazy River and instead got forcedly buckled into the front car of a Pompeii themed Death Rollercoaster. Getting off wasn’t an option and I just had to hang on for the ride.
Yes, our BirthED instructor, Liz, had advised our class to seek support if we began to show signs of postpartum anxiety or depression, but as we sat in class, I didn’t think the advice was for me.
“I’ve wanted this baby for so long, there’s no way I’m going to have emotional struggles,” I shrugged, blissfully tossing my hair over my shoulder.
Bless my ignorant soul.
The next weeks were hard. There’s no other word for it. There was still joy. We had waited years for this baby and now—now finally she was here! I loved her smell, her buttery soft skin, her perfect lips, her yogurt breath. But I couldn’t enjoy her for more than a few minutes because my anxiety turned to panic. The anxiety seemed to radiate off of my skin like a space-heater. I desperately wanted to hold her, but I worried that if I did, she would catch this disease too. So I would nurse her, and then hand her over to my husband, or whoever was visiting at the time, even if didn’t want to. I felt robbed of her and ashamed that I couldn’t get a handle on things.
I felt angry that my personality, my humor, my feelings and creativity could be erased almost completely without my permission. I felt jealous of my friends who had had their babies and experienced the unfettered happiness that I had anticipated feeling when my baby was finally in my arms.
I worried that all of this anxiety meant that I wasn’t a natural mom. Or that other people would interpret it as such.
One night, after an especially difficult panic attack, I told Keegan that if I didn’t get better that he should leave me and go be happy. We laugh about it now—it’s crazy to me that those words could even leave my mouth and that I could mean them. But I really thought he would be better off without me.
“I love you too much to drag you down!” I wailed. “It’s okay. I’ll just go away.”
I imagined myself getting in a car and weeping all the way to the Mexican boarder where I’d start a solitary life as a salsa farmer.
From Keegan’s point of view, seeing me like this made him feel scared that he wouldn’t get me back. He wondered if having a baby had broken me. But he didn’t tell me this at the time. Instead, he listened to me as I spoke all the lies aloud, he gathered my hands in his, looked me in the eyes and said, “I’m not going anywhere.”
Why I write this today…
I bared my soul in this post, telling you things about myself that until now only my husband knew. Even posting it feels scary. I worry I’ll be judged. Or that people might actually agree with the lies that my brain told me during that season and really think that I’m a terrible mom/person for thinking these things.
But my hope is that it will reach someone who is going through a similar season—and maybe that someone is you—and you need to hear that YOU ARE NOT OKAY, BUT THAT IS OKAY. Because you are going to be okay and things will get better. Even if it doesn’t feel that way right now.
The Bear Hunt
We’re going on a bear hunt,
We’re going to catch a big one,
What a beautiful day!
We’re not scared!
Uh, oh! A cave, a narrow, gloomy cave,
We can’t go over it,
We can’t go under it,
Oh no! We’ve got to go through it!
And this is where the children’s book connects with my story about postpartum anxiety.
My postpartum anxiety was something I wanted to skip past and get to the good stuff of enjoying my baby. I wanted to get to explore what kind of mom I would be. I wanted to see my life from this beautiful, new point of view. But I couldn’t. And that was okay.
Some things in life, you can’t go over or under. You can’t cherrypick. You can’t take shortcuts. You just have to go through them.
And so I did. With the love of my husband. With the support of my family and friends. With a Pandora Jesus Culture playlist (can I get an amen?). When a scary thought popped into my head, I would begin to sing loudly, or danced around the kitchen with my daughter in my arms. I would call my sister. Or turn on an audiobook to distract myself. And eventually, though it felt like the longest four months of my life, with prayer and good food and essential oils and coconut water and talking to people and long walks in the fresh air…I went through it.
I don’t believe God causes suffering and I don’t understand why a lot of things happen. What I DO believe, in the very fiber of my being, is that He can use all things for our good. What was the “good” that this experience brought into my life? It taught me that it’s important to choose truth and to reject the lies. And most importantly that I am not my worst thoughts.
Now, on the other side, I am overwhelmed with gratitude for my community, my continued mental and hormonal health, and my squishy daughter who is SERIOUSLY going to make my heart stop one of these days because she is SO FREAKING ADORABLE!
One of my favorite parts of Ecclesiastes says:
For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:
a time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;
a time to kill, and a time to heal;
a time to break down, and a time to build up;
a time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance.
Keeping this perspective helped me during my season of breaking down. A season where I sat in the tension and waited for the healing. Daily I’m stepping heavenward. I’m growing. I’m choosing. I’m embracing my mistakes. And most exciting of all, I like the person I’m becoming.
That’s all I’m going to share for now. My husband and daughter are here playing together on the couch and her bubbly giggle makes me want to close my laptop and join them.
And so I will.
If you’ve made it to the end of this post, thank you for reading and I hope it encouraged you. Feel free to comment below, or ask questions. I always love hearing other peoples thoughts!