I asked my 85-year-old grandma how she raised four children with a live-in, dictatorial mother-in-law, a traveling husband and no technology. “We had it much easier than you,” she said. “We just threw the kids outside and got the work done. I don’t know how you moms do it these days.”
Mind you, my grandma raised children in Iraq.
I had raging postpartum anxiety. In America. I didn’t know this was a thing. I kept my eye out for postpartum depression. But I wasn’t depressed, just completely horrified about life for my son and all the harm that could befall him from the microbial level to the vilest evils of humanity. Everything and everyone was suspect.
I know I’m not alone here.
My grandma told me of the time her aunt went "cuckoo" in the early 1900s, after her fourth child. We now call this rarity postpartum psychosis. She had vivid hallucinations, lost touch with reality and just slipped off the deep end.
It goes away, though. Medical treatment is critical, but like postpartum anxiety, it is temporary and passes. Like a cold -– a possessive, psychotic, life-altering cold.
They thought my great-great-aunt was possessed and took her to the nearest church in the mountains in what I dramatically envision was a slow, horse-drawn buggy with her body strapped down. Church clergy prayed over her and she returned home in full health. Regardless of recovery by faith or coincidental timing, she returned with no memory of giving birth, her child or the months she lost in the hormonal purple haze.
And yet, my grandma thinks I have it harder today.
“You can’t just let your kids play outside anymore without considering kidnappings,” she said. “You have school shootings. You pay strangers to take care of your children with no family nearby to support you.”
My anxiety could be substantiated, warranted. The internal new-mom chaos was a protective burden. Pre-baby, we joked about anxiety as women in our social circles and made light of it. But it is overwhelming and untamable when it is true anxiety -- unfortunately timed with the birth of a life inherently dependent on a body ripped apart and chemically overthrown.
Childbirth is a miracle, but almost as miraculous is the sheer capacity of a woman, as she’s medically undergoing cataclysmic hormonal loss, re-growth and rebalancing. Now throw in the internet.
In the hospital, I was rigged up to an IV and Wi-Fi, one sustaining me and one chipping away at what was left of the old non-mommy me. Once at home, I would lie in bed all night and Google the hell out of every sneeze, hiccup, burp and twitch. My son’s arched-back sleeping pose was a definite sign of autism. So was not making eye contact as a newborn. So were sneezing, hiccupping, burping and twitching.
If my imagination wasn’t enough, the internet fueled my postpartum anxiety.
I Googled during my husband’s shift with the baby, while my son slept, in bed, on the can, while breastfeeding and at the pediatrician’s office, mid-examination. It was a sick, addictive slot machine of possible life terrors that could harm my baby, the stuff of Steven King’s next chilling bestseller, "CHILDBIRTH."
By the time I realized I had something that was a thing, I was neck-deep in horror scenarios that – when I did sleep – would wake me in tears from related nightmares.
When I turned the Web search from my son to me, I came upon the fun fact that postpartum anxiety is more common than postpartum depression (though lesser known) and that one in five first-time moms have it, according to a Penn State study.
My doctor offered to help, but I opted to wait and see if the cold would just go away on its own or if I would need him to prescribe a postpartum exorcism.
I don’t remember when the storming anxiety settled into the quiet rain that is every mother’s typical state of constant worry. But it did. I know this because the nightmares are gone. I stopped racing to pick up tripping-death hazards beneath whoever was carrying my son.
And I quit the desperate 3 a.m. Google search. It helped, but I don't speak for all moms in my family. My sister just had a baby.
“If successful parenting is a product of how much you consult Google," she said, "I am crushing this mom thing.”