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What if she’s not OK? What if she’s not OK? What if something hurts her?
These are the thoughts that spun uninterrupted through my mind and out of my mouth for the first few days after we brought our baby home from the hospital.
For the three days we spent in the hospital after her birth, I thought I had escaped any postpartum emotional disturbance. If anything, my emotions skewed toward beaming bliss. She was a precious little doll who slept constantly. I stayed up all night just to look at her and revel in the disbelief that this could be my new life.
In the previous months, I had tried to prepare for my ancient depression to resurface as postpartum depression. I discussed it with my psychiatrist, and assumed being aware would be an adequate defense. What I didn’t know was how a lack of sleep and feeling unprepared for parenthood would trigger debilitating anxiety.
On our second day at home, my husband found me crying in the bedroom while the baby slept in the bassinet. “Crying” is hardly the right word, I felt like I was wailing. I wasn’t sad, but terrified. He said, “You need to call Dr. Q (my therapist).”
When she called back later that afternoon, I went upstairs to a remote spot where I could be as raw as I felt. The first few minutes of the call were made up by my sobs and apologies for not being able to get myself under control.
When I could finally tell the doctor that I didn’t know if the baby was eating enough, I was afraid she would get hurt or sick, afraid I couldn’t protect her well enough, I was thrown into sobs again. Across this thick, old house, I could hear her crying, and I felt helpless.
Except that she wasn’t crying. She was sleeping, and my brain was matrixing ambient noise into tiny baby cries like clouds into circus animals. The doctor told me to stop everything and sleep for at least three hours while my husband looked after the baby, then let him do the same.
In the first few months of her life, the baby’s cries were to be expected. The doctor labeled her witching hour as “colic,” but I never thought it was really that severe. What I didn’t expect was my own witching hour that had me twisted in a knot almost every evening — crying, angry, or just overwhelmed.
My brain was a simpering, beaten puppy, flinching at even the most gentle flutter, launching an all-out raging defense against minor problems. I was devastated that my husband could fall asleep easily while the baby and I were desperately awake and panicking. I was on a knife’s edge throughout a visit from the in-laws because I felt so uncertain and inadequate in my role as mother. I briefly despised our cats because I imagined all the danger they could pose to a newborn.
In the thick of it, I tried to get a handle on the anxiety by exerting more and more control over our daily routine. I timed and noted feedings, naps, and diapers. I repeated the feeding/laundry/dishes,/diaper/nap cycle all day long until my husband came home and I collapsed.
I found myself with a pernicious habit of counting dishes as I loaded and unloaded, counting laundry as I folded, creating rules for putting things away. These small household things were “under control,” giving me a little relief from anxiety but creating new pressures to keep up with the control systems. When there were no more dirty clothes or dishes to wash, I had space to fill. Space is where thinking and worrying sneak in.
Postpartum anxiety goes beyond normal worrying into highly irrational territory. I couldn’t accept that my baby was safe if she wasn’t directly in my line of sight. That meant that I hardly let my guard down for weeks, anxiety simmering just under the boiling point. Postpartum Progress, a national support and advocacy organization for women with pregnancy-related mood disorders, lists ways anxiety can manifest in early motherhood.
I don’t know if most new moms are free of this intense anxiety or if they are just not talking about it. I thought, “This is just what it feels like to have a new baby because I’m tired and hormonal.” But it didn’t seem like other new moms around me were having the same experience.
In this episode of The Longest Shortest Time, mom Melinda describes her experience with anxiety. I listened to that podcast — many, many months after my anxiety had calmed down — and for the first time heard a story that sounded like mine.
Now I sometimes remember things that sent me over the edge in that raw time, and I don’t know why it was such a big deal. Why did I have a full-blown tantrum when my husband forgot to bring home Diet Coke? Because I felt trapped, and Diet Coke was the small comfort I had looked forward to all day. I wasn’t yet comfortable running out to the store with the baby. I didn’t yet realize I could put her in the stroller and walk to the corner and we would both feel so much better.
My biggest road block to getting better was not knowing there was anything wrong, not having the energy to think rationally, not wanting to seem weird by mentioning it to other moms. And when other moms told me things would be OK, I didn’t need to worry, I just thought they couldn’t empathize with me because they had forgotten how tenuous these times are.
It was around the 6-month mark when I started to feel normal again. I was exercising everyday, pushing myself to be more social, the hormones had dissipated. I’m never anxiety-free, but when my “base” setting is on low, I don’t get ruffled so easily.
I am painting the darker parts of this period here, but it’s a complicated scene. My agitation coexisted with elation, pride, excitement, adoration. The three of us had small sweet moments that were genuinely joyful. And we had those moments with our family and friends in celebrating our new little person.
I am now actively trying to sugarcoat my memories of those first few months so I can recall them sweetly years from now. When I look through pictures from a year and a half ago, I see how she was peaceful and healthy, always with my hand somewhere in the frame, holding things together for her.
Just now, she toddled over to me and said “Hi, Mama,” then crawled up on the couch and draped herself across me. I still can’t believe she was ever so tiny and inside me.