My Experience with Postpartum Anxiety & Why I Wish I Would’ve Gotten More Help
My family and I at our son’s first birthday party in 2019
Before becoming a mother and developing symptoms for PPA (or postpartum anxiety), anxiety was something that I didn’t realize I had. It was veiled in what I thought were typical fears or concerns, and I was mostly able to move about my routine without it majorly affecting my day to day life. Looking back there were a lot of signs where I simply didn’t connect the dots that what I was experiencing was anxiety. It was after my son was born that the scale tipped and I’m just now realizing I should’ve asked for more help and advocated for myself more.
I’d like everyone reading to try and understand a very important distinction before I get into all of this. The way I was feeling about myself and my daily life postpartum was/is completely separate from the way I was feeling about my son. I had and have nothing but unconditional love and appreciation for him. It’s important to keep that in the back of your mind because of the next thing I’m going to say.
All I remember about my postpartum experience was being miserable. The limited memories I do have from the first 6-12 months are mostly of me feeling an unbelievable amount of pressure and anxiety. That’s not an easy thing for me to write or say out loud. I am admitting it now and saying it “out loud” in hopes that through this blog, I can articulate what it was like to have postpartum anxiety and how it affected my day to day experience of motherhood in the beginning. We also hear a lot about postpartum depression, and I feel like I was prepared / educated on what that could look like, but I was not prepared or educated on what postpartum anxiety could look like. (Or that I was unknowingly very likely to experience it based on my history, a semi-traumatic birth experience, and the physical recovery that was needed after I gave birth). If I would’ve known these things, I would’ve been more aware of what to look for, what research to do, and what information I needed to be giving my doctor in order for her to be aware of this and communicate the warning signs.
Ever since I was a young girl, I remember having certain “minor” OCD tendencies. Examples would be checking or touching the oven in a certain order every time I left the house to make sure the house didn’t burn down. Or like when I was in high school and living at home, I’d have to check on my brother (who was sleeping) every night before I went to bed to make sure he was okay. There was always a certain order in which these things needed to be done, otherwise I feared something bad would happen. If the order didn’t happen correctly, it needed to be redone. Writing it down now it seems obvious, but at the time, I chalked it up to being vigilant. I didn’t realize these were truly obsessive compulsive disorder tendencies until I found myself creating more “rules” for myself and compulsions after giving birth. That, and the fact that I was completely lacking the ability to control them or the heightened consequences I felt if I didn’t act on them or do them correctly during the postpartum period.
In addition to the compulsions, extreme worry and a feeling that something would go wrong were also constant. Insomnia, chest pain, and night sweats would wake me abruptly or keep me awake all night, every night, long after my son was peacefully sleeping through the night. Each time I would finally start to drift off to sleep, I’d have an irrational, vivid thought come into my brain, forcing me to get up and check on him dozens of times when I knew he was safely asleep in his crib. To say that this was exhausting and debilitating would be an understatement. I felt that I was the only person in the world that could and would be diligent enough to keep him safe, and that was a pressure unlike any other I’ve felt in my life. As the months passed and he got older, none of this changed or went away – it just became something I got used to. I had accepted these things as normal concerns that all moms have. I didn’t know that the experience I was having wasn’t typical.
One specific experience that always stands out to me was when I had to go on a business trip for work. I’ll always remember this as one of my lowest moments and when I really started to realize that I needed to figure out what was going on and get more help.
In my job, I typically have to travel for work (when the world isn’t experiencing a pandemic). This one specific time – Shep was well over a year old – and I had to go on a business trip for four days. Because I traveled often, this wasn’t something that was new to our family. I knew (and know) that my son is completely comfortable, safe, and emotionally happy and content when I leave and when my husband is the primary caregiver. It is never easy to leave, and the anxiety is always there, but some trips are harder than others. Well, this specific trip sent me into a tailspin. I was frantically writing crazy lists, double checking all of the child proofing we had around the house, making sure his monitor was working correctly, checking car seats in both vehicles, making sure that there wasn’t food he could choke on in the fridge…I was literally spinning out and going through every horrible scenario. I would get visions of my husband forgetting to child-proof lock the door that leads to our basement and then my son falling down the stairs…scary things like that. That one was actually the most minor of the visions. There were dozens of others on a constant loop.
Driving to the airport, my husband asked me a question and I snapped back at him about something dumb. When he asked me why I was being so short (and just plain rude) I completely fell to pieces inside. I sat there in silence but the thoughts in my head were deafening. My mind was fully spiraling about Shep, his safety, and all the things that could possibly go wrong if I wasn’t there to make sure they didn’t. I felt that familiar pressure again, like I was the only one who would think of everything, prevent something horrible from happening, and take care of everything. That pressure feeling continued the rest of the day – on both flights and throughout my connection time at the airport (as I was obsessively checking his monitor). When I finally arrived at my final destination, I couldn’t access the monitor from my phone and couldn’t reach my husband via text to make sure everything was alright (it had only been 5-10 minutes without a response). It was at that point I had to sit down in the airport and just cry. Even though I knew that those thoughts were not fair, I couldn’t help it. I just felt helpless, worried, and misunderstood. It was all-consuming.
I’ve come to the conclusion that most of this PPA was likely tied to a hormonal imbalance. I noticed ebbs and flows in the anxiety and how I felt every time something would change from a hormonal standpoint. For example – when I went on and off the pill, certain times in the month, when I stopped exclusively breastfeeding (even though I was still nursing, I noticed a change when I started supplementing a couple feedings each day), and when I stopped breastfeeding all together. I sort of felt like I was feeling better around one year, and then once we stopped breastfeeding completely it got bad again and stayed bad — literally until I got pregnant right around when he turned two. This is actually how I know it’s hormonal – because I felt more relief, got better sleep, and the horrible visions stopped completely after I got pregnant. I can now differentiate between normal mom worries and true PPA – it’s night and day different. I feel like a completely different person.
I’d be lying if I said that I wasn’t nervous that this cycle will all happen again after I deliver our baby this fall. For a long while, it prevented me from wanting to have a second child all together (more on that decision another time). The first thing I did when I saw my OB at my 8 week checkup appointment was announce “I think I had PPA with Shepard, I think it was tied to a hormone imbalance, and I need more postpartum help and guidance from you this time around…” I had brought up my concerns to my doctor a couple of times throughout those two years – but what I learned is you really have to educate and advocate for yourself. I also tried seeing a therapist once when he was around a year and a half, but we didn’t have a great connection and I didn’t feel she really was understanding what I was saying, so I never went back. I should’ve kept trying to find someone until it was the right fit. I should’ve insisted to my doctor that I wanted more dialogue around hormones and how those can affect you after having a baby. These are all things that I am prepared to do this time around – because I can’t waste another two years feeling the way I felt. And these babies are so precious – I want to enjoy every minute. I don’t want to wish away that time.
So to all the mamas out there who may be experiencing something similar – I see you. Please feel free to leave me a comment or send me a message if you’ve gone through something similar. The more we talk about it openly, the better. Please also talk to your healthcare providers and try to get help sooner. It will make a world of a difference.
If you’d like to hear more about my journey with postpartum anxiety, as well as an open discussion with pediatrician Dr. Tori Smith about all things postpartum, check out the Half Crunched Mama Doc podcast here!
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