There’s recently been a lot of talk recently about postpartum depression, something that wasn’t so talked about in previous generations. But even as society moves in the direction of de-stigmatizing mental illness, some of us get left behind. Because despite being an avid researcher on all things pregnancy and new mom-related, and having battled bouts of anxiety and depression on and off throughout my adult life, I had never even heard of postpartum anxiety until it came out of nowhere and knocked me onto the couch.
When we brought our second daughter home from the hospital, I was overjoyed. She was a good nurser, my husband had a long paternity leave ahead, and it was summer. Life felt whole, happy, and satisfying.
But within a week or so, I started to panic. The fears I’d had as the mom of a newborn the first time around paled in comparison to how I felt now. At night, when the baby was sleeping in the bassinet beside my bed, I would lay awake and stare at her, worrying that she would just die if I looked away at all.
My husband and I are pretty hard-line followers of the American Academy of Pediatrics standards. So, we follow all safe-sleep recommendations closely (separate sleep space, firm mattress, no blankets or toys). As an added precaution, we put a heart rate monitor on her left foot that would ring an alarm should she stop breathing in the night. I was doing everything possible to make our nights safe, but I still couldn’t kick my concern.
Also, I didn’t want to be away from the baby, even for a minute. Not to shower, to spend time alone with my older daughter, or even to let her grandparents hold her. My husband was the only person I felt secure handing her off to, but even then I felt major guilt over “abandoning” her every time I passed her over.
Watching my young children interact made me cry uncontrollably. I realized that hormones do this to a lot of new moms, but this was excessive. I felt like my mind was being eaten alive by panic and worry. We would be driving on local roads, windows down and music up, sunshine beaming in, and I would start to obsess over the fact that at any minute a truck could come out of nowhere and kill us all.
I didn’t want to see my parents. I didn’t feel the need to have friends come by. Everyone we came into contact with was a potential threat to our perfect family of four. I couldn’t monitor how often or how effectively other people were washing their hands. All I wanted to do was hide out in our happy home, take care of our children alone, and insulate them from the world.
I knew something was wrong with how I was feeling, and like most pregnant women nowadays I’d been warned about postpartum depression. But the thing is, I wasn’t depressed. The few times I thought, This is off. Call the doctor, I reminded myself that postpartum depression was about negative feelings and sadness. It was like a storm cloud, as described to me by a mom friend who’d had it. But I didn’t have a storm cloud. It was more like a rainbow arching over us that I feared couldn’t hold up.
I felt, in fact, dizzyingly happy with my life: I was more in love with my husband than ever and had bonded with the new baby instantly. The baby weight was falling off. I had no pull to hurt myself or my children. I was not fed up, angry, or hopeless. Instead, I was terrified that at any moment, a tragedy would strike and rip my joy right up before I had a chance to protect us. It was so different from depression, I talked myself out of seeking help.
When we left the hospital four days after my c-section, I was given a thick packet of discharge papers and a pen. Among the pages on how to take care of a new baby was a single sheet to fill out, asking questions like, “I feel sadder than usual—true or not true?” Well, this is bullsh*t, I thought to myself as I skimmed it and checked “no” for all the depression indicators.
I had just given birth to a child and was totally hopped up on painkillers from the c-section. Of course I didn’t feel normal. I could hardly walk across the hospital room and pee without assistance, so why on earth would I be up for, “doing the things I usually enjoy”? If this was all they were going to give me in the mental health department, I would deal with my issues myself, thank you very much.
Once home, the line between “baby blues” and something more blurred for me like it does for up to 20 percent of new moms who battle postpartum depression each year. But when my racing thoughts began to look a lot more like fear and obsession and less like sadness, I didn’t know what to make of them. I felt scared and damaged, embarrassed to admit what I was feeling.
Finally, at my six-week postpartum appointment, I told my OB what was going on. “I want to start by saying I’m not depressed,” I told him. He nodded and said, “…But?” It was the first time that it clicked for me that maybe there was another option. A third result. It’s not either depressed or okay. Postpartum anxiety was a thing, too.
I detailed what I was thinking and feeling, and after prescribing me a combination of yoga, medication, and sleep, we agreed to discuss it further if my postpartum anxiety symptoms persisted, which they have. Realizing that this fell outside the realm of my OB, I’ve sought further help with my persistent postpartum anxiety through a psychiatrist. When other moms ask me how I’m feeling, I’ve started to tell them the truth. And you should, too.
Postpartum anxiety might not be as common as postpartum depression—postpartum anxiety affects closer to 10 percent of new moms—but it’s real, and it’s hard, and it needs to be addressed. While worries are normal for new moms, if your fears and anxieties make it difficult for you to eat, sleep, or function, you should seek professional help. Even if you don’t have a therapist, reach out to your primary care doctor, OB, or midwife for guidance. Many have the ability, like mine did, to prescribe something short-term while you compile a mental health team.
These days, things are going better. I still panic about my family’s health and safety, but I’m finding ways to cope. It’s been a hard road and I’m not at the end, six months later. Postpartum anxiety might be easier to cover up—you’ll see me at Target or on Instagram looking like I have my sh*t together with fresh highlights and lipstick on. But behind the palpable joy of being Mom to my brood, there is a problem. It’s just not the one I was on the lookout for.