I walked through the door of my son’s nursery, plastering a fake smile to my face as I did all the things expected of a new mother: nursing, changing, rocking, singing, playing. I couldn’t let my four-month-old see how much I was failing him.
I had been born and bred to be a mother, taught from an early age how to swaddle and cook and do everything a good mother was supposed to do, but I could barely get through the day. I lived in a state of panic, inventing scenarios that became so real, I couldn’t even go for a walk down the road without the irrational fear that my baby would be snatched from the stroller or attacked by a bear.
I didn’t know it at the time, but I was struggling with both postpartum anxiety and postpartum depression. And though I felt very alone, I wasn’t.
According to a study in the Journal of Women’s Health, of 4,451 postpartum women, 18% reported anxiety-related symptoms. Thirty-five percent also reported symptoms of postpartum depression, meaning it’s possible to experience both at the same time.
I longed for help. My mother came for scheduled visits, but she worked full time and could only stay for short periods. She invited me and the baby to Brooklyn for a week instead, and when my husband picked us up to return to our upstate farmhouse, I greeted him with the words, “Going home feels like a death sentence.”
I couldn’t imagine once again being trapped in the middle of nowhere with a colicky baby, no one around for miles to hear his screams, or mine.
My husband turned to me, “That’s a horrible thing to say.”
He was right, but at the time, I couldn’t articulate that it had nothing to do with him, that it was something inside me that felt very wrong and dangerous.
“When my husband picked us up to return to our upstate farmhouse, I greeted him with the words, 'Going home feels like a death sentence.'”
I spoke to my OBGYN, who dismissed me outright. I told him I couldn’t sleep, hadn’t slept in months — and that even when the baby slept, I lay awake, always on alert, a constant pounding ever-present in my ears, convinced something bad was about to happen.
He shrugged and said nothing, concerned only with the physical scar that the birth had left and not the invisible one.
It turns out this is an alarmingly common problem in the health care industry. According to a 2018 New York Times article, “Health care providers may have implicit biases that affect the way women are heard, understood and treated.”
In the mornings, when my husband handed me the baby before leaving for work, I’d have to persuade myself that there was a reason to get out of bed. And there was. I was the only one there. So, I would make a list of what needed to get done that day. The reward for completing the list: getting back into bed.
I just wanted to stare at the ceiling, safe under the covers — safe from the perils of motherhood. I joked to a friend that my only goal in life was to be in bed by 4:00 p.m. She didn’t laugh.
“That’s not normal. That’s depression,” she said and began checking in on me more often, calling with gossip and stories and keeping me connected.
What I hadn’t told my friend, or anyone else for that matter, was that I was afraid to be alone with my child. I was afraid he would choke and I wouldn’t know what to do, afraid I would look away for a moment and he would die.
One morning, I left him secure in his stroller in the kitchen while I stepped onto my porch to talk to the cable guy. A minute later, I came back to a howling, red-faced child. I picked him up to make sure he was OK, again thinking that I had failed. I had left him there helpless, and I couldn’t forgive myself.
He was fine, of course. The real problem was that I wasn’t fine. I loved this tiny human so much, and I was so petrified of losing him, it consumed every fiber of my being. He was a fragile Fabergé egg to keep safe, and now faced with the task, I wasn’t up for the job.
“I was afraid to be alone with my child. I was afraid he would choke and I wouldn’t know what to do, afraid I would look away for a moment and he would die.”
My mother suddenly became the wisest person I knew, and I began consulting with her every few hours because I second-guessed myself constantly. During one conversation, she told me, “Leave the house every day. Take a walk. Buy yourself nail polish or lipstick or something that reminds you that you’re not just a baby receptacle. And talk to your baby, he’s a captive audience.”
My mother also struggled with anxiety, and years of coping with it had given her a hefty arsenal with which to ground herself. I trusted she knew what she was talking about.
I did what she said, though at first, it felt odd. I began gossiping with my baby about books I had read or television shows I had watched while I prepared fancy lunches for us; OK, grilled cheese for me and mashed-up avocado for him, but I made it sound fancy.
I began seeing him as a person, an individual with his own quirks and sense of humor. I was getting to know my baby. He was no longer an object that I wasn’t worthy of; he was a complex human, and he was tougher than I had realized.
One evening, as we were strolling through town at a local community event, my husband met an acquaintance. His wife was sitting on a bench breastfeeding her child and I began chatting with her. She told me about an online mom’s group and encouraged me to join. This mom’s group became my lifeline.
Slowly, and cautiously, I found community. I discovered music classes and story hour, I went on playdates and met women who were struggling just like me, and I began to heal.
I started seeing a therapist who validated the pounding in my ears and gave me a name for what I was feeling. He told me that sometimes this happens after a woman has a baby. He explained that my world had become so small, it was no wonder I was depressed and anxious. He discussed medication as an option, but we decided to hold off because I was doing better.
Finally, I was beginning to understand all these messy feelings. This didn’t cure me, but it was a big step.
It took years, but I was able to find my way through postpartum anxiety and depression, largely through the support and concern of other women. I also came to understand that my anxiety did not make me a bad mother. It never diminished my love for my son. In fact, it may have made our bond even stronger.