January 06, 2018
Posted By: Bunny Foo Foo
WRITTEN BY: Sarah Wilson
I am writing to share my story of surviving postpartum anxiety and depression focusing on the lessons I learned in the valleys. My journey to motherhood was not a direct path. My husband and I planned on a childless marriage (you can only imagine how that went over with the Catholic priest), but after seven years of marriage during our dissertation celebration vacation in Australia, that we both confided that our hearts had changed. We were open to the idea of becoming parents. A year later, we were blessed enough to give birth to our healthy daughter Brooklyn.
When I met my daughter, my life was changed in unimaginable ways. First of all, I had no idea how much I would love my child. I know this sounds crazy but from the moment I found out I was pregnant (October 15, 2012), I cared more about this little human being than I thought humanly possible. Second, I had no idea how much I would worry about my child. Acknowledging I was a worrier before, I was also a competent woman who had a wonderful marriage, a Ph.D., and a great job. That said, nothing prepared me for the anxiety I felt as a new mom. This was a natural tendency for me but even my easygoing husband was affected.
The worry and anxiety began the moment I found out I was pregnant then continued after Brooklyn was born. Prior to leaving the hospital, we were required to watch videos on topics such as choking, shaking babies, and SIDS (something my husband and I had never really heard of or thought about before). As a new mom, I was scared that something would happen to my daughter. Eight weeks after she was born, I dropped her off at daycare so I could return to work. The fear of something happening to her kept me from being able to concentrate on my job so I pulled her from daycare and she stayed home with a trusted former student. Having her with someone I trusted eased my worry during the day but I still worried about her at night. At my OBGYN's recommendation, I began seeing a therapist. I learned strategies to deal with my anxiety and it worked for a while. Then six months after my daughter was born, I experienced debilitating postpartum anxiety (PPA). I am not good at lying so I will give it to you straight; PPA rocked my world. The anxiety I experienced was nothing short of suffocating. It suffocated my relationship with my new child, my husband, my family, and kept me from living a normal life. The anxiety kept me from performing every day activities such as driving across town without worry or panic attacks that left me scared to be home alone with my daughter. It altered my relationship with my husband who felt the stress of my constant worry. Most importantly, it kept me from fully loving my daughter because I was so scared something would happen to her. I was afraid to love my daughter; I know it sounds sad, but it is the reality of the nine months following my daughter's birth. Luckily, for me, therapy and medication helped and I was able to get to a better place and establish a healthy relationship with my daughter.
I remember thinking as I was going through the anxiety, why didn't anyone prepare me for this. Family and friends gave me all sorts of advice (solicited and unsolicited) on being a parent but nobody warned me about PPA. What I found was that when I shared my story with family and friends there countless women who had experienced anxiety and sadness after having children. According to the American Pregnancy Association (2015) approximately 10% of mothers experience PPA and 15% of new moms experience post partum depression (PPD). The problem is that anxiety and depression aren't something we talk about so we don't realize how common it is.
As Brooklyn's first birthday approached, we were given the green light to think about a brother or sister for Brooklyn. As much as I wanted a sibling for my daughter, I didn't know if I could go though the experience of PPA again let alone put my family though it. My previous experience coupled with the fact that both my best friend and sister in-law had childbirth experiences that required a flight for life added to my anxiety about pregnancy and childbirth. Based on our feelings, we began exploring different options such as adoption or fostering, but in the end decided to put our fear aside and try to have another baby.
After a miscarriage, a few months of infertility, and a complicated pregnancy we were blessed with a son, Austin, in March of 2016. Based on my experience with PPA and knowing that it can take weeks to start working, I was prescribed medicine the day after giving birth to my son. I knew that I could not go through another year living in anxiety and fear.
Less than 48 hours after giving birth to my son, I remember sitting in our hospital room holding my beautiful son as my husband slept beside us. I was stuck with a moment of clarity as I reflected on how being a mom to my daughter and my experience with her had shaped the joy I was feeling as I held my son. Parenting my daughter has taught me that although I am far from the best parent on the planet, I am a good mom. I am not saying that to be boastful; it is just that I never saw myself as someone who could be a mom. Just like everything else in my life; my daughter changed the way I view myself. Even though I make mistakes daily, I was better at this parenting gig than I ever imagined I could be. Moreover, I refused to let my anxiety get between me and the relationship I have with my son. PPA cost me nine months with my daughter and I refused to let the same thing happen with my son. As I sat there, looking at my precious baby, I cried a tear for the struggle of postpartum ahead of me but smiled with hope that this experience would be different.
Although, I never filled the prescription for my anti-anxiety/depression medicine but I did go to a postpartum support group and a counselor who specialize in postpartum depression and anxiety. I also approached my maternity leave differently and kept myself busy with things that made me happy (my newborn son and I co-taught a statics class online that summer.......it's not for everyone but it worked for us). Seeing my therapist, along with my work and the building of our new house kept me busy and kept the anxiety away. There were a few hard times like when I left Austin so I could attend a conference in Ohio or when I dropped him off at daycare for the first time, but he was older and I felt more comfortable than when I dropped off his sister. Things were going really well.
Then around nine months post partum I experienced levels of depression I never knew existed. For months, I experienced crazy thoughts and uncontrollable sadness. I just remember sitting in my closet crying for hours at a time unable to do anything. I was sad and I didn't understand why. Here I was living this amazing life, I had a great husband, two wonderful kids, a new house, a job I loved, and was surrounded by family and wonderful friends but I just felt sad and I didn't know how to make it better. When I talked to my therapist (which I did frequently while sitting in my closet), she explained that I was sleep deprived (apparently 3 years of less than stellar sleep is not good for a person) with fluctuating hormones (much of which was related to nursing my son). I did not realize that PPD and PPA doesn't always happen right after birth it can occur any time in the first year of your child's life.
Another common misconception about PPD is that it only affects the mother. Although, this time was difficult for me but it was equally as difficult for my husband who was trying to be there for me but didn't understand why I was so sad. Further, we had two kids to take care of and I was doing my best to get through the day to day responsibilities leaving much of the childcare responsibilities for my husband. I sometimes think they should offer support groups for husbands of women experiencing postpartum depression and anxiety. In an attempt to ease the burden on my husband I worked with my therapist, I talked to my parents, family, and a few close friends who offered amazing support during those months
After about a month and a half of intense depression, I decided to wean my son in an attempt to stabilize my hormones. An outsider may wonder if this made me sad but I was 100% okay with it. I wasn't able to nurse my daughter at all so I was content with our time spent nursing. I have a daughter that was formula fed and a son that was nursed and they both thrived (I like to think of this as my unintentional, albeit poorly designed, research study with results suggesting that both methods produce happy and healthy kids.......who knew). I think it was okay for both of us to move on. Moreover, I knew it would be a few months before my hormones would get back to normal and I was ready to be off the hormonal roller coaster. Around fourteen months postpartum, I was starting to feel like myself again.
With Austin's second birthday on the horizon, I wish I could say that I never feel anxiety but I occasionally do because I am a parent. I will probably worry about my kids until I take my last breath but I refuse to let my anxiety and depression define me. I share my story with you not because it is the universal story of postpartum anxiety and depression; we all experience postpartum differently. I share my story for the person reading this who has experienced any level of postpartum anxiety or depression because you are not alone; the struggle is real and do not let anyone tell you it is not. I share my story because we need to share our stories and the lessons we have learned on our journey.
Sarah Wilson is a wife, mother, and professor.
Her email is firstname.lastname@example.org