Postpartum Mental Health – A Personal Note from a Therapist’s Perspective
By Michelle Reyes, LCSW
Nothing about having kids came easily for me. Getting pregnant took rounds of tests and fertility treatments. My pregnancies were complicated and my labors long. I felt overwhelmed as a new mom, caring for a baby with colic and reflux. With my first, I didn’t know how to comfort him. With my second, I didn’t know how to balance being a mom of two. So, naturally, all of this brought worry. Some thoughts were more rational than others. I worried about milk supply and safe sleep. I worried about my incision healing properly. With my first, I worried about why I didn’t love every second of motherhood. And then, with my second, I worried if I’d ruined our “perfect little family” by adding a second child. Guys, postpartum anxiety is no joke.
Postpartum anxiety effects up to ten percent of women after the birth of a child, and can include symptoms like constant worry, feeling like something bad is going to happen, racing thoughts, disturbances of sleep and appetite, and an inability to sit still. It can also include physical symptoms like dizziness, hot flashes and nausea (Postpartum Support International, 2018). As if we didn’t already have enough to deal with as new moms, right?
Working in mental health, I was well aware of the possibility of developing a postpartum mood disorder, and also knew that I was at a higher risk for developing one since I have symptoms of generalized anxiety in my day-to-day life. But, even with this knowledge, experiencing heightened anxiety symptoms after the birth of my daughter was scary. I was scared because, even as a therapist, I felt hesitant to talk about the thoughts that I was having. I love my kids more than anything, and feel like my sole purpose on this earth is to raise the little humans that I was blessed with. I was worried that, by admitting my struggles, I would be looked at as inadequate or weak. I didn’t want to be perceived as the over-controlling, helicopter mom. Even more so, I didn’t want to be viewed as ungrateful, or unhappy with the life that I had been given.
So, I kept quiet about the thoughts for a while. My husband knew that I was worrying more than normal, but he only saw the tip of the iceberg. The poor man had to deal with a lot of demands from me in order to ease my worry. Most of my anxieties centered on our kids getting sick, so I would make him change his clothes any time he came home from a public place. I also kept him and my three-year-old cooped up in the house for most of the winter. I took our kids temperatures daily, and asked the question “do you think they’re getting sick?” more than I’d ever like to admit to. I used these tactics to keep my anxiety just managed well enough to function, and then I broke.
When my daughter was six months old, I decided to celebrate our exclusive breastfeeding journey by giving her a milk bath. I created a beautiful scene in a galvanized tub, filled it with breastmilk and flowers, and plopped her little naked rolls into the tub with a flower crown on her head. It was magical, and she loved splashing around. I decided to capture a few photos to preserve the memory. But, as I was shooting away, my beautiful little baby went from sitting strong to face planting in the water. Enter full on panic. I scooped her out of the tub in a nano-second, and patted her little back while she sputtered and coughed. Tears welled up in my eyes and I turned to my husband muttering all kinds of phrases that were running through my brain. “I’m a horrible mother”. “I broke our baby”. “I can’t believe I did that”.
I spent the rest of that night worrying that our daughter would die of secondary drowning. I googled every symptom, checked her oxygen saturations obsessively (We have the Owlet Smart Sock), and tried to erase images that my mind created of finding her blue and lifeless in her crib. When my husband found me rocking her at bedtime with tears in my eyes, I opened up to him and told him about how hard it had been to parent at the level of anxiety that I was feeling. He was supportive, and listened.
Over the next couple of months, I took steps to focus on me and my mental health. I reintroduced self-care into my day-to-day routine. I talked to colleagues, friends and family about my experience. I was reassured that I am certainly not alone in postpartum anxiety, and even more importantly, that nobody thought less of me for experiencing it. I began to use meditation, deep breathing, and other therapeutic tools to help myself rationalize the thoughts that I was having. I made sure that each day I got a healthy dose of sunshine, and got out of the house for some adult interaction (even if it was just a trip to the grocery store, or a walk with a neighbor). When worrisome thoughts popped into my head, I made sure I followed them up with questions like:
What’s the worst that can really happen?
What’s the likelihood of this happening?
What can I do to prevent this?
Is this permanent, or a phase?
And, thank goodness, it helped.
If you have had a baby within the past year and are feeling overwhelmed, anxious, irritated, or just not like yourself, you are not alone. Talk to someone. Talk to your spouse, a friend, a family member, and most importantly, a mental health professional. There are many things that you can do to feel better, and breathe more easily. Keep up hope mama, you are not alone.
Postpartum Support International – PSI. (2018). Retrieved October 4, 2018, from http://www.postpartum.net/