My sweet, beautiful daughter turns 1 year old this month. She’s a light in this world, waves at everyone, and, oddly, loves to show people her tongue. As amazing and wonderful as this little soul is, the weeks after her arrival almost cost me my life.
I can now look back at my birth experience and see exactly when the darkness of postpartum anxiety crept in. We had attempted a home birth, but after 18 hours of labor and being stuck at 8 cm for over four hours, I made the call to transfer to the hospital and pray they’d let me get an epidural that late in the game (they did, thankfully!). We had an incredible labor and delivery team, and I felt supported, educated, and loved by that team of people whom I’d just met. Our darling Emmy Cate was born at 9:43 am after 24 hours of labor and two and a half hours of pushing. I was wildly exhausted, but we were all happy and healthy and were quickly ushered to the mother and baby unit to begin our journey as a new family of three.
As we headed to our new room, I suddenly felt something shift. I cried from the third floor to the ninth floor, holding our new bundle of “joy” as a nurse pushed us in the wheelchair. People passed us as we loaded in the elevator — Congratulations! She’s beautiful! You must be so happy! — but I couldn’t stop crying. I was scared. Anxious. Paranoid. I’ve battled depression and anxiety since I was 17, but this was something different altogether. I felt like I might actually be in a nightmare.
We arrived in our new room, but Emmy was struggling to keep her body temperature up, so we did prolonged skin-to-skin — which was great, considering I didn’t want anyone other than my husband to hold her. She screamed when they did her heel prick (twice!), and I’m not exaggerating when I felt every cell in my body break as I listened to her cry. They had her in the bassinet and I was sitting next to her, my body shaking from my sobs. My parents and husband were in the room and I could tell by the looks on their faces that they were clearly more concerned about me than her. I knew my feelings were extreme, but I just thought it was the crash of postpartum hormones that was throwing me off-kilter.
After struggling with breastfeeding, weight gain, and temperature control, it’s hard to remember those first 36 hours. So when we were finally discharged a couple of days later, I was itching to get home. But since we were in a hospital, and Emmy still had her alarm ankle monitor on, it took nearly two hours before we were actually allowed to leave. There was something about that — feeling trapped, like we were being kept against our will — that finally did me in and sent my brain straight for an experience with postpartum anxiety (PPA).
We finally arrived home around 9 pm, and Emmy started crying pretty much right away. I got in the shower while my husband tried to soothe her, and I wept – hardcore, knees on the ground, body-shaking sobs.
My mind was racing, and all I could think was that I’ve made a huge, HUGE mistake. I wanted my old life back so badly. I just wanted to cuddle up on the couch with my husband and watch Netflix, without a baby.
It’s hard to write that because Emmy is such a joy in our lives and truly the greatest thing that has ever happened to us. We also worked really hard to get pregnant with her. But that first night home (and many, many nights after), I wanted her to go away.
My husband came in the bathroom while I was sobbing, and I said, “I don’t think I’m well.” I repeated that phrase over and over for the next week. I knew my hormones were crashing, but this didn’t seem normal. Or, if it was normal, it couldn’t be okay.
I finally knew I needed professional help when one night I was pacing with Emmy, trying to rock her to sleep (did I mention she hated sleep?), and an image popped in my mind I’ll never forget. I suddenly imagined her in the oven. That is so hard to write and feels shameful, but I want you to hear these things so that if you experience this, you know you’re not alone.
Editor’s Note: If you have these thoughts, it’s important to seek help and know this can be a symptom of postpartum anxiety. If you’re not sure where to turn, we’ve included resources at the bottom of this article.
I was afraid they’d take my baby away if I admitted these things, so I decided to tread carefully with what I shared, until my appointment with a doctor to evaluate me for PPD/A. I was in the exam room, crying (I don’t actually think I stopped crying for the first two weeks, so no surprise there).
The doctor took my hands and looked me straight in the eyes and said, “When I had my first baby, I thought about throwing her out the window.
Not exactly what you hear in your childbirth education class, right?
Needless to say, she didn’t act on that feeling and spoke to a professional about it. Her honesty allowed me to open up about all of the terrifying thoughts in my head and made me realize it was a symptom of my postpartum anxiety. We adjusted my antidepressant to a higher dose (breastfeeding can actually increase your metabolism, meaning that your prior medication doses can lose their efficacy more quickly), and I got a referral to a psychologist.
Talking to someone and adjusting my antidepressant are two things that helped in a huge way, but it wasn’t all roses and sunshine after that.
I was breastfeeding, and every time I nursed I felt incredibly sad, almost homesick. This ended up being a condition called dysphoric milk ejection reflex, or D-MER, which occurs in some breastfeeding women and is characterized by strong, negative feelings when your milk lets down. No one had ever mentioned that breastfeeding could, quite literally, be depressing.
Because of all of this, in addition to the fact that Emmy was diagnosed with reflux, my husband, our pediatrician, and I made the decision to stop nursing when she was two months old. The clouds started to lift, and honestly, that’s around the time things started feeling so. much. easier.
Reading this story you might think we had a very dramatic, unusual experience. But we didn’t. It’s more common than you’d think, and it’s extremely scary and isolating. There are things that can help, even if you’re feeling only mildly depressed after delivery.
Here’s what helped me, with the hopes that it will help you, too.
Take it one hour at a time
Don’t think about tonight or tomorrow morning, or that 3 am wake-up your baby is guaranteed to deliver. Stay grounded in the moment, and it’ll be easier to keep your head above water.
Ask for help
People actually want to help you, so take them up on it. It’s also okay if you don’t want them to hold your baby, or if that makes you uneasy. Say so! Ask them to load the dishwasher, or just sit and chat next to you while you hold your baby.
Even if it’s just to sit on the porch, spend at least 15 minutes a day outside.
Read blogs, join Facebook groups, text your friends who are moms. I had around 10 other mamas who I could text (some of them close friends, some of them not!) who would remind me that it gets better and would tell me what to do in that moment.
Talk to your doctor
Your doctor or midwife should assess you for postpartum depression and/or anxiety at all of your postpartum visits by having you fill out the Edinburgh Postnatal Depression Scale and by having a discussion with you. However, you are your own advocate. If you feel like you might be too nervous to bring up what you’re feeling, bring your partner or a trusted friend or family member to your appointment so that they can speak up on your behalf.
Find a psychologist
The best place to start is by asking your OB or midwife for a referral. They likely have great professional relationships with specific psychologists, and, ideally, have heard from their patients which psychologists they’ve liked and which they haven’t. You can also ask your close friends if they have any provider recommendations. Additionally, some cities are doing amazing things to help moms with PPD or postnatal mood issues, like The Motherhood Center of New York that provides in-house babysitting while moms get therapy. Try Googling “postpartum depression” with your city/location, and see what comes up.
Weigh the pros and cons of medication
Deciding on the right medication isn’t as easy as, say, taking Tylenol when you have a headache. Antidepressants and anti-anxiety medications are very nuanced, so what works perfectly for me could not work so well for you, and what makes me a little cuckoo might be the drug that brings you back to your pre-baby self. Your OB should be able to prescribe you these types of medication, but they might also want you to see your general practitioner or a psychiatrist to determine the best course of treatment. Additionally, you may not feel comfortable taking these medicines, and that’s okay. Feel free to say so, but then try something else instead – like talk therapy.
Try to remain present
One of the best ways to practice mindfulness with a new baby is to focus on their little body. Start at their toes, and really study them. Focus only on their toes. Are they long? Short? Move to each part of their body, really take it all in, and when you’ve made it to the tip-top of their head you’ll likely feel so much better.
Another way I practiced mindfulness with my newborn was to talk to her about her surroundings, out loud. We’d walk through the house and I’d explain what a microwave was, and show her the TV, and explain what we did as a family in each room. This is also a great exercise to do outdoors since you’ll get some fresh air (and so will baby!) and there are so many fun things to see outside that a new to an infant.
Keep a special treat on hand
For me, it was chocolate chip cookies, but for you, maybe it’s a special tea or an afternoon coffee. Have something that you know you can reach for if you’re feeling especially down. Save that treat for the hard moments, and it’ll be a little reward to get you out of the funk.
Join online mom groups
I would have never envisioned myself at 3 am chatting with other moms who I’d never met in person about our babies’ sleep schedules, but there I was. It was so insanely helpful to have other women walking through the same stage of life with me.
Do the hard things
For me, I was terrified of leaving the house. It seemed so daunting and overwhelming. How would I pack up everything? What if she cried in public? (Spoiler: she did, as do all babies!) What about her nap schedule? Once I bit the bullet and drove us to Target, I realized it wasn’t that bad and we survived (even though I forget diapers, of course). Figure out what those things are that scare you, and do them. One of my favorite mom-isms to live by is that 90% of the things you worry about will never happen. Once you try it, you’ll realize it really isn’t that scary. And hey, get a Frappuccino while you’re at it.
Remember that you were chosen as this little one’s mother. You absolutely can do this. It might be the hardest thing you’ve ever done, but I promise you’ll both come out stronger and happier on the other side.