How I Struggled in Silence With Postpartum Anxiety
The “shit parent” trend. The “perfect parent” brigade. The “mine turned out alright” traditionalists. These are all familiar turns of phrases that society see plastered all over social media: Facebook, Instagram, Mumsnet. They are everywhere. More often than not, they involve a level of satire and parody with the desire to make difficult times in parenting more bearable with some form of collective community. But what happens when these aspects of parenting joked about on social media become very real, every day, serious issues for some Mothers? This is what happened to me. Panic attacks. Overthinking. Devastating fears of the absolute worst-case scenarios if things aren’t done perfectly. This is what parenthood became for me.
Carefree. Calm. Hassle free. Before having a child, this is how I would have described myself. I’d always been able to “turn off,” “tune out” and “forget” about my worries. I was unperturbed by daily life and possessed very much an “oh well” sort of attitude to the regular issues that may crop up. As a teenager: “I got a detention for not finishing my homework – oh well.” As a university student: “I’ve not had a chance to read that book for my lecture – oh well.” As a trainee teacher: “I didn’t get the best result in that observation – oh well.” Don’t get me wrong, I took my life seriously and I tried my utmost best in everything I did, and felt disappointment if I didn’t achieve my desired goal. But if I knew I had done the most I could possibly do, I didn’t give myself a hard time if it wasn’t always perfect. I’m only human, and there is only so much a human can do.
But for me, becoming a mother changed all of this. I believe motherhood is the biggest challenge any woman can face. Whilst pregnant, I fully expected this: sleepless nights, no more “me time” and having to put this tiny, defenseless human before anything else in this world. I knew it would be challenging, but like many women, I couldn’t wait. However, what I found was that it brought to the forefront the deepest and darkest demons in my mind — a nervous wreck driven by adrenaline and constant fear. I felt as though my entire life had previously been spent witnessing life through rose-colored glasses, not really seeing the dangerous and terrifying world that is out there.
The initial moment I sensed this change in myself was the first time I had decided to venture out of the house with my beautiful, tiny newborn. Whilst driving, a fleeting thought momentarily crept into my mind: “if that car crashed into the side of my car, my baby would be crushed.” Unexpectedly, I then saw this vivid scenario play itself out in my mind. I could see it. I could feel it. My heart felt like it was about to burst through the walls of my chest, by breathing quickened and I struggled to catch my breath. I was panicking. I couldn’t shake off this vision; I couldn’t “unsee” it.
This time, I couldn’t tell myself “oh well.” Many will argue that feelings such as these are an essential part of parenthood — a biological wiring in our maternal brains that ensures we are aware of all potential dangers so we are able to pre-empt any threats and provide protection from them. This is also what I told myself was happening. But what happens when these thoughts become so invasive that they jeopardize your ability to care for your child?
For me, these feelings progressively escalated in the following months. Starting with small episodes such as: going down the stairs, crossing a road or even allowing somebody else to hold my child. Later, these feelings developed into extreme fears for her welfare; unhealthy obsessions culminated in my mind over breastfeeding, weaning and food, leaving my child to cry, sleeping and development. All were a continuous battle in my mind. What if my parenting choices were causing my child permanent, long-term damage?
As time went on, and an undiagnosed postnatal illness continued to progress, I became convinced horrific things would happen to my child; in my mind, it would be a result of the decisions I was making. Cot death, illness, disease, kidnap, abuse and even death plagued my thoughts. My mind would see terrible, vivid, gut-wrenching images of what could happen. My veins felt permanently pumped full with adrenaline and the overwhelming fear engulfed every inch of my body. I was convinced I couldn’t protect my child — that no matter what I did, something dire was going to happen to her. I wouldn’t see her grow up. I felt defenseless. I felt like a failure.
Then I felt numb.
So overwhelmed by these feelings, I eventually shut down, emotionless and detached from everything. Disconnected from my child. Just an entity, breathing and existing, but not living. I continued to provide day to day care for my little girl and looked after her the best I could, but inside I was crumbling into a million pieces, intensified by the feelings of guilt for not being the mother my daughter deserved. I became a shell of my former self, afraid of absolutely everything and anything — afraid of being alone feeling like this, but afraid of people. Afraid of speaking to people, but afraid that silence meant judgment; could others see the failing mother I had turned out to be? But most of all, I was afraid of feeling afraid and being this way forever.
The night I finally poured these feelings out, became the night I started to feel some hope. Broken and alone, I turned to the father of my child in utter desperation. He listened while I talked (feeling like most of it was absolute nonsense that I knew made no sense, but he listened regardless). He held me while I sobbed uncontrollably in his arms. He comforted me, reassuring me everything was going to be OK. For the first time, I was able to realize my feelings weren’t the same as every other mother’s; a part of me was struggling with this new phase of my life and I needed help to get through this. He was my rock that night. He helped me to see there was a light at the end of this tunnel.
Since this night, with this wonderful man’s support — with the support of family and friends and the help of professionals — I have finally begun to face my demons. I can now relax and enjoy my time with the intelligent, funny, loving and caring little girl my daughter is becoming. I am living in the moment, appreciating every day with my family, knowing I am doing my best as a mother. I might not be perfect, but that’s OK, because I have begun to realize there is no such thing as perfect – and that’s OK.
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Thinkstock photo via Halfpoint