Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Postpartum Anxiety

This post has nothing to do with Brazil or expat life - instead, I wanted to write about the postpartum anxiety that I experienced after having my first child. It's something that I didn't even recognize having until I had my second child three and a half years later. 

When my son was born, I was filled with intrusive thoughts about him dying. They lasted for months and never ceased; it was absolutely overwhelming. And because of those thoughts, it was impossible for me to "sleep while the baby slept." At my son's two month well-baby visit, his pediatrician mentioned that he was concerned about me and concerned that my extreme sleep deprivation would lead to my son being injured. (That I would be too out-of-it to properly take care of him). I had no idea that I was in bad shape; I thought this was the normal "new baby sleep deprivation" that everyone talks about. But, I was convinced that he would pass away while he slept, so I had to watch him during every nap. Fear of him dying consumed my thoughts. I would cry about it while he napped. When he was awake, I would rock him, certain that every time would be the last. I even told my mother that if anything happened to him, I would kill myself. I just had to let someone know, so that they would understand what had happened, should they stumble upon the scene.

I was a slave to whatever requirement or compulsion popped up in my head. I might lay in bed and think, "Did I lock the door? I'm 100% certain that I did, but if I don't check, it will be unlocked and someone will come in and hurt my son." Most often the thought would be that if I closed my eyes while he was napping, I'd wake up and he'd be gone. It was like living with Reverse Shrodinger's Child. He was probably fine in his crib, but if I didn't check on him, then he wouldn't be okay. The only way I could be certain of his state was to look. It was crippling. It was exhausting. I looked at other moms and wondered how they could ever appear so happy while I felt like I was drowning.

When my second child arrived, I realized how unhealthy I had been with my first. When she slept, I knew she would be okay. I didn't spend every moment obsessively worrying. But I honestly thought that what I was experiencing with my son was normal. Everyone jokes about how babies keep moms up all night and I had never heard of postpartum anxiety, so what was the problem? My doctors had asked the standard postpartum depression questions - if I had any thoughts of harming myself or my baby - and I said no, because I didn't, so I assumed everything was fine. I didn't realize that my internal voice answer of, "Oh my God are you kidding me! No! I'm completely controlled by the compulsion to protect him from harm! I can't sleep, leave the house, or function because I'm so concerned!" was an answer equally deserving medical intervention. My husband never really saw what was going on, because he worked from 6 am to 8 pm and went to sleep around 10 pm, Monday through Saturday. (Hey, when you're in your mid-twenties with student loan debt and a new baby, times are tough).

I wish so badly that someone had stepped in to say, "Jeanie, you need to talk to someone" or "Jeanie, this is not normal." (Other than the single comment from my son's pediatrician regarding sleep). But this wasn't something that I was open about, because I had never heard of it. I, more or less, hid in my home and didn't deal with it. So if you're experiencing compulsive thoughts about harm coming to your baby, you should speak to your OBGYN or family practitioner. As a society we've done a good job of opening up the discussion about postpartum depression and removing its stigma, but we still need to get postpartum anxiety into the conversation. Just like postpartum depression, postpartum anxiety has nothing to do with you. You didn't do anything to bring it on. It's (in part) a result of a combination of extreme hormonal changes, massive life changes, and lack of sleep - and moms with a history of anxiety or depression are at a greater risk of developing it. My experiences with each baby were light-years away from each other. I wish I could go back in time and truly enjoy my first newborn and be the healthy mommy that he needed. But since I can't, I hope that writing this post will help someone who's in the same situation.

And with that, I leave you with some resources about postpartum anxiety:

Huffington Post - Postpartum Anxiety Might Be Even More Common Than PPD

PostPartumProgress - The Symptoms of Postpartum Depression / Anxiety in Plain Mama English

Parents - The Other Postpartum Problem Anxiety

Self - Postpartum Anxiety


  1. Our daughters were born on the same day. I followed you from the wte forum. My daughter was my first and I had the exact same experience. My anxiety peaked around her first birthday and I literally gave myself diarrhea for weeks because I was worrying so much. I wish you had said something earlier (no guilt intended) but I also didn't realize how much my mind was controlled by these thoughts. Anxiety absolutely needs to be a part of the conversation because everyone assumes that the fierce desire to protect means the opposite of depression and disqualifies us from discussion. Thanks for your story!

    1. I also wish that I had said something earlier, because it's a terrible thing for anyone to go through. I should also admit that I STILL have waves of anxiety about something happening to myself or my kids. Not anything on the level of PPA, but some level of anxiety has never completely dissipated.

      I'm taking a bus to Rio next week and there was a solid night where instead of sleeping, I imagined dying in a fiery bus accident and my kids growing up without me. I played the scenes over and over in my head while trying to quietly cry so that I didn't wake them up.

      We're also flying to the States in a few weeks, which had me investigating plane crash survival rates and statistics as well as reading survivors' stories to try and figure out "what they did right." I even looked up "should I just leave their oxygen masks off so that they are peacefully unconscious during the crash instead of spending their last moments terrified" because I don't think I could bear it.

      I mean, isn't that insane?? I'm a rational, well-adjusted adult and I understand how CrAzY that all sounds. If someone said that to me, I would think "you really need a therapist." And I probably do. But for now, I understand that planning and brainstorming positive scenarios, as well as being mindful that these intrusive thoughts stem from anxiety helps me keep the anxiety to a manageable level so that I can handle isolated anxiety attacks and not let it run my life. And of course, being open about it and hearing that I'm not alone is a big help.

      I'm not sure who you are (your post was anonymous) - has the anxiety become manageable for you or do you feel like it's more controlling than not?