Almost all new moms struggle with the “new mom anxiety” phase. Am I feeding the baby too much? Not enough? Is the baby getting enough sleep? But what if the baby sleeps too much, should I wake them up to eat? Are they too cold? Is that a pain-cry or just a give-me-some-extra-love cry? Germs, sleep training, schedules, reaching milestones and messing things up…these are all on the minds of new moms. But are these signs of postpartum anxiety, or just your typical new-mom anxieties?
Coming home from the hospital there’s so much to deal with in addition to taking care of a newborn baby and getting accustomed to being a new mom. There’s physical healing from the actual delivery, lack of sleep, the stress and anxiety of adapting to a completely new norm, and oh, by the way, you get all the postpartum hormones on top of everything else. All of these are a perfect storm of anxiety. So when new moms complain of being anxious, it can very easily be written off as “normal.”
It’s very hard to differentiate between “new mom anxiety” and postpartum anxiety, especially if you aren’t looking for it. That’s exactly what happened to me. “Oh, that’s normal! Every mom goes through it. You’ll get over it after the second” is what I was told.
At my checkups postpartum, my doctor asked me all the usual questions for detecting postpartum depression: “Are you unusually sad?,” “Do you have thoughts of harming yourself or the baby?,” etc. But none of these questions applied to me. I wasn’t sad or depressed. I was angry, frustrated, and terrified that something would happen to my son. I even mentioned to my doctor that I was just overly anxious, but I was sure it was just the stress and anxiety of being a new mom. Little did I know that what I was experiencing was definitely not normal.
Postpartum anxiety affects your mood, behavior, and so many other parts of your life you might not necessarily associate with anxiety. Insomnia (possibly the what-ifs running through your mind literally keeping you up at night), being angry or irritable all the time, mood swings or panic attacks, and even weight gain or weight loss. It’s easy to see how these can all be written off as “normal” after just having a baby. But when these are all prolonged and are affecting your daily life, it’s time to talk to a medical professional and see if what you’re experiencing is actually postpartum anxiety. Therapy, or even prescription medicine, might be needed to help control it and bring you back down to what is actually normal for you.
I am typically very good at keeping my anxiety under control. I always ask myself, “What’s the worst that can happen?” and that usually helps me calm my illogical anxieties and go about my day. However, as a new mom, whenever I asked myself that question, somehow the answer was always, “The baby could die.” Obviously whatever the question was that was not an acceptable answer. So whenever that thought popped in my head, I avoided whatever the situation was. Unfortunately, this included taking unnecessary trips out of the house with the baby, such as visiting friends and family, taking the baby to crowded areas, and pretty much interacting with people in general. If a situation seemed like either me or the baby would be uncomfortable or the least bit unhappy, I saved us both the hassle and just stayed home.
These could still be easily written off as new-mom anxieties. My problem was that I couldn’t get out of this mindset. Every horrible situation would go through my mind. What if the baby chokes on his milk and aspirates and dies? So every time I heard even the slightest bit of noise from him, I would jump into action and pick him up to make sure he was alright. Why should I risk going to a crowded event because of all the public shootings happening? How would I escape with a baby? So I just avoided big crowds because it wasn’t worth the risk. No matter how minimal it was, I couldn’t justify the worst that could happen. This went on for almost three years…
Even something as simple as going to the park would give me anxiety. The thought of my son touching every surface of the park and then putting those germs into his mouth would give me severe anxiety. Fun for a few hours wasn’t worth a week of my son being sick and miserable. I would have trouble catching my breath, get heart palpitations, become easily frustrated, and overall wouldn’t enjoy being at the park at all. Looking back, I missed out on all those fun times and just living in the moment while my son was having fun.
I never left him with a babysitter because if anything happened while I was out, I would never forgive myself. So I just stayed home and missed all the fun. I did it gladly, too, because easing my anxiety made me feel better knowing that we were both safe at home. Everyone telling me to “just get over it” didn’t help either. That was the most unhelpful, and quite frankly inconsiderate, advice ever.
I had never heard of postpartum anxiety. All the articles and talk were about postpartum depression. So I never recognized the signs of postpartum anxiety until my son was almost three years old. Yes, I dealt with these feelings and thoughts for three years. It was beyond exhausting, and I often questioned myself but still believed it was all normal. I was even told these anxieties would disappear with the next baby. I didn’t understand how, but didn’t question it. Outwardly, I looked and acted “normal.” Not many people saw my anxieties but rather wrote it off as just first-time mom paranoia. My anxiety manifested in anger usually, so it was always written off as something else (by me and everyone around me).
One day I came across an article about a mom going through the same never-ending anxieties after having a baby, and she explained what postpartum anxiety is. I checked all the boxes and felt almost relieved to have an answer. To know that it wasn’t normal and that it wasn’t just new-mom and first-time mom anxieties made me both happy and sad. Happy because I could now recognize where my anxiety was coming from.
I was sad because postpartum anxiety stole my new-mom joy. Because of that, I didn’t get to enjoy the first years of my son’s life because I was so busy trying to avoid unrealistic scenarios of his demise.
Even worse, I actually blocked out a lot of the beginning because just remembering it made me relive the anxiety. It makes me sad to know that my son didn’t get the best of me, the happy mom, or a more laid back mom. He got the high-strung, overly cautious, often angry, and anxiety-ridden mom. I was frustrated because I wasn’t angry at any specific person; instead, I was angry at a situation.
My anxiety was definitely out of control. I couldn’t sleep at night because of all the worst-case scenarios running through my head. I frequently had to control my breathing because my heart rate would be all over the place, and I couldn’t catch my breath. My looming sense of dread was always there, and I had the physical signs of exhaustion, too.
Thankfully, once I was able to recognize this for what it was, I was able to control and overcome my thoughts. I could talk myself out of most doom-and-gloom thoughts and finally able to enjoy motherhood and my son more. I started to be more intentional around my time with my son, and now my new baby daughter, too. I’m more mindful of what are realistic worries and what is just my anxiety trying to steal my joy again. My anxiety is definitely a lot more under control the second time around, partly because I already knew what to expect, but it’s definitely also because I didn’t have postpartum anxiety the second time around.
Although I was lucky enough to not need medical intervention, I know had I needed it, there is absolutely nothing wrong with getting help. I wish I would have recognized it sooner and gotten help earlier; if so, I might have lived out the new-mom joy more. If you feel off, don’t be afraid to talk to your doctor about everything you’re feeling and struggling with. Just because you might not check the box for one thing, doesn’t mean it’s all in your head. Be aware that you know yourself best, you know your “norm,” and when you aren’t operating at that norm, seek help to get back there. Struggles and anxiety will always be there, but we owe it to ourselves and our kids to recognize when we need help, seek it out, and show up as our best selves. Always.