Postpartum Narratives: Postpartum Anxiety
Postpartum Narratives: Life with Postpartum Anxiety
This series, Postpartum Narratives, aims to bring awareness, normalization, and understanding to different postpartum experiences. No two postpartum experiences are the same, and as a society, we cannot have one view of what postpartum is or should be. By sharing stories, we diversify our own understanding and can then advocate for better support and resources for each person and space that affects a postpartum family- the home, the workplace, the medical field, social constructs, etc. if you have a postpartum narrative you would like considered for contribution, please contact me here.
8 Things I Want You to Know About Postpartum Mood Disorders (PMADS)- Celeste’s Story
I had my baby eight weeks ago and I have Postpartum Anxiety (PPA). Here are eight things that I would like you to know about PMDs and being a new mother:
1) The transition into motherhood is bloody hard and this isn’t acknowledged.
For me, becoming a mother is a right of passage and far more challenging and daunting than I had imagined. I have lived, volunteered and worked in ten countries, as a teacher, janitor, and an organic farmer- and having a baby and recovering from PPA (postpartum anxiety) was one of the hardest things I have done. It took every ounce of my strength and courage and the learning curve was steep, Now, just two months postpartum, I am more confident in my ability as a mother. I know that every sleep regression and struggle of motherhood has a season- and it will pass. I learned through reaching out for help that I had a community of people who would support me- even if I felt like I was failing as a new mom. Although I am still in recovery, I have grown mightily during the past eight weeks. My experience has felt like becoming a phoenix- I had to walk through the fire to be transformed and remade.
When I first became a mom, I felt isolated and was in survival mode. I was not prepared to feel the dark and complex emotions. Frequently when I tried to express them, I was met with judgment, shame and silenced even by people meaning well. I learned to put on a brave smile to family and friends- even for my husband. There began my journey into emotional isolation and the immediate feelings of my inadequacy as a mother.
Although a new mom may be eager and happy to be a mother, there is nothing to prepare her for all that she will lose. We have no cultural narratives, stories, or rituals to prepare her for this journey. We are a society that largely ignores the pain and challenges of motherhood, and instead, share images of smiling babies who are easy to nurse and rock to sleep in an oh-so-cute nursery. Oppression is achieved by silencing the experiences of a group of people, making them feel isolated, inadequate, or even crazy for what they are feeling. I think our society has silenced the pain and suffering of new mothers because women have historically been seen as emotional and hysterical (in fact, hysteria comes from the Greek root hysteria, meaning ‘uterus.’)l. Women have been labeled as such, so that our pain could be overlooked. The burden and pain of motherhood is not deemed worthy of our attention or resources as a country. The lack of maternal support, paid parental leave, and healthcare for moms postpartum are a testimony to this. Moreover, the power of being a woman, someone who births life, could be minimalized and forgotten, pushing the collective power and wisdom of women and mothers to the margins.
However, we are doing some of the world’s most important and challenging work- cultivating the next generation! I have learned that it is incredibly important for new moms to ask for what she needs, without apology. We need to support and advocate for each other- the road of motherhood is far too burdensome and challenging to walk alone.
2) We have a lot to learn about PMADs.
I'm grateful to the public awareness campaigns and women who have gone public about their experience with postpartum depression. This lead me to know that it is a real condition that can affect any new mother. We have come a long way, but we’re only beginning to understand PMADs and how to best treat them.
I was not aware, however, that there could be a wide variety of postpartum mood disorders with an even wider variety of symptoms. Understanding the symptoms is important so that signs can be understood and recovery can happen sooner.
Most new moms get the 'Baby Blues' in the first two weeks. Baby Blues include restlessness, anxiety, and crying- caused by the hormonal shift post-birth, and arguably the incredible life transition of a new baby and sleepless nights. Baby Blues is a mild and temporary form of depression that evaporates when a mother's hormones become regulated. PMADs can be more severe and last longer or even start during pregnancy. PMADs include postpartum depression, postpartum anxiety, postpartum bipolar, postpartum OCD, postpartum psychosis.
3) It is hard for a new mother to accept she has a PMD.
It took me until I was literally on my knees and unable to cope before I could accept I had PPA (postpartum anxiety). I considered myself a strong, independent, educated, healthy and emotionally intelligent woman. I had prepared for the journey of motherhood physically, mentally and even spiritually. Surely I would not be a victim of a PMAD! And yet, I did. I don’t think I could have done anything differently to prevent PPA. It is important for mothers to know that developing a PMAD is never their fault, but they are able to be proactive to overcome it.
I had no idea before giving birth that insomnia and anxiety are classic symptoms of PPA. In desperation, I messaged a close friend who is a midwife and she told me that insomnia and anxiety were quintessential PPA symptoms. The realization that I had PPA paralyzed me. I had no idea how or why I had developed PPA and I didn’t think I would recover.
I felt completely overwhelmed.
How could I adequately care for my baby?
What did this mean about me as a mother?
My identity and confidence were shattered. Thankfully, I had understanding family and friends, and access to affordable and high-quality health care. Often, it's the knowledge and support of a new mother's community- from family to pediatricians- that help a new mother learn and accept that she has a PMAD and access the treatment she needs.
4) All new mothers are vulnerable and need support.
I have ridden on the roofs of buses in the mountains of Nepal and slept in huts with spiders the size of my hand, but being a new mom was one of the scariest experiences of my life. Being a new mom and then developing PPA tops the list, second only to burying my mother. In addition to grappling with a massive life transition and the vulnerability of deeply loving your baby who is so fragile and needy, a PMAD turns your life inside out. Who you used to be, your sense of security and sense of self are utterly transformed. I felt weak and scared, nothing like my usual courageous self. Recovery from PPA has felt like learning how to walk again. I had to gradually rebuild myself from the ground up.
Recovering while being so vulnerable and afraid requires a network of support. Support can be created for moms by whoever shows up for them. For me, it was people who could support me without judgment. Friends I rarely ever talked to started reaching out, and this was key. Befriending a mother who had PPA and hearing her story of recovery was extremely helpful and made me feel less isolated, which is fundamental to my healing.
5) It’s hard for a new mother to speak up and share her experience.
As a society, we have come far in our acceptance of mental illness; but society will often blame the victim and our sense of shame can be crippling. It certainly was for me.
Sharing our stories of new motherhood and PMADs is essential to transcending shame and finding self-love. But this is nearly impossible to do. Why? Fear of judgment. We need to listen attentively to new moms and without judgment, without blaming, without interrupting to offer “advice”. We also need to ask the right questions. Questions that don’t only involve the baby, but also the mother. A mother sharing her experience can start with a simple question, such as: “Are you able to sleep?” “How do you feel?” “Are you overwhelmed?” “What do you need from me?” and “How can I help you?”
The first month, it felt as though everyone was always giving advice and planting words in my mouth:
“Isn’t it the most magical experience!”
“Awww, having a baby is the best thing ever! I miss when my kids were so little!”
“Aren’t you soooooooooooooooooo happy!”
“Make sure you sleep when the baby sleeps!”
It felt impossible to share my true experience because everyone assumed I was over the moon. This wasn’t the best thing ever, I wasn’t happy. It felt like a nightmare. When society only accepts two feelings from a new mom- love, and gratitude- sharing our authentic experience of new motherhood becomes impossible.
5) Motherhood is messy- it’s not all baby giggles and fuzzy blankets.
The transformation into motherhood is hard: it requires suffering, shedding the ego, losing our sense of self and our sense of freedom. It’s okay for a new mom to have negative emotions! We need to accept that motherhood is hard and our response to this new role is complex. Although we may be delighted to be a mother, some of our reactions to this new role can include emotions such as fear, anger, and even grief.
6) Postpartum emotions and mood disorders are temporary. Getting help heals.
The postpartum timeline varies for each mom. Some experience the baby blues for a week, others are in recovery from a PMAD for a year or more. Some develop a PMAD while pregnant, others a year after birth. Just like our birthing stories are different, so are our recovery timelines and journeys. But it is always temporary and it will get better.
During my hardest days of dealing with PPA, I felt like I would feel anxious and overwhelmed forever. I didn’t think it was possible to recover. I found relief first through acceptance, but my anxiety spiked before I could accept this as the condition of my mental health. First I had to grieve that my maternity leave and time welcoming my baby into the world was not going to be what I had hoped.
I wasn’t over the moon; I was sad, anxious and afraid.
I had intrusive thoughts that made me question who I was.
I couldn’t sleep when the baby slept, day or night.
My body was still aching from a 30 hour labor.
I was a walking, nonfunctioning zombie.
One morning I had a panic attack. I didn’t know how I could care for the baby while my husband was at work. I was terrified. Only when I was brought to my knees by the gripping anxiety could I accept that I had PPA and needed help.
Getting help and talking about my mental health was imperative for my recovery. Apprehensively, I started taking Zoloft and sleep aids. Initially, I was afraid because I was exclusively breastfeeding and I was afraid of how this would impact his neurological development. But every professional I talked to- from a nurse practitioner, clinical therapist, psychologist, and OBGYN- said it was safe and worth it. For me it was the right choice. Finally sleeping more than an hour at a time made me feel human again. I started feeling the effects of Zoloft after a week. Although I was still anxious, especially at night and in the afternoon, I could smile at my baby and see the light.
7) Having a PMD isn’t the end of a mother’s world and it’s never her fault
Developing a Postpartum Mood Disorder can feel like a living nightmare. The key is intervening as soon as possible and getting the help and support you need. Although accepting that you have a PMAD is hard to admit to yourself and to others, it's the first step of recovery.
Postpartum disorders affect mothers from all walks of life and it is never the mother’s fault. Needing help does not mean you’re weak, to blame, or selfish. Getting help for a PMAD is no different than getting help for a broken bone. And every step towards health and healing brings hope, confidence, security. Every time I am able to overcome a fear (which were simple, everyday things, like driving or being alone with my newborn) brought me joy- I knew then that I would recover. Finally, I could see the clouds parting and the sun shining down.
8) Mothers are life creating warriors.
Now, I know what it means to be a mother- and I know we are life-creating warriors. But even as warriors, mothers still need their tribe. Being a mother and life-creating warrior is a role learned in real-time, with no previous training. This can be terrifying and overwhelming.
We are vulnerable and we can and should depend on others as we take care of our babies and children. Asking for help doesn’t make us weak, it shows our courage, our strength and our dedication to ourselves and our families.
Thank you to Celeste for sharing her story. Every woman’s story is powerful, and when we share and diversify our understanding, we become stronger as women and as a society. If this story resonated with you and you would like to talk more with Celeste, you can contact her via her Instagram.
If you are struggling, help is available. Caring for yourself is essential to care for your baby. You can find a local resource by using the Postpartum Support International directory here. You can also call 1-800-944-4773 for Postpartum Support International Helpline (available in Spanish and English.) *The PSI HelpLine does not handle emergencies. People in crisis should call their local emergency number or the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).