I White Knuckled Through Postpartum Anxiety, And I Blame My Shitty OB

Throughout our pregnancies, and after, we see so many doctors. Not one of mine checked in on my emotional well-being.

by Melissa Petro
Mental Health

“Baby blues” is a misnomer. I never feel sad, even when I’ve been diagnosed as depressed. I feel restless, irritated, and overcome with self-doubt. I cry out of frustration. I recently learned that depression can feel like sadness, but it can also feel like nothing. It can feel like self-loathing. It can feel like hopelessness, isolation, and guilt. It wasn’t until my second pregnancy that I even knew postpartum anxiety was a thing.

I didn’t learn that from a doctor; I learned it from a meme.

“I think I have postpartum depression, or anxiety, or… something?” I said to my doctor, my OB, a sentence I’d practiced no less than a thousand times in my mind. Somehow, I had waded through the malaise to make it to that morning’s appointment, my 12-week-old strapped to my leaking breasts. Every small task felt arduous — everything from folding a towel and feeding my toddler to not throwing the newborn at the wall.

But instead of — what was I expecting? A glimmer of recognition, an illuminating question, a modicum of support? — the doctor just stared at me, stunned.

I wanted to suck the words back up into my mouth.

“You need to see a psychiatrist about that,” he finally said.

Well, I’m not going to do that, my immediate next thought fired back.

I was vulnerable not just because of my circumstances, or because I wore a paper robe and my legs were in stirrups, vagina inches from his face, but because I’d just said something that had taken a hell of a lot of strength and courage, not to mention self-awareness, to admit. Seeing a specialist would mean identifying someone that took my insurance, negotiating with my husband a second time that he could miss work to watch our older son, taking time away from my own job and responsibilities and making another appointment, and showing up. No, seeing a psychiatrist was a mountain I couldn’t climb.

I wanted to blame his gender, or his relative youth, but the sad fact is that I am more familiar with negligent doctors than good ones.

I did not know how to answer the question of who I was becoming on top of the woman I once was — a woman who, for the most part, I still wanted to be.

Throughout our pregnancies, and after, we see so many doctors. We have a primary care doctor. We have an OB. Parents of a newborn visit a pediatrician at least seven or eight times in the first six months alone. None of these professionals considered it their responsibility to check in on my mental health or prepare me for the way that major hormonal shifts, combined with lack of sleep and the stress of caring for a newborn, would impact my well-being. No one flagged that people with a history of mood disorders are more at risk.

During the first trimester of my first pregnancy, I was standing on a scale when the obstetrician I had found lectured me about gaining weight, casually suggesting I “lay off the carbs.” I knew everything she was saying was wrong. I was a perfectly healthy weight — even if I hadn’t been pregnant. Even if I had been overweight by medical standards, it was perfectly normal and typically healthy to gain weight when you are pregnant, and in fact, it is perfectly healthy to be what our society deems “overweight.”

Instead of standing up for myself and every woman ever, my face grew hot and I sputtered some weak defense about morning sickness and uncontrollable cravings. My mind started down a rabbit hole of how I was going to force myself and my growing fetus to eat less.

I should’ve switched doctors right then and there. Instead, I let this woman deliver my baby. Or I was going to, but she was off duty when I went into labor. It was another doctor, someone I’d never met.

Many working mothers are expected to return to the office six to eight weeks after giving birth, but as a freelancer, I was exempt from this pressure. Instead, I carried an invisible weight of somehow doing the job of a caregiver on top of the career I already had. I’d work while the baby napped, I reasoned, as if there weren’t a thousand other things to do. As if breastfeeding wasn’t in and of itself a full-time job.

I did not know how to answer the question of who I was becoming, or how to balance motherhood and all of its responsibilities, on top of the woman I once was — a woman who, for the most part, I still wanted to be.

My son’s pediatrician didn’t seem to know, and so I took to the Internet to find out why my left tit shot milk like a firehouse and if this was somehow related to why his sh*t was green. According to the Internet, the conditions were related, probably — too much foremilk can result in loose, green stool. Instead of making the connection, my son’s pediatrician suggested I stop eating milk products, soy, and egg.

Needless to say, I wasn’t sleeping. Instead, at 4 in the morning, my husband and I would argue about how to get Oscar to stop crying. But Oscar’s pediatrician warned us against co-sleeping. I dared push the issue, admitting I sometimes fell asleep with him at the breast.

“Do you want to kill your baby?” she practically shouted.

I could just tell “Sometimes, yes” was not an acceptable answer.

By then, I’d done research. I did all the research. We moms do so much research.

For my second pregnancy, I vowed to do it differently. My husband and I renegotiated how we divided household labor, including child care. I promised myself I’d take more of a break. By then, I’d done research. I did all the research. We moms do so much research.

This time, I found a whole team of doctors at a local hospital I told myself I could trust.

Molly and I bed-shared from Day One. Her pediatrician never asked, and so I didn’t mention it. She collected information about my children and took it for granted that I was a competent mother. And I was. I am.

But I’m also human, and I was up every three hours, staring at my phone or the clock, despite my perfect sleeper. I’d turn to moms on Facebook in search of medical advice. Here I am in a post from February 2020, two months after Molly’s birth: “Anyone have experience with postpartum anxiety? Trying to figure out if what I’m feeling is normal or if my overwhelm is something more (and, if so, what would a doctor say to do about it).”

“I’m feeling really overwhelmed by my toddler’s neediness,” I went on in a comment. “I want to run away. I don’t want to hurt him, but I have thoughts like, ‘oh, I get how people spank their kids’ (I would never!) I snap at my husband. We argue about my tone. I’m highly critical. I feel overwhelmed.” Overwhelmed, overwhelmed, overwhelmed. I can still feel the guilt and shame, and self-blame.

Prior to parenting, I envisioned myself as a patient mother, gentle and playful. The kind of mother that honors their children’s needs. I wanted to be a safe space for my children. But I did not feel safe inside myself.

Did I go see a psychiatrist? No, I suffered through it another month — until the pandemic shut down the world, and my husband started working from home. With him physically present, parenting felt easier. As my children grow older, everything becomes more manageable, including my feelings. I don’t turn to Facebook groups for advice nearly as often. I rely on doctors even less. “Do you have any questions?” they often ask at the end of a visit. I tell them, No. I’d sooner trust Google and heal myself.