How I Clawed My Way Out Of The Bleak, Spiraling Loneliness of Postpartum Anxiety
It took me too long to get help — but I did get better
I wish someone had told me how normal it was to feel as intensely not-OK as I felt after the birth of my second child. I wish that my OB or primary care doctor had noticed the Ativan prescription on my chart and given me a heads-up — the second they yanked my IUD out! — that I was vastly more likely to experience a postpartum mood disorder because of my history of anxiety.
I wish that it had been better, because I know now that it absolutely did not have to be as brutal, lonely, and hard on me — and everyone around me — as it was.
My daughter is almost 9 months old now, and I am so much better. I want to say it again, to everyone in the world, to every woman who wants to have a baby or who is pregnant or who has a newborn and finds themselves in the thick of what I experienced: I am so much better. You will feel better.
Countless things helped me claw my way out of the bleak, deep, spiraling loneliness that gripped me in the first weeks postpartum. I want to tell you what worked for me, but I also want to warn you. Because through two pregnancies, with a history of anxiety sitting right there on my chart, no one warned me.
And until the system works better, we have to look out for each other. We have to warn each other, and listen to each other. Most of all, though, I want to share what helped me get better! Because I went to the darkest place I’d ever been, and then I got better. Meds were a hugely important piece of the feel-better puzzle for me, but I want to talk about all of the other things that made me feel better, too. Not just because they were equally important, or because they should replace the difficult-but-vital step of talking to your care provider about how you’re feeling, but because you can start doing them immediately. No prescription needed.
Daily meditation improved my anxiety right away and was the one thing I was able to do for my mental health in the first few weeks postpartum with my second child. Sometimes it seemed like an absolutely impossible thing to ask to be left alone to do a five-minute meditation, but I’d bring myself to ask it anyway and those five minutes of sitting with my mind and breath carried me far. When I start spinning out now, meditation is the first tool I reach for.
Before I ever had kids, anxiety was a constant in my life, but it was an annoyance rather than a big, life-interrupting problem. I briefly saw a therapist in my teens, but mostly managed my anxiety-prone mind with a combination of white-knuckling, leaning hard on my boyfriend, and (in NYC in my 20s) many, many drinks. Fast-forward to my mid-30s, and I’m married with a 2-year-old son — and probably in the throes of my first experience with postpartum anxiety — realizing that my anxiety management habits could use an upgrade. Or, as my therapist at the time put it, more “tools in my toolbelt.”
That therapist taught me a bunch of mindfulness practices, and encouraged me to begin daily meditation. I have mostly maintained it since then using the Headspace app, but Calm is great, too. If you want to dip your toe in first, Insight Timer has a lot of great, free guided meditations. If you want something even simpler, try taking 10 long, slow deep breaths, being sure to breathe from your belly, not your chest. I’ve found that just that can slow my heart down and get me a little bit of mental space.
Although the connection between sleep and mental health is well-established, I didn’t realize how badly I needed eight to nine hours of sleep a night until I had a child. When I finally found an in-network therapist with a perinatal focus — a process that took an absolutely ridiculous six months — her first question was, “How are you sleeping?”
Parenting is exhausting. It’s nonstop. Living at the beck and call of a newborn shows every parent with brutal clarity why sleep deprivation is used as a torture device. My husband and I prioritized our sleep a lot more with our second baby (ask me about the cry-it-out method), and I think that helped me claw my way out of my postpartum depression faster.
It’s not always easy or comfortable to protect my sleep, and I do sacrifice other things in order to get as much as I need, but the mental health payoff makes it so worth it.
Line up therapy
I asked my therapist recently what we would have done differently if she’d been treating me when I crashed so incredibly hard in the first few days postpartum, and it broke my heart to hear how clearly she could have guided me through it: “We would have made a plan to make sure you were getting at least four hours of sleep at a time most nights. I would have warned you about Days 3-5 postpartum as a time to watch for severe crashes, and we would have talked about how to get through them.” So simple and so doable. I still would have crashed, but it wouldn’t have been the total, unsupported free fall it was at the time.
I wish one of the many doctors who cared for me during pregnancy had bothered to suggest that I start seeing a therapist during pregnancy. What would have been the harm? And how much agony could it have saved me and my family?
I can’t go back, but I can at least tell you — line up a therapist! Start seeing someone during pregnancy if you can. Pregnancy and postpartum are a time of huge upheaval — of the shape of your life, your relationship (if you’re in one), and of your own identity. Entering parenthood is a paradigm shift and most of us could use mental health support as we navigate it. Worst-case scenario, you see the therapist very occasionally and the check-ins feel pointless because you’re managing it all so shockingly well, and that’s a pretty great “worst case.” And if you need help, it’s right there — established, ready, and waiting to support you.
Less: alcohol and social media
This goes hand in hand with prioritizing sleep. As I talked to my therapist about how important sleep was to me, and how much harder the days felt when I hadn’t slept well, she gingerly reminded me that alcohol is a depressant that disrupts your sleep — not ideal when you’re struggling with depression. My nightly beer or glass of wine didn’t sound incredibly problematic, she said, but she still encouraged me to take a break — however long I wanted — and see if I felt better, if I slept better. Friends, I am sad to report that I did indeed sleep much harder, and more deeply, and have felt overall better since I cut back on alcohol. (And yes, I am almost 40, thanks for asking!). Likewise, she encouraged me to be more mindful about my own screen time, particularly at night after the kids are in bed. If all I get in a day is 20 minutes to myself, how do I really want to use it? For me, the answer that was best for my mental health was to get off social media. Sometimes I miss passively seeing what friends are up to, but mostly it’s been a positive thing. I text with the few friends I miss when I have a moment, and though the check-ins are less frequent, they’re made with more intention. And having more free time in my precious post-bedtime hours has been worth it.
Talk openly to other moms
This is a biggie. In terms of getting better myself, it was hugely helpful to hear honest stories from mom friends who shared their experiences openly. I often didn’t get the full story until I shared that I myself was struggling, though. It’s so important that the conversation around new parenthood includes space for the full spectrum of the feelings it dredges up. We have to know and share with our fellow parents that it’s possible to feel like you love your baby and you’ve made the biggest mistake of your life at the very same time. Both feelings can happen simultaneously and it’s normal and hard and that’s parenthood.
Often shared over text message, the words that helped me most were the ones that said that it was OK, normal even, for me to not be happy. And don’t overlook the wisdom of multigenerational support. Nellie was 6 days old when my husband found me crying heaving, much-needed tears, as I read and re-read this text from my godmother, a mother of two herself, who’d heard I was “feeling a little overwhelmed”: “Two children changes everything. Griffin will take it in stride. It’s probably much tougher for you. Nellie is still a bit of a stranger and it’s tough not to be wary of how she will fit into the family. Your heart will stretch and you’ll find those muscles again. What’s wrong has more to do with hormones, sleep deprivation, managing change, and being hard on yourself. You can’t help it if the furniture around you rearranged itself and you stumbled over it in the dark.”
I texted another friend, “Will this ever get better?” — a text my phone could autocomplete at this point — as I circled my neighborhood with a 5-week old who would only sleep in an Ergo, and she responded, “Yeah. Newborns are literally, actually the worst. You’re at the top of the mountain!” It was a simple validation; it got me over the hump. Every little message, every droplet of validation, contextualization, and normalization from women who were ahead of me on the path paved my way through and, eventually, my way out.
I’m here, I’m back, the perpetual emergency is over.
Now that I am through the worst of it, I am passionate about actively doing this for other women. First, I share my experience honestly whenever I can. I look for moments to reach out and unobtrusively check in on new or expecting mothers in my circle. It’s as simple as a “How are you doing? No response needed, but here if you want to chat.” And I usually make a porch drop of a pound of coffee and too many baked goods when babies arrive. Reaching out to each other, listening to each other, and sharing our experience of pregnancy and new motherhood honestly with those who come after us requires a surprising amount of bravery, but it is absolutely essential.
My sweet, squishy, downy-headed last baby is moving quickly toward the one-year mark, and I am inching right along with her — out of the dark, into her first springtime and second summer on this planet. Thanks to all of these things and the sheer passage of time, I actually enjoy her existence now. I worship at her little gnocchi feet and gobble her pillowy cheeks and revel in the fact of her being. I still whisper apologies to her, sometimes, for my remoteness in the early days. I hope one of these days I’ll kick that habit, too. In the meantime, I bask in the joy that’s so much more accessible to me now. I’m here, I’m back, the perpetual emergency is over. If you’re in the weeds, I hope this helps you. If I see you on a run, don’t be surprised if I stop you to ask how you are, and trust that I’m asking because I really do want to know.