I've lived with anxiety for most of my life, though I didn't know that until I was an adult. However, thanks to years of experience and lots of therapy, I figured out how to live my life without too much difficulty; until I got pregnant. Between the hormones and all the worries that come along with bringing a new person into the world, I basically had to start all over when it came to figuring out how to deal with my anxiety. Motherhood can make a woman's anxiety worse, but there are definitely ways to cope.
It's important to note that parenthood can make everyone feel anxious or worried at times, but there is a difference between experiencing normal worry and having an anxiety disorder. For instance, it's common for new moms to be worried about their new baby's breathing. It's not normal to forfeit sleep so you can stare at your newborn all night to make sure their chest continues to rise and fall, like I sometimes would. It's normal to be concerned about the baby being around sick people. It's not normal to avoid leaving the house for days on end because you're worried someone might cough near him on the train.
When your worries start causing you physical distress and/or interfere with your ability to eat, sleep, and function throughout the day, you need to get help. Personally, I manage with talk therapy, talking to friends and family who get it, making sure I eat well and exercise, and getting enough sleep. Some folks also use medication in order to get relief, which is a totally valid and important part of treatment that moms shouldn't be afraid of pursuing (or admitting to using, if they feel comfortable speaking about their medical history with others).
If you're finding that the following aspects of motherhood are becoming too much for you to handle on your own, know that you are totally not alone. Talk to someone about it and figure out what you need to feel better. You deserve to live your best life.
Maternity Hormones Are No Joke
For moms who become mothers biologically, the fluctuating hormones that come with pregnancy, childbirth, and lactation can really run you ragged. Maternity hormones can be hellish, causing mood swings and lots of other internal turmoil, while the brain changes associated with pregnancy can make you hyper-aware of everything around you and your baby, which can be extra hard for a person with anxiety, whose brain is already extra alert and vigilant.
How to cope: Be gentle with yourself, and do whatever you can to get as much rest as possible. Making a person is hard work, and your body needs even more rest and nourishment than normal, in order to keep up with the physical and emotional demands of that and for your mind to be able to deal with all of the changes you're experiencing. (Also? Society as a whole needs to step up and demand better public policies for working families, so mothers can have the time and resources we need to take care of ourselves during this vulnerable time.)
Moms Can Become Isolated And Go Long Periods Of Time Without Necessary Support
Most Americans live on our own without the constant company and help of extended family and close-knit neighbors. For mothers, that translates to being alone a lot while caring for our kids, especially when they're really young. That means we’ll be doing more for and with our kids than parents in other parts of the world (and in other time periods), which makes motherhood more tiring and less fun than our bodies and minds are set up to handle. Another thing that's bad for everyone, but worse for moms with anxiety. Doing more with less creates more stress, and causes us to feel inadequate and worry that we're letting our families down. Hello, downward spiral of feeling anxious, then becoming less capable, then worrying more as a result.
How to cope: Build your mom squad. Especially if you don't have close family nearby (or are estranged from toxic family members), make an effort to keep in touch with your friends, and get to know at least a few nearby neighbors. Go to events for families in your community, for the regular company, and for the opportunities to make friends. Even if they don't all become people who can babysit for you or anything like that, having a bit of time every day to see friendly faces and make conversation makes a huge difference.
Raising Kids Is High-Stakes
Parenting is a high-stakes endeavor, especially for moms, who are often disproportionately responsible for caring for kids and are targeted by the rest of society with all sorts of demands to do all of our jobs (as parents, as partners, as friends, as workers) perfectly, without nearly enough help. The pressure to do any of these things to those high standards would be enough to make us anxious on its own (hence why many of us begin motherhood with an anxiety diagnosis), but combining them is a lot.
How to cope: Let go of the idea that perfection is attainable or even desirable. Figure out which parenting decisions really are high-stakes, versus which ones are just a bunch of hype. A lot of the things people say you have to do as a mom are totally optional, and just add needless items to your to-do list (and thus, needless worry and feelings of inadequacy when that list never gets done). Prioritizing is key. Decide what you actually care about, spend your time on that, and let the rest go.
We’re Raising Kids In A Terrifying World
The world we live in can be a really scary place. In addition to the ordinary physical, social, environmental, and economic threats we face, we’re also far more aware of all the possible dangers that could exist, even if they're actually very rare. News reports constantly warn of everything from kidnappings, to deadly epidemics, to war and terrorism, and so on. Vivid, negative information tends to stick in our brains, which makes them feel more likely to happen to us, even if our actual risk of falling prey to any of these threats is minimal. It's bad enough to brave such a scary world on our own, but thinking of having to protect our defenseless children from these threats can make motherhood feel like a minefield.
How to cope: First, it's critical to recognize that not all of the dangers looming large in our brains are realistic threats to us. Ignoring and/or reality-checking sensationalized media reports and fear-mongering media personalities is both an important self-care practice and a fantastic way to model critical awareness for our kids.
Additionally, getting a more realistic sense of what kinds of risks our children face so we can focus on reasonable precautions to protect from those, is better for their safety and our mental health. Keeping up with doctor’s appointments and vaccinations, protecting against common household hazards for kids, limiting how much we drive whenever possible, and helping kids learn how to care and advocate for themselves is the best thing we can do.
Finally, we should stop fearing and teaching our children to fear strangers. It makes the world feel needlessly scary and hostile, and limits our sources of support as we navigate the world together. Strangers are least likely to abduct or abuse our kids, especially if we exercise common sense about supervision and teach our kids never to go off with people they don't know. Furthermore, by prioritizing teaching kids about body safety and consent, we can help protect them from childhood sexual abuse from both known and unknown attackers, as well as help them avoid being victims or perpetrators of sexual assault as they get older.
Motherhood Makes It Harder To Engage In Self-Care
Self-care is critical to anyone’s health and well-being, but it's especially important for those of us struggling with conditions like anxiety. Having kids simultaneously introduces a new source of anxiety into our lives, while caring for them changes our routines, upending whatever self-care practices we may have in place and making it harder to find the time and energy we need to take care of ourselves.
How to cope: Ask for help. Find other people to help you (and your partner, if they're in the picture) with your little one(s) so you can take time for yourself. Also, stick to a routine as much as possible, so you can start to identify the moments in your day when you can do the things you need to feel your best, whether that's exercising, getting a nap, taking a long shower, or vegging out with a book, hobby, or whatever else makes you happy. Moms are not a superheroes, and we can't care for others if we don't care for ourselves, so make this a priority.