My heart was racing while I read and re-read the confusing car seat manual. My spouse offered to help and I snapped “I’m doing it!” I had planned to read the manual and even practice installing the stupid thing before the birth. I had also planned to not need it so soon because we were going to have a cozy, intimate, homebirth. But fate and biology had interfered, I went into labor earlier than expected, and our bundle of joy ended up being delivered by Caesarean section in a great hospital... a great hospital... 45 minutes away from home. It was the first anxiety attack I had after giving birth, but it was so much different than any I had had before that I didn’t recognize it for what it was.
Instead, I sat cross-legged on the hospital bed, fumbling with straps and cursing, picturing every conceivable way this could go wrong. We could get in an accident and lose our precious three-day-old child. The hospital could refuse to let us leave because we didn’t have our car seat expertly installed. Everything felt weighty, every decision was life-or-death. I felt like we were all in the midst of the greatest emergency of our lives, but nobody knew it… except for me.
I’ve always had anxiety, but having a baby drastically changed everything about how my anxiety works, and what it’s about. Understanding what postpartum anxiety is, and when and where to get help, is important, as we don't currently screen for anxiety in new parents.
Growing up in a working class family that didn’t think much of mental health matters, I was just called “a worrier.” I was the type of person who, for whatever reason, tended to over-think things and worry a lot. I also started clamming up in social situations at an early age. I would occasionally get so overwhelmed that I was unable to speak, and tears would just start streaming down my face for no reason.
My anxiety was always there, but it was the kind of thing that felt minor to me.
Later, I would learn that I was suffering from panic attacks. Knowing what they were gave me a better sense of control, and as I got older I started to learn what their triggers were, and how to cope once one started. Surviving with anxiety became second nature. My anxiety was always there, but it was the kind of thing that felt minor to me, so I learned work-arounds and generally did more or less fine.
Then I went and had a kid.
My labor and delivery were both filled with anxiety, the entire process culminating in a c-section that I only got through by completely dissociating. And then, suddenly, there I was, a brand-new parent with a brand-new baby. People suddenly expected me to be capable of caring for a tiny little newborn, and, like so many new parents before me, I was justifiably freaked out.
Suddenly, my anxiety had a whole new source of fuel. I had to figure out how to feed him (I chose to chestfeed) and make medical decisions for him, and of course install the dreaded car seat (they make those manuals hard to read on purpose). Before my kid was born, I was a generally anxious person, but my anxiety was generally of the “this feels like an emergency and I’m not sure why” variety. After the birth it was like a switch was flipped. It wasn’t just that I was more anxiety ridden than before, it was the emergency was more specific. Suddenly the thought racing through my mind was “what if the baby dies?”
Anywhere from four to 10 percent of new moms experience postpartum anxiety disorder.
The hormonal changes that birthing parents go through postpartum are no joke, and I did eventually seek treatment for postpartum depression. I refused to admit that my anxiety was out of hand, even though it was clear to everyone around me. Nothing illustrates that more than my family’s first trip to the pediatrician.
I wasn’t well enough to take the bus yet, so we took a Lyft, which meant wrestling with the damn car seat again. My partner was grabbing our diaper bag and trying to figure out which door to go in, and for a moment I was standing on the sidewalk, holding our brand-new baby, partially wrapped in one of those light muslin blankets. It was hot and I couldn’t decide how covered he should be, and there were parents with kids walking in and out of the building around me. Then, someone glanced in our direction. She was probably just a mom, a fellow traveler in the world of parenting, trying to get a peek at the cute baby. But my heart nearly stopped. All of a sudden, it felt crucial that nobody look at my baby, no matter what. Every person there was obviously a threat. I looked all around, for somewhere to run, some cover to duck under, but we were in the middle of a complex of hospital buildings in the city. There was nowhere to go.
“I felt like a mother deer,” I told my spouse later that day, “I knew it didn’t make sense, but I wanted to run for the trees, only there weren’t any trees.”
I’m far from the only parent to experience an uptick in anxiety after bringing a child into this world. Anywhere from four to 10 percent of new moms experience postpartum anxiety disorder, per a study in the Journal of Women's Health. Unfortunately, while postpartum depression gets talked about more than ever before, postpartum anxiety is often hidden, and many parents don’t realize that they have it at all.
I think that for me, the biggest and most lasting change isn’t about how anxious I am, it’s about the content of my anxiety. With time, the deer-in-the-headlights feelings did fade somewhat, and with parenting experience comes parenting confidence. I learned that I could, in fact, change a diaper. I learned that I could make parenting mistakes and, at least most of the time, neither the world nor my child broke in two.
But being a parent is still a weighty responsibility, and that still comes with a whole new list of worries to add to the anxiety arsenal. The things I worry about now — lead poisoning, sleep habits, nutrition, schooling, meltdowns, screen time — all freak me out because they’re about his life, not mine. For the time being, my partner and I have to make decisions on his behalf, and I live in utter terror of making the wrong ones. The trouble is that when my anxiety spirals out of control, it's now anchored firmly in reality. Some kids do die in car accidents, some kids do grow up to hate their parents for being weirdos, lead poisoning actually does exist.
Ultimately, my worries come from a place of wanting to do right by him, but the thing about being an anxious wreck is that it doesn’t actually make you better at making hard decisions.
Before I was a parent, my anxiety, even though it was sometimes irrational or overwhelming, seemed like something I could handle on my own. But with a child to take care of, suddenly my fears and worries seemed more real than ever before, and it was also crucial that I develop better coping skills so I could still show up for him.
Two years after having a child, I finally decided to seek out treatment for my anxiety symptoms. I can't overstate what a good decision that was. I had to face the truth, which was that having a child had changed me, just like everyone said it would, forever.
If you are experiencing postpartum anxiety, you can visit Postpartum International to find local support listings, or call 1-800-944-4773 to connect with a volunteer for non-emergencies. If you are experiencing suicidal thoughts, call 1-800-273-8255 to speak to someone at the National Suicide Prevention Hotline.