I still shudder, sometimes, when I see a pregnant woman. Her belly reminds me of what I have been through, of the all-consuming anxiety I have felt, and the strange disconnect I still sometimes feel between my mind and body. This is a story about what it’s like to go through pregnancy, birth, and the early days of parenting as a person with anxiety, ADD and depression. This is a story about how, even though I had the unconditional support of a loving partner, wonderful parents, and attentive doctors, I still experienced PTSD and postpartum depression after the birth of my son.
I have learned that it doesn’t matter how well-prepared you think you are, or how many resources you have the privilege to access. Not even having a completely healthy child can make you immune to trauma that can result in PTSD, but there is a way out of it.
It wasn’t exactly a high-risk pregnancy, but there were lots of things that made my doctor cautious. I was of “advanced maternal age,” I had developed both thyroid problems and gestational diabetes. I’d also suffered a miscarriage earlier in the year. So, sure, there were things to worry about, but nothing out of the ordinary.
I was also in treatment for anxiety, depression and ADD, as I had been for most of my life. When my husband and I decided we wanted to become parents, I had arduously weaned myself off the medications I had relied on for so many years. It had taken a year, along with acupuncture, meditation, psychoanalysis, as well as the unwavering support of my friends and family. I told myself it would be worth it.
I was terrified of giving birth. I told my therapist how scared I was of actually having the baby — of pushing something the “size of a watermelon out of a hole the size of a lemon.” She told me my fears were perfectly natural. Still, I was terrified by my anxious imagination of labor: Waking up in the middle of the night, unable to control my body as it pushed a small creature out of my vagina.
Which was why, when my doctor said he wanted to schedule me for a Caesarean before the baby got too big, I was relieved. Hugely, massively, relieved. The idea that I would have some semblance of control over what I imagined would otherwise be an unpredictable experience was comforting, at least slightly. Baby’s delivery was scheduled for March 19.
The days leading up to my baby’s birth were much like the others in my late pregnancy. My husband was frantically cleaning our house (“nesting”) and I was incredibly, increasingly uncomfortable. My diary from those days is filled with emotion and confusion about the prospect of actually, finally, really becoming a mother.
On Friday, 10 days out from my due date,I went to bed with my lower back in spasm. I’d been through all sorts of discomfort, but this was like nothing I’d experienced before, so I called my OB-GYN. His on-call doctor went through the checklist of labor symptoms, and said it sounded like “intestinal issues” and advised me to take a stool softener.
Saturday, I felt fine again. On Sunday, we did our taxes. My husband and I listened to musicals — we started with Les Miserables, then ambled our way through Cats, West Side Story, Rent and Hamilton — as we sorted through the paperwork and dug up electronic records. We hit “Submit.” We talked about what to order for dinner. I told him to hold that thought and went to the bathroom. And then I saw two small brown spots in my underwear.
I was immediately on the phone with the on-call doctor.
“Have you felt the baby move in the past hour?” she asked
Had he moved? Had he kicked? What was going on?
“What? I mean, we were doing our taxes, I wasn’t paying attention… I don’t know!” I gasped.
She told me to come in to the hospital, just to be safe. It was eight days before the scheduled section, but I somehow didn’t think it was reasonable for the baby to make an appearance now, of his own volition.
I was naked, except for a paper hairnet, perched on the side of gurney in a freezing cold operating room.
When I got to the hospital, A (painful) pelvic exam determined that my water had broken, but my cervix was not dilated.
The doctor told me that the spotting was caused by a lesion on my cervix. She asked if we had sex recently. When I said no, she asked if my husband or I had herpes.
I was stunned. What was she saying? “No,“ I told her: We had both been tested for STDs early in the pregnancy and the results had been negative. What were they accusing me of? Wouldn’t I have said something if that were the case?
Next thing I knew, I was being prepped for an emergency c-section. Our parents showed up (when had we called them?). I was naked, except for a paper hairnet, perched on the side of gurney in a freezing cold operating room.
“Hunch forward,” the anesthesiologist told me, handing me a pillow to clutch to my abdomen. “Focus on me, sweetie,” a kind-faced nurse said as she stood in front of me and rubbed my bare arms. I squeezed my eyes shut as they swabbed my back and put in the epidural.
I was laid out on an operating table as more nurses filtered in. The music was smooth jazz and absolutely terrible. I tried to stay buoyant, and cheerfully asked them to change it; the anesthesiologist couldn’t get another station. A barrier was placed to shield me from the surgery site; I see my iodine-smeared belly glowing, dark red, in the reflection of the surgical lamp above me. I stuttered something about not wanting to be able to see.
They were talking as they cut, tugged, and extracted the baby from my body. We heard him scream for the first time. And then, briefly, in a awe-filled moment, they handed my husband our baby.
Then, just as quickly, they took him away. To be in isolation in the neonatal ICU — “the nursery,” as it was called — for his own good, they said, until they had our herpes test results.
After the surgery, I was wheeled in to see the baby in the NICU. They asked for permission to give him formula. As I stared at his little scrunched-up face, I couldn’t understand why they would have to ask such a thing — he had to eat, didn’t he? Some time around 3 a.m., I was wheeled in to our hospital suite. My husband promptly collapsed on his sofa bed. Unable to sleep, terrified out of my mind, I opened the Notes app in my phone and began to write:
I had a c-section last night. Henry Joseph is here!
I am so overwhelmed.
The next four days and nights blurred together. Because of the possibility of herpes, they had Henry in isolation. Every three hours, we would go down to the NICU to look at our baby. I’d hoist myself out of bed, groaning around my fresh incision and into a wheelchair. Once in the nursery, we rolled down a long, darkly-lit hallway filed with the sound of beeping monitors. Our baby was in the room at the very end, away from the other sick babies. His on-call nurse would greet us and assist us into multiple layers of plastic protective wear. Hairnets and gloves, masks and booties. Every time I went through this process, I felt horrible — guilty and scared. What had I done to my child, what had I exposed him to, what did this mean for his future?
Each visit, the nurse helped position the baby up against my breast (pushing aside the layers of plastic). Each visit, we were unable to establish a latch, and I felt like I was failing my child yet again.
“That’s OK!” his nurse would quietly and cheerfully say. “We have plenty of formula!”
On the third day of his life, still in the hospital, I opened up the Notes app and wrote:
I am out of my mind with fear.
Yesterday was a very strange, foggy day. They won’t know for a while if he has the herpes virus, but they’re taking extreme caution and treating him already as if he does.
My husband is absolutely totally smitten. He doesn’t want to leave the baby’s side. So it’s really all the more of a bummer that he’s in the NICU & that we have to wear layers to spend time with him.
I’m not quite yet as much in love. Or maybe I already am because he’s been inside me for so long? In any case, being truly alone for short periods of time — for the first time in 10 months — is a novel experience.
The next night, I wrote:
WE GET TO GO HOME TOMORROW.
I am excited and terrified.
We both have a clean bill of health.
For the first time since we got here I feel like we just *might* be OK.
I expected that giving birth would be the hard part of this experience. And it was a VERY hard part. What I didn’t expect was that the fear and uncertainty I’d felt during pregnancy wouldn’t end after we came home from the hospital.
My child was extremely cute and perfectly healthy. My family and friends were loving and supportive. But I could not connect with him. What was this mewling lump that had been removed from my body? He was both the most beautiful and he most horrifying thing that I had ever laid eyes on.
But I could take care of him, right? Change his little diaper, tend to that angry purple circumcision wound on his little penis, mix his formula... but what if I put in too much water? What if I forgot the diaper cream? What if I clipped his nails too short and he bled? What if I picked up this ceramic coaster and dropped it on his beautiful little head?
Why couldn’t I stop thinking about the endless ways I could harm him? Why couldn’t I love him as effortlessly as my husband could?
I honestly thought this was what all mothers felt after the birth of a child.
Other mothers, friends from college, former coworkers, constantly reached out. I even joined a support group for new mothers. There was no lack of love and the support was there. But still , I couldn’t grab their outstretched hands. I felt mired in my trauma, confusion and fear seeping from me as sure as my incision sweetly healed. I knew postpartum depression and anxiety were real, but it seemed impossible to explain what it was I felt. How could I NOT love my baby? Sure, this was supposed to be hard — but how hard?
I felt like I was in a constant state of free-fall, unable to hold on to anything that was happening in my life. Taking the baby to my parents house felt like a massive physical undertaking; never mind that they were only a few miles down the road, how would I safely get us from inside the apartment into the car?
It wasn’t until I told my therapist that every nerve ending was aching that she put me on the first of several new medications. I started seeing a second therapist for regular talk therapy this past fall. I wish I had gone sooner. The reason I didn’t was quite simple: I honestly thought this was what all mothers felt after the birth of a child.
But slowly, I started feeling better. There wasn’t a switch that was flipped or a morning when I woke up and felt differently, but slowly, I no longer recoiled at the thought of spending time alone with my child. I was less and less convinced I would somehow end up hurting him, intentionally or not, on the walk down the hall from the living room to the nursery. It made sense that I was responsible for this helpless creature, because he was mine. Quite simply, the deep-flowing sense of terror, which was keeping me from doing simple things like walk across our generally quiet street with the baby safely ensconced in his stroller, slowly faded.
It’s now been ten months. Ten of the hardest, strangest, and most demanding months of my life. And it’s finally getting better — I truly love my son, I’m not terrified of a Hollywood-Style car crash with epic explosions when I step off the curb, and I enjoy my time with him. I have learned that love doesn’t have to be effortless to be real. I have learned what it means to be myself AND a mom to this little boy.
But I still can’t look at a pregnant woman without shuddering.
If you or someone you know is experiencing antenatal or postpartum depression or anxiety, contact the Postpartum Health Alliance warmline at (888) 724-7240, or Postpartum Support International at (800) 944-4773. If you are thinking of harming yourself or your baby, get help right away by calling the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, or dialing 911. For more resources, you can visit Postpartum Support International.