There are certain things I expected to feel after I had a baby. I wasn’t surprised, for instance, that I felt overwhelmed by my new responsibilities, or that I cried over how difficult it was to learn to breastfeed. After all, new moms are a bundle of postpartum hormones, and it made sense that I'd get tearful every time my baby hit a new milestone.
I didn’t, however, expect to feel like a ton of bricks were piled on my chest every morning when my husband left for work, or every afternoon when my toddlers got up from their naps. I also didn't expect to feel an all-consuming sense of panic when I asked myself questions like, "How will I get everyone in clean clothes?" or "How I will get dinner on the table?" Eventually, I realized that these feelings weren't totally normal, because I most likely have postpartum anxiety (PPA).
It isn't uncommon for new moms to experience some level of anxiety after given birth. One mom told me after her baby was born, she dragged the bassinet into her room as close to her bed as possible and fell asleep with her hand resting on the baby’s chest, just so she could feel him breathe. Another mom of three still peeks in on her children, even though they are now school-aged, just to watch their chests rise and fall one last time before she turns in for the night.
When your fears get in the way of completing your day-to-day tasks, that's a pretty clear sign your anxiety goes beyond what is normal or expected for new moms.
PPA, however, is a completely different beast. (It's also fairly common: 17% of women exhibit symptoms of PPA, according to one 2013 Pediatrics study.) It may be normal to feel anxious or overwhelmed after adding a new baby to the family, but it isn’t OK to feel as if you are drowning 100% of the time, nor is it standard to feel paralyzed by worries over your child's safety. When your fears get in the way of completing your day-to-day tasks, that's a pretty clear sign your anxiety goes beyond what is normal or expected for new moms. You might have postpartum anxiety.
"All moms have some level of hyper-vigilance after their child is born, checking on them, making sure they are okay," explained Katayune Kaeni, Psy.D., a maternal mental health specialist based in California. "We start to be concerned when the mother feels that those worries are out of her control, she cannot be relieved by simple reassurance or she finds herself not being able to sleep or do other activities due to her worry. Most concerning is when the mom cannot sleep due to racing thoughts, or cannot rest when she has the opportunity. Lack of sleep is one of the number one reasons moms feel worse and worse."
To be clear, I have not been diagnosed with PPA by my health care provider, although I was diagnosed with postpartum depression and prenatal depression and anxiety during my previous pregnancies. I already take medication for PPD, but I am starting to suspect it is not enough to treat my anxiety. When I think about going to my doctor and asking for another prescription, or having to stop taking what has already worked so well for my depression, I feel frustrated and discouraged.
Sometimes, I feel an overwhelming, gnawing sense of restlessness, like I need to go outside or do something or fix something, but I can't exactly put my finger on what needed to get done, or where I should go, or what I should fix.
I started experiencing anxiety shortly after my youngest child was born. At first, I ignored it. I've always struggled with anxiety to some degree, even before I had kids, but I had always been able to distract myself or use coping skills like going outside or talking with a friend to work through my worries. This time around, however, things are different. I have never been so anxious I couldn't complete certain tasks. I've never felt so overwhelmed by caring for my kids alone that I couldn't sleep on Sunday nights, knowing my husband is headed back to work in the morning. Until now. Now, my postpartum anxiety is starting to get in the way of my life.
Sometimes, I feel an overwhelming, gnawing sense of restlessness, like I need to go outside or do something or fix something, but I can't exactly put my finger on what needed to get done, or where I should go, or what I should fix. I feel myself practically spinning around my house, starting tasks but leaving them undone, too overwhelmed to focus on anything for any amount of time. I burn dinner and pay bills late, simply because I'm too anxious to make the phone call to pay them. My postpartum anxiety is all of the small things that keep me from feeling OK.
My mind races at a million miles a minute. Sometimes, I repeat mantras silently, reminding myself that my children are safe and I am doing OK as a mom.
Other days, I feel panicked instead of restless. Maybe I barely slept the night before, or one of my kids is having a particularly hard day. Sometimes, I stand in the middle of my kitchen, while my big kids ask questions or play around me, and I bounce my newborn in my arms, wondering how I will ever find the focus to do the next thing.
At its worst, my anxiety keeps me up at night. I lie in bed but feel like I could fly away. My mind races at a million miles a minute. Sometimes, I repeat mantras silently, reminding myself that my children are safe and I am doing OK as a mom.
It’s tempting to try to ignore these feelings, to minimize them when my husband or friends ask how I am feeling. But whenever I'm honest with my friends and loved ones about the anxiety I'm experiencing, they consistently step up to the plate and offer to help me out. My husband picks up the slack and helps me with household chores, while my friends keep me company when I am feeling overwhelmed.
I’m trying to be more proactive, to ask for the help I need, to say no when I feel like I have more than I can handle on my plate. Honestly, being a mom of three and working full-time is almost always more than I can handle. Most of the time, I’m just hanging in there, one day at a time.
If you think you struggle with postpartum anxiety or depression, contact your health care provider or call Postpartum Support International at 1.800.944.4773.