I am pretty confident that I'm a good mom. My kids seem happy, well-adjusted, compassionate, and assertive. I was especially confident about my parenting skills when my first child was an infant. I realize I was somewhat unique in that regard: after all, first-time moms aren't supposed to feel confident, so much as they're supposed to feel frazzled and overwhelmed. But I didn't seem to have that problem. I responded to all of my child's cries before they even became cries, and I attended to each and every one of his needs. In the thick of those early days, I thought I was the world's best mom. But as it turns out, I was actually suffering from postpartum anxiety.
I remember the moment I realized that there might be an issue with my parental attentiveness. I was in an online parenting group, and one mom started a thread about the one thing we all feel good about as moms. "I never let my baby cry," I responded. Other moms chimed in, asking how this was possible. I felt sheepish. I admitted that yes, sometimes he cried in the car, but I hated it, because it was the only time of the day I couldn't hold him or nurse him to make him feel better. Someone else asked about when he woke up from a nap, since most babies are a little cranky when they wake up. But I realized he didn't cry, because he almost always slept in my arms, so once he stirred I could just nurse him until he was awake.
The group was kind and supportive, but I got the feeling that I was the only mom who always held her baby. I let my nap on me because he liked to fall asleep nursing. Plus, I was a stay-at-home mom to one kid, so I could just binge-watch TV shows while he slept. But really, I let him nap on me because that way, I always knew that he was breathing.
Eventually, I realized something: I never put my baby down, because putting my baby down made me incredibly anxious.
I was no stranger to anxiety. A few years before I had my first child, I developed a panic disorder, seemingly out of nowhere. The panic attacks I experienced were intense and surreal and awful. I started to be fearful about being in a situation where having a panic attack would be difficult, like if I was driving a car or stuck on public transportation. I was afraid of everything.
This was different, though. I wasn't afraid of everything. I was just afraid that my baby would die in his sleep. Wasn't every mother?
I was tormented by the thought of my baby being uncomfortable or sad or, worst of all, alone.
From the moment my baby was born, I entered a heightened state of vigilance. I couldn't sleep when he slept. I had to watch him. And if I woke with full breasts at night, I would panic that he hadn't woken me up to eat. It didn't matter that I just had a lot of milk and my breasts got full after only about an hour or two.
On top of than that, I found his crying completely intolerable. Not in the frazzled, oh my god, what is wrong with this kid? kind of way. I was tormented by the thought of him being uncomfortable or sad or, worst of all, alone. It sounds like hyperbole, but it truly did feel like torment. I couldn't fathom how any mother could stand to hear her child cry. How could any mom with a colicky baby not go crazy? And I'm using the term "crazy" literally: I thought that if my son had had colic, I probably would have had a real breakdown.
The stress of my baby crying really affected my relationship with my partner, because it didn't have nearly the same effect on him. My partner was OK with my son crying while he changed him into his pajamas. He didn't rock and console him when he was angry at being naked. Instead, he powered through so he could get him dressed again, even while my son complained and cried. In those moments, I thought my partner was kind of a monster. How could he continue to torture this kid who was so miserable? I didn't realize that I was the one who was miserable.
Loving my son didn't bring me joy. It brought me a feeling of overprotectiveness and hyper-vigilance and an almost suffocating feeling of responsibility.
Since having my first child, I have had two other kids. I'm so much more clear-headed now than I was in those early months. For one thing, I was diagnosed with postpartum anxiety and treated with antidepressants, the same ones I took when I developed panic disorder. The antidepressants kept me from obsessing. There were no more thoughts that my baby might be dead. The meds also kept me from becoming frantic at every whimper my children made. My mood never went from everything is fine to everything is terrible,I have to do something NOW!
I also knew that my second and third babies were more resilient than I thought my first baby was. I knew that they could be temporarily unhappy or uncomfortable and still know that I loved them. Their crying in no way meant that I was a terrible mom who didn't attend to their needs. Their crying meant that I am human and I have other things to take care of sometimes. It's inevitable that children will be uncomfortable sometimes. It doesn't necessarily spell doom for their health or their happiness.
To be honest, I still think I'm a great mom. And I think I was a great mom when my first son was born, too. I was just a deeply unhappy and anxious person. Loving my son didn't bring me joy. It brought me protectiveness and hyper-vigilance and an almost suffocating feeling of responsibility.
I look at my son now. He's almost 7. He's my most sensitive kid. When things bother him, they really bother him. He's a sweetheart, and his sensitivity serves him well. He's a loving older brother and friend. He's deeply empathetic. But I wonder if my anxiety in his first year made him less equipped to roll with the punches.
By contrast, my 4-year-old daughter is loving and sweet, but she is also really tough and unfazed by things. There's no way to know if the way I treated my son when he was born affected him for the rest of his life, and I try not to think about it often. I know that I was just doing the best that I could, and I'm glad I got help when I finally realized I needed it.
I wish I could write a letter to my former self. I wish I could urge that mama to get a little help and hand over the baby to my partner. I wish I could tell her that she is doing a great job and won't kill her child. I wish I could give her a hug, and show her how peacefully a baby can sleep on a bed or in a crib by themselves. Because that mama, that former me, was being ruled by postpartum anxiety, and it was exhausting.
If you struggle with postpartum anxiety, please seek professional help or call Postpartum Support International (PSI) at 1.800.944.4773.