How Becoming a Parent Forced Me to Deal with my Anxiety
by Katharine Strange
I spent the first several weeks of motherhood waiting for the inevitable knock on the door. Two of them would arrive, in uniform and with mirrored sunglasses (for some reason one of them was David Caruso from CSI: Miami). They would be from Child Protective Services, and they would take my baby away.
How this particular fear lodged itself in my brain is both mysterious and self-evident. I was sleeping perhaps two to three hours a night. My baby was always hungry; I couldn’t produce enough breast milk no matter what I tried. My darling son seemed chronically unhappy and I felt powerless to stop his crying.
This was not how I pictured motherhood: lonely, exhausted, experiencing physical pain from my c-section that made everything, from getting out of bed to sneezing, sharp and difficult.
Outside my window I could see flowers and sunshine, people walked to the beach, only a half mile away. But I couldn’t leave my chilly basement apartment without a herculean effort. Every two hours, I was breastfeeding fifteen minutes on each side and then pumping for another fifteen minutes on each side. By the time I was finished, the process began again, an endless, frustrating cycle.
In the middle of the night I’d turn to the internet for moral support. Internet strangers offered unhelpful advice that made me feel judged and not heard. Why couldn’t I just pump and breastfeed simultaneously? Why didn’t I just get up and bake oatmeal lactation cookies? Maybe I should drink beer—NO, NON-ALCOHOLIC BEER—no, alcoholic beer was fine—NO it wasn’t! While the internet strangers argued over their advice, I felt like a failure–I was exhausted, spending every minute thinking about my baby, but it still wasn’t enough.
I knew that things were not good. I had been diagnosed with depression and anxiety as a college freshman, eight years earlier. The diagnosis felt both true and unreal. I’d gone to the Student Counseling Center at the urging of a friend after we “joked” about suicidal ideation. I was sure that I didn’t need help; I could soldier through this bleak period as I had done in the past. Therapy meant facing my feelings—the very thing I’d been trying to avoid. I went, mostly because I didn’t see any other way.
I kept waiting for my therapist to pronounce me “cured”, taking each sign of progress for the end, when in fact, it was only the beginning. I didn’t want to be a person who needed therapy, medication, anything. Since college, I had gone through periods of taking antidepressants, but with all the international moving my husband and I had done for his career, I let my prescription lapse. I reasoned that I was better now; I reasoned that it wasn’t worth the trouble of figuring out new health insurance and finding yet another doctor in each new city.
As a child I was labeled as “sensitive” for bursting into tears at every bad grade or harsh remark, constantly afraid that I wasn’t good enough. These feelings intensified after I hit puberty, periods of exhausting, sleepless anxiety blossomed into depressive episodes.
To cope, I made long lists of rules for myself: avoid spending money, be fun and funny, maintain a high GPA, always have a boyfriend, always have plans for the weekend. If I could follow all these rules, that would surely mean I was good enough. When I inevitably failed it was like falling into a bottomless pit.
We moved from Frankfurt, Germany to Vancouver, Canada in September of 2011. Four days later I was thrilled to discover I was pregnant. I immediately booked an appointment with a local midwifery practice. I did not seek out a therapist. This new chapter was to be filled with excitement and hope. My mental health problems would be a thing of the past. After all, I was going to be a parent, responsible for another human being’s life; shouldn’t I have this figured out by now?
I can see now that I had prenatal anxiety and depression, but back then, I didn’t know what that was, let alone that I could seek treatment for it. My midwives and I didn’t discuss mental health. I was unemployed and lonely, far from my friends and family. While my husband was at work, I could’ve been out exploring my new city, or volunteering somewhere, instead I stared at daytime talk shows with glazed boredom.
I joined a prenatal fitness class desperate to make some friends in my new city, but it seemed that the other women withdrew from me. I don’t blame them: desperation is unattractive. I hated exercising and felt stung by rejection, but I kept going. As I performed the endless squats I thought, At least when my son is born, I won’t be lonely anymore.
Little did I know that modern motherhood would be the most isolating experience of my life. When I left the house, I was bombarded by intrusive questions and terrible “advice.” It seemed that I had failed on so many fronts: I couldn’t give birth “correctly,” I couldn’t breastfeed “correctly,” I wasn’t “enjoying every single moment” like countless strangers instructed me to. It felt safer to withdraw, hide in my apartment forever.
Isolation and exhaustion led to intrusive thoughts that someone—maybe even me—would hurt my son. I felt constantly on edge, I couldn’t let him out of my sight.
At three months postpartum, I finally made it out of the house and completed the two-block trek to my local mother-baby group. Once a week, twenty moms would chitchat, weigh their babies, ask questions, and hang out for a few hours, all facilitated by a cheerful and encouraging baby nurse named Maria. I was desperate to talk to someone and hopeful that I could find commiseration and empathy from other new moms.
The first week I attended, a guest speaker told us about her experience with postpartum depression. So much of what she said resonated with me. Afterward, she invited us to go around the circle and talk about our motherhood experience and our mental health.
Seated next to her, I went first. Buoyed by her honesty, I poured my heart out, nearly bursting into tears as I explained how hard it had been. It was an immense relief to think that just maybe I wasn’t alone in this, that maybe we were all struggling. When I finished, I turned to the woman next to me. She smiled and said that everything was great and she was so happy to be a mom. Every other woman in the circle echoed her sentiments.
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My worst fear had come true: I was the only one having a hard time. It wasn’t motherhood, it was me.
After the formal discussion time, the speaker gave me her card and invited me to her support group. I didn’t go. Some stubborn part of me was determined to soldier on, unable to ask for, or receive help.
Over the next few months, things got easier with my son. I switched to exclusively pumping and bottle feeding, which made us both a lot happier. When he was six months old, I stopped pumping and started exclusively formula feeding. The sky did not fall—in fact, my son did not seem to notice a difference.
With guidance from Maria, baby nurse/saint, my husband and I sleep-trained our son at six months. Once we were all sleeping through the night, my mental health improved significantly. Things that once felt impossible became doable again: I began socializing with some of the moms from the mother-baby group, I could walk to the beach, I felt more like myself. My intrusive thoughts about lurking CPS agents, or disturbing visions of my son being injured decreased.
But they didn’t go away.
The irony of being depressed is that the things that you know will help you often feel impossible. I needed to find a babysitter and a therapist. For months I knew that, but for months I couldn’t do it. When my son was nearly a year old, I began to feel like it might be possible to leave him with a babysitter. We’d finally settled into a good routine: morning nap, afternoon nap, he slept through the night. I had enough time to start to take care of myself again.
It was difficult leaving my son with a babysitter, even after I had interviewed her, performed a background check, and called her references. The whole time I was gone, I was envisioning her shaking him until he was brain damaged—the “shaken baby syndrome” our childbirth class had warned us about. (Spoiler alert: everything was fine.)
I found a therapist through an internet search, but she wasn’t a good fit—I felt like she might be more anxious than I was, frankly. But I went back to my computer and found another therapist, who immediately identified my postpartum depression and anxiety. The intrusive thoughts I was having about harm coming to my son were not a “mother’s instinct,” a premonition, or a sign that I was a monster—they were a quirk in my brain chemistry.
I wasn’t alone. Between ten and fifteen percent of women experience a postpartum mood disorder. During our weekly sessions, my therapist, a laid-back Californian transplant who favored long peasant skirts, just reminded me, again and again, that none of my fears had happened and they weren’t going to happen. I trusted her. The scary thoughts I had battled for so long alone became smaller and smaller, until one day I realized they were gone.
Once I had survived my son’s first year of life, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to have more children. My therapist reassured me that second children were generally easier. Talking about my decision with her and my husband, I realized that it was only fear holding me back from having a second kid, and that making decisions based on fear was not how I wanted to live my life.
During my second pregnancy, I was open about my mental health from the beginning. I came clean to my midwives about how much I had struggled during my first pregnancy, and they referred me to the local women’s hospital, which had a mental health unit specifically for pregnant and postpartum women. I started outpatient cognitive behavioral therapy at the facility. There, I developed new tools for dealing with anxiety.
Everything was easier the second time around. My husband and I stocked up on formula and didn’t stress about breastfeeding. We knew that our son’s cries were just his way of communicating and not something to freak out about. Our family of four settled into a comfortable routine.
I had occasional intrusive thoughts. Once I became preoccupied that a knife would fall off the counter and cut my baby. I told my therapist about it, and she suggested moving the knives elsewhere in the kitchen. It struck me as odd that I’d never thought about doing that, but my anxiety convinced me that I couldn’t be trusted near the knives. I picked up the knives and moved them. Nothing bad happened. In therapy, I began to understand that I was separate from my thoughts, that I could let them pass by without becoming paralyzed.
Becoming a parent has a way of bringing up long-buried feelings. Issues that I’d once considered “resolved” have popped back up at surprising times. In the intervening years, I have received a diagnosis of generalized anxiety disorder. I see a therapist one-on-one once a month and take part in weekly group therapy. I have tried a few different medications, and while they all helped to some degree, they also messed with my sex drive. (As if having small children doesn’t do that enough.) I’m not currently taking any medication, but I’m open to trying again in the future. I see a psychiatrist every few months to check in and talk about options.
Occasionally I feel guilty for taking time away from my kids to tend my mental health, but I know that my kids want me to be healthy and happy. I am so grateful that I have access to a therapist, a psychiatrist, a formal support group, and a network of friends and family. I have made leaps and bounds in my recovery and as a result, I’ve become a more relaxed and happier parent.
My kids are now seven and four. They are happy, thriving, wild little boys. I’m amazed at how far we’ve come since those bleak newborn days. I wish I could visit my old self and give her a big hug. I settle for bringing hot meals to friends who have recently had babies. I ask them how they are doing, and when they nonchalantly say “fine,” I squeeze their hand and ask, “How are you doing, really?”