What The Post Partum Hormone Cocktail Taught Me About Anxiety
Carrying the weight of the world in a diaper bag
The first time I googled “post partum anxiety,” the results condescendingly corrected me, “Oh you meant post partum depression!” No, Google, but thanks for implying I imagined a rare condition. Years later more resources have surfaced, but that chapter wasn’t ready when I first needed to read it.
My mind had been racing in an effort to manage non-stop crises, trying to keep up. Because if you stop running on a treadmill while the pace is still set on high, won’t you end up catastrophically tumbling off?
During both of my children’s deliveries, I despised the command to hold my breath for 10 second intervals of pushing. I could barely hold my breath past 4 seconds, a shocking failure for someone who had lung capacity to run for miles. The nurse barked, “keep holding it!” I wanted to hyperventilate.
I had taken every birth class and even had medical experience. But no training could prepare me for motherhood. My firstborn child unexpectedly went to the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU). He was not premature and had no major conditions to forewarn us. Yet only 60 seconds into his life, I knew he would be taken from me within the hour. His every symptom proved that he would not overcome the flood of his lungs.
It took only 60 seconds into fulfilling my dream of motherhood that I lost myself. My husband glanced at me with tearful joy, and in return all he found in my eyes was distress. “What’s wrong?” He mouthed discreetly. “He isn’t okay,” I replied with aching disappointment, anticipating our separation. If only I could have erased my medical experience and held my half-blue, gurgling baby in ignorant bliss. Like all the other moms.
I was robbed of the birthday celebration. The Fun Jump deflated when I had just barely climbed inside. I began vanishing from the room, spinning away deep into my mind as I began to grieve the loss of my ideal birth experience. No resumé could change this situation.
When our baby left my arms to start his life, I submerged in sorrow despite knowing he would survive. This wasn’t fatal, it was a rough introduction. But a broken heart will argue with reasoning. The words “it could be worse” were thrown like scraps of cold food onto my plate, and I had no appetite. Why do we compare human suffering, suggesting that only the worst of the worst can qualify for empathy? A simple validation of sadness can sometimes ease it.
The post partum room was void of smiles or family members meeting our baby. Instead it was lonely and dark, filled with longing. I insisted to shuffle my crime scene of a body straight to the NICU. “Sit in this wheelchair for the ride.” No, I will walk to my stranded child! Because only the strongest of women trek down hospital halls wearing adult diapers and disposable mesh net panties.
Oxygen tubes embraced his tiny face. Shock set in and stole my ability to recognize my baby. Reality can be hard to identify when you planned life differently. My mind was disconnecting, a sneaky defense tactic because reality hurt too much to accept. In utero my baby had been an extension of my body, but now as separate beings I lost all control. I could not help him.
These were the moments that anxiety set up shop in the vacancies of my mind. I was fighting to recognize my baby and myself, both to emerge as new humans over time.
What I was least prepared for was the tidal wave of intense guilt. A mother’s guilt is driven by the instinctual desire to be a perfect caregiver, yet when rendered imperfect daily, we are unable to measure up to those expectations. Have we done enough? Did we make the right choice? Something I did wrong made my baby have wet lungs! The guilt of motherhood was forming a strong bond with anxiety, making a pact behind my back to occupy my mind.
Not once was I warned that as a parent, watching your child struggle can inflict an inhumane type of pain. Yet with life’s buffet of sickness, injuries, failures, and mistakes, it is inevitable to avoid. I did not brace for impact.
When I was discharged from the hospital, forced to leave my newborn behind in NICU, I wept from my soul like it was a death. Being mandated to leave him was an injustice to my core. I could barely stop weeping even when we brought him home. I was grateful for his survival, but part of me did not survive that week. My identity as a mother had already been fragmented, and I promised my son that I would somehow never let him down again.
Attempts to earn my infant’s trust started to shake my sanity. I couldn’t bear for him to not see me nearby when his eyes were open. Can a newborn feel abandoned within seconds? I raced for bathroom breaks, returning with dramatic apologies. When brief separations caused too much angst, I balanced my newborn with one arm while accomplishing all tasks with the other. If he cried in the car, I frantically pulled over, checking every inch of his body.
His cries were a siren, alerting me that I was failing. Every moment felt alarming, and anyone who told me to “just calm down” were speaking on mute. I thought my behavior reflected attempts to meet his needs, not a display of red flags.
I wasn’t out of my mind. I was in my mind, running a circular, long distance race. Trapped in laps of worry.
Within weeks of having my baby home from NICU, I found him breathing rapidly at midnight. His skin felt as hot as fire, igniting my emotion. I dialed the pediatrician, hoping to fix a 6 week old with high fever and rapid breaths with a simple phone call. I bargained, but the recommendation wouldn’t bend. At 1 AM, I brushed the pieces of my shattered heart into our diaper bag and drove us to the hospital.
His first stop was a ride in the Pigg-O-Stat x-ray machine, which could easily sub as a medieval torture device. Imagine dangling a baby into a blender as the plastic canister presses into their torso. As I backed away, I panicked that the contraption would crush him or he would plummet through the saddle. He cried and I pleaded, “Is it over? Can I get him out?” Trying to not belligerently steal him out the back door. “Ma’am, wait, not yet.” I was relieved when I could save him, until I was told his next test was a spinal tap.
After that hospitalization, chronic sickness sabotaged his first year of life. Surgeries and medications brought no resolve. I felt certain the worry consuming me was proportionate to the chaos dealt to our family. When each day presented a new issue, I could not identify my extreme anxiousness. It felt par for the course.
One day I brought our baby for a head x-ray, begging God, the Universe, and even Oprah that this machine would not be another Pigg-O-Stat. That one prayer was answered. “Just hold him in position. You’re not pregnant, right?”
My cycles were irregular, but nothing in my life was regular. Distraught, sleepless mothers surely cannot ovulate. “No, I’m not pregnant.” I held my baby calmly for the x-ray, hoping we were turning the corner to stability. But I was clueless, and what I knew least of all was that I happened to be pregnant.
When crying for mayonnaise was not a clear enough sign, I took a test to prove my womb was empty. With my baby crawling close by, I casually peed on the stick, rolling the dice in life again. Pregnant. No, I am reading it wrong. Is it possible that the word “pregnant” in capital letters can be a typo? Do these sticks have autocorrect? I stared at my sick baby. My husband swung the door open, and I hid the positive test as fast as a teen stashing liquor from their parents. A classic “hide it behind your back” trick. I could not tell him this news with a tone of despair. I needed to find strength to pretend to be calm.
During my second childbirth, my uterus treated our baby more like a cannonball than a fetus. Two rounds of pushing, and out you go! I scanned him a hundred times in the first minute to see if he would be shipped to NICU like his brother. No, he was fine. But was he? His stability gave me plenty of reasons to calm down, but I didn’t. I never calmed down. This time will be different. A healthy baby will bring no anxiety. Wrong.
My motherly love was a force to be reckoned with, but my strongest leg work was in squats of repetitive worry. And the warm-up was paranoia. I was certain that anyone who held my newborn would drop him, cracking his skull on the floor. I was certain that if I turned my back, my toddler would smother the baby. I was certain that if I brought my babies outside, a vehicle would plow them down. I was certain that if they slept all night, one of them was dead. I was certain that every cold was the start of pneumonia. Life within my mind was consistently extreme.
I suffered from horror stories that did not happen. They cried, they had snot, they fell, they had sleepless nights, they had fevers, and diarrhea blowouts that spray painted the nursery curtains.
But they never suffered the extremes that they suffered when we were trapped inside of my mind. My brain was stuck, squeezed in the Pigg-O-Stat. This was Post Partum Anxiety.
I juggled a newborn and a one year old, holding it together while my mind became a martyr. When I messaged a friend a rant of my worries she responded, “You are having post partum anxiety.” No, I am an educated, loving mother. I am not mentally coming unglued! But after another hour of ruminating, I admitted she was right.
Spelling it out was the first time I wrote SOS in the sand. I was worried beyond reason.
Post partum hormones and parenthood had mixed with chronic anxiety, combusting like Mentos dropped into a liter of Coke. With haste I searched for a therapist. I snuck out to see her because I didn’t want anyone to think I was mentally losing every marble there ever was. But my marbles were rolling in every direction.
I felt eager for her guidance and leaned in as she said, “Meditate every day.” My heart sunk and my inner eyes rolled. Quiet my mind? How could I listen to silence, inevitably interrupted by crying babies? I was upset to be asked to meditate. I wanted to earn my peace of mind by doing something I could excel at. It seemed impossible, like asking a football player to do advanced ballet in pointe shoes. If she had asked me to list everything that can and will go wrong, I would have exceeded expectations with an award-winning Power Point presentation.
“Did you meditate daily since our last visit?” I am pretty sure it is a cardinal sin to lie to your therapist, a sin I used to commit many years prior. “Not daily, but I tried. Some. Sometimes.” She shook her head at my attempt to give the right answer.
“What happens when you give an antibiotic to someone who has an infection, telling them to take it daily but they don’t?” I smirked, half humiliated as I responded, “They won’t get better.”
“Right. Your mind will not get better unless you treat it daily.” I heard her message, and my ambitious nature prompted me to try. I practiced meditation, sitting in hard silence and stretching my loud mind.
We took a trip to my past, digging up the bones of my original anxieties that preceded childbirth. While I interviewed my dysfunction, I began to reach out to build my “village” so I would not suffer alone as a mother ostracized by anxiety. Surprisingly, many mothers felt the same as me. The statistics for post partum anxiety must be grossly underestimated because many women are not rushing to report these feelings. They are too busy feeding babies and wiping diarrhea off of car seats.
With a deficit of time and an ample supply of shame, we cannot let anyone see a crack in our foundation. So we carry the burden, without rest.
I decided to start running again for my mental sanity. Because it was as important as racing for diaper wipes when there’s a diaper blowout. I wrote more extensively on running for anxiety here:
The demands of motherhood can inhibit opportunities to seek help. When support and coping is limited, post partum anxiety can fester.
I had lived with anxiety for years, but I never labeled it until this moment. When the potent cocktail of post partum hormones combusted with chronic angst, the mental anguish was easier to identify as anxiety.
“Happily ever after” transformed into a thriller film in which survival felt tough to maintain. Ancient mental habits were triggered, and it became clear I needed to start with changing the story in my mind.
By creating a more peaceful, beautiful life in my thoughts, only then could I give the world to my children.
I don’t want to be stuck in a mental thriller film. So instead of fearing to reveal the struggle, the escape route began with seeking support, connecting with others, reaching out for therapy, going for a run (moving the body), and meditating.
We must pursue all methods that nurture a healthy mind. Find a mental health niche and go full speed. Pro tip: my favorite remedy is dancing with my children. Because those people know how to party.
Whether it be the post partum edition of anxiety or a classic version of anxiety, let this be a reminder that the best defense is a good offense. We must proactively work to cope, because even something as small as a 6 pound newborn can inflate anxiety until it seems larger than life.