Dear New Moms,
I am not generally a fearful person. I worry maybe more than some, but way less than others. That all changed when I took my son home from the hospital. Well, let’s backtrack a little because now more than three years later my perspective has changed and I think it started earlier than that. When I was pregnant with my son I bled. Not a lot but as any woman who is pregnant will tell you, any blood is terrifying. I ended up in the ER twice, my son was born, is healthy and the bleeding was minor in retrospect, but I spent much of my pregnancy worried. Even now pregnant with number 2, who has given me no grief other than severe nausea in the first trimester, I still check to see if there is blood every. single, time. I wipe. And I pee a lot.
So the anxiety started then.
The day I gave birth it got worse. Much worse.
I am so in awe of women who enjoy childbirth, because I did not. I was afraid. Before I was admitted to labor and delivery I was sent to walk the halls. While my husband and I walked through the industrial hospital hallways on Thanksgiving day we walked past a woman talking on her cell phone. She was telling a family member that her granddaughter had been born but she was not alive. Typing this three-and-a-half years later still makes me tear up. I didn’t know her but I know the baby’s name was Madeline and I think of her often, she’d be exactly the same age as my son. But she didn’t live. The rest of the day I was scared, scared that my son would be born dead as well.
He wasn’t, but like so many other moms I didn’t feel that instant love. It’s weird to write that now because I love my son so deeply, so intensely that it’s strange to think back to loving him generically. I knew I loved him but I wasn’t connected, not at first. Luckily I can act well. I hugged. I kissed. I posed for pictures.
Then we had to get on the ferry to come home. See, we live across Puget Sound from Seattle where I delivered. I was terrified. All I could see was my newborn sinking into the dark, cold water and me diving in after him, over and over and over again unable to save him.
Ferry rhymes with scary.
When we got home everything was a blur. Nursing sucked at first, he took ages to latch then would fall asleep, and I’d look at him wondering when he’d really feel like my baby. I was lucky that I knew it would happen but still felt guilty it hadn’t yet. When my old employer called and said very bluntly, “Aren’t they like little aliens at first, all needy and not cute yet?” I teared up. This was a woman I admired, a professor, a loving mom, and I needed to hear that. I let go of that guilt. I had confidence that I would bond with him instead of just hope. I knew it was okay that I thought he looked a little like a skinned rat, a very, very demanding skinned rat.
Then the phone call came that threw me over the edge:
“Hey babe, the office wants to throw us a shower.” It was my husband. His office, as you may guess, is in Seattle. I would have to take a ferry.
Hot sweats. Cold sweats. Terror.
What if I drop my baby over the side of the boat? How will I save him? I can’t go.
That night I didn’t sleep. Not even between every 2-hour feeding. My son was three weeks old and I knew something wasn’t right. I am lucky. I never wanted to hurt him, I never felt anger towards him, but I was obsessed with finding ways to save him. We went for a walk the next day and I had an anxiety attack. As we were walking by a wooded area I was sure a bear was there waiting to attack. It was December. Even if we get bears in the summer, they were hibernating, not plotting some ambush on a baby and stroller!
The next day I called my OB. I knew I needed too. Even though my fear of the ferry and random violence from bears was real, I rationally knew that it wasn’t healthy. I scheduled it the same day as the shower at my husband’s office. I was on the verge of tears the whole appointment, feeling like asking for help was somehow admitting defeat. Then seeing my 3-week-old sleeping in his car seat I knew it wasn’t defeat. He needed a mom who could sleep at night, he needed a mom who could relax and bond with him. He was my reason for asking for help.
I responded almost immediately to the medication, between talking myself down and a little Zoloft I was able to feel like myself again. I was lucky that my postpartum anxiety was mild compared to many and i recognized it. I also bonded with my son. I am still anxious at times. I used to love turbulence on airplanes, now I pray through it. I still don’t like walking by the wooded areas by our house, but only in summer. I still don’t like going out on the deck on the ferry, and a cruise vacation is not in our future but I am not terrified anymore.
I never felt shame for my feelings but I did feel guilty. Guilty I didn’t love him the way I do now right away, guilty I worried I’d drop him into the water, guilty that I didn’t look like those moms in magazines — back to a size 3, hair coiffed and happily pushing their Bugaboo 2 days after delivery. Guilty I wasn’t perfect. But do you know what? Today as I was strapping my now three-and-a-half year old into his car seat he said to me “Mama, you are so perfect and cuddly.” I don’t need to be perfect for him to think I am. I just need to be his mom.
Allison McDonald is the mother of a 3-year-old son, and is awaiting her daughter’s arrival in June. Her blog No Time For Flash Cardsis a popular resource of fun and educational activities for kids and parents to enjoy together. She is a postpartum anxiety survivor. You can follow her on Twitter at @noflashcards.