The Secret Companion of Pregnancy After Loss: Postpartum Anxiety

The Secret Companion of Pregnancy After Loss: Postpartum Anxiety

Birth trauma, you could call it that. My first daughter was stillborn at full-term in December of 2012. I went into labor and delivery that night expecting to soon meet my little girl only to be told by the doctor while sitting in front of a still and silent ultrasound that there was, “No heartbeat.”

Crushed, heartbroken, devastated, and numb, I fought for my life when I delivered her, because the infection that killed her, it could have taken my life too. I think it’s safe to say that birth trauma is what happened during the silent entrance of my daughter’s body into the world.

Seven months later I was pregnant again, terrified beyond what doctors and therapists would think was just normal grief. As my belly grew with my daughter inside, both of us getting closer and closer to her due date, I would panic almost daily. At night I would wake in up in sweats as nightmares of not being able to feel her move would haunt me. Then I would spend an hour at three in the morning making sure she would move, making sure she was alive, because there were days when my anxiety convinced me that she had died too. I would mentally prepare myself to go to yet another ultrasound appointment and once again hear those dreaded words, “I’m sorry. There is no heartbeat.”

While pregnant after the death of my first daughter, it was almost impossible to get through my job everyday. I was always worried that she might have stopped moving or that she died while I was engrossed in a work task. The fear engulfed me. I frequently needed to step out of meetings to splash water on my face and poke at my baby to count her kicks and make sure she was still there, still moving, still alive. I also took extra ‘sick’ days just to manage my anxiety, to try to relax at home and take it easy, which proved challenging.

Then on the days I would make it through work, I would come home in the evening and break into tears of fear as I lay sobbing on my bed. My husband held me as I cried, crying with me, and I would scream between my wails, “I can’t do this! I can’t do this anymore!”

Being pregnant again after a loss is like living inside your trauma, which, unfortunately, is your own body that you cannot escape from for nine months. It’s torture, trying not to let your fears and anxiety control you. However, now you know; you know all that can go wrong. You know you are not guaranteed this baby, just like you weren’t guaranteed the one who died

Some might think that once the baby arrives safe and healthy relief would settle in, and the anxiety and worry would disappear. However, this did not happen for me. The anxiety increased daily a few months after my living baby was born.

In the hospital, two days after she was born, I had a mental break down. I was obsessed with my health, afraid that if I breastfed her, I would somehow give her a new infection, and that my body would cause her to die too. Irrational fears like this one flooded me, and only proceeded to get worse when we went home. Yes, I was relieved and happy that my daughter was here, that I finally got to bring home a baby after 18 months of being pregnant. But the irrational thoughts kept creeping in. I would stay up late at night, unable to fall asleep because I was convinced the world was going to end due to the eruption of the super volcano in Yellowstone. I would seek reassurance from all my family members around this issue, and most of them looked at me like I was crazy.

In the days and weeks after my irrational thoughts had taken over, I visited the doctor and talked to my therapist about my postpartum anxiety. I learned that I was at a higher risk for postpartum mood and anxiety disorders because of the birth trauma from my first daughter’s stillbirth.

Slowly, over time with the help of my doctor and therapist, I learned that breastfeeding my baby would not kill her, as I thought it would. When done with breastfeeding, we discussed medication to address the anxiety, which ultimately was the right choice of treatment for me, along with continuing talk therapy that utilized dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT) and cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) techniques.

My daughter is now 11 months old. Each day that passes, I seem to have less and less anxiety. I’m still going to therapy, and I’m still taking medications, and thanks to these treatments I get to enjoy more moments with my daughter and use this second chance at motherhood as a time to heal. Even if anxiety continues to be my companion I now know how to keep her at bay.


Lindsey Henke is the founder and editor of Pregnancy After Loss Support, writer, clinical social worker, wife, and most importantly a mother to two beautiful daughters. Tragically, her oldest daughter, Nora was stillborn after a healthy full-term pregnancy in December of 2012. Since then, she has turned to writing on her blog, Stillborn and Still Breathing, to soothe her sorrow and has found healing in giving voice to her grief. Lindsey is also a monthly contributor to Still Standing Magazine and was featured as Pregnancy and Newborn Magazine’s Knocked Up Blogger during her pregnancy with her second daughter, Zoe who was born healthy and alive in March of 2014.

Knowing What Triggers You and When to Change the Channel

[Author’s Note: A quick note before reading: This post is about how I learned the hard way what triggered me after my traumatic c-section. Please do not read this if you think you may be triggered. -Jamie] 

Knowing What Triggers You and When to Change the Channel

While I was on my maternity leave, I became obsessed with watching TLC’s A Baby Story. It was always on! In case you haven’t seen it, although I’d bet money you have, in a nutshell the show tells one family’s birth story, from pregnancy to the early postpartum period, focusing on the birth itself.

My birth story wasn’t exactly A Baby Story material. After a very easy pregnancy, I went into labor feeling pretty confident, although very tired from not sleeping well because of days of nonstop contractions. When the time came to head to the hospital, I was less nervous than I thought I would be.

I’ll spare you the detailed birth story. and I’ll summarize: My son, Jackson, was born via Cesaerean section after about 13 hours of active labor and 2 hours of pushing. The staff, in whispers near my feet, decided on the C-section for me, mentioning failure to progress.

The c-section was traumatic for me because it was the opposite of what I’d expected, based on things I’ve been told, in passing, from family and friends who’ve had them. Nor did I expect one at all, not realizing that my state’s c-section rate hovered around 30%!

I hadn’t paid much attention during childbirth class when the instructor briefly discussed them. So during the surgery, I lay on the operating table completely paralyzed from my fear, convinced I would die before my son was born. I couldn’t speak, or I’d have conveyed to someone—anyone—that I needed help calming down. I still can’t figure out how none of the many health care workers in that room were able to see that I was having the worst panic attack of my entire life right before them.

The c-section recovery, too, was brutal, and I had a lot of setbacks during my healing. Also after the birth came months of sleepless nights and inconsolable crying—for me and Jax both!

None of this sounds like A Baby Story, right? If my story were to be featured on A Baby Story, it would scare all the moms-to-be.

Becoming obsessed with that show was without a doubt the WORST thing I could have done in those early postpartum days when I didn’t understand how the c-section had affected me and how the sleeplessness and purple crying were leading into postpartum depression and postpartum anxiety.

When an episode featured a mother undergoing a c-section, I bawled my eyes out in empathy with the woman. When an episode portrayed a woman seemingly unbothered by her c-section or who had an easy recovery, I was jealous and angry all over again about my own experience. If an episode featured a peaceful, non-c-section birth, I felt robbed and cried my eyes out over having missed out on the type of birth I’d expected and for which I’d prepared. No matter what the episode featured, I always seemed to end up a sobbing mess.

Yet I continued to watch and cry and watch and cry. PTSD much?

It’s been many years and a whole lot of healing since my postpartum experience, and I think I can probably watch A Baby Story now without feeling all the emotions. But it took me many months of dealing with my traumatic experience via therapy (and EMDR), reading books about c-sections, and talking about my PPD/PPA with anyone who will listen in order to get to this point.

I believe that when you’re healing from PPD or another perinatal mood disorder, it’s crucial to know what your triggers are and to avoid them at all costs. I wish I had realized this and done so during my maternity leave.

Since my son was born, I avoid the news; I’m no longer ashamed of this. It’s self-care. I don’t watch movies or read books in which children or mothers are harmed in any way, even emotionally. I do not watch baby shows anymore. And if I can’t avoid a trigger and find myself struggling with anxiety, which fortunately is not so often these days, I use distraction to change my thought pattern as quickly as possible. And if distraction doesn’t work, I run through a list I’ve brainstormed of all the other things that work for me. That list is always with me.

It took me a while to realize and understand my triggers. It took even longer to let myself off the hook for doing what I need to do to avoid them. No guilt or shame in this. In fact, it takes a lot of courage to face your fears and walk away from them. If you find yourself encountering triggers, please know it’s OK to do whatever it takes to avoid them. For me, knowing what triggers me also means knowing how to change the channel—sometimes literally!


Stories of Birth Trauma And Postpartum PTSD

A lot of great reading right now related to postpartum depression, birth trauma, postpartum PTSD and more this week, so I wanted to direct you straight to it:

Help for a Traumatic Delivery and Postpartum Depression – Over on the Huffington Post, Amy Przeworski writes about her own traumatic childbirth experience and how she learned it could lead to postpartum depression. Postpartum PTSD is real and there are organizations dedicated to supporting moms who have it, such at PATTCh.

There Are Three People In My Marriage – At Role Reboot, Ariane Beeston explains that after a severe bout of postpartum psychosis and two hospitalizations, there are three people in her marriage: her, her husband, and “Prudence,” the high-maintenance, still recovering, struggling version of herself. Great story.

“I Can’t Do This” And Other New Mom Myths – Sarah Pinnix also experienced birth trauma. She writes about having panic attacks over the issue of not breastfeeding, and about going through postpartum anxiety and postpartum PTSD.

Potting Season – At Brain Child, Emily Grosvenor crafts a absolutely beautiful story about birth trauma, bonsai trees and her desperation as a new mom, “…to be everything and perfect and under control.”

Why Are America’s Postpartum Practices So Rough On New Mothers? – At the Daily Beast, Hillary Brenhouse writes about our culture around having babies and how it affects our ability to ask for help. I loved this quote, “In the States, a woman is looked after, by herself and by others, only so long as her body is a receptacle for the baby. Attention then transfers to the needs of the infant. To ask for respite is to betray not only weakness and helplessness, but selfishness.” While I would argue (and have argued) that there’s plenty of postpartum depression in countries that do have more supportive customs, I think it could only benefit mothers in the US if we did

The Reality of Post-Adoption Depression – At SheKnows, Elizabeth Weiss McGolerick writes about the causes of post-adoption depression and the fact that every mothers deserves support, no matter how she came to have the title of “mom.”

I Suffered From Postpartum Depression & Didn’t Even Know It – At Cafe Mom’s The Stir, Kristen Chase explains how she didn’t realize she’d been having PPD until her fourth baby.

An Open Letter to Women Fighting Postpartum Depression – At Everyday Feminism, Walker Karraa shares encouragement and love with women struggling with PPD.




Postpartum PTSD Is As Common As Postpartum Depression

postpartum depressionAnywhere from 7-16% of new moms experience some level of postpartum PTSD, or postpartum post-traumatic stress disorder, according to the MGH Center for Women’s Mental Health, which reviewed a study by McGill University. This study found that risk factors for postpartum PTSD include a history of sexual trauma, higher sensitivity to anxiety or a more negative childbirth experience than expected. A previous study reviewed by MGH found that risk factors for postpartum PTSD included a history of infertility and obstetric complications.

MGH also takes a look at the conflicting studies on the use of antidepressants during pregnancy, concluding, “What we can say at this point is that while SSRIs may affect certain neonatal outcomes, including risk of preterm delivery and low birth weight, they do not appear to dramatically increase the risk of these adverse outcomes.” Studies have also shown that depression during pregnancy increases the risk of preterm delivery. So we’re still stuck in a “chicken or the” egg scenario, ladies.