First of all, I just want to tell you that it is normal to be anxious as a mom. It is the biggest life change any of us will ever face — followed by a massive change in hormones and fueled by exhaustion and lack of sleep. I think every mom feels a bit panicky as they learn how to navigate life in a new role.
For some of us, though, the postpartum anxiety becomes crippling. It creeps into every interaction. It makes us fear being around people. It makes us fear being alone. It makes us afraid for our baby. It makes us want to hide. It gives us persistent and intruding thoughts that we aren’t okay, that our baby is not okay, and that we aren’t going to make it.
I have always been an anxious person, but the experience of infertility and miscarriages really colored my experience of pregnancy. I was scared to death, and that feeling didn’t go away as soon as I gave birth to a healthy child. Fear, worry and panic had become habitual for me. The concerns I had about carrying a baby to term just spilled over into fears that my baby was dying, and that I was not a good mom.
If you are experiencing postpartum anxiety that has gripped your heart like a vice, I hope you will talk to someone about it. I spent so many months trying to white-knuckle myself through anxiety attacks because I was embarrassed by my fears. I wish I could have extended myself more grace in that time, instead of desperately trying to prove that I was okay, to myself and to everyone around me.
These are some of the things I wish someone has told me about postpartum anxiety:
Fake it. Let yourself off the hook for not feeling whatever idealistic feelings you think you should posses about motherhood or your baby. Give yourself grace that those feelings will come, even if it takes months. Or years. Stop judging yourself for how you think you should be feeling, and ACT in the ways you think you should ACT. Ask yourself, “what behaviors would a loving mom do today?” And then behave like a loving mom. Even if you don’t feel like one. Because it’s okay if you don’t feel it.
Consider medication. Postpartum anxiety is a neuro-chemical issue. Think about what you would do if you discovered you were diabetic, or needed medication to regulate your thyroid. Why do we treat our brains any differently? There is nothing valiant about not seeking medical help if you really need it.
Don’t martyr your mental health over breastfeeding. Of course we all think the breast is best. But those breastfeeding sessions are not worth you being distraught and not present for the rest of the day. I have had the experience of breastfeeding through postpartum anxiety and bottle-feeding an adopted child, and I can attest that the bottle-feeding while sane was a much more bonding experience for both mother and child. I wish that I had given myself the grace to stop nursing when I needed help.
Say your fears, out loud, to another person, as often as you can. Postpartum anxiety is built on irrational fears. Sometimes, just getting them out there can help cast light on the irrationality. Anxiety breeds in the dark. Talk to your spouse, a friend or a therapist. Even better, talk to all three.
Keep a cognitive thought journal. Write down your fears, and then look for evidence that those fears are unfounded.
Do one thing a day. Or less, if you want. Keep good boundaries around your schedule. Say no when you need to. Keep your to-do list to a minimum. Overwhelm is anxiety’s bedfellow.
Ask for help.
Stay off Google. If you find yourself panicking about your baby’s health, you can find all manner of deadly diseases that account for even the most minor symptoms. WebMD is not your friend when you are anxious.
Wallow in natural oxytocin. Put sex on the to-do list. Lay in bed and cuddle your baby. Have regular nights with your girlfriends. Eat chocolate. Figure out the things that give you a “hit” and make them a priority.
Be easy on yourself. Lower your expectations. Take things one day at a time. Wake up. Care for your baby. Care for yourself. Do only the work that needs to be done. Everything else can wait.
Kristen Howerton is the mom of four children in four years via birth and adoption. She is a psychotherapist-turned-blogger, chronicling life at Rage Against the Minivan and editing the blogging newsmagazine She Posts. Follow her on Twitter at @kristenhowerton.