Many people probably read the term “postpartum anxiety” and immediately think, nah not for me. It seems extreme, as though one must be having panic attacks at 15 minute intervals and in the supermarket check-out line to be considered anxious. While, this sure can occur, I think the most common form of postpartum anxiety is less mild, more subtle and far more widespread than one might think.
My personality type (which is obviously A if you have read more than even one article over here) produces in me a natural tendency to worry. I can rationalise most things and explain away this and that, but the propensity remains. Worry and anxiety stem from fear and fear can take root when we are in situations that are unknown, potentially frightening or out of our control. To a certain extent, bringing new life into the world and nurturing it, can be all of the above.
Thoughts on postpartum anxiety.
1) The first few months with a newborn bring a bit of surrealism home. I don’t know about you but at my house the first six weeks with a new baby feels surreal. I feel like I’m in a partial daze and still suffer from lingering effects of pregnancy brain. I believe you know what I’m talking about. Things no longer seem normal. Routine is different from before. There is a new person in the house and they are incredibly demanding. There may be other younger humans in the house attempting to adjust to a partial takeover and coup d’etat of their mother’s attention. All of these circumstances make for an unsettled mother. If you are super laid back and go with the flow (then good for you) then you may not slip into anxiety, but if you are prone to worry then this may be a challenging time. I tend to feel off-center, nervous and slightly anxious. Even though I feel this, I just can’t put my finger on why. I keep going, keep moving, keep working to establish a routine and some household consistency and day by day it lessens, but it still surfaces from time to time. During this season in our life my husband works in the evenings, and for the first few months after the birth of our son I got anxious every evening as the sun went down. The sun going down meant I’d be left alone with two babies, lots to clean up and no help. I’d feel stressed because there was so much to get done and I didn’t have enough arms to do it all. Following some good advice I started managing my expectations of what I’d be able to accomplish in the evenings, and little by little the situation improved.
2) Their health is both under our control and out of our control. Another reason we feel anxiety is simply this: we are in charge of raising a tiny person. Certain aspects of their health we can control, ie whether they are well fed, clean and monitored. Other parts of their health we are not. Some things that affect babies generally outside of our control are colic, reflux, birth defects and (even typing this word makes me want to pop a handful of xanex) SIDS. We can position our babies to thrive, but ultimately it is out of our hands. At times like this I’m glad I know God (who is bigger than me) is in control. Because of this fact, however, mothers tend to worry. Are they eating enough? Are they sleeping enough? Why are they so red? They sound like they’re going to cry themselves to death. It is a natural thing to worry about something that you care so much for. You incubated this baby in your belly for 9 months, no wonder you feel so protective. I (because I am truly neurotic) take it to the next level. I hope by typing this, I’ll feel so embarassed that I’ll stop doing it, but somehow I doubt it. I still, and my youngest is 7 months old, wake every 2-3 hours in the night to make sure he is breathing. He sleeps 7:30 to 7:30 solid. I know I should hit the pillow and not wake until they get me up, but I can’t help it. The other night I slept 4 whole hours – FOUR WHOLE HOURS – and thought it was a miracle. I did the same thing with my daughter – now 19 months – and by the time she was about one year I was able to stop myself and keep sleeping. I don’t use an alarm, I don’t do it on purpose. I just roll over and wake up just enough to know that if I don’t check on him, I’ll never go back to sleep. This, my friends, is anxiety.
3) Exhaustion, helplessness and frustration lower our emotional and mental defenses. Psychologists and counselors worldwide tell you that when you are tired, weak and stressed you will not make the best decisions. Well, with a newborn, who isn’t tired, weak and stressed? It is an amazingly joyful time. You couldn’t be happier to have added life to your family, but at the same time, you’re sleeping less, getting to know how your little one works, and still trying to make sure everyone is fed, in clean clothes and not living in a pigsty. This is where the desperate housewife syndrome can kick in. In the first few weeks there are so many variables with our newborn (not to mention our normal life) that we can begin to feel under it all. Your nerves are tense, your emotions are on the surface and you are likely to have a breakdown at any moment. This won’t be everyday and it may only be once a week or so, but it is common. And, in these times, we can often feel anxious. It may not be something you need to visit a doctor over, but just talking and sharing with other mothers may be what you need to know you are not alone.
4) We spend most of our time outside of ourselves. I don’t know about you, but I like to focus on myself. Oh, yes. Manicures, pedicures, going to the gym, shopping, reading a book, drinking a diet coke, eating a Reese’s (without having to share), and watching a movie. Not a cartoon, but a grown-up movie. But, alas, with tiny people, we often spend most of our day focused on them. And I have to go on record saying I think being a stay at home mom (although I do work part-time from home as well) is the best job in the world. I wouldn’t trade it for anything at all. However, it is super tiring to focus on someone else all day long. It takes a lot of energy, a lot of patience and a lot of sacrifice. It is all well worth it, but it can take a toll if our other resources are depleted. I find that I am most anxious when I have gone long periods without any time to myself. If I can let my husbands watch them for a spell while I rest in the room, take a bath or read a book, I can get my wits back about me fairly quickly. If I can’t manage this, then I often find myself pretty low emotionally.
I guess I say all that to say that, this too, shall pass. If I found myself very anxious and unable to cope I’d go to the doctor for treatment, without a doubt. But I believe my low-level anxiety is due to many of the factors above and, with time, will improve. They did with my first child and I suppose they will soon enough with my second. Now that we’re in a great routine and the baby has been sleeping through the night for a few months, I already feel better. I know I’ll keep waking at regular intervals until the major ‘danger’ period is over, but that’s life. I can’t help it.
Being a mother has brought me joy unimaginable (unless you also have that joy) and I wouldn’t trade it for the world. It can be hard, it can be challenging, and it may cost some their figures, some friends, and a career. But really… when I am old and grey and on my deathbed, I won’t be thinking about my abs. I hope I’ll be busy staring into the faces of my children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. And I’ll know that all the anxiety, worry, concern, and sleepless nights were worth it a million times over.
*I am not a medical practitioner nor am I writing from a medical viewpoint. The opinions expressed are my own and do not replace medical advice.