A day or so after giving birth to my first baby, a terror set in — a realization that my life had forever changed. I felt like a stranger in the world, going through the motions of being a mom on the outside while quietly panicking on the inside. As someone with lifelong anxiety and OCD tendencies, I had prepared myself for the possibility of increased anxiety after birth. I figured I’d be able to manage any slight fluctuations like I had during other periods of my life, so I was confused when, over the coming weeks, I couldn’t seem to get a grip.
I was tired — and not just from lack of sleep. I felt emotionally overwhelmed and wanted nothing more than to go to bed, alone. I cried daily, sometimes without warning. I couldn’t focus on anything, including even the most lighthearted, simple TV shows. I longed for my pre-baby life with just my husband, when everything was familiar and easy. Worst of all, I felt detached from my daughter, yet unable to leave her side. Eventually, I came to realize that I wasn’t experiencing increased anxiety; I was experiencing postpartum depression (PPD).
Recovery and reset
Even after acknowledging that I had PPD, it took months for the feelings to subside. Only after my daughter turned one did I feel like I could breathe again. I remained incredibly scarred by those dark early months and couldn’t fathom going through it all again. Yet my husband and I had always known we wanted another child. So, eventually, I decided to reach out for professional help.
Well in advance of trying for a second child, I contacted Flourish Wellness & Counseling, which provides therapy, advocacy and resources focused on perinatal mental health. I met with a therapist there who helped me process the lingering sadness, regret, and guilt brought on by my first postpartum experience. We revisited the difficult moments and, over many months, came up with a plan for how to handle my next postpartum period, whenever that time came. This plan involved:
• Increasing my anxiety medication during my third trimester, a move whole-heartedly supported by the OBs at Northwestern Medical Group
• Leaning on a solid support system, including my husband, parents and friends
• Signing up for couples therapy through Flourish to give my husband and me the tools to collaboratively manage another potential experience with PPD
• Joining a virtual second-time moms group through The Chicago New Moms Group to stay connected during the isolation of the pandemic
I became pregnant with my second child — another daughter — during the pandemic and gave birth in early January 2021. I felt an immediate bond with her, which was surreal, beautiful and welcome. I didn’t feel the terror I did the first time around because I had been through it all before. I also felt much more mentally balanced, thanks to the increased medication and a focus on getting at least one solid stretch of sleep each night by sharing feeding duties with my husband.
[Related: Perinatal Mood and Anxiety Disorders - The Most Common Complication of Pregnancy and Childbirth (members-only video)]
By the time I returned to work at the 3-month mark, I felt triumphant. I had made it through the first few hard months and had even enjoyed parts of it. But just as I was celebrating my lack of depression, I started to notice some other troubling behaviors. I felt jittery and unsettled. I would often lie awake after night feeds, unable to turn my brain off. I started to have intrusive thoughts about something terrible (and terribly unrealistic) happening to my girls. I became snippy and irritable with all the worry swirling inside. Talking to my therapist, I realized that, while I had been hyper-focused on PPD, postpartum anxiety (PPA) had crept in.
Using the resources I had already built in, however, I felt equipped to handle this unexpected turn of events. I talked to my husband, friends and family about what I was feeling. I visited my primary care provider, who adjusted my thyroid medication, and I spent many hours talking to my therapist. She helped me sort through my anxious thoughts, telling me that each postpartum experience differs, falling somewhere new on the spectrum of anxiety and depression. She also helped normalize my feelings, saying how common and even natural PPA is, given the fluctuating hormones and massive responsibility mothers feel. With her help, I was better able to compartmentalize my ruminating thoughts and prioritize self-care to get to a healthier place.
The other side
As I'm writing this, seven months into my second postpartum experience, I can honestly say I feel back to my normal self. I’m happy, healthy and (mostly) relaxed. Although I wish some parts of my postpartum experiences had been different, I’m grateful that I have an understanding of both ends of the spectrum so I can be a sounding board for other mothers going through the same thing. Mostly, I’m grateful for the resources available that gave me the courage to have a second child and discover some of the joy I had missed out on before.