It’s time we have a serious conversation about postpartum anxiety. Like, we REALLY need to talk about dealing with postpartum anxiety. I’m not just talking about hormones, or emotions after giving birth. I’m not talking about “normal parenting worries.” I’m talking about a serious maternal mental health disorder that we absolutely must discuss. People’s lives depend on it. So let’s do this, shall we?
Dealing With Anxiety
Most people just think this means I’m a worrier, and if you’re one of those people, it’s because you’ve never lived in an anxious mind.
You’ve probably never been sent home from school sick every day for an entire week because you were so debilitatingly terrified that you’d be picked up late (based on no past precedent) that you literally got sick every day.
You probably didn’t have to ashamedly not flush a toilet, and then walk your fourth-grade teacher into the bathroom to show her your vomit just to prove that you had actually thrown up.
You likely didn’t wait 20 years to admit to your parents that the reason you were sick that whole week in 4th grade was because you could not stop the spinning thoughts in your head.
The spinning thoughts went something like this: the person in charge of carpool that week might be late→ you might be sent to after-school care with your whole carpool group→the person in charge of carpool might not be able to afford to get all the kids out of after-school care→you might be stuck in after school care forever.
This is not normal for a 9-year-old! And this kind of spinning-out-of-control anxiety is not normal for a new parent, either.
We have to stop telling people that this is normal.
Postpartum Anxiety Is NOT “Normal” Worry
When we brought Jack home from the hospital, my entire world crumbled around me. In a mere matter of minutes, I went from a happy new mom in the hospital to a pile of rubble who could barely do as much as hold her new baby.
It began in the ride down the elevator to leave the hospital. In the hospital, I had been fine. I had been pulled together (as much as one can be immediately following an induced childbirth). I had taken care of myself and my baby.
In a wheelchair in the elevator, holding Jack in his car seat while Husband pushed me to the car, I held back tears. I strapped myself in while Husband clipped Jack into the infant seat base. I waited for all the doors to be shut, and broke down.
I’m not talking crying, or even crying hard. I’m talking extreme, hyperventilating, cannot-possibly-catch-a full-breath, huffing-and-puffing, lips-turning-purple SOBBING.
If I wanted to keep this story short, I’d just admit to this truth: I mostly just continued sobbing for the next 3-4 months.
Dealing with Postpartum Anxiety
But postpartum anxiety is different from postpartum recovery. Postpartum recovery involves the physical and hormonal adjustments after giving birth. Postpartum anxiety is a different beast all its own.
Nighttime was the worst, and it was not normal emotions after giving birth.
It’s no secret that nights with a new baby are HARD. That you go into survival mode. That you’re exhausted.
This is true for everyone.
That nights were simply “hard” was not true for me.
What was true for me was that nights were the end of the world, an abyss of darkness through which I could never possibly survive until sunlight.
What even was sunlight? Would I see it? Could I see it?
I didn’t sleep. Not because Jack kept me awake, but because I was too terrified to sleep.
Terrified of what? I couldn’t really tell you. Everyone expected an answer to that question, but I never had one, and I still don’t have one.
Was I afraid Jack would stop breathing? Maybe.
Convinced after the loss of 4 pregnancies that the other shoe MUST drop at some point, and I’d lose Jack, too? Perhaps.
Was I dealing with a chemical imbalance that made life almost impossible to live? YES! But everyone said it was normal. When I could barely breathe, how was I to tell them they were wrong?
Normalizing Postpartum Anxiety is Dangerous
“No new moms can sleep,” people said. “This is totally normal.”
These are among the most dangerous words we can say to a new mom without truly knowing what’s happening inside her mind. We don’t know if a mom is experiencing normal emotions after giving birth because we do not live inside her mind or body. Only she can know.
You know what’s normal? Worry.
You know what’s normal? Checking every now and then to make sure your newborn’s chest is moving.
You know what’s normal? Sleeping in between these things.
You know what’s NOT normal? Falling asleep for 5 minutes and waking up to a full-blown panic attack–hyperventilating, sobbing, unable to breathe, tight chested, wanting to scream but not having the air in your lungs to do it.
You know what’s not normal? Sleeping for 15 total, non-consecutive minutes a day.
You know what’s not normal? Collapsing to the floor with no medical cause because you just can’t take another step.
Let’s Learn to Help People Dealing with Postpartum Anxiety
When we tell new moms their postpartum anxiety is “normal,” we diminish their experience. And we threaten their lives.
I get emails from women all the time who are struggling with dealing postpartum anxiety, asking if what they’re experiencing is normal.
“Are these normal emotions after giving birth?” “Am I reading too much into this?” “My husband says postpartum anxiety isn’t real.”
My response is the same every time. It goes something like this.
“I’m here for you, I will listen to whatever you need to say, and you’re worthy of enjoying this postpartum experience. I can’t tell you if you have postpartum anxiety; I’m not that kind of doctor. What I can tell you is that what you’re describing sounds very much like what I/someone I know experienced with postpartum anxiety. And if you’re questioning whether you have it, I believe it’s worth reaching out for help–or at least for a mental health assessment.”
I recommend Postpartum Support International, whose 24-hour helpline is an amazing resource. They also connect women with resources in their local areas. I remind women that they can also contact their OBs, but since OBs aren’t trained mental health providers, Postpartum Support International is my preferred contact.
Need the helpline? CALL 1-800-944-4773 or TEXT 503-894-9453.
Not Dealing with Postpartum Anxiety Can Cost a Life
Here’s the thing. Chocking postpartum anxiety up to “normal” emotions after giving birth can be a life-or-death mistake.
You heard me.
Choosing to believe that postpartum anxiety isn’t real, or minimizing the experience of postpartum anxiety to “normal worry” could have dire consequences.
And it’s not your job–or mine–to tell someone that everything with their mental health is okay. (If you’re a trained psychologist, psychiatrist, or mental health counselor, that last sentence wasn’t for you.)
I recently shared an article about postpartum anxiety on one of my social media platforms, and the responses (both public and private) were enormous.
Many women told me about people whom they credited, very literally, with saving their lives by insisting they get help.
I was lucky because I already knew the symptoms of abnormal anxiety and I already had mental healthcare. As a result, when people told me my experiences were normal, I was able to say, “No. They’re not. This is something more.”
Not everyone has that. Thank God these women in my group had support networks who recognized the problem. I wish more had that.
One Woman’s Story: A Mother and Daughter Lost to Postpartum Anxiety
The response that resounded most strongly was from a mother and grandmother who lost her daughter to postpartum anxiety. I’ve read these stories in the news before, but this was the first time someone had come to a space that is close and personal to me and shared such a heartbreaking and terrifying story:
“My 23-year-old daughter recently passed away on April 30, 2019, leaving behind her 3-and-a-half-year-old daughter. I watched her decline over 3 years because she refused to believe it was real.”
According to this bereaved mother, her daughter’s husband did not believe postpartum anxiety was real, and neither did her daughter. With no one in her immediate family willing to believe in the condition of which she was having multiple symptoms, the new mother spiraled downward until her husband eventually began giving her medication to manage her emotions.
This medication wasn’t prescribed, though–it was just what the couple was able to get. After a year, the daughter admitted to being addicted. Her husband took custody of their daughter, causing a further spiral, and the now-addicted mother was in and out of the hospital for mental health issues–she was admitted more than 10 times.
More than “Normal” Worry or Emotions After Giving Birth
This story broke my heart to read, and it breaks my heart to write. It also breaks my heart because it’s so many women, and because it could be so many more.
I knew the signs. I knew what anxiety felt like. Four days after Jack was born, I was on the phone with my therapist, getting a referral to a postpartum mental health specialist and receiving treatment.
I chose medication because, having been here before, I knew it was the best choice for me, but there are options for everyone.
When Jack was about 12 weeks old, my parents were at our house for dinner. My dad, never having struggled with mental health issues, has never had reason to understand them. Nor has he been one to hugely sympathize with them.
I’ve dealt with anxiety my entire life. But still, while he knew diseases like depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, etc. were real, they didn’t make sense to him.
It wasn’t until I had Jack that he really began to understand the severity of such issues, or the importance of effectively treating them.
After Jack was born, my dad saw his smart, strong, willful daughter turn into a mess of a human who could not function with her new baby. He saw me lug my way to therapy, week after week, asking my mom to drive an hour to keep Jack because I was too afraid to take him.
I’m Still Dealing with Postpartum Anxiety
When it started, it was something that a person with fewer resources may never have crawled out of.
That night at dinner, my 12-week-old asleep upstairs, my dad wanted to talk to me about my experience dealing with postpartum anxiety. He wanted to understand.
Not because I was a basketcase or dysfunctional. But because he couldn’t wrap his mind around the turnaround.
I mentioned the lifesaving power of recognizing mental health disorders, seeking therapy, and medicating if appropriate.
My dad, historically the skeptic, grew wide-eyed. He put down his fork, looked across the table into my eyes, and said, “I don’t know much about these things. But the difference between you now and you 12 weeks ago is amazing. Clearly, something was wrong, and something is working.”
“So you really see a difference?” I asked. I knew there was one, but hearing it somehow felt fulfilling.
He just smirked and shook his head. “It’s the damndest thing I’ve ever seen.”
Katy Huie Harrison, PhD, is an author, toddler mom, and owner of Undefining Motherhood. She lives in Atlanta with her husband (affectionately known on the internet as “Husband,”) son (Jack), and dog (Charlotte). She believes our society has historically placed too many expectations on women, defining womanhood and motherhood in a way that is restrictive. Her goal is to shift the paradigm about what it means to be a woman and mother, giving all women a greater sense of agency over their own lives. You can find Katy and her work featured in places like CNN’s Headline News, Scary Mommy, Motherhood and Social Exclusion, and various other podcasts and websites.