My Experience with Postnatal Anxiety
Updated: Aug 17, 2021
I had a relatively easy pregnancy with Harry, but I was highly strung. I don’t think anyone would have really known behind my smile and baby bump social media updates. I wanted to buy all the gizmos and gadgets, I needed to have it all to feel as if I had it all together. I had lists everywhere, I was following every mummy blogger under the sun and always felt like I never had enough. The nursery wasn’t nice enough, not enough wooden toys, the colours didn’t match, room was too small. I was meticulous and I had to be in control. I had no idea of the storm that was about to hit that would literally take my breath away.
I think in an effort to calm my nerves I organised everything to perfection, thinking it might somehow have some effect on my experience when baby came earth side. For me, it was more than nesting, it was me not knowing how to communicate my fears and taking it out on cleaning and lists and organising. It was the first time in my life I truly felt I was about to have no control over a situation and it petrified me. Not just the birth, but becoming a mother. No amount of little tubes of baby ointments (with the seals removed thank you) was going to prepare me.
My hospital bag had been packed, not weeks, but months before. I had play lists picked out, 100 cute little outfits, make up for myself, massage lotion (haha). I had a ‘birth plan’, but I was realistic. I had hoped for a water birth but in the back of mind I was also afraid from all the ‘war stories’ that had been told to me about birth that I decided to have a midwife who was epidural certified, you know.. just in case. I started asking my midwife about perineal massage and whether that would help, googling all the different things that could happen to me, worrying if my baby would be healthy, worrying about the hens party I went to when I was 3 weeks pregnant and didn’t know..
What didn’t help is my midwife didn’t indulge in it at all. I didn’t need her hand on my shoulder, saying “there, there”.. but I needed her to treat me like I wasn’t a number, like I hadn’t seen 2000 births and this was my first time, and she didn’t. She couldn’t see my anxiety and I was only letting it out in fragments and then fobbing it off as if I was being silly. She and I would sweep it under the rug and laugh after its temporary disappearance. Hiding it was almost as exhausting as having it.
I became addicted to baby clothes shopping, every day almost a new parcel would arrive at the door, it was off those second hand pages but it became a way to pass the time and channel my anxiety into some bidding system… again something I could at least try and control.
When I look back, I see that my anxiety started early… and I am talking way before birth. As a child I needed to have things in order, I had a father who always wanted me to do better, be better. I don’t think I once ever had a “see what happens” attitude. The fear of the unknown was too great, so I spent time worrying over things I may not need to worry over. I guess in my mind I thought somehow a little bit of worry now means less worry later… this is anxiety.
I wasn’t aware at the time and I never mentioned it to anyone, but I was terrified. Instead of talking about it, opening up and allowing myself to feel as I should have, I squashed it all down and cleaned the house some more.
In the next few days my anxiety would get worse, so much worse before it was to get better. My days off before birth were those of screaming silence and it was deafening.
The birth itself with Harry was pretty traumatizing, but mostly because the whole way through my labor I didn’t feel heard. I was sent away from hospital and then 4 hours later almost sent away again. Once they did an examination they realised I was 9cm dilated, my midwife wasn’t my usual one and even though I didn’t have the warm fuzzies with my first, her second was even rougher with less bedside manner. I’ll never forget being about to give birth and she blasts through the doors asking why we got to hospital before her (when she wouldn’t pick up her phone).
I had pre made schedules that I had created, apps for feeding, sleep schedules printed out, reminders set in my phone for vaccinations months ahead (because I couldn’t forget anything, I couldn’t drop any balls, I couldn’t fail him). This was the me before the me now, I’m still organised but back then I used my organisation as a way to almost dampen a fire burning within me one that was quietly raging.
In the coming weeks after his birth, breastfeeding almost ruined me, the constant trying and the prolonged ending, both simultaneously cut me deep. I had a lot of guilt and not a lot of outside support. There was family who were great and of course there were lactation consultants, but once I finally decided I needed to switch to formula, the wound in my heart kept growing. I didn’t know who to talk to about it and I just felt as if I had failed, not just him but as a mother. I look back now and realise that simply couldn’t be further from the truth… but it was a journey to get there, a long one. I carried round the guilt which would bud into anxiety as soon as another mother would pull up her top to feed her baby, or as soon as I would discretely pull out the bottle from the nappy bag, thermos and formula from its dispenser which always seemed to spill everywhere. I always felt sorry for him in those moments, I didn’t know how to stop blaming myself.
I had too much for Harry, so much he didn’t need. I had all the sleep aids not realising that nothing could compete with my arms. I used to place him on his mat in the lounge when he was little trying to roll with an obscene amount of toys around him like some creepy shrine, not realising my eyes were his favourite thing to look at. I'd read too many books, followed too many mummy blogger accounts and sat there most days having conversations with a cute little face that couldn't talk back yet and worried as if somehow my love for him wasn't enough.
Also in those early weeks I started having very intrusive thoughts, whether it be in my dreams or in broad daylight. I’d imagine a dog getting loose of the lead and mauling Harry while he was in his pram sleeping. At night I would check he was breathing in his cot after visions of him blue and still the following morning. We would be walking over a small bride and I’d imagine him in the water below. Here we were on a nice walk in the gardens and these are the thoughts that pop into my head as fast as they fly out. But the visions of it lingered long after, the sickness I felt and confusion for this perfect being who I loved to pieces why was I projecting these thoughts of him being unsafe when quite literally the one thing I feared the most was losing him… and maybe that was why.
Before Harry I used to have similar thoughts, like yelling out during a moments silence or if I’m walking around the kitchen holding a huge knife, what if I just dropped the knife and it stabbed through my foot? But they were involuntary thoughts, none of them were ones I would ever act on (obviously)… the thoughts would come in moments of overwhelm or severe fatigue and the anxiety would come from the thoughts.. it was a vicious cycle.
I didn’t know it at the time but these thoughts (in the words of Anna Mathur) were “my mind playing with risk, power, responsibility, fear and the pure, naked hearted vulnerability of love”.
I was projecting so much of what I was going through and that energy onto him.
I knew it was time I had to tell someone how I was feeling, but I didn't know I wasn't alone.
I didn't know how freeing it would be to have the weights finally lifted when I could say the words "I'm not coping with these thoughts".
It hasn't been the easiest road, but I have been able to navigate it with tools and with support around me.
So many of us experience this and it's so important to talk about it, to be open. It does get easier but it starts with asking for help.