A couple of months ago, we began a blog series aimed at removing the stigma surrounding ante/postpartum mood adjustment disorders. I shared my own journey through postpartum obsessive compulsive disorder and depression and am honored to share Aliyah's journey through postpartum anxiety with you today. You might remember Aliyah from her beautiful birth story that we posted earlier this year. Over the next two days, we'll be reminded that even when the birth goes just as we planned, we are still vulnerable. If you are suffering, please seek help. If you don't know where to find it, give us a call. We are always here for you.
I had a very healthy pregnancy and pretty much ideal birth. I got what I wanted and more than I could have hoped for! I was able to labor at home until the last moment, arriving at the hospital in the last stage of the process. My birth plan was never contested, and I did not need any medical interventions. It was my dream birth story. That is one of the reasons the fall that came next, a plummet into postpartum depression and anxiety, was so hard. It was so difficult to believe that the darkest, deepest depression I’ve ever experienced could come right after getting exactly what I wanted. The birth of my daughter, Nusaibah, brought me joy-- at first. I was on an adrenaline high for two straight weeks, but after that, I just lost myself. I lost my mind and I lost my identity.
What I remember in the weeks after my daughter was born is that I was in shock that the birth had gone well and I had made it! I did it! I had done so much preparation and research to have the birth that I wanted. I was so proud of my body’s abilities, to have an unmedicated and intervention-free birth. It’s what I really wanted and it was very empowering when I got it. Now I had this little person in my arms and life would never be the same. At first it was all about the excitement, and I had lots of people checking on me and calling me. I had visitors, calls, messages, and mail from people showing their love. It was all about gazing at her little face and being in total awe that she was here, out in the real world, and I wasn’t feeling her wiggle around inside anymore. I was just recovering physically and trying to get the hang of life with a newborn.
Then came a first disappointment. I wanted to breastfeed, to be proud of my body’s natural abilities to feed my child. However, the breastfeeding relationship never really blossomed. From very early on in the hospital we were scared into supplementing with formula bottle feeding, I now know, prematurely. We had options, and we could have tried other things before taking that step. We just didn’t know what we didn’t know. We left the hospital and took our girl home, planning to follow up with lactation experts who could help us fix her latch and get the supplementing out of the picture. We were optimistic that we could remedy the situation.
Every feeding was an enormous ordeal. It took so long to set up and do, that it really was about every 1 1/2 hours. We always tried breast first, but it never felt natural. I’d awkwardly try to arrange her on a breastfeeding pillow and arrange my small breast so she could reach it. I couldn’t get comfortable, I couldn’t get my daughter comfortable, if she’d latch correctly it would be for so little time (we’d be happy with a couple minutes), or she just wouldn’t latch. Appointments with the specialist did seem to be helping in the beginning. Her latch wasn’t hurting me anymore but she just wouldn’t stay on long enough. After a birth that transpired exactly how I’d wished, none of this breastfeeding stuff was how I wished at all. Why wasn’t it easy and natural? Why couldn’t I discreetly tuck her under that cute breastfeeding cover I’d registered for, and feed her anywhere? I felt I saw women all around me doing it, but I couldn’t.
So after we tried breastfeeding, we’d give her formula, and then I’d try to pump and we’d give her that milk too. This laborious process was every 1 1/2 hours, day and night. It was emotionally and physically exhausting. It makes you forget you’re a human being that has worth in other ways besides the milk you can output. But we were committed to trying anything for breast milk, so we’d do this and see the lactation specialist, try her advice, change things up a bit, and forge on.
Then came the humiliation. We were at a friend’s house for a fairly big gathering, and a friend in our faith community looked shocked when we were struggling to bottle feed our newborn. She asked aghast, “Why not breastfeed?”, as if it was that simple and we just didn’t know any better, or worse, we made the wrong choice.
Her easy and yet disparaging question disregarded all the sacrifices I made to breastfeed despite how hard it was. For me to even attempt it, I needed a whole set up: this special pillow, privacy, a lot of time, and then the bottle, pump, and more bottle. I had been anxious enough about this, and with her words, I was also then humiliated. I got sick to my stomach that night and couldn’t hold food in for close to 10 days. I couldn’t consume much more than gatorade. I couldn’t take in enough calories to be a healthy person, let alone feed a small, healthy person. Anxiety was already beginning to bubble up inside me, and one woman’s offhanded remark led me to a downward spiral that killed my chances at having a milk supply that could feed my baby.
I couldn’t feed my baby. I felt like a failure. I started to be too anxious to feed her in public, which meant I began to be too anxious to leave the house. I didn’t want to go anywhere in the time span during which she’d need a bottle because I didn’t want to bring out a bottle, have her fuss at all and draw attention to us while I was trying to feed a newborn formula. How does that look? I thought, it looks like what it is...I was failing a fundamental task of motherhood.
I was friends with several women I considered to be supermoms. What else would they be with five or more kids? A few of them told me to feed on demand, which I tried. Afterward, I felt like I couldn’t stand up. And the worst part is that my baby was still hungry.
Good people, who I still love, told us formula/cow’s milk is unnatural and “poison.” The told us the reason Nusaibah cried so much was the painful gas her formula caused. I wanted to withdraw at the shame of this.
A good friend who was pumping gave us a cooler full of frozen breast milk, but it would never be enough to have Nusaibah be solely fed by breastmilk. I felt sick at the smell of her formula and felt so guilty for giving it to her. I cried and apologized to her just about every time. I was concerned about bonding because I couldn’t breastfeed. Whenever she was asleep, which in the beginning was a lot, I’d have her sleep on my chest. This was my desperate attempt at making sure I didn’t ruin our chance to bond. I told myself laying there with her sleeping on me was important work. Through tears, I’d tell myself that this was worth not doing anything else in the day.
We were nervous in all the new parent ways, like calling the pediatrician an embarrassing amount of times in the first two months of our daughter’s life. Normal nerves, plus not being able to breastfeed, on top of unending exhaustion, made for a bad combination. You don’t know what that kind of extreme sleep deprivation will do to you ahead of time. (Perhaps if you want to “practice” you could set an alarm to wake you up every 1 1/2 hours for a couple weeks and see what happens to you. For me, I think it was devastating.) I think I could only take those first couple weeks of it before I started to unravel.
What happened next was essentially a panic attack that lasted at it’s worst for the three months, and lesser severity while I was getting treatment for about a year. At first onset, my mind was always racing, I couldn’t hold onto thoughts. My heart would race and my breathing would be difficult. I would just cry, and cry, and cry. My husband took care of almost everything, in addition to talking me off a ledge multiple times a day.
I was useless and helpless, and I felt guilty and ashamed for it.
I felt stupid.
I felt scared that this would never end.
I wanted someone else to take my daughter.
I thought, why did I do this?
What if I’m not supposed to be a mother?
I actually started to think through relatives who I could ask to take my daughter and how I would ask them. I called hotlines and centers. I wanted to be hospitalized. I was never suicidal, however, and that is the only case in which they will take you away. I just wanted to be taken away, to be fixed, to not have to face this. But I couldn’t answer “yes” when they asked if I was suicidal. Post-partum started to sound a lot to me like post-mortem. I felt like I brought a life into the world and I myself, died. I no longer knew how to separate her needs from mine, to recognize my needs even. I forgot what used to occupy my time, what I used to like ,what brought me good feelings.
Adjusting to a big change was just too much. I had not only motherhood to adjust to, but we were about to move across the country for my husband’s new job. I was anxious about moving somewhere new, leaving all the familiarity of a place I’d lived for many years. Starting over in a new place before wouldn’t have been as scary, but starting over with a new identity as “mother” was terrifying. In general, to go from spontaneity and really a self-centered existence to the world revolving all around a person who entirely depends on you is a much more difficult transition than anyone ever told me. All of a sudden I finally felt grown up. And not in a good way. I think we need to tell about this part much, much more.
Read Part 2 here