Estimated reading time: 5 minutes
Darcy Smith, Norman, Oklahoma, USA
Photo: Jamie Sia Photography
Anxiety and postpartum depression
Looking back at the past 18 months, I have become stronger. There were days when I thought that I couldn’t take any more and I wished for my old kid-free life. Every mom has those thoughts. For me though, it was more than just every now and then. It wasn’t about wanting more sleep, to go places more easily, or be able to sit down to eat hot food. What I wanted was to leave the house without worrying I would never return. I wanted to see something, anything, that made me smile during the day. I wanted not to be afraid. I wanted to love my life again.
My first pregnancy was easy and I couldn’t wait to experience this again. The second was not the same. During my third trimester I visited a high-risk doctor multiple times because Ali wasn’t growing and hardly moved. I was very stressed. I wanted her to be healthy and to be born so I could stop worrying. As a parent, I knew worrying doesn’t stop at birth, but I thought with reassurance that she was healthy, everything would be easier.
Ali was born early, and even at just 4lb 10oz, she required no neonatal intensive care. Sigh of relief. She breastfed the same day. Another sigh of relief: a big one. She had squeaky breathing from her larynx collapsing when she inhaled: laryngomalacia (LM) but would likely outgrow this. Fine. I can do this!
But she didn’t outgrow it. By four months, she was failing to thrive. She would sweat constantly, couldn’t focus on faces, couldn’t lift her head, slept most of the time, and didn’t start at loud sounds. It took all her energy just to breathe. After a blue spell during which she lost consciousness and went limp, she had surgery to fix her larynx. The extra tissue was trimmed to open her voice box so she could breathe without struggling. Surgery was successful and she recovered quickly, even smiling and kicking happily the same afternoon.
Things should have been easier for me after Ali’s surgery. I now had a baby that slept, breathed quietly, nursed more easily, and smiled more. I tried to keep busy but was terrified Ali would get sick.
I didn’t want to leave the house. What if something happened to my baby? What if she stopped breathing again? I became paralyzed with fear at the thought of anyone getting too close to her.
How I felt
I am naturally bouncy, enthusiastic, and energetic. But I no longer smiled much. My heart raced and my chest felt tight. I would gasp for breath and hyperventilate easily. With everything I did, I felt crushed by what might go wrong. My favorite part of the day was going to bed. I would fall asleep quickly, as soon as my head touched the pillow. I felt pangs of sadness and distress whenever I woke up to nurse Ali. I didn’t want to be apart from her for fear she might stop breathing in my absence and die and that I would never see her again.
I craved contact from others, but it was too hard to make plans. There were months when the only people I saw were my daughters, my husband, and Ali’s occupational therapist. My mind was always full of “what ifs.” I felt isolated and trapped, a failure because this baby needed so much and I had so little to give. I was afraid of my own baby. This couldn’t be right. Shouldn’t I be savoring every second because kids grow up so fast?
The only person I had known with postpartum depression (PPD) had told me how she had wanted to hurt her daughter. I didn’t have harmful thoughts, so in my mind I did not have PPD. Other people had kids in NICU. I did not. Other people had higher maintenance children. Other babies with LM had to drink thickened formula milk. I was lucky to be breastfeeding my baby. Sometimes I felt like breastfeeding was the only thing I was doing right. My child was easier than so many others! As a former teacher, I had known parents who had much more on their plate yet coped. Why couldn’t I? Why was I so weak?
Anxious all the time, to control the frightening feelings I would dig my fingernails into my skin and scratch my arms. Doing this made me concentrate on that very moment so I wouldn’t lose control. I had scratches down my arms that my older daughter would comment on. I hated that I did this. I was embarrassed and wished I could get through difficult moments without hurting myself.
I did have happy moments, so I couldn’t be depressed, right? I just needed to hold onto this feeling and not let go. Maybe I just needed to get out by myself. But what if something happened to Ali? I just needed to be stronger. Others could do it. Why not me?
The hopeful moments became fewer and fewer. Thoughts began to fill my head: I am just going to run away because it’s never going to get better. I don’t deserve my family. I am no good for anyone. I am ruining the lives of my kids. I was afraid to mention my feelings to my friends. I must be a horrible mother to not enjoy my children. I couldn’t handle everyday life. My husband could do better raising them. All I did was cry. While I had pumped milk at work for my older daughter when she was a baby, I hadn’t pumped for Ali because she couldn’t take a bottle. Sometimes the fact that I didn’t have milk in the freezer for Ali was the only thing that kept me from running away.
Asking for help
My husband was my biggest supporter. Somehow when one of us was feeling weak, the other was strong. He convinced me to see a doctor.
I didn’t feel hungry while taking medication prescribed by my doctor and I lost 10lb during the first month. During the next month, though, I began to feel hungry. One day I noticed my head felt clear. I could live in the moment instead of wishing for bedtime. I smiled and enjoyed everyday moments with my family. My favorite part of the day was the morning snuggles with my family and nursing Ali when she woke up because I looked forward to all the fun ahead in the day.
There are still days when it’s bad. Sometimes I worry that I damaged Ali by being sad for so long, but I know that’s not true. There are moments when I feel lost but mostly my days and nights are filled with anticipation for what is coming next.
So, to all the moms who think they are not enough, the ones who look at the other moms and wonder how they do it, the ones who cry from frustration, the ones who feel isolated, the ones who feel like they should be happy but are not. You are amazing. You are enough. You are loving. Don’t suffer in silence, seek professional support and find mother-to-mother help in La Leche League. I’ve struggled with PPD and anxiety. You are not alone.