Postpartum mood disorders: my experience navigating PPA and therapy
My son Wolf was born in December of 2015. I loved being pregnant and generally had a very easy pregnancy. I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect from giving birth, but I was looking forward to it and holding a baby in my arms. But my transition into motherhood wasn’t what I had expected and after a 32-hour traumatic birth, I was just so relieved (and exhausted) to have Wolf in my arms. He was perfectly healthy and beautiful and we were eager to get home and begin our life as a family together. Fast forward a few weeks, and I was feeling completely drained and discouraged. Wolf fed at least once an hour 24 hours a day for the first 8 weeks. (Don’t worry - nothing was wrong. We met with professionals and turns out the kiddo just had a fast metabolism and hefty appetite.) The sleep deprivation felt like torture and I started to feel more like an object or a tool than a person. I knew that having a baby would lead to some level of exhaustion, but I had never anticipated the depth of the drowning sensation I felt.
Wolf finally started sleeping in slightly longer chunks right around the time I returned to work. He came with me (because we couldn’t afford childcare or for me to stay at home) and the following months were some of the most stressful of my life. I felt like I was constantly falling behind at work - you know, because I was simultaneously caring for a baby! And most days I would come home from work just to keep working and trying to catch up. I didn’t feel like I was doing enough in any part of my life.
After a complete meltdown, my husband and I decided to sell our home and move back to Hawaii to be near his family. We’d live with family so that we could both take a bit of time away from work and to figure out what our priorities were for our family and for our lives. But as Wolf’s first birthday neared, I realized I was STILL miserable. I still had panic attacks whenever I left the house without Wolf, certain it would be the last time I ever saw him. I still had vivid daydreams and nightmares of horrible things happening to him. I was still overwhelmed and couldn’t shake the feeling I had made a horrible mistake and wasn’t meant to be a mom.
On a whim, I googled postpartum mood disorders. All of my midwives and doctors and friends only talked about postpartum depression but it didn’t really seem to fit. Finally after searching through other postpartum mood disorders, I read a checklist for postpartum anxiety and immediately a weight lifted. It was the first time I had ever really considered that other moms felt the same way I did. I found an incredible therapist (I miss her so much!) and got to work sorting out all my feelings and experiences. Being able to speak to someone who truly understood what I was going through, who listened without judgement, and who offered me another perspective was life-changing.
When I found out I was pregnant with Violet, I was terrified to go through it all again. I couldn’t fathom the intensity of the sleep deprivation while also caring for a toddler. I was scared of the person I would be - so far in motherhood I wasn’t as gentle, graceful, or patient as I always imagined I would be. Instead I was overwhelmed, irritable, and desperate. Meeting with my therapist throughout my pregnancy and after Violet was born helped me see all of the ways that I love and care for my children in really positive ways. It helped me not feel so guilty in the times I felt I didn’t measure up. It helped me feel more normal! And being open about what I was going through helped me connect to other mothers. I realized that no one really has it together (unless you do, then good for you!!). We all are struggling and supporting one another and speaking about the struggles helps create that community - that village.
I’m still sorting through my PPA even though my kids are now ages 3 and 1. I’ve found that my perfectionist personality (enneagram type 1 here!) is amplified when I’m experiencing anxiety - and that it affects those around me as well. My therapist helped me identify what kinds of external factors were triggering my anxiety and I’ve found that the panic attacks or nightmares are mostly only present when I haven’t had any time to myself and am feeling particularly tired. Having kids has taught me so much about myself! I wish I could say that it has shaped me into a better person - and I’m sure I’ll be able to say that some day. For now I’m giving myself grace and reminding myself that I’m doing my best.
To any other mamas out there struggling, I feel you. I really do. And if you think the way you’re feeling isn’t right, then it probably isn’t! Search for postpartum or family therapists in your area. Meet with therapists until you find the right one. Talk to other mothers. You are not alone! And you will be okay.
P.S. You can visit https://www.postpartum.net/learn-more/pregnancy-postpartum-mental-health/ for more information about postpartum mood disorders.