As for many women, becoming a mother wasn’t easy for me. I returned from my honeymoon pregnant, a surprise that took me from disbelief to acceptance to joy, and then despair when I miscarried. My husband and I hadn’t planned to start a family so early in our marriage, but at the time I felt the grief from losing my baby could only be quelled by becoming pregnant once again.
Over the next few years, we found ourselves on a path of conception and loss. Each monthly period sent me reeling into feelings of inadequacy, convinced my body was betraying me. After spending so many years trying to prevent pregnancy, the idea that conceiving could be so hard seemed unimaginable. Other women seemed to float through pregnancy without any difficulties, and I imagined they were all sharing in a sacred experience I would never have. While a wiser part of me knew better, I had fully bought into our society’s message that if I couldn’t have a child, I was broken. In my mind, they were whole and I was not.
At first, I spoke very little about the miscarriages because I was too embarrassed. I felt very much alone in the pain and the sadness and the grief. But in time I found the courage to voice these emotions, and soon other women—friends and family who had never previously talked to me about infertility or miscarriage—began to share their stories of loss and soothe me with their honesty. I thought about the many women who had struggled before me. Imagine how many women in over four billion years of human existence have been brought to their knees through infertility or miscarriage?
After five miscarriages, I became pregnant again. Instead of celebrating, I became hypervigilant about every twinge, cramp, and Braxton-Hicks contraction that moved through my body. My doctor had warned me that I was at risk for delivering prematurely, and so only very late in my pregnancy did I begin to breathe more freely. The birth of my first son was a joy unlike anything else I had known. And each day after that was filled with the kind of natural gratitude that grows only when one knows hardship intimately.
The pain of our previous losses dissolved in his smiles, and grief dominated my thoughts less and less.
When we decided to try and grow our family, I was less fretful about the negative pregnancy tests and even the miscarriages seemed more manageable. After all, I had a preschooler to distract me. Then, after the birth of my second son, something shifted and I found myself in a darkness I’d never known before. I obsessed about my children’s schedules, lay awake at night going through lists of tasks for the next day, and felt a sense of dread so heavy I could barely breathe.
No amount of meditation, breathwork, or therapy could lift the panic that I woke up to and lived with throughout the day. What I didn’t understand at the time is that I was suffering from a form of postpartum depression rarely identified until recently: postpartum anxiety.
Postpartum depression is typically characterized by feelings of sadness, irritability, tearfulness, changes in appetite, and disturbed sleep, but those weren’t my symptoms at all. And while new mothers recognize they’re feeling out of balance, they assume the lack of sleep, racing thoughts, and need for control are just regular stressors that all new mothers face. That belief, and the message many of us have internalized that we need to be superwomen solving every problem ourselves, prevents many of us from asking for help. But we must. We simply can’t look after other people effectively unless we also look after ourselves.
Here are some facts every new mother should know about postpartum imbalance from the Anxiety and Depression Association of America:
• 13% of new mothers experience postpartum depression
• 3–5% experience postpartum obsessive-compulsive disorder
• 9% experience postpartum post-traumatic stress disorder associated with pregnancy or childbirth
• 6% of pregnant women and 10% of postpartum women experience clinical levels of anxiety
While these serious conditions usually develop between one and three weeks after delivery, they often aren’t identified until much later. So look for warning signs early, and don’t hesitate to reach out to your professional support systems if you’re unsure about whether you’re experiencing typical emotional and physical adjustments or have crossed the threshold into postpartum anxiety (or depression).
Here’s what to look for:
• Constant worry
• A feeling of dread or that something bad might happen
• Obsessive and irrational thinking patterns
• Loss of appetite or voracious appetite
• Extreme restlessness
• Dizziness, racing heart, nausea or lack of connection with the body
• Sleep disturbance (I know, what new mom doesn’t face sleep disruption?)
Regardless of whether you have a family history of postpartum or other mental health struggles, it can be deeply honoring to ask a friend or family member to help you with a post-delivery care plan. You can also enlist your partner for this role, but they may need a care plan themselves. Write down what you most need and who can be of help.
In most developing cultures, postpartum disorders are virtually nonexistent largely because of the conscious and protective social structures put in place for new moms. Classic anthropological research shows these structures include recognizing a distinct postpartum period, rituals of caring for the new mother, mandated rest and a reprieve from social expectations, support with the day-to-day family operations, and recognition of the sacred role of the mother (aka mothering the mother).
Ours, however, is a strange culture that fails to provide support and care for new moms. Women continue to be the primary caregivers in families, and new mothers rarely have anyone to help at home. Our partners are usually back to work within a few weeks, and we’re left to figure everything out on our own.
What if we had a circle of women who took turns placing soup on our stovetop until we were strengthened once again? What if we did the same in their time of need? What if we supported new moms to nourish and nurture them during this sacred and life-changing time? What if we came together with great compassion and supported new moms with our collective strength and wisdom?
Note: This story is an excerpt from When Women Rise by Michele Kambolis.