I have always been an anxious person. My anxiety can get overwhelming but it was never something I couldn’t handle. I knew my anxiety would be heightened after I gave birth but that still didn’t prepare me for what would come.
There were the usual worries.
What if I can’t soothe Noah when he cried?
What if the bottles weren’t clean enough?
Should I sterilise them a second time?
What if I can’t produce enough breast milk?
Is he doing okay? Is he healthy?
These were just chatter and were the thoughts that I could handle. But one day, I found myself bawling in my office toilet because I saw a video of a child almost drowning in a baby spa because he was left unsupervised. I had thought it was Noah and couldn’t stop crying. My hands were shaking, my heart was racing and I was gasping for air. It took me a good few minutes to realize that it wasn’t happening to my baby. That it was merely a video that had automatically played while I scrolled Facebook. It was then that it hit me that something wasn’t quite right.
I started becoming more aware of the things I would do because I feared for Noah’s safety. I refused to stand near windows, regardless whether they were opened or closed. I would cling onto Noah a little too tightly when walking along the corridors to my home because I had very vivid thoughts of him falling from the fifteenth floor. I would stay awake and find myself staring at Noah’s stomach to make sure he was breathing while he slept. And when I did sleep, I would dream of bad things happening to Noah. I once dreamt that I had forgotten to turn the water off and Noah had drowned. I was screaming and holding onto his pale, lifeless body. I woke up sobbing. I had read in the news that someone had bludgeoned a cat to death and cried because I was afraid this same person would find my son. I would stay awake in a dark room thinking about the million things that could go wrong or how Noah would get sick, get hurt, or leave me.
And while I knew that these thoughts were irrational, I felt incapable of controlling or pushing them out of my head. The more I tried to push them out or tell myself that it was okay, the more anxious and upset I felt. I was constantly tired because I was either too worried to sleep or was not getting good sleep because of the bad dreams.
I confided in a friend who later encouraged me to see a Psychiatrist (you know who you are and I am forever grateful for this). After a few sessions, the Psychiatrist told me it sounded like I had an anxiety disorder, more specifically, postpartum anxiety. In this article, Dr. Margaret Howard, Director of the Women’s Behavioral Health programme at Women & Infants Hospital of Rhode Island, shared that postpartum anxiety in women is when
“They have a lot of fear, tension, poor concentration … and they’ll have a lot of these intrusive, unwanted persistent thoughts, images, fears of the baby being harmed.”
I was offered a prescription of antidepressants on top of sessions with my Psychiatrist once every two weeks. I rejected the medication because I was still pumping breast milk for Noah and was afraid the medication would have an effect on him. However, I did agree to sessions once every two weeks but later found it difficult to keep up with taking the mornings off from work without anyone finding out I was seeing a Psychiatrist.
So since I found out about my own postpartum anxiety, I’ve done some research. Here are 4 reasons why it is so important to talk about it:
While a lot of attention and research has been put into postpartum depression (and rightfully so), postpartum anxiety often goes unnoticed and are harder for mothers to recognize.
Ms. Katherine Stone, founder of a blog and non-profit called Postpartum Progress shared on this article that
“Postpartum depression can sometimes do “a disservice” to those women who struggle after having a baby, but don’t reach out for help because they think sadness is the only hallmark of a mental health problem.”
Some, if not most, mothers would think worrying is normal with a new baby around the house and that they should only start seeking help when they feel an intense sadness and were crying all the time. This means that mothers may not even mention their anxiety during checks at the hospital. And unlike how hospitals are equipped with the necessary screening tools to identify mothers who may be suffering from postpartum depression, that’s just not the case with postpartum anxiety.
The article also shares that even if anxiety is picked up, it is usually because the mother in question already has postpartum depression with anxiety as a symptom. In other cases, the mother is misdiagnosed to have postpartum depression instead.
According to a follow-up study done on 310 Canadian pregnant women, it was found that postpartum anxiety was actually 3 times more common in mothers than postpartum depression. In another study of 1,024 postpartum women, the percentage of women diagnosed with postpartum anxiety was twice as high as those with postpartum depression.
This does not mean that we ought to take a backseat when it comes to postpartum depression. This means that with the higher prevalence of postpartum anxiety, the public awareness of this disorder is just way too low. Creating an awareness and educating the public on what postpartum anxiety looks like may increase the chances of mothers getting treatment.
Postpartum anxiety can have as big of a negative effect on a mother’s life as postpartum depression does. A mother with postpartum anxiety can have poor eating and sleeping habits and a loss of concentration. Postpartum anxiety may also manifest itself in physical symptoms such as difficulty breathing, panic attacks, and nausea. In more serious cases, some mothers may even need medication to help with daily functioning.
4.The Goddess Myth
As I’ve written in my previous mental health post on The Goddess Myth, there is a rampant ideal that mothers are expected to have it all together and feel fantastic. And for mothers who fall out of this
ridiculous perfection, they may feel unable to speak freely and openly about how they’re struggling, for fear they’d be seen as a bad or incapable mother.
I was told during my stay at the hospital post delivery that it was perfectly normal for me to be so worried about my newborn. So while that gave me a false sense of security that it was normal to feel the way I do, it also meant I went months without speaking to anyone about my anxiety. I feared that I, ironically, wasn’t normal because I couldn’t deal with what was deemed to be “normal worrying” for mothers.
So on top of how poor an awareness the public has of postpartum anxiety, how are we going to identify and treat postpartum anxiety when the very source of that anxiety, the mother herself, doesn’t even think safe to talk about it?
Looking back on my own experiences, I wish I knew it wasn’t just a “new mom thing”. Or that I didn’t need to pull myself together and work it out on my own in order to be seen as a good enough mother. More importantly, I wish I had sought help sooner because seeing a Psychiatrist meant I had a clearer understanding of what I had and how I was going to deal with it.
I’m still a work in progress. My last serious episode was about a month ago. I screamed in the middle of the night because I heard B calling out for me and immediately thought Noah had fallen out of his cot and was bleeding profusely from the head. The shaking hands, racing heart, and shortness of breath, they were all still there. I’m not sure if the intrusive thoughts will ever go away because I still deal with them everyday.
The only difference? I manage to push these intrusive thoughts out a little better and focus on how Noah brings me so much happiness. Some days are harder to handle than others but I still see this as a step forward for me.
Mothers, motherhood is tough. And the fact that you’re waking up everyday and putting your best foot forward just goes to show how much tougher you are. Should you be experiencing any of the symptoms I’ve shared or have even the slightest inkling that you may have postpartum anxiety, reach out. Seeking help doesn’t mean you’re not normal or that you failed. Neither is it a reflection of your capability as a mother.
Family and friends of women who have just become mothers, stay alert and look out for early signs. Help when asked and always remember to reach out when you feel she needs someone. You will never know how much of a difference you will make, just as my friend did for me.
KK Women’s & Children’s Hospital (KKH)
Telephone: 6294 4050
National University Hospital (NUH), Women’s Emotional Health Service
Telephone: 6772 2037
Mindful Mums (Support Group)
Contact Person: Silvia Wetherell
Telephone: 8201 4414