I don’t know if I can do this…that is the first thought I had when my beautiful, 6lb 8oz baby girl was placed on my bare chest. Can you believe that? Not, oh my god I love her! Or, look what we created! Or, go me, I just pushed out a tiny a human from my lady bits.
Dear Anxious Mama
I feel like I should provide some backstory here. I have always struggled with anxiety. Like…the kind of anxiety that makes you feel nauseous when you are in a new place with new people and they are going around the room introducing themselves, and the closer it gets to your turn, you start to literally black out and lose your hearing kind of anxiety. It has left me feeling inadequate, helpless and self-conscious so many times in so many situations. Ok, so now that you know that information, we can continue on.
It was a Monday morning in September and I had just birthed our first child. I was holding her slippery, tiny body against mine and I could see my husband standing beside the bed staring at me in awe, then staring at our daughter with the most unconditional love I had ever witnessed. As our uninterrupted thirty minutes came to an end and the nurse was helping me to try and move my lower body to eventually stand and walk, the thought kept invading my mind space. I don’t know if I can do this.
Physically I was a wreck. This was not the body I had come into the hospital with. I had loved that body. Pregnancy and I got along really well. I flaunted my new curves and felt sexy, capable and quite honestly for the first time in my life, very womanly. Now my body was a crime scene. I had torn badly and just the thought of sitting down on anything was terrifying. I was so exhausted. Like…so tired I couldn’t focus on what people were saying to me tired. How could I not focus!? I felt like I had been drugged and was slipping in and out of consciousness. These people were telling me important stuff like how to keep my baby alive! I kept telling my husband to pay attention because I just couldn’t. I already felt so incapable of taking care of this helpless little being that I had intentionally brought into this world.
Emotionally I was drained and had this paranoid thought that everyone knew I had no clue what the hell I was doing and was totally unqualified for this new title of Mom. Can you relate to this? Oh, and the cherry on top of all of this is that Ava is our rainbow baby. I had miscarried our first at 11 weeks so I really truly felt like I should have only nice, fuzzy, loving thoughts towards this pregnancy and baby and new mommy role because how could I not be grateful?
So two days later, here we are bringing our bundle of joy home. I am in the back seat with Ava, and Chris is driving us to our new life with a baby and two dogs. As I am sitting there staring at my daughter, feelings of pure panic riddled my body. My heart was pounding, my hands felt clammy and my forehead was breaking into a sweat. I don’t know if I can do this. Why didn’t I tell the social worker at the hospital how I was feeling? The nurses all asked about my mental state of being…why didn’t I tell them?!
We get home and of course, family comes. I have support, I have help. My anxiety took a back seat, but it reminded me each and every day how underprepared I was for this new adventure. My mom and I bonded while she taught me how to take care of Ava and I finally understood what she meant when she would say, “it’s a love unlike any other.” As the days went by and it became time for family to start saying their goodbyes (everyone lives out of state), I found myself starting to panic again. What am I going to do for weeks on end alone with this baby? My husband is in the military, and he too would be leaving us. I had not made any friends in our new home yet and felt self-conscious about breastfeeding in public and really about my mommy skills in general. Am I holding her right? If she cries in public will I respond appropriately and not be judged by other parents?
As several lonely weeks passed, I noticed I was getting more and more anxious. The thought relentlessly came barreling in like a tornado, slapping me upside the head with such force that I had to look away from my little girl. “I don’t know if I can do this.” This has to be the hormones everyone was talking about right? This was like my usual anxiety on steroids + speed + gulping down eight martinis. I was tired but wound, wanted rest but didn’t feel I could sleep and ultimately couldn’t even though my baby was sleeping at night. Each day I made it through felt like an eternity. I knew I loved Ava with my entire being, but didn’t feel like I could be the kind of mom she deserved. The kind of mom I had envisioned myself being. You know the one who isn’t anxious. The one that can wear her baby out and about right away, have lunch with friends and their babies, start working out the minute she’s cleared by the doc, breastfeed successfully right out the gate. Yes I know…my perfect idealistic vision of a mom doesn’t exist, everyone has their struggles, but I had no way of knowing that at the time.
I went home to Wisconsin for two weeks while my husband was still away and essentially had a nervous breakdown. My body, mind and soul knew they could finally take the bench now while my mom and friends cared for Ava.
I had to get help for myself and realized that if I didn’t, I really couldn’t be a mom to Ava at all. So I started a low dose of an antidepressant and they sent me on my way. And ya know what? It really, really helped me. It was astonishing actually. I could slow my thoughts and work through them rather than get all wound up in them. I could spend time with my daughter and not obsess about feedings, naptimes, bedtime and if she was developing appropriately. I started to sleep. I had my family with me and I started to think, maybe I can do this…
After returning home, I realized that once again, I was without a support group. I desperately needed to get out of my house and couldn’t bear the thought of becoming a recluse again with my baby. I went online and started to look for activities and groups I could take my daughter to while meeting other moms. Stroller Strides caught my eye. I have always enjoyed working out and was struggling to actually do the home workout videos that were collecting dust in my living room.
I stood in front of my mirror and examined my post-partum body. I felt soft. It was like all of my muscle tone had gone slack immediately after birthing my baby. It was bizarre really. I mean…where did it go?? I had remained active my whole pregnancy doing barre, lifting light weights and doing squats and then poof…I had no butt and no muscles! I should also add that I have struggled with poor body image my entire adult life. While I felt very beautiful during my pregnancy, I had irrational thoughts that after I gave birth, I needed to “snap back.” I emailed the contact person and vowed to show up that Monday. Monday came and went…I didn’t go. The next week I vowed to go…and didn’t. I ended up talking to the owner on the phone and explained to her that I was recovering from post partum anxiety and was still self-conscious about being out and about with my daughter. What if she cried the entire time? What if she had to eat or pooped or had a blow out? What if I couldn’t keep up with the other women and felt too discouraged to keep going? As you can see, I can really become Dani Downer quick…a product of dealing with all of these intrusive, self-defeating thoughts all these years. She assured me that every one of my fears were valid and that yup, my baby may cry and may need to eat, be changed or have an epic blow out…but all of it was OK. I hung up the phone with tears in my eyes. I thought, maybe this will be my outlet. Maybe these women will get me and I will finally feel accepted as a mom…a woman…maybe even a friend.
The next Monday, I packed up my baby and my stroller and we went to class.
This is a common scenario for me now. I am in a plank, sweating like crazy, arms are shaking and my core is screaming…I look to my left and I see a mom wipe the sweat from her eyes and reposition. She is struggling through exactly the same as I am. I look to my right and see another mom, gritting her teeth and pushing herself, finding another level of strength, stamina and heart she may not have known she had. Now when I have the thought, I don’t know if I can do this…all I have to do is look around and see my fellow Stroller Strides mommas, my friends, supporting one another as we learn to develop strength in body, mind and soul. It isn’t about getting skinny. It’s about being a mother, a woman and a friend. This level of comradery is unlike anything I have ever known and it generalizes right out of the workout into daily life with my beautiful daughter and loving husband. I know I can do this now. It ain’t easy, that is for sure. It takes a village. For some, it also takes medication for a short time or however long we need it. And that is OK! This is for all the other mommas out there who are struggling or have struggled with anxiety prior to mommyhood or during...We can do this!!
*If you are ever struggling with postpartum anxiety or depression, please don't feel ashamed. Talk to your OBGYN and your doctor for a plan that works best for you. There are options. You are not alone.