The routine was this: Tom dropped the baby off at a daycare in downtown Manhattan on his way to work. At 3 o’clock, I picked the baby up and took him back home to Brooklyn. Except, on my end, it never really went like that.
I’d show up on time, but then I’d linger. I’d make small talk with Finn’s caretakers and a great show of my interest in the other babies, cooing at them as they crawled past my feet. My son was several months old and could easily wait until we got home to feed. Still, each afternoon I settled into the rocking chair in the corner of the classroom, pulled Finn onto my lap and breastfed him as long as I could drag it out—usually an hour.
At first, the daycare staff was a little suspect, unfriendly even. Perhaps they thought I was checking up on them, assessing their every move as they tended to other people’s 5-month-olds. I’m almost certain they never knew the truth: that I was terrified of being alone with my son. That I was afraid he’d fall under some nameless distress and I wouldn’t be able to save him. That sitting in the daycare every afternoon—amid the chaos of feeding and burping and diapering—I felt more at peace, safer than I had in the quiet of our home, where it was just me and my son in my arms, the two of us and no one else.
To be fair, I didn’t then have the words to tell them what was really going on. I knew about postpartum depression—and that we don’t talk about it enough. But postpartum anxiety? I didn’t even know it was a thing. Who would sympathize with a mother who can’t breathe at the thought of being alone with her child? A mother whose impulse is to run away from her kid when she thinks he’s choking, not toward him, because the thought of being unable to save him is too overwhelming? I stuffed down my shame and did my best impression of unflappable and capable mom. Eventually, I imagined, all these anxieties and fears would fade.
I had reason to believe, at first, that I was experiencing my own particular brand of new-mom jitters. I’m a nervous person to begin with and figured post-pregnancy hormones amplified my inclination to worry. Finn was what some call a rainbow baby, born a year after our miscarrying our first pregnancy (in our case, early in the second trimester). Hours after he was born, the nurse wheeled his clear bassinet into my room, parked him at the foot of my bed and then, just left. The silence was suffocating. As Tom slept in the chair beside me, I wore a raw, red patch into the skin of my elbow sliding up and down to check if Finn was still breathing. At home, I fretted over where to set up his cradle, worried if it were too close to our shelf a truck might rumble by and send books and heavy objects falling down on him. Still, my anxieties seemed ordinary, like scenes in the trailer of an indie movie about frazzled first-time parents. But then it got worse.
One night early on, I became convinced that the trendy zip-up swaddle we put on Finn was too tight and would choke him in his sleep. I stood over him, angst-ridden, Tom assuring me the swaddle was fine, my mind countering with images of an asphyxiated baby. I did what the books say never to do: I woke a sleeping baby and changed out his swaddle. He cried for hours, inconsolable, his wailing vibrating through my body for the rest of the night. And then it got worse.
Where others heard the sweet, suckling sound of nursing, I heard Finn gagging. I was preoccupied with the notion he’d choke on my breast milk. Where others saw the cute, clumsy mouth movements of an infant discovering his tongue, I saw cause for alarm—was he having respiratory trouble, a stroke? One afternoon, coming in from a cold walk, I was certain Finn wasn’t breathing properly. He was lethargic and, to my eye, unresponsive. (If anyone else had been present, they would have said he was sleepy and desperate for a nap). My arms went numb, my chest tight. I was having a full-blown panic attack. I called my husband. He rushed out of a meeting and was home in 20 minutes.
From then on, I was terrified at the thought of being alone with the baby. In the pre-daycare months, Tom seemed to take the air out of the room with him every morning when he left for work. Time stopped, the apartment closed in on me and every movement Finn made was agony. What if something happens to him, and I can’t save him? I took an infant CPR class, which only expanded my laundry list of terrifying what-ifs.
I quietly devised a system in which I was never alone with Finn. Some days my mother made the two-hour train trek from New Jersey, arriving just before Tom left for the day and staying until he got home. Other days I’d schedule play dates or attend new mothers’ groups, baby-and-me exercise classes—anything that put me in the proximity of other people. I FaceTimed in silence with my sister, her sitting in her home office working, me quietly breastfeeding Finn on the couch. And then it got worse.
One night, I lay awake, exhausted but buzzing with insomnia. Tom lay to one side of me, his feet fidgeting and his breathing heavy. Finn lay in his bassinet on the other side of me, wheezing and grunting in that singular way of sleeping infants. I suddenly felt constricted, angry, trapped in this new reality. I was sleep-deprived, drowning in my enormous new responsibility, paralyzed with the fear of losing another child, and completely erased by my new role of mother. I was stuck inside everything I’d been pushing down because I was too tired and too afraid to feel any of it.
I remember screaming, cracking open the silence of the night. I remember my arms and legs flailing like a toddler mid-meltdown. I remember my husband shooting up in bed, terrified, and my mother, who was staying over, running up the stairs to our bedroom. And then I remember her saying to Tom, “We need to get her help. She needs some help.” After all of my irrational worrying about Finn, it was my own wellbeing that needed desperate attention. As soon as my mother said it, I knew she was right. I felt a sudden relief—unburdened by the shame, seen and validated in all of my imperfection. It was okay.
Our pediatrician confirmed that my experiences were well beyond the norm and encouraged me to get treatment. I joined a support group, and met other women who struggled with postpartum mood disorders. Some talked candidly about their depression, confiding deep wells of hopelessness or a lack of desire to bond with their babies. Some talked about a persistent anxiety and dread that palpitated through them all day. Some were afraid to leave their babies with other caretakers, others hypervigilant about their infants’ every move or consumed with worry about their spouse’s mortality. I felt less alone, recognizing myself in their stories and finally free to tell my own. The group led me to a therapist, who pointed out that navigating the seismic changes of motherhood began with healing the underlying trauma of miscarriage. With the guidance of a reproductive psychiatrist recommended by my obstetrician, I began medication considered safe to use while breastfeeding. And I finally allowed myself to be honest with a tight circle of people, because silence only breeds shame.
New parents are obsessed with developmental milestones, but I had my own baby steps to take as a mother over many months and, in some ways, years. Learning to be alone with Finn for 10 minutes. Then 20. Then an hour. Learning to believe in myself as a mother. It was progress and setbacks. It was a lot of crying. It was sitting with him for long stretches at the corner Starbucks so I could feel less alone in the presence of strangers. It was getting to know my kid’s quirks and learning to trust that he was here, he was strong and healthy and he wasn’t going to disappear like our first baby had.
I wish I’d known about postpartum anxiety going into my first pregnancy. A study of more than 300 Canadian women published in the Journal of Affective Disorders in 2016 found that anxiety and anxiety-related disorders affected more perinatal women than depression did—about 15 percent compared to about 5 percent.
As I write this, Finn is 5 and I’m days away from giving birth. My experience didn’t stop me from doing it all over again, it just helped me better prepare. When the panic and phobia reared up early, during my second trimester, I didn’t run from it. I continued seeing my therapist and added in cognitive behavioral therapy, which gave me concrete tools to right-size my out-of-control worries before they spiral out. I’m more confident in my ability to mother a newborn, and I know the signs of postpartum anxiety to look out for, so I can seek out medication, a support group, or a postpartum doula sooner if I need it. And I’m more concerned that other women are suffering in shame when what they need is help.
Now, whenever I talk to a new mother, I find a way to throw her a line. After asking how she’s doing and exchanging the requisite notes on the newborn trenches, I slip in the phrase, “I dealt with some pretty tough postpartum anxiety….” and wait to see if she tugs.