Having a baby is full of emotions. Everything is new, exciting and scary! When becoming a mother, whether it is the first time or the 5th time, you can expect a certain amount of anxiety, right? Nobody said it was going to be easy. In fact, everyone will tell you it's not. There are oh so many highs, but also many lows. Some days can leave you laughing, crying tears of joy while other days can have you buried in a cup of coffee that still doesn't suffice.
I’d heard of Postnatal Depression, and that a lot of new and experienced mothers suffered from it. I didn’t know however, about Postnatal Anxiety! Surely everyone feels anxious about becoming a mother? Am I doing enough for my baby? Are they ok? Am I failing them? It wasn't until I began feeling like I wasn't coping that I realised that my level of anxiety was not normal, I needed help to deal with it.
When I became a mother, the feelings of anxiety seemed warranted. Of course I felt anxious! I had a new precious form of life that I was suddenly meant to take care of and keep alive. Where was my instruction manual? I'm sure mine must have got lost in the mail because it never arrived. Once the lovely newborn period began to fade, my husband went back to work and the fact of having a colicky baby that I feared while pregnant started to rear its ugly head, the reality of my new role became apparent. I wasn't feeling as confident, I began questioning everything I did and our relationship became strained over the lack of sleep and confusion over why our perfectly healthy baby was screaming for hours and hours every night for weeks on end.
No-one ever told me how lonely motherhood can be. Yes you have a baby with you 24/7 but I have never felt more isolated in my life. I wanted to be one of those mothers who you see strolling through parks and sipping coffee. Instead I felt trapped in my own house, scared to leave in case the baby was tired, cried, pooped or got hurt while out in public. What if this happened? How would I cope? I felt it was better to just stay inside where I could know she would be ok.
Sleeping 'issues' were a big stressor for me. I attended a 'mother's group' when my daughter was about 10 weeks old and I remember my group leader talking in depth about sleep and ways to make your child sleep better. One of the biggest no-nos was 'don't breastfeed your child to sleep' and 'don't touch your baby' to get them to sleep. This went against everything that felt natural or normal to me. I struggled with this so much. I tried in vain to do what all the health professionals were telling me and it was destroying me to do it. I hated hearing her crying. I felt like I was failing her because I wasn't able to make her sleep all night.
I would wake up anxious, go to bed anxious, feel anxious sitting on the floor playing with my beautiful baby girl. What was wrong with me? Why can't I just sit here and enjoy her? She is such a content and happy baby and yet the heavy feeling in my chest would never go away.
I decided that I didn't want to remain feeling this way. I wasn't going to accept my own body's way of dealing with this new stress. I found a psychologist through a friend of mine who specialised in Postnatal Depression and Anxiety. I think like many things, the first step to recovery is acknowledging that there is a problem and seeking help through it. It was through these sessions I realised that I was suffering from Postnatal Anxiety and that it was possible to change the way I thought. For me, my anxiety started from my work place. I work in the nursing profession and with that comes a lot of stress. We work long hours and deal with real life and death situations. I worked full time in an environment where we are pushed to the limits on a regular basis and at any given moment, things had a chance of going very wrong.
I was also expected to do several on-calls a week (even throughout my middle and late pregnancy) to help with low staffing levels at the time. All this pressure and stress from work came home with me once I was on maternity leave. I felt like I was not doing enough for my baby. How dare I take a shower while she's awake, I should be finding new things for her to do or reading her a book! She's not sleeping the way she 'should' be sleeping at 4 months of age, I must be doing something wrong. Everyone else seems to be coping fine, is must be because I'm not trying hard enough!
We talked about how the body deals with stress. The fight or flight response and how my body was using adrenaline to function. She asked me how much sleep I was getting (frequent night feeding means broken sleep was my new norm) and then she asked me whether I felt tired. I said surprisingly no, I feel ok actually. Apparently my body was using a lot of adrenaline, which kept me from feeling tired and would also keep me up at night (even when the baby was asleep!) Like most things, adrenaline will eventually burn out and I was pretty close to doing this myself.
We also talked about how a brain with anxiety functions. Becoming a fortune teller (She won't sleep tonight!), catastrophising (She cried a lot today, she must hate me!), mountains out of molehills, self-doubt, critical thinking, etc. Recognising these thought patterns helped me understand that the way we think is often not helpful and in many circumstances, never comes true.
The first step for me was to try and improve my sleep (‘Haha’ you say). Not checking my phone to see what the time was every time she woke up was a simple first step. It helped my mind not begin to race every wakening. It helped control the: 'She only slept for 1 hour?' 'When will she wake up next?' 'What am I doing wrong?'. It also meant my eyes weren't subjected to any unnecessary light. I become a master of picking up baby, changing nappy and feeding all in the dark! Eventually I just decided to do what makes me and my daughter happy which was co-sleeping, breastfeeding to sleep, and lots of cuddles. This was the best way for us all to get more sleep without tears or anxiety.
My daughter is now 17 months old, is still breastfed and still wakes up several times throughout the night but that's ok! It is normal! I have since learnt a lot about Attachment Parenting and it definitely resonates with my own feelings and how I want to bring up my child.
Another thing for me was exercise. Exercise has many proven benefits, especially for mental health! I have always been an active person and for me, returning to exercise has done wonders for my anxiety. It means doing something for myself. Feeling good again in my own skin. It takes a lot of effort and motivation, especially when having a young dependent baby and dealing with sleep deprivation.
Everyone also has an opinion right? Doctors, midwives, families, partners and especially other mothers. Although this can be great and very much needed at times, it can also be detrimental to your own feelings on how you are doing as a mother. I remember my Grandmother and Mother saying, 'Just do what works for you'. I would nod my head and say ‘yes I will’, but it wasn't until recently that I actually understood what they were trying to say. It has taken me a very long time to try and push out a lot of the conflicting advice and just do what works for my baby and I. People will say, 'Oh a 6 month old baby should be able to sleep through the night'. Well ok, that's great for some, but my baby doesn't. I can get upset and frustrated that she doesn't OR I can accept it and move on. At the end of the day, she is happy, growing and thriving. If your baby is doing that, then you can give yourself a pat on the back and say go you!
I have learnt to recognise my negative thinking, stop, breathe and rationalise what is actually happening and whether it is just my anxiety or something I actually need to be worry about. I have also begun to recognise how amazing a job I am doing and how far we have come together! I have grown, given birth and fed a new human being with just my body. My milk has given her everything she needs to learn and grow. Her smile and giggles show me that she knows she is loved and how happy she is.
I am constantly trying to keep my anxiety at a safe and healthy level. I keep in contact with my psychologist and see her when I feel like I need a refresher or just to have a chat. I encourage anyone who is feeling a bit lost after having a baby to seek help when needed. There is nothing to lose and everything to gain. The PANDA helpline is available and their website is full of information on Perinatal Anxiety, Depression and Psychosis.
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- Postnatal Anxiety Recovery Stories
- Katie's Story
People will say, 'Oh a 6 month old baby should be able to sleep through the night'. Well ok, that's great for some, but my baby doesn't. I can get upset and frustrated that she doesn't OR I can accept it and move on.
PANDA National Helpline 1300 726 306 Monday–Friday 9am–7.30pm AEST/AEDT
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