What Postpartum REALLY Looks Like

I thought the stay at home mom gig would be awesome. I thought it would be full of cooking, gardening, baby clothes, decorating, sewing and canning. I thought it would be full of painting and writing, being creative and flourishing as an individual, as well as a mom and wife.  I thought it would bring me closer to my family.  I thought it would give me something in common with my sisters, something that would bond us closer together.  I thought it would connect me with my friends, specifically the ones who are also mothers.  I thought we would spend time together, morning coffee, laundry day, babysitting and helping, trips to the store and time together in motherhood fellowship with family bbq’s and Sunday dinners.

I chose to stay home with my son in spite of financial issues, because I truly felt that’s what was best for him.  I felt that getting me in my completeness, feeling fulfilled and able to provide all I wanted to for him was better than half way, part time when I got home from whatever job I was doing.  I rejected the idea that some other place filled with people who were being paid to sit next to me and talk to me would be of higher value than my child.  I rejected the notion that my career was more important than him and I refused to allow him one moment of his life where he might have the opportunity to question where my loyalties were.  I felt my life was better served at home, caring for my child than in an office.  I felt I would be unhappy if I returned to work, knowing that someone else got to spend all day with him.  People I would have to pay to be nice to him that might secretly hate children or not understand him, people that might not be as patient with him or hold him when he was sad.  I couldn’t bear the thought of someone approaching him with indifference and filling his head with their values and their personality instead of the one I wanted him to develop on his own.  That’s the reason I couldn’t leave him.  That’s why I quit my job.  That is why I needed to stay with him every day.  That’s what I told everyone and it was true… Mostly.  But there was more to the story that I didn’t share, not with anyone.

The darker reason, the reason I didn’t talk about was that every night after my husband fell asleep, I would start to cry.  I would sit there in bed, holding my beautiful baby, sitting up in bed nursing him on the nursing pillow, secretly and silently crying for hours.  I was afraid to leave my baby.  Afraid to take my eyes off him.  I was worried that if I did, he’d stop breathing.  Worried that if I did, it would make him sad, cold, afraid… that it would somehow damage him in ways I couldn’t possibly know or understand.  I wouldn’t put him down because I thought he would feel abandoned and that feeling would hurt him and our relationship.  I didn’t want to do anything that would upset his fragile little mind, so I just held him, let him nurse even when I was miserable with it, and just sat there and cried.  I was exhausted, sore and my back would ache but I wouldn’t budge.  My butt would be numb and my fingers were tingly but I wouldn’t move. All night, I would sit in a half-sleep state, holding him, sitting up staring into the dark and crying myself to sleep.

In the morning after an hour or so of broken sleep, everything would look brighter.  I’d turn on some fun toddler programs that kept the baby interested with bright colors and characters with big eyes.  He would smile at them while I propped him up on the couch.  I’d make breakfast and I’d turn on my computer, get on facebook, play around a bit to see what was going on in the rest of the world, then it would be time to feed him.  I’d nurse him until he fell asleep, then I’d sit there again, holding him while he slept peacefully for about two hours.  I’d change the channel once he was asleep to NCIS or House, or some other show I could watch for hours at a time without getting bored.  After that, I’d turn it to Dr Oz.

The show was inspiring at first.  Watching it made me hopeful for my future and inspired me to change our diet at home and to live well to be well.  Then suddenly, something changed.  All of these shows that talked about prevention also talked about early detection.  Cancer. Diabetes. Heart disease.  Stroke. Heart attack.  Alzheimer’s. How to detect the signs so you know when to get help.  The whole issue of prevention suddenly turned from a positive “this is good information” feeling to “this might be happening to me” feeling.  I mean, I wasn’t healthy.  I wasn’t doing well at all in that area.  I sat around all day, every day with my baby and did nothing but feed him and sleep and eat and that was it.  I was 80 pounds overweight when I gave birth and only lost 20 of it postpartum and I did nothing but sit in my dark house all alone with my baby.  It started getting me thinking about my health, my life that I’ve had up to this point and how I desperately need to change things.

My father had had a bad year.  He was diagnosed with prostate cancer right around the time my son was 3-4 months old.  We didn’t find out until he was closer to 5 months old, once my father had seen the doctor and figured out exactly what was going on and what it would mean for the family and for him, as far as treatment and recovery.  My sisters and I were told independently, casually over the phone and were assured everything would be fine.  The cancer was containable and the doctors were confident.  I tried not to give it much thought and to be as light-hearted as possible.  I know the hardest thing about illness isn’t always what YOU go through, it’s having to help others as they watch you go through it and the feeling of guilt and obligation to make everyone else feel better when YOU are the one that needs to be cared for.  So, I stayed quiet about how scared I was for him and how worried I was, I focused on my baby and my house and left it to them to tell me when it was time to worry.  Of course, I was worried… I was terrified, but I never let on.

A procedure was done, the prostate was removed and the cancer was gone.  It was a miracle and we were all so grateful!  He was recovering well when he began to experience chest pain.  Just as a precaution, he went to be seen and through a series of tests and evaluations, they discovered he had a 90% blockage in one of his major arteries.  They immediately scheduled surgery and he had a stint put in his heart.  This was a man who had 8% body fat for most of his adult life.  This was an active guy, a cop who was in SWAT, the Dive Team, the Search and Rescue Team, he was busy every day of his life from the time he woke up to the time he slept and the idea that something like that could happen to him rocked everyone in our family.

Again, the procedure was done, the stint was put in and he was okay.  He was told to change his diet drastically and he did.  As he did, the rest of us began to look at ourselves and our lives and what we were doing as far as our own health and fitness.  At the time, I’d been getting my cooking advice from the “Cake Boss” so most of my meals were full of olive oil, garlic and salt and I made cookies or baked something sweet at least 2-3 times a week.

I needed to change but I didn’t know how.   I mean, I DID know how, but for some reason I felt like it was too hard.  I wanted a different life, but I couldn’t put the baby down.  I couldn’t move.  I was suffocated by my fear of losing him, my anxiety was overtaking my life and no one seemed to notice.  Even when I began realizing I shouldn’t be alone, no one was there.  Everyone was busy living their own lives and casually suggesting, “hey if you’re not busy you should come over and have coffee” was the only insight I was willing to offer anyone to let them know I needed to be with someone, so no one came.

My hair began to fall out when he was about 5 months old.  The same month as my father’s heart surgery.  This was normal, I was told… but it still scared me.  I started having panic attacks but didn’t realize that’s what they were- I thought they were heart issues because I was completely fixated on it and was terrified I’d follow in his footsteps.  I had reflux because of my anxiety but I secretly thought it was heart palpitations.  I was sitting there every day and every pain or ache became something horrible, a monster growing inside me full of anger and fear and I was slowly being eaten by it.

Even with a degree in psychology, I didn’t yet know there was a such thing as postpartum anxiety.  I had heard of postpartum depression, spent about 5 chapters on it in school- but no one talked about the anxiety aspect.  I didn’t want to hurt myself, or the baby, I didn’t feel like blowing up my house or driving away with him in the car and never returning.  I wasn’t worried about dropping him off a parking structure or worried he was the Devil so I had to kill him, I wasn’t hearing voices and I didn’t want to drown him.  I was afraid that everything in the world, including me- could and if I wasn’t very careful, would hurt him.  I was afraid he would roll into the street and get hit by a car.  I was afraid he would get stepped on and all his bones would be broken.  I was afraid he would eat a black widow and die of being bitten in his throat.  I was afraid he would suffocate in his bed, that he wouldn’t be able to cry loudly enough that he needed me and he would die of exhaustion calling for me, or I’d find him unresponsive and indifferent to me.  I couldn’t bear the thought and would cry uncontrollably at the very idea of it.

I didn’t allow Peter Pan into my home for the first year of my son’s life because I was terrified of it.  I had once read that Peter Pan was a story written to help someone cope with the fact that their child died of “crib death”, or, SIDS.  That Peter Pan, flying away from his home with fairies after fearing the notion of growing up, was really symbolic of an infant dying for no reason at all.  That it was a beautiful story to help mothers cope with their babies dying and the idea of “Never Never Land” gave them some glimmer of hope that their babies were safe, happy and thriving somewhere in a magical land for all time where they would never grow up, grow old or die.  The idea stuck with me all my life and as much as I loved the story, I feared the association and I wouldn’t, no…I couldn’t allow it into my house.

Most of all, I was afraid of dying.  I worried that if I died, he would be left alone all day in our house with a dead mother until my husband returned from work.  I’d sometimes hold him in such a way that just in case something happened and I passed out or even died, I wouldn’t collapse on him.  Yes, I really thought about that.  Every day.  Every night I’d sit in bed with him and wonder; if I didn’t wake up would he remember me?  If I died today, would he feel in his heart how much he was loved? Would he be angry with me for leaving him so soon?  What could I do to help, write letters to him so he could read them when he’s older?  Well, I did write letters.  I wrote letters to him every night, on my phone and emailed them to myself.  I began to imagine my funeral and what that would look like, who would want to speak, had I lived a life worth speaking about?  I worried I wasn’t leaving enough of a good example for my baby, that he wouldn’t have anything to look to and look up to in times of need when I was gone.  I was afraid I was a bad mother, a bad person and all he would learn from me was bad habits that would perpetuate a cycle of unhealthy living and negativity.  At this point, still- no one knew.  I have been an actress my entire life.  It wasn’t hard to pretend I was fine… until one, horrible night when my anxiety and my body betrayed me.

It was about 11:30pm on a Monday night.  It had been a great day, beautiful spring day in May and I had done some awesome things.  I had decided on a goal for my personal development.  I had mapped out a garden for my back yard. I went shopping at a health store and bought entirely organic items and made an exceptionally good, wholesome, healthy dinner with lots of dark greens and I felt hopeful.  I felt amazing and excited for the future and my place in the world doing what I needed to as a mother and a healer.  All that aside, this fear was still there and I was angry at it.  I was ready to take it on for the first time since Liam had been born.  My husband was asleep next to me and my baby was nursing on the boppy in front of me. While I was comfy lying in bed, thinking to myself, this fear nonsense is stupid.  I’m smarter than this- I have a degree in psychology and I know what’s going on here, I shouldn’t feel this way.  I’m going to embrace my fear, I decided.  I’m going to grab it by the throat and squeeze until it has no more life.  Then I began reciting the Litany Against Fear from the book, Dune.  As I did so, silently in my head, I made a list on my phone what my fears really were.  I thought if I could see them, written clearly- I could address them in the real world and fight them more easily.

I got about half way through my list when my heart began to race.  I had a muscle spasm in my back and my hands suddenly started to go numb, my toes were tingling and I felt a creeping pain/cold tingling climb up the back of my neck and settle at the base of my head.  I felt my pulse jump and quicken- like a scared rabbit suddenly attacked in its sleep, it burst from my chest and my whole body went limp.  I couldn’t breathe.  I felt like I was going to die.  I woke my husband up, he asked me what was wrong and I responded with tears, “I don’t know”.  He asked me what he should do and again, I didn’t know but waking him didn’t stop the pain, it didn’t stop the rush of heat through my body and it didn’t calm my heart… my chest hurt and I was afraid.

He called 911.  An ambulance came.  As soon as they arrived, I began to feel better- safer.  I thought if something horrible happened, they would take care of me, I’d be okay.  I was safe now- now that they were there.  They checked me over and told me all my readings were fine and what I had experienced was most likely a panic attack.  I wanted to argue with them because I’d had panic attacks before and that was NOTHING like what I’d experienced before!  They said, “well if you’d like we can take you into the hospital just to make sure, but you look okay.  Make a doctor appointment with your primary care as soon as you can to follow up, but you look good to us” and they packed up, left and I was left feeling completely stupid, exhausted and grateful that it wasn’t something terrible.

So the cat was out of the bag.  My husband finally knew there was something very wrong but he still didn’t know what or what to do about it, so he just left it to me, assuming that if I needed him, I’d say something.  Well, of course I didn’t… but I continued to recite my Litany Against Fear and was determined to beat the monster inside me.

One day I was doing some reading online about postpartum depression in a mom-based blog/forum.  Someone mentioned the term “postpartum anxiety”.  I looked it up and was amazed.  I was angry and relieved all at once… everything about it was relatable.  So many trips to the doctor and NONE of them had even mentioned this.  WHY had no one mentioned this? I didn’t know what to do or where to even begin looking for information so I just went to my browser and typed it in.  I found a book online and ordered it.  A few days later, it came and I began to read.  I cried and cried as I read because as the book explained what post-partum anxiety was, I identified with every single word.  It went through lists of symptoms and I had every one of them.  The book was also a work book, so I got to work on the exercises it offered.

I also had a dear friend who is a Chinese Medical Practitioner and a QiGong healer who helped me from a distance in any way he could to help me find the way back to myself.

Ultimately, I found my way back to sanity and to a calm place in my life, one where I was even willing to do it again and now I have two gorgeous children.  I still stay home with them and although financial issues may claim me back into the working world, this time, I know I can do it unafraid for their lives.

I have been able to take back my life because I learned that what was going on with me wasn’t “in my head”… well, it was… but it was a real thing.  A real, horrible, debilitating condition that no one talks about and very few people know about and left untreated can lead to complete shut-down, agoraphobia, suicide, depression and psychosis.

When I first began to tell people how I felt, I got some pretty stupid responses from people such as, “oh everyone does that, nothing big, just take a Xanax I’m sure your doctor will give it to you” or “you MUST be a first time mom” as though being a new mom just makes you paranoid and that’s part of the process so suck it up.  When I shared my fears about the baby getting sick by being exposed to sick people or going to parties when he was very small, everyone I knew pretty much gave me this “wow you’re crazy” kind of attitude.  I retreated from friends and family gatherings because of it, I believed I was doing the best thing for my baby and they were clearly unsympathetic, so I just stopped going out.  I also got a really negative impression from people that my concerns were foolish and that the fears I had, which required others to maybe do things differently around me.  I received the- “you’re nothing special, get over it” attitude.  So every time I did try to approach people with how I felt, I was met with this smug tilted smile and a “oh how cute, you’re a new mom” patronizing attitude and it would just shut me up, make me resentful and bitter and make me feel even worse and more isolated.

I’m not writing this to bear my soul and gain sympathy, I’m writing this to show you what this looks like.  To encourage anyone who has ever felt this way, is currently feeling this way, or anyway similar to it, to look it up.  Research everything you can and find the strength to do whatever it takes to find a solution.  There is help.  You’re not insane and there is a way out, back to yourself to have the connection with your baby that you deserve.

Trust that you feel the way you do for a reason- don’t ignore it, find help and get your life back.  This is supposed to be one of the happiest moments in your life as you learn about your baby and grow as a mother and a family and if it isn’t, there are people who spend their lives helping others just like you.  It is nothing to be ashamed of and nothing to be afraid of, if someone judges you, find someone else to talk to and I guarantee you, people will just want to help if you allow them to, but many times they just don’t understand.  They don’t realize what you are going through isn’t the normal issue of new-mom fears.  They don’t realize it’s far beyond that and to the point where you legitimately feel crazy.  Find someone who DOES understand and talk to them.

Finding help can seem daunting, embarrassing and just too hard to expose yourself, so you cut corners in parenting that take the emotional edge off, but then that edge is replaced by guilt and nothing really changes.  For me, I felt like talking about it would make it worse, like it would manifest my fears into being because I was speaking about them, giving them validation.  So I further kept my feelings secret.  That was stupid.  Don’t do that.

The truth is, you WILL create the fears if you do not get help.

Do it for your baby, because I know you probably won’t do it for yourself.  Do it for the relationship you need to have with your child.  You cannot be strong as a mother unless you are strong as an individual.  Your baby needs you to fight and there IS a light at the end of that dark tunnel, if you just keep walking and seek true help, not band-aids to take the edge off or to make that one part of the problem feel better.  It won’t fix the whole unless you recognize ALL of the problem.

To this day, I fight it.  Every day I feel it wanting to creep in and take me over and I have to put on my combat boots and go to war.  The Litany Against Fear is still one of my best weapons, but so is talking.  So is acceptance and fully understanding what is happening and being open with myself and others.

The fact is, we can’t know what will happen. That was the reality I had to embrace.  All we can do is everything we can to make each moment in our lives count- to make the right choices while we have the chance to make them.  Knowing this and believing it, living it… makes every day easier and some days are hard, but every day has at least a little bit of awesome now.  I am happy to be where I am, I am confident to live the life I have with my babies and I know I can do anything.

Finally, my life as a stay at home mom really IS amazing and wonderful and I am making it all I wanted it to be.  I’m planting my garden, I’m taking walks, I go out into town with both babies and I’m learning not afraid anymore.  The depression is still there.. under the surface like a whisper to remind me that if I let up it will take me back under its wing and I might once again be lost in its vast ocean of apathy and fear… but then I shake off the cobwebs, open the windows, force myself outside and remind myself that life is getting better and the fear has no power over me. (Or, at least… it isn’t the loudest voice in my head anymore)

Now I only deal with my annual dose of Seasonal Affective Disorder which I do my best to remember that I have and I’m not just suddenly going insane for no reason every September… Anyway, my point is… it does get better.  There are things out there that can help you and one thing may not work for two people.  Try them all and find what works for you.

If you think someone you know might be struggling with this- don’t ignore it.  Find ways to help.  Even a daily phone call to check in on them can feel like a life jacket on the rough seas of this horrible condition.
If you are coping with this inside yourself, if you’ve read this and identified with any if it- you owe it to yourself to take the step toward peace and seek out help. There are books, mom groups, confidential outreach numbers, all sorts of options. Heck, you can even contact me and I would love to talk.  My email is janelle.perret@gmail.com.

Also, here are some internet resources for you to seek guidance and information:

http://www.helpguide.org/articles/depression/postpartum-depression-and-the-baby-blues.htm

http://www.postpartum.net/

http://www.postpartumprogress.com/getting-postpartum-anxiety-to-back-off

Also, here is a list of local (Inland Empire, Southern California) resources;

https://therapists.psychologytoday.com/rms/prof_results.php?&city=Redlands&county=San+Bernardino&state=CA&spec=578

http://www.medicinenet.com/postpartum_depression/redlands-ca_city.htm

Be happy, mamas and never forget, you are not alone!  Stand strong against the sadness and the fear, you can do it. ❤

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