When the Postpartum Fog Lifts
Settle in because this one's a novel! If I'm going to write about postpartum fog, then I'm also compelled to say this: for the past 52 weeks, I have suffered from postpartum baby blues, anxiety, and depression. This post may be the first time a lot of people hear me talk about this, and as nervous as I am to share, I'm as equally nervous not to!
Postpartum disorders can be confusing because there are SO many names these days (and even a shit ton more surrounding stigmas). Every woman experiences postpartum life differently -- and not a single version is "right" or wrong". A lot of my struggles were triggered by having thyroid disease while pregnant, on top of other stress factors like my mom battling breast cancer at the time. It was a hard year all around. I can confidently say that even though I had a tough time, I am also a great mom -- and it's possible for the two to co-exist!
A few weeks ago I launched into full on celebratory mode for Arya's first birthday -- buying her a party outfit, picking out a smash cake, planning a photo shoot, and making the decorations! But I kept getting interrupted by a nagging feeling. It turns out my subconscious was trying to nudge me -- before celebrating Arya's first year of life, I needed to reflect on all that had happened to me this past year, too.
Plainly put, not a single thing went down the way I thought it would. Pregnancy and childbirth? Family stuff? New mom life? Stressful, sad, and confusing. All of it - every single thing - was the exact opposite of what I had mentally prepared myself for. I'm certainly no type A, but I'm always positive and resourceful - I really pride myself on being able to find a solution to any problem. So naturally, I applied that same logic to becoming a mom. First mistake! Who I was and how I dealt with life before baby is just not who I am now, and that has taken some getting used to. And have I even mentioned the hormones?
My postpartum journey unfolded in phases, and the first one was:
Baby Blues. Moody is an understatement. "Levels of the hormones estrogen and progesterone are sky-high during pregnancy—higher than they will ever be at any other time in a woman's life—and after delivery of the baby and the placenta, they plummet. This neurobiological process triggers the baby blues" (via Fit Pregnancy). After coming home from the hospital I was sometimes super ecstatic, sometimes irritable, all times unpredictable. I felt weepy, excited, angry, overwhelmed, in love, and just all the emotions all the time. I had more than a few breakdowns because I was bleeding, sore, and sad and wanted to be left alone -- but of course people wanted to be around all the time and so I had to hurt some feelings on more than one occasion to ask for space. Mix in the fact that my body wasn't healing properly, and the trials of learning how to breastfeed and it's no wonder I found myself in a funk. My doctors said that the baby blues would start to dissipate after a few weeks on their own, but I didn't find that to be entirely true.
What helped? Connecting with other new moms and their babies. Seriously, joining a support group when Arya was just 1 week old gave me something outside of the house to do and it allowed me to understand that I wasn't alone. And I didn't have to look far to find one either -- my delivery hospital offered it weekly (with free lunch!). We sat in a round circle with our babies sprawled out on the floor in front of us and literally dug into the hard questions with our leader, every single week. As my hormones leveled I began feeling like a normal person again and adjusted to the demands of breastfeeding. I had found a great community that became an integral support system. I found what I thought was a pretty good balance and a sustainable routine of nursing, changing diapers, writing blog posts, trying to remember to take care of myself, and getting a handle on all my moods.
But then the next phase reared its ugly head, and that was absolutely and unequivocally:
Postpartum Anxiety (more info here). What I remember most is that there was so much mental noise. I was doing A LOT of negative self talk. Like, A LOT. Once I let one in, it ruled the day and sometimes the week. I avoided people, and instead focused every second of my energy on caring for Arya. But then I simultaneously worried about finding balance, about being a "good mom", and struggled with decision-making every second of the day. I wanted to go back to work but I couldn't, I wanted some freedom back but I couldn't, I wanted to stop feeling like a stranger to myself but I couldn't. And I couldn't "snap out of it"! Another red flag was that I stopped sleeping, even after Arya started sleeping through the night -- no really, there was one time I was basically awake for 3 full days because I was so on edge. I loved this little human so much and wanted to do everything to perfection for her, but because I couldn't control a single aspect of it, I had convinced myself that I was failing. Which was only made worse by the guilt I felt about being overwhelmed in the first place. How is it that something we're "made to do" could be SO difficult and leave me feeling so stripped bare? I'm a natural-born fixer, and yet I couldn't fix every problem I faced as a new mom. And Rob was adding to the stress, because he just couldn't understand what I was going through and that it was being driven by hormones.
What helped? My doctor listened and gave me a pat on the knee but didn't quite take me seriously, so I had to find resources on my own. I tried a random google search for "anxiety after childbirth" and those results gave validation to something that isn't talked about very much. From there, I fell into a wormhole of researching natural ways to help ease the symptoms and was surprised at how fast I could make small changes to start getting myself on track. I began rehydrating and eating a super high-protein diet (amino acid in protein acts like a building block to Serotonin, producing more of that "feel good" hormone), I applied these cognitive behavioral exercises to my anxious thoughts on a daily basis, and I found Barre3 workouts that helped me zone out and focus inward.
But as the anxiety began to dissipate and I stopped managing it, something else was revealed just underneath it:
Postpartum Depression. Everything is just SO different as a new mom, and trying to adjust to keeping another human being alive is INSANE. No really, it's batshit. How and who the hell decided that this was a job I could do? Just a year prior I was haphazardly living life with nobody to answer to and yes, I am aware how ridiculously selfish that sounds but it's a real thought I had. One second you're effortlessly gliding through life giving zero fucks and the next, you give SO many fucks (all of them to be exact) about a small tiny thing that has completely stolen your heart and life forever. I was surrounded by a beautiful baby and a loving partner but I continued to feel lonely and just really, really sad. Even though I couldn't find one single thing to actually be sad about! And that's what's strange about this -- after childbirth, your hormones swing so widely in opposite directions that it's difficult to tell which way is up. Your old life is SO gone, it couldn't BE more gone. You feel EVERYTHING so much more intensely, and give validation to every emotion (whether they deserve it or not). On the outside I was doing "fine" -- posting cute baby pictures, happily breastfeeding, going on play dates, working out a ton, just living that #momlife. I guess that was me trying to keep a lid on all the hard stuff? On the inside it was completely opposite -- I was so shocked by how easily I took to mom duties, but at the same time just didn't recognize myself or my life. One day after a melancholy shopping trip, my mom point-blank asked me if I was ok and to my surprise, the flood gates opened. After hard crying my way through an explanation, I finally just said no. "I know", she said. "I've known for a while and now that you know too, let's do something about it". Her simple reassurance that my sadness was a real thing, that I wasn't ridiculous, and that it was temporary became life changing.
What helped? A holistic approach and recommitting to my anxiety coping mechanisms. But also I just embraced the fact that we were living in a "new normal" and began making clear plans for our family. I organized time just for myself (dubbed Mommy Time, Do Not Disturb), and set new goals outside of being a mom that felt attainable. Take care of myself too? Check. Get back on track with my career? Check. Looking ahead really pulled me out of the sadness and a compartmentalized approach saved my sanity. I also wanted other moms to know that we cannot be all the things all the time, and that it's totally okay, so sharing the tough stuff through my blog and on social media helped a ton as well. Instead of filtering only the good moments I sorta just let it all hang out organically, and it felt so freeing. Also, including Rob in the conversation and talking about ways that we could develop a better support system for each other was helpful. Establishing clear lines of communication and responsibility gave each of us back some independence, and allowed us to just enjoy family time in the moment.
What's the takeaway? Postpartum recovery is a constant work in progress. And Motherhood is a freaking huge responsibility -- the biggest one that any of us could hope to have. It's scary. Looking Arya in the eyes for the first time 52 weeks ago irrevocably changed my soul, and it's just taken my body some extra time to catch up. Some days I mom so hard, and other days I'm still kind of a mess but from what I hear, that's just what it's like. Through each stage of my postpartum journey though, the common thread remained the same. Support! The single most important thing any mom can have is a supportive community within which she can bare her soul. Postpartum disorders aren't a dirty, naughty, dramatic thing to be ignored! Instead, they're an opportunity to reach out for help -- a little hand holding and a safe place to struggle can make all the difference.
So yeah, I'm not sure there was an actual point or lesson to this post but sharing has always been my favorite coping mechanism. I feel like I'm able to close a chapter on that part of life, and enjoy the here and now. Wish me luck in year two as I try my best to kick ass at this whole mom thing and as I strive to mold Arya into a cool human who loves, and learns, and plays, and engages wholeheartedly with the world around her!