From Perfectionism to Postpartum Anxiety

Ever since I was young, I have been a perfectionist. I was used to having control of everything in my life, and succeeding at everything I did. In my 20+ years, I rarely experienced failure and had lived a very blessed life. Several years before my daughter was born, I experienced my first bout with serious health anxiety. I was on a low dose of anxiety medication but was able to stop using it before becoming pregnant. Throughout my pregnancy, I was fairly anxious, always wondering if my baby was healthy, questioning every movement, every pain, every new, weird pregnancy sensation. Before giving birth, my goal was to breastfeed for a year, as per the recommendations of practically EVERYONE I ever spoke to or anything I ever read. My husband and I took a birth and babies class, and formula feeding was NEVER touched on, except to reiterate that it is much more expensive, much less convenient, and much less nutritious than breastfeeding. 

When my beautiful daughter was born, I breastfed her while in the hospital, but it was PAINFUL! As a first time mom, I didn’t know any better, and thought that everything was fine. Everyone always said, “Be prepared for chafed, sore nipples!”, so I thought it was just something I would have to deal with. The nurses that came to check on me told me that everything seemed to look ok, so I went with it. The day we were released from the hospital, a nurse told us that our daughter might have a tongue tie, but she wasn’t sure, so we were released without further discussion of the matter. 

When we got home, I was unprepared for the sheer agony I would endure trying to breastfeed. My daughter’s latch was excruciating, and she never seemed satisfied after a feed. Shortly after starting every feed, she would fall asleep, then be awake 20 minutes later screaming in hunger. When we went to our public health appointment a few days later, the nurse told us that our daughter had jaundice (though not at a critical level), and she was concerned that my milk had not come in (even though I found out later that it was not expected for my milk to have come in yet since I was a first time mom). She insisted that we top her up with formula right away, and that’s when everything I had thought my experience as a new mother would be, crumbled before my eyes. I was completely unprepared to formula feed. I had no bottles, had not researched any formula, had not even THOUGHT about the possibility that it may be necessary. That’s when my generalized anxiety turned into full-blown, debilitating, postpartum anxiety. 

The first 3 weeks postpartum were a nightmare. Between newborn well-check appointments, public health nurse appointments, lactation specialist appointments, and appointments to try to at least get SOME of my anxiety under control, I was living in a doctor’s office. Not to mention the friends and family members that obviously wanted to stop by to meet the baby, or have coffee, or dinner. Although it all came from a good place, I felt immense pressure to always allow visitors and make it seem like I had my shit together. I never got the time to rest, recover, and just learn how to be her mom. I desperately wanted to breastfeed, but I never got the opportunity to just lay in bed, skin-to-skin with my daughter for days at a time to try to make it all work. Instead, I was told I had to go here, there, and everywhere to get things figured out, and because I was a first time mom, I thought I had to do these things. The worst part was, I got different information from every doctor, nurse, lactation consultant, friend, and family member that I saw. Everything I was being told was conflicting, and I didn’t feel like I had any professional I could truly trust. By my fourth week postpartum, my milk supply had almost completely vanished due to the combination of my anxiety, my daughter’s tongue tie (which was eventually diagnosed), formula supplementation, and the fact that my body did not respond to a pump (I could barely even get a few drops). In my mind, I had completely failed at something for the first time in my life. Everything I had planned had gone down the drain. I was inadequate as a mother; I was convinced that I could not care for my baby and that she would have health issues and cognitive issues because I had to feed her formula, because that is the false information that is ALL OVER and too readily available to a new mom just trying to figure things out.

Things really took a turn for the worse when I recognized that I had PPA and PPD and started to Google. I read article after article about how not breastfeeding, combined with PPA and PPD, would lead to attachment issues with my daughter. I CONVINCED myself that because of the current situation we were in, my precious little baby would not have a secure attachment to me. I was failing her. It threw me into a complete and utter spiral. If my husband or a relative was hanging out with the baby, I was on the couch. I could do nothing but curl into a ball and sleep. Intrusive and suicidal thoughts were a daily occurrence, and panic attacks were constant. Getting out of the house was impossible, except to make it to appointment after appointment (for myself and my baby). When I would drive to an appointment, I wouldn’t put my seatbelt on, hoping that if we got into an accident, everyone in the car would survive unharmed except for me. There was no way I could live the rest of my life like this. Thankfully, despite my struggles, I never felt like I was going to neglect my baby. Instead, I went in the complete opposite direction, and insisted on having my daughter in my arms 24/7, because that’s what I felt that I needed to do to help her form an attachment to me. I was petrified to let anyone else hold her or give her the bottle because I thought I needed every possible second for her to bond with me. People in my life who had never experienced anxiety or depression thought they were helping by pushing me out of the house, babysitting, giving me advice and suggestions, but all it did was make it worse. Being away from my baby at the time was the exact OPPPOSITE of what I needed, but I did not have the strength or the backbone to stand up for myself. I was put on a new anxiety medication, saw multiple therapists, talked to doctors, talked to friends and family, but because my anxiety focused on attachment, the only way I was going to overcome it was to know for a fact that my beautiful daughter had a healthy, secure attachment to me. This meant that I was CONSTANTLY checking for attachment signs: was she making eye contact with me? Was she following me and/or my voice around a room? Was she soothed being in my arms? Did she smile at me? Did she laugh for me? The checking became an obsession, and robbed me of any joy for the first 4 months of her life. Here I was with this beautiful, perfect baby girl, and I was ruining the experience for myself and everyone around me, but I truly could not help it. Anxiety and depression overshadow reason and have the ability to completely take hold of your mind.

I told myself and everyone I spoke to that as soon as I knew she was attached to me I would be better. Then, as if overnight around the 5 month mark, I started seeing those signs I was so desperate to see. My baby loved me; my baby was attached to me. All of a sudden, it was like my crippling anxiety melted away and disappeared. Time was what I needed to beat my anxiety; not “getting out of the house”, not time spent away from my baby, not countless appointments with therapists, not exercising, none of the things everyone kept pushing me to do. Undoubtedly, all of those things can work wonders for other people, but everyone’s situation is unique; anxiety and depression are not one-size-fits-all. I couldn’t have gotten through that dark time in my life without the love and support of family and friends, including mini therapy sessions via text with Jennifer [Hammer], and for that I am so thankful. 

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Today, my little girl is 17 months old and is the HAPPIEST, most beautiful, most intelligent baby I have ever seen. She is months and months ahead with all of her milestones. Everyone she meets is in awe of how brilliant, happy, healthy and loving she is; my formula fed baby! And, let me tell you, that girl is as attached to me as any baby could possibly be to her mother! Anxiety and depression are cruel, malicious beasts; no one is immune. Everyone’s anxiety is different, everyone’s symptoms are different, and everyone’s solution is different. For anyone that is suffering, I know that it seems like it will never, ever end but I promise you, there IS a light at the end of the tunnel. Today I can truly say, I have experienced no greater joy than being her mother and I feel like the luckiest mama in the world. That’s not to say that every day is easy, or that I don’t have anxious moments once in a while, because being a mom is just really hard! But it is also so, so rewarding. The expectations put on new mothers today to be perfect, combined with the countless “sanctimoms” spewing their incessant, unsolicited advice, makes for an impossibly difficult world for a new mother. There is no “right way” to raise your child and no parent is perfect. When it comes to parenthood, you can expect that even with your best-laid plans, you will most likely experience some bumps in the road. I am thankful that because of everything I went through, I came out the other side stronger than I ever thought possible, and the idea of having another child one day excites me. No matter what you are going through, I promise that if you love your baby, you’re doing everything right.


❤︎ Submitted by Jolie MacPhee