By Kira Goldberg
A few weeks ago I ran into a friend who recently had her first child. She had the typical tired look to her, but I could see she was trying to fight it as she smiled and waved hello. I greeted her and told her that it would be okay, that it’s hard, and no one tells you just how hard, but it would get easier. She heaved a sigh of relief and began to open up about her exhaustion and fears.
Four years ago I am certain I had that same look, but I lacked her courage to open up.
I am a classic Type-A over-achiever. I met the love of my life, got married, pregnant, moved to a new town and changed bosses all within one year’s time. I thought I would sail through motherhood, that it would be easy.
In the days that followed my son’s birth, though, doubt crept in. Life, it seemed, became excruciatingly difficult. My son screamed so much they wouldn’t keep him in the hospital nursery. I was with him 24×7 and still quite sore from the C-section.
Coming home from the hospital I had my first strike of anxiety. I thought it was normal first-time-mother jitters. So I did the only thing I knew how to do when faced with a new scary situation. I tried to conquer it.
I tried to over-achieve at Motherhood.
It sounds ridiculous just typing that, but looking back, I drove myself relentlessly. I read every book from the Happiest Baby on the Block to Dr. Sears. I tirelessly watched A Baby Story for tips. I bought Parents magazine, gave him tummy time and exclusively nursed him. I never napped when he napped; I was too wired for that. Instead I started building a bank of milk in the freezer. My goal was 100 ounces in 10 weeks. I even developed a spreadsheet to track his every nap to trend any patterns I could find so he could be put down and fed at the “optimal” time.
During this time my mother stayed with me, so I was never alone. When she went off to Nantucket I decided to take my son out to grab a cup of coffee. As I packed him into the car seat, looking at his tiny face, I thought again of how much more I should be doing…I never felt like I was succeeding at motherhood.
Pushing that sinking feeling aside I put him in the car and started to drive. A few minutes passed and I had a thought: What if my car explodes and I die? Who will mother my son? Immediately I was bombarded with images of my car in flames while my son, safe in his car seat, watched in horror as I was engulfed. I began to panic. I could not get the images out of my head.
I called the only person I knew who would understand – my mother. She talked me down but it was a few weeks before I attempted taking him out again.
Slowly but surely I began to spiral. My thoughts of coming to harm began to fade but were replaced with scarier thoughts of harm coming to my child.
I realized I was failing and I vowed to push harder.
I returned to work and added another layer of stress. Having moved to a new town I had no friends close by. I was isolated, lonely and grappling with the scariest pictures that have ever been brought to life in my vivid imagination. The visions got worse and worse until I was racked with anxiety and panic. I thought, “What kind of mother thinks these things? Perhaps I am a danger to him!”
I was ashamed, deeply and overwhelmingly ashamed. I reassured myself that I could push through this. I never told anyone any of my scary thoughts. I kept each new terrifying one a secret. After all, what would they think of me then?
I then began to ensure that I was never alone with my child as the thoughts and images were unbearable when I was. I was afraid to ask for help, afraid they would take him away, afraid I was going crazy, afraid I would never be ME again and very afraid I would be branded a failure.
After seven months I was ready to get help. I recognized that something was terribly wrong and felt utterly betrayed by my own mind and helpless to control the intrusive thoughts and anxiety that plagued me.
I was diagnosed with Postpartum OCD/Anxiety. My personality combined with hormones, stress and all those changes were the perfect storm. I wish I knew then what I know now. I wish I had known that being deeply scared of my thoughts left little chance that I would ever act on them. I wish I knew about the “other” postpartum disorders. I wish I had told someone when that second thought popped in my head. I wish I knew there was such a thing as intrusive thoughts. But life is full of should-have, could-have and would-haves and wishing doesn’t change any of them.
I have learned so much since those first days of motherhood. Now when I come across a brand new mommy I tell her what I wish someone told me:
Taking care of a newborn is hard and if you need an ear I am always here. If a scary thought enters your head and you can’t let it go tell me. I will help you. Some level of anxiety is normal but if you feel overwhelmed by it tell me. I will help you.
Women need to start being honest with each other, stop competing and be supportive. Just like it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a sisterhood to get a mom through it.
Kira Goldberg is a wife, mother and reformed Type A. She works in healthcare and lives in Sharon, MA with her husband, son, step-daughters and a multitude of pets (17!!!).