“I don’t want my anxiety to get in the way of birth.”
This was my response when asked what I intended to learn from my Calm Birth class.
I’m no stranger to anxiety or depression, and I’ve spent many years in therapy because I never wanted mental illness to impact my parenting or to burden my future children. I was deemed at risk of postpartum depression and anxiety due to my history, so from the start of my pregnancy, I was determined to minimise the likelihood and severity of this. It became my mission. I was in contact with a psychologist through Gidget Foundation Australia, and was fortunate enough to receive the support of the hospital’s social worker. I thought I was doing everything ‘right’, but looking back, I missed the obvious reality that I had antenatal anxiety.
From finding out I was pregnant, health anxiety and the fear of ‘what if’ took away a lot of my joy. I had a very low-risk pregnancy and had no reason to question my health, but I still catastrophised every symptom and constantly sought reassurance. I spent that first trimester feeling disconnected from my baby, scared to get attached, and unable to trust my body.
By my second trimester, I was overwhelmed by a deep love for my little boy (who we affectionately called Pudge) and I experienced many moments of inner peace, so I was under the illusion that I was managing my anxiety. Unfortunately, there were many signs that things were getting worse, including insomnia, near-daily panic attacks, and constant researching. Something as innocent as a baby monitor cost me weeks of sleep, convinced a wrong decision was life-or-death for my baby. A lot of intrusive thoughts also crept in, from being stabbed, having a car accident, or falling down the stairs and landing on my belly. Slowly, my radius from the house shrank. The June 2021 lockdown provided a very convenient excuse to stay home.
I’d originally felt informed and calm about birth, and I would spend a lot of time visualising birth as empowering and fulfilling. But by my third trimester, I became convinced birth would be traumatic and that life-threatening complications were inevitable. My anxiety was so severe that I agreed to a planned c-section because I didn’t believe I could labour actively without panicking, and I associated a traumatic birth with an increased likelihood of postpartum depression. But this decision haunted me. I constantly burst into tears because I was petrified of surgery. Sometimes, I momentarily believed I could birth as I’d initially visualised, but then the anxiety would return, and once again I couldn’t trust my body. I learned about postpartum psychosis around this time too, and the potential of harming my baby just heightened the anxiety. I began to hyper-fixate on preparing for postpartum – researching, writing lists, anything to give me the illusion of control.
On the day my son was born, I cried all through the hospital hallways and endured panic attacks the entire surgery. I had a textbook c-section, lost minimal blood, and our son was in perfect health, but the anxiety only escalated when the surgery ended. I was afraid of every complication, from blood clots to delayed hemorrhaging, from sepsis to oozing. I’d never felt so fragile in my life.
Despite the anxiety, I spent two days bonding with my baby, learning his cues, and breastfeeding easily. I actually thought I’d be okay. But by the second night, I was hit with a surge of adrenaline trying to anticipate every problem I would face as a parent or that could face my son. Insomnia hit very quickly, I couldn’t close my eyes for days without being jolted awake in a panic. Insomnia convinced me postpartum psychosis was inevitable, so I fixated on trying to sleep, which of course made sleep more elusive. I then became engorged when my milk came in, so after days without sleep, I sobbed every feed in excruciating pain while midwives milked me by hand. It wasn’t long before I switched to formula.
After being discharged from the hospital, I spent the scariest week of my life at home. The intrusive thoughts had escalated and I became severely distressed by images of harm to my baby. I would constantly cry and shake, I couldn’t sleep or eat. I made my husband hold me for hours as if being held was the only thing that stopped the intrusive thoughts from coming to life. I was consumed by fears of ruining my son, he deserved so much better than me. I was spiraling and I didn’t know how I could survive this.
Before Levi was two weeks old, we were admitted to the mother-and-baby unit of a psychiatric hospital. I’d never felt so ashamed, so at rock bottom, but I was treated by a team of experts and surrounded by so much compassion and support from both the staff and the other mothers. Despite my history, I’d never taken antidepressant medication, so I was hesitant, but the staff took things at my pace. Between medication and a well-rounded therapy program, my distress quickly eased and I was able to sleep. I stayed there for four and a half weeks and was more afraid to be discharged than I was to be admitted.
My anxiety and depression symptoms slowly subsided with regular therapy and an outpatient group program. But for a long time, I blamed myself, grieving over what I let anxiety steal from me. I even kept my c-section scar bandaged for six weeks, I couldn’t look at the physical reminder of failing to control my anxiety. I’m now learning to give myself grace because mental illness is exactly that – an illness. There’s only so much we can ‘control’ without help. And I’m so grateful for the help I did receive – from family, friends, and professionals.
Nine months after my son’s birth, I’m less anxious now than I’ve ever been in my entire life. I didn’t believe it was possible, especially in motherhood, but I’m more patient, more present. I’m still healing though, and probably will be for a long time, but any anxiety-free moments I have, when I see my son smile or hear him laugh, just mean so much more now.