About a year after I had my son, being a mom started to get a little easier, despite unknowingly dealing with postpartum anxiety. I started navigating working mom life a bit better every day. I was willing to get out of the house and do things with my son a little more every week.
As I started to feel more at ease being a parent, I realized how anxious I had felt my first year as a mom and that perhaps this was not typical.
A Blessing and a Curse
Before having my son, I had worked with children for many years. I worked in a hospital as an occupational therapist with tiny preterm infants in the NICU and children of all ages in the outpatient clinic. I had been there for almost ten years before getting pregnant and was extremely comfortable caring for newborns professionally.
Knowing a lot about infant health and development helped me feel prepared during pregnancy. I really enjoyed being pregnant (for the most part!).
My Birth Story
After giving birth to my son, all that confidence went out the window. My son's birth story involved trauma, and I think this was when my mental health took a turn.
Many aspects of my birth experience were magical. My husband and I were deeply connected throughout the process, and I proved to myself that I have incredible strength within me. I had an unmedicated birth, which was really important to me, and I was amazed at what my body was capable of.
But some elements were not so magical. I had a very long labor (over 30 hours!) and pushed for 5 of those hours. When I finally pushed my son out, I repeatedly said, “I can't believe I did that!” which was very appropriate to say after such a feat.
Since this was my first baby, I didn't realize it wasn't normal that I couldn't walk after giving birth. I noticed the looks the nurses gave each other, but I didn't understand why. Since I did not have an epidural, there was no explanation for this.
By the next day, I started to think maybe something was really wrong. An X-ray confirmed that there was a problem. It showed that I had a significant pubic symphysis diastasis (separation of my pelvic bones).
My pelvis was very unstable, which made lifting my foot off the floor to take a step impossible. The only way I could get around was to shuffle my feet on the floor while leaning on furniture or using crutches.
Going home with a newborn is a little scary for most people (probably everyone!). Going home with a newborn when you aren't able to walk is terrifying.
How will I get up the stairs to our bedroom? How will I carry the baby around? How will I even take a shower?
It took me months to be able to walk somewhat normally again, and many more months before I no longer felt pain.
Having a Baby During the Covid Pandemic
Becoming a new mom is difficult. My son was born three months into the pandemic when the world was very cautious and scared, including me, adding to an already stressful situation. We were living in the heart of Los Angeles at the time, and Covid rates were extremely high.
Before having my son, I had decided to wait at least a few weeks (or maybe months) before letting anyone come to see him. But considering I was not even able to easily care for myself, I knew I was going to need help from more than just my husband.
I'm grateful my parents were so helpful during such a difficult time. They were involved from day one, preparing food for us, and would hold the baby so that I could rest. Aside from their help, we isolated ourselves from most people during my son's infancy.
Parenting a Baby with Tongue Tie
Despite being a feeding and swallowing specialist who primarily works with babies, I was pretty blind to the issues going on with my son.
It took a couple of months for me to realize he had a significant tongue tie and that this was the root of many of his challenges. I know this is a little crazy, but it's a big sign that I had so much going on in my head that I could not think straight. Not to mention, the sleep deprivation was pretty intense!
Once I realized this was the root of excruciatingly painful breastfeeding, I started to devise a plan. My son had a tongue and lip tie released at eight weeks of age. Breastfeeding was almost instantly pain-free, which was pretty incredible.
Although feeding my baby was much easier after the procedure, my son had other significant issues related to his history with tongue tie. Unfortunately, even if a tongue is released, there can be a lot of other long-term effects of tongue tie.
It is common for babies with tongue ties to have body tightness (also called increased muscle tone) and to be uncomfortable in the car seat. My son hated the car seat for the first six months, and going anywhere was challenging.
He would often scream when sitting in the car seat, which was a massive source of anxiety for me. I would drive as fast as I could to get home as quickly as possible and avoided going anywhere further than 15 minutes away unless absolutely necessary.
Over the last two years, I slowly became more willing to drive further distances with my son, and I continued to get a little braver with taking him places.
Sleep and Tongue Tie Babies
My son's challenges with sleep are also related to his tongue tie history. Sleep was always difficult for him because he was so uncomfortable in his body and had a tendency to breathe through his mouth.
Before having a baby, I honestly did not realize the importance of asking parents about their child's sleep quality. I now ask all the families I work with about their child's sleep quality, and I'm grateful to my son for teaching me to do this.
Sleep challenges with babies and kids can be a huge source of parental stress and burnout. I have so much more empathy for parents of newborns after my own experience!
I would get so anxious when the sun started setting because I was so scared of how the night might go and how tired I may be the next day.
I obsessed over my son's sleep and tried to control it in any way I could. I realize this is a pretty impossible goal, but it is still one thing that challenges me the most.
My son now has very enlarged tonsils, adenoids from his mouth breathing habit, and sleep apnea. As a result, sleep is still very hard for him (and, therefore, me as his mom).
I have found ways to manage his continued sleep challenges in a way that works well for our family, so I am grateful that this does not have as big of an impact on me as it used to!
Learning to Cope with Postpartum Anxiety
The more relaxed I began to feel as a parent, the more aware I was of anxious feelings.
My son is now 2 years old, and I still sometimes feel anxious if he has difficulty getting into the car seat. If he starts having a meltdown right before we have to go somewhere, I do find myself panicking a little.
I still struggle when he is going through a particularly rough patch with sleep, and I know I'm in for a hard night. It's hard for me to relax and fall asleep, knowing I may be up in an hour or two.
The difference between 18 months ago and now is that I notice when I'm starting to hold my breath and that my heart rate is increasing. I notice when I start feeling a bit panicky with increased heart rate and desire to appease my son in any way to prevent challenging behavior.
Now that I have more awareness, I can influence my emotions, mental state, and behavior. And this has made all the difference in achieving a more peaceful state more often.
Postpartum anxiety can look different for everyone. It can be crippling for some. I think it's harder to recognize if you appear to be functioning well.
For a type A detailed oriented person like myself, I just kept putting one foot in front of the other and carrying on. It took me a while before I realized I needed to heal from my birth.
I recently decided to do a second round of pelvic floor physical therapy. I had done it for a few months during maternity leave but had to stop when I returned to work. Continuing to work on healing my body was an essential part of the puzzle.
I also had a few sessions of birth trauma therapy, which was incredibly healing for my mind. I did virtual consults with Kate White, and I highly recommend her or someone similar to mothers after a difficult birth.
It was hard to recount my birth story during therapy, but I got so much out of it. I remembered some amazing things from my birth that I had forgotten, and I was able to integrate the experience in a much more balanced way.
My healing is still a work in progress, but I have come a long way in two years. It is possible to heal from postpartum anxiety and feel relaxed as a parent. And it makes parenting and life much more enjoyable when you do!
Marielle Marquez is a wife, mom, and pediatric occupational therapist. She currently lives in a suburb outside of Los Angeles with her family. She is passionate about educating and empowering other parents. Find her on her website and on Instagram at @thrivelittle. Also, check out her E-Book "The First 12 Weeks" if you want to learn how to best support your newborn's development.