The routine was as follows: Tom brought the baby to a daycare center in downtown Manhattan on his way to work. At 3 o'clock I picked up the baby and brought it back to Brooklyn. Apart from the fact that it never really went like this with me.
I would appear on time, but then I would stay. I would have a little talk with Finn's janitors and put a big sign of my interest in the other babies and cooing them as they crept past my feet. My son was several months old and could easily wait until we came home to feed. Still, I sat down in the rocking chair in the corner of the classroom every afternoon, pulling Finn into my lap and nursing him as long as I could pull it off-usually an hour.
Initially, the staff at the daycare was a little suspicious, even rude. Maybe they thought I'd check them and rate their every move as they take care of other people's 5-month olds. I'm almost sure that they never knew the truth: that I was afraid to be alone with my son. I was afraid he might find himself in a nameless emergency and I would not be able to save him. As I sat in the nursery every afternoon, amidst the chaos of feeding, burping and diapers, I felt calmer and more secure than in the quiet of our home, where only me and my son in our arms were us and no one else.
To be fair, I did not have the words at the time to tell them what was really going on. I knew about postpartum depression – and we do not talk about it enough. But scared after birth? I did not even know it was one thing. Who would sympathize with a mother who can not breathe at the thought of being alone with her child? A mother whose impulse is to run path from her child, when she thinks he is choking, not to him, because the thought of not being able to save him is too overwhelming? I shoved my shame aside and made my best impression of a steadfast and capable mother. Finally, I imagined, all those fears and fears would fade.
At first, I had reason to believe that I had my own brand of New Mom Jitters. I am a nervous person first, and after pregnancy hormones increase my tendency to worry. Finn was born one year after our first pregnancy (in our case at the beginning of the second trimester) as a rainbow baby. Hours after his birth, the nurse pushed his transparent bassinet into my room, parked it at the foot of my bed and then just Left. The silence suffocated. As Tom slept on the chair next to me, I wore a red mark on the skin of my elbow that slid up and down to check if Finn was still breathing. At home, I was worried about where I could place his cradle, worrying about a truck rumbling past our shelf and dropping books and heavy objects on it. Still, my fears were usually like scenes in the trailer of an indie movie about stunned first parents. But then it got worse.
One night I was convinced that the trendy zip-up diaper we put on Finn was too tight and would suffocate him in his sleep. I stood anxiously over him and Tom assured me that the diaper was okay, and my mind countered with pictures of a strangled baby. I did what the books said to never do anything: I woke a sleeping baby and took off his wrap. He cried for hours, heartbroken, and his whine vibrated through my body for the rest of the night. And then it got worse.
Where others heard the sweet, sucking sound of breastfeeding, I heard Finn strangle. I was thinking that he would choke on my mother's milk. Where others saw the cute, clumsy mouth movements of a child discovering his tongue, I saw reason for alarm – did he have trouble breathing, a stroke? One afternoon, when I came in from a cold walk, I was sure Finn was not breathing properly. He was lethargic and unresponsive to me. (If someone else had been there, he would say he was tired and longing for a nap). My arms became numb, my chest tight. I had a full blown panic attack. I called my husband. He hurried out of a meeting and was home in 20 minutes.
From then on, I was afraid to be alone with the baby. In the months before the daycare Tom seemed to take the air out of the room every morning when he went to work. Time stopped, the apartment approached me and every movement that Finn made was painful. What if something happens to him and I can not save him?? I participated in an infant CPR class that just expanded my laundry list with frightening what-if questions.
I quietly designed a system in which I was never alone with Finn. On some days my mother made the two-hour train journey from New Jersey, arrived shortly before Tom's departure, and stayed until he came home. On other days, I planned game dates or visited groups of new mothers, baby-and-myself training classes – anything that brought me close to other people. I was silently on FaceTimed with my sister, she was sitting in her home office and working. I silently breastfeed Finn on the couch. And then it got worse.
One night I lay awake, exhausted, but full of insomnia. Tom lay by my side, his feet fidgeting and he was breathing hard. Finn lay in his bassinet on the other side of me, panting and grunting in this unique way of sleeping babies. I suddenly felt hemmed in, angry and trapped in this new reality. I was deprived of sleep, drowning in my enormous new responsibilities, paralyzed with the fear of losing another child, and completely wiped out by my new role as a mother. I was stuck in everything I had pushed down because I was too tired and too scared to feel it.
I remember screaming and breaking the silence of the night. I remember my arms and legs beating like a toddler in the middle of the collapse. I remember my husband scurrying up in bed and my mother, who stayed over, running up the stairs to our bedroom. And then I remember she said to Tom, "We have to get her help. She needs help. "After all my irrational worries about Finn, it was my own well-being that urgently needed attention. As soon as my mother said it, I knew she was right. I felt a sudden relief – unencumbered by the shame, seen and confirmed in all my imperfection. It was okay.
Our pediatrician confirmed that my experience was far beyond the norm and encouraged me to seek treatment. I joined a support group and met other women who were struggling with postpartum mood disorders. Some openly talked about their depression and trusted deep sources of hopelessness or lack of desire to connect with their babies. Some spoke of a constant fear and fear that ran through her all day long. Some were afraid to leave their babies with other caregivers, others were hypervigilant about their children's movements or worried about their spouse's mortality. I felt less alone, recognized myself in her stories, and was finally able to tell my own story. The group led me to a therapist who pointed out that navigating through the seismic changes of motherhood began to heal the underlying trauma of miscarriage. Under the guidance of a reproductive psychiatrist recommended by my obstetrician, I began taking medications that are considered safe during breastfeeding. And I have finally allowed myself to deal honestly with a narrow group of people, because silence brings only shame.
New parents are obsessed with development milestones, but I've had my own steps as a mother for many months and years, in a sense. I'm learning to be alone with Finn for 10 minutes. Then 20. Then one hour. Learning to believe in me as a mother. It was progress and setbacks. There was a lot of crying. He sat with him for a long time on the corner of Starbuck, so that I felt less alone in the presence of strangers. I got to know my child's quirks and learned to trust that he was here, that he was strong and healthy and would not disappear like our first baby.
I wish I knew something about postpartum anxiety in my first pregnancy. A study of more than 300 Canadian women, published in Journal of Affective Disorders In 2016, anxiety and anxiety-related disorders were more likely to affect perinatal women than depression – about 15 percent compared to about 5 percent.
As I write this, Finn is 5 and I'm still days from birth. My experience has not stopped me from doing it all again, it just helped me prepare better. When the panic and phobia started building up in my second trimester, I did not run away. I went on to see my therapist and added a cognitive-behavioral therapy that provided me with specific tools to properly assess my troubled worries before they got out of hand. I am more confident in my ability to mother a newborn, and I know the signs of postpartum fears that I have to watch out for, so I can find medicines, a support group or a postpartum doula earlier when I need them. And I'm more worried that other women are ashamed when they need help.
When I talk to a new mother now, I find a way to leash her. After asking her how she is doing and exchanging the necessary notes on the newborn trenches, I write the sentence, "I've dealt with some pretty serious fears about the birth …" and wait to see if she's tugging.