insert emoticon here, working mother


Another mom in a Facebook group of parents asked about an offhand remark I made about postpartum anxiety, and so this is an elaboration on my response, which got too long for a comment. I share it because mental health is just health, and shouldn’t be a secret, shouldn’t be shameful, and shouldn’t be hidden.

I’ve always been a worrier, and pretty Type A about life. I’m a librarian by education but an academic administrator by career meanderings, and I manage people, projects, budgets, politics, relationships, and a facility… and that’s just my day job. I also have a husband who’s self-employed and has a couple of chronic health challenges, my own chronic physical issues, a dog, two cats, a house, two aging cars, student loans, family scattered across this country and two others, and all the trappings of American middle class living. I worry about stuff. A lot. I’ve always framed it as a way to keep track of things, to make sure I wasn’t missing anything, to ensure that I handled all that was supposed to be handled, to keep our lives moving forward as we wished they would. I keep mental lists, I check things off of them, and our life proceeds apace.

On a good day, that’s a true framing. On a bad day…

Immediately after Gwyn was born, I started having dreams that really were nightmares, the kind I’d wake from, sweaty and shaking and mentally shaken. They had two forms: In one, I had fallen asleep holding her, and had tangled her in the blankets or under my body and in the dream I was ripping off bed linens trying to find her before she died. In the other, I was carrying her and dropped her, and that one always ended with me watching her little head hit concrete, and then I’d wake up. I can still see images from both of them vividly in my mind if I think about them, a year later. It was pretty clear to me that this was a response to the hormones pumping through me, postpartum, and that my brain was acting out some of the anxiety I felt about being a brand new parent to this little creature. It seemed pretty reasonable, if utterly horrible. I figured it’d fade as the hormones settled, and as I got comfortable with this massive and major life change.

Except it kept ramping up, slowly. I felt better about being a parent, and my hormones did settle, but I never felt less anxious about it. It all came to a head when Gwyn was about 8 months old. I was back to work full-time, Justin was home with G, and things were good — they were totally fine, on a basic “how’s life?” scale. I was healthy, G was happy, Justin liked being a stay at home dad, and we were doing pretty great, overall. Except I was coming home from work every single day and in the course of just living in my life, I would burst into tears. The stress of existing had me just falling apart. I couldn’t relax. I couldn’t let go of a single thing on my mental list of stuff to worry about and remember, and I couldn’t prioritize anything on that mental list of stuff to worry about and remember. I couldn’t parse what was big and what was small, and I was freaking out about everything.

After a literal week of sobbing every night, I happened to have a regularly scheduled check up with my doctor. I probably wouldn’t have scheduled an appointment just because I was “sad and stressed out”, but since I had one on my calendar already, I did what I always do with my regular check ups with him — I think through “what’s up with me”. My checkups are intended to monitor my blood pressure, since in my early 30s I started demonstrating signs of chronic hypertension, and we’ve managed it together for 6 years now. As a part of that, he always asks about stress levels, my mental health, and how I’m sleeping. So I thought all of that through, as I do… and when I got to my appointment I looked at him and said “I’m not okay.”

We talked about why I thought I wasn’t okay. He asked good questions. We identified that I had just weaned Gwyn fully, and that was probably messing with my hormones even more than usual. He agreed I didn’t sound like myself. And he prescribed a low dose of Zoloft.

I took it. Gratefully. FIX ME, I thought. And for a week, the drug just made me sleepy.

And then about 10 days after I started taking it, Justin said, “You’re back.”

And I was.

I don’t know how long I was trapped in a spiral of anxiety I couldn’t break free of. I don’t know how long before I noticed it began. I don’t know if it was even truly related to pregnancy, childbirth, or weaning. I don’t know if I’ve always carried a low base state of overly concerned about everything. What I do know is that after I started taking the SSRI, I started feeling like a person I recognized, who I didn’t realize was missing from my life. I started to feel like my life was manageable again. I laughed more. I relaxed more. I got better. I still worry about Gwyn, but now my stress dreams are like they have always been before — the classic “show up naked to work and realize you forgot you have a final exam today” variety of dream. No one is maimed or killed in my sleeping mind, anymore. That alone is worth its weight in gold.

And if I hadn’t had the option of a drug that could right my brain’s chemistry, I don’t know where that dark, sad, frustrated, terrified, anxious road would have gone. I was doing everything right, had all the support I could ask for, and was having no crisis worth noting — and I couldn’t do it alone. So if any of this sounds like you… please ask for help. It’s out there. And it’s worth it.


  1. Thanks for sharing this and good for you for getting the help you needed. I had a very similar experience when I had Reed (though I was dealing with anxiety and depression) and Zoloft saved my life. It took me way too long to admit that I needed help and seek it out, but once I started taking the medicine, I was myself again within a few days. It was like a miracle. I only wish I’d done it sooner.

  2. May

    I think remember hearing that overwhelming anxiety is one of the signs of postpartum depression, and new moms worry so it’s hard for a lot of people to even think about getting help for that. I’m glad that you were able to get help and are willing to share.


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