I can still feel it like it was yesterday. I was hysterically crying in the middle of the departures terminal of Newark Airport, suitcase wide open, shoving all of my belongings into plastic bags, while everyone in the vicinity stared at me and whispered.
It was the last day of my first trip away from my 16 month old son and I was desperate to get on the plane back to Los Angeles, however my suitcase had a battery pack in it and apparently needed to be unscrewed prior to boarding. How on earth was I going to get a screwdriver in the middle of an airport terminal? I had already missed my flight, as the traffic in the Lincoln Tunnel was bumper to bumper and it took several hours to get to the airport. My poor Uber driver, who dealt with my frantic and compulsive demands to take bizarre routes and switch lanes, all while I was excessively sweating and crying, was constantly trying to calm me down, assuring me I’d be able to find another flight. After arriving at the airport, the kind woman at the United desk could sense my unsettled energy and got me booked on another flight that was leaving very soon. I felt a momentary sense of relief, I’d be able to see my baby tonight.
I ran as fast as I could to security, tapping my foot and exhaling loudly as I waited to get through the line that seemed like it hadn’t moved at all in 20 minutes. Finally, with a huge sigh of relief, I arrived at my gate, went to board, and in a moment I will never forget—almost as if it happened in slow motion—the gate agent told me I couldn’t board the plane unless I removed my battery pack from my suitcase. I immediately started to feel hot and dizzy, sweat was dripping from my armpits. I started crying, yet again, and was acting confused. I was having what I now know to be a dissociative panic attack. People gathered around, mostly as voyeurs, a few who actually felt for me and wanted to help. A man and his son, who were so unbelievably kind, flagged down a maintenance worker and tried to find a tool to get the battery pack out (to no avail). It was 9 PM and the shops were all closed, or else I would have purchased a new bag. I would have given someone thousands of dollars if they could have offered me a solution at that moment. Eventually a sweet older woman, clearly recognizing in me something she had once felt in herself, emptied out her tourism gift shop bags and handed them to me so I could shove my clothes and shoes into them and carry them on. My suitcase was splayed open on the ground, underwear and personal items exposed to everyone, but what was most exposed in that moment to everyone but me were the depths of my postpartum anxiety.
Entering into parenthood was a truly wonderful experience, much to my surprise. To be frank, prior to getting pregnant, I hadn’t heard many great things about motherhood. Yes, people loved their babies and said they wouldn’t change a thing in the world, but what followed that sentiment always seemed very conflicting; almost as if they were all just constantly yearning for the life they had before welcoming a baby, and desperate to find the woman they once were before becoming “mom”. Stories of women hating their partners, lamenting that their bodies were never the same—they were all exhausted (and they never had time for themselves). When I got pregnant, I wouldn’t exactly say I was stoked about what was to come. I also wasn’t someone who felt connected to my baby during pregnancy, which left me feeling unsettled to say the least. All in all, I had no idea what I was in store for, but I did know that I was apprehensive about what life would look like in the near future.
I went into labor two weeks early and nine hours later, in the greatest moment of my life, I met my baby boy, Graydon. Labor was, dare I say, fun? I only had to push a few times, and I was so into the whole process, I reached down and pulled him out on my own. Later, I cut the umbilical cord myself. My son latched on my breast about ten minutes after giving birth and we never had any breastfeeding issues. I was in a constant state of euphoria and finally felt like I’d found my purpose in life. Being a mom was what I was always meant to be. All of these terrifying anecdotes I’d heard? None of them applied to me. This was pure bliss.
Sleep was something that literally everyone had told me would be hard to come by, but at 12 weeks old, Gray was sleeping from 8pm-7am; this baby was an actual dream! I had started a new mom’s group a few weeks earlier and the woman who ran it mentioned that she was hospitalized for a few days after having her baby, so she had to pump in order to maintain her supply and for the baby to have bottles while she was in the hospital recovering. I remember thinking—in my mind, a very rational thought—that I should probably start pumping to create a supply in case I was ever hospitalized. So as my baby slept for eleven hour chunks of time, I would wake up 3-4 times a night, sometimes more, to pump for twenty minutes. He would breastfeed several times a day, but I’d also make sure to pump once or twice, or more, throughout that. I wasn’t heading back to a full time job, so pumping this frequently was not necessarily out of necessity. I eventually had to purchase a deep freezer to store all of the milk.
Thinking about this possible future hospitalization had also made me acutely aware of my own health and possible mortality. I had a baby to care for now. I was his mother and he needed me—what would happen if I got sick? Like, really sick? That’s when I started to google random symptoms I’d be feeling. From fatigue, to a headache, to dehydration, I’d find an article that linked pretty much anything to a terrifying and life threatening illness. It got to a point where the hypochondria was so bad that even walking into a doctor’s office, I would feel faint out of fear of what they were about to tell me. Eventually, feeling faint turned into actually fainting. On multiple occasions I got so scared about what presumptive bad news the doctor was about to tell me that I actually fainted in the office. Out loud, I would justify that it was because ‘I hadn’t eaten enough’ or that ‘I am a fainter, it’s no big deal’. Objectively, I knew that my actual reasoning sounded crazy, yet I still felt completely validated and rational in my own mind.
Next began the obsessive fears that something would happen to my baby. While out on walks, I would avoid walking under trees in case a branch fell and landed on his stroller. I’d make sure that he was out of the kitchen whenever I had to use a knife in case I tripped while holding it and it flew out of my hands and through the air towards him. I loved this child so much—the world just started to seem like an increasingly scarier place. Around his first birthday he weaned from breastfeeding and I stopped being able to sleep. I was wired all night and would just lie there obsessing over the fact that I wasn’t sleeping. I feared that it would make me a bad mom because I wouldn’t be able to be as present or energetic as I wanted to be. Exercising always energized me no matter how tired I felt, and I found a specific class that I loved, but the stress of getting back home from the studio was almost debilitating. I remember running out of class, jumping in my car and frantically driving home to get back to my baby. Each time I found him there, completely content and happy. We had a lovely nanny who adored him and made him feel incredibly loved and secure in my absence. However, I would obsessively loop the same thought over and over for the next several hours: that I was a bad mom for leaving him and that everyone knew it.
The next several months got progressively worse. My obsessive thoughts started to infiltrate all parts of my life and my health fears and safety concerns became crippling. Here is the craziest part: no one would have ever known anything was wrong. I genuinely adored motherhood and adored my baby even more and felt undeniably bonded with him. Despite all that I’ve mentioned so far, I was also simultaneously so incredibly happy. No part of me wanted to go back to a life before parenthood. I had lots of mom friends, was very social, and in so many ways, was absolutely loving this phase of life. But that’s the thing about postpartum anxiety. It isn’t obvious, and it’s very difficult to recognize symptoms in yourself as they arise. So often we hear about postpartum depression and the telltale signs of feeling disconnected from your baby and motherhood like hopelessness, anger and a general loss of interest. I never felt any of these things; in fact, I felt the exact opposite. I genuinely believed that my behaviors were making me a “better” mom, albeit a hyper vigilant one. Pumping a lot? Great for my baby! Taking extra safety precautions? Again, a good thing! Occasionally I caught an eye roll or underhanded comment from my partner or family about my hypochondria, but no one ever thought to say, “Morgan, I notice that you are starting to have some obsessive thoughts and behaviors, how are you doing with everything?”
That trip to New York was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Even before the airport fiasco, I was in full fledged fight or flight. I didn’t want to go on this trip but my partner (and society) convinced me it was important to do something like this for myself. From the second we left LA, I wanted time to speed up. I felt like I was missing a limb. I just wanted to get it all over with so that I could say I did it and then get back home to my child. I felt completely disconnected from my body the entire trip. I remember looking in the mirror and not even recognizing myself. I was barely sleeping to begin with, but had an even harder time than usual on this trip. I absolutely love New York, having worked there for years, and the energy of the city always recharged me—but not this time. Things were loud and made me anxious. I hated the chaos and just wanted to sit in the hotel room. The horns and the noise and the humidity physically made me hurt, as if my skin had exposed nerve endings. I went through each day laser focused on getting home. Looking back, I realize that all of it—all the sleeplessness, the obsessive thoughts, health anxieties—were jumbled up inside a pressure cooker and that my flight out of New York was a metaphor, a symbol I could actualize, for getting out of this vicious internal monologue. I held out hope that this flight back to my very small comfort zone would give me some semblance of control. So, as one thing after another went wrong on my journey to get home, there I sat, sobbing on the floor of Newark airport, clutching two plastic bags full of my clothes, scared and panicked.
When I finally made it home to Los Angeles, I was able to acknowledge that while yes, I had some stressful things happen while trying to get back to LA, my reaction was not normal. I knew I had to get help. A year prior as a preventative measure, the facilitator of the mom group I had joined shared a list of mental health professionals that specialize in postpartum care. Ironically, the place that caused me to have my first obsessive thought cycle was also the resource that provided me with the help I needed. I found an amazing psychiatrist who was warm and caring, and a mother herself. About six minutes into explaining what I had been going through, she shared that my experience was actually quite common: it was called Postpartum Anxiety, and I specifically was dealing with intrusive thoughts and OCD. She comforted me by reassuring me that I was still a great mother and that there was a way for me to feel better. I still have trouble articulating the relief that washed over me in that moment.
I was prescribed an SSRI which helped almost immediately, along with some cognitive behavioral therapy. I was also referred to an acupuncturist to help balance my hormones. Studies have shown that hormones contribute heavily to postpartum mood disorders, which tracks with the timing of my worsening symptoms. Things escalated for the worse as I weaned my son from breastfeeding, which can cause significant hormonal dysregulation, and for me it had a lot to do with dopamine imbalance (which can specifically cause intrusive thought OCD). Within a few months I felt like a different person. The therapy helped immensely with controlling my thoughts and I was able to stop taking my medication fairly quickly. I was finally able to experience motherhood without being a prisoner to my obsessive thoughts.
Postpartum anxiety affects nearly 35% of new moms (although that number is likely much larger), and also can present itself much later on in the journey, as it did with me. When it comes to postpartum care, most women get the generic questionnaire at their OBGYN’s office six weeks after giving birth and beyond that, support quickly dissipates.
Despite what we’d like to believe, mothers face judgment every step of the way. As such, it’s common for them to struggle in isolation for far too long before seeking help.
Even as I write this all out, I am nervous about what people will think of me if they find out I struggled. Will they think I was a bad mom? Will they think that I’m complaining and being too self indulgent? I have a beautiful life and a good support system, I know this—will they think I’m crazy? I was so fortunate to have access to the best resources—imagine the massive population of mothers out there, metaphorically drowning in their own shame without any of those options; I think about this constantly and know that I’m not alone.
Through my experience I learned that two contrasting things can simultaneously be true. I absolutely loved motherhood and my child more than I ever could have imagined, and I was struggling. That duality is present throughout motherhood, and we’re often just expected to figure it out by ourselves. We’re told to adjust to our new lives, navigate the return to work mere months after giving birth, manage our own health and wellbeing—all while maintaining our friendships, being a good partner and keeping a tiny human alive. We are faced with an impossible task, and yet society still collectively gasps when presented with the facts: postpartum mental health issues are on the rise.
There’s no question that we need to normalize not being okay.
Mothers deserve to be presented with a new narrative that supports talking openly about the duality, the expectation and the struggle. Experiencing postpartum depression, anxiety, or even questions over your purpose and identity in no way labels you a bad parent. On the contrary, being brave enough to seek help makes you an even better parent: one that is already modeling to your child that you prioritize your wellbeing. In the end, I am grateful for my journey with postpartum anxiety. I became more enlightened about my body, learned how my hormones affect me and acquired tools and coping mechanisms, should I ever have another bout with PPA. Equally, my experience led me towards a new career, fueled by a new curiosity about the physiology of new motherhood.
I openly share my story now because I have encountered many women who have felt relief when hearing it. If I can help even one mom feel less alone, then my vulnerability is worth it, scary as it sometimes is. The first step to normalizing this very common experience is to start sharing our stories in hopes that our generation’s collective power can ensure that future mothers have the support that has been lacking for us. If you’re reading this, know that you are an amazing parent, and you are never alone.