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I’ve always been quite an anxious person. Even though I didn’t realise it was ‘anxiety’ until my late twenties, I still remember being around 7 or 8 and feeling my heart race, that overwhelming nauseous feeling and being unable to catch my breath. Over the years I had developed systems for coping, ways I would calm myself down and it seemed anxiety just fit into my life.
After my son was born, he spent 66 days in the NICU. We knew it was coming, we were as prepared as one can be facing an unknown NICU stay, and coped by going into ‘survivor’ mode. Everything on autopilot until a month or so after he was home and the magnitude of what we had been through finally hit. Even then, anxiety just fit it. With a baby in NICU, it just became part of what we embraced.
Things were totally different after my daughter arrived 4 years later.
I don’t know whether it was because my life was in a different place and I had ‘let my guard down’. Or if I had built up this expectation of what pregnancy and the fourth trimester ‘should’ be like this time, after experiencing a very turbulent and clinical pregnancy and postnatal period with my son. But I was certainly not prepared for the level of perinatal anxiety that hit me with my second pregnancy.
I am incredibly grateful that my experience, compared to many others, was mild. Anxiety wasn’t a stranger to me, and while I didn’t welcome her back with open arms, when she did arrive back in my life I knew how to recognise her, I knew how to deal with her, and I knew who to call upon if she ever got out of hand.
If you are reading this because you are concerned you may be dealing with perinatal anxiety, there are so many places you can find help and I’ll link to some at the bottom of this article.
While my anxiety is like an old frenemy, I had thought I had learned all I needed in order to keep her in check. And while I can look back now and see the signs, and see that I did indeed cope with my anxiety well, I can also see that there were things that perinatal anxiety taught me about life. These are just some of the things I didn’t realise or understand until my perinatal anxiety forced me to see them.
1 – My Husband And I Are In It Together
We’ve always been a pretty good team and worked really well together. I guess that’s what happens when you meet working as Emergency Paramedics and have to work together in some pretty hairy situations. But I never realised how much he had my back until we experienced together my perinatal anxiety.
He didn’t try to ‘fix’ me, he didn’t offer advice because he knew he could never fully understand it, but he was there for everything. If I said I needed something, he was there, and at 2am when I’d wake him to talk, he didn’t get cranky, he didn’t shut me down, he listened and he loved.
One of the big pressure points of my anxiety is isolation, being alone. It’s difficult to explain, as I quite enjoy (and need) time to myself and I don’t feel like I would be less of a person without my husband, but when anxiety wraps it’s hands around my mind it feels like I am standing in the middle of a desert, with no sense of direction, no bearings and nothing to be seen. Alone.
Having my husband experience perinatal anxiety with me, having him by my side, taught me that I don’t have to do things on my own, it’s okay to ask for help and that he is there. We are in it together.
2 – It’s Okay Not To Be Okay
There seems to be this majority belief that the newborn period is this amazing and blissful time of getting to know your baby and loved up, oxytocin-induced happiness. I never got to experience the ‘newborn’ phase with my son, it was spent cuddling when we could but never moving more than 3 feet from his bed and the copious lines and monitoring equipment he was attached to.
When my husband discussed having another baby, I started to get excited about the newborn phase. I wanted so much to experience and couldn’t wait for that oxytocin high.
I had an incredible labour, amazing support and care, surrounded by people who helped with everything and loved me… and I hated the newborn phase.
I was not okay.
For a while I felt broken, I must have been doing something wrong after all everyone else loved their newborn phase, so why couldn’t I?
But I later realised that not enjoying the newborn phase didn’t mean I loved my daughter any less. It didn’t mean that I was less of a mother. It didn’t mean I failed. It was a rough week, we had a lot of troubles with feeding, I had crazy oversupply of milk and a baby that couldn’t latch properly and had jaundice.
It was okay that I wasn’t okay.
And that goes for any time in your life. You don’t have to always be cheery and smiling, and just because you’re not cheery and smiling doesn’t mean that things are ‘wrong’. You don’t have to enjoy things just because other people do. You are no less of an amazing person, amazing mother, amazing woman just because you struggle with something.
3 – Just Because You Are Right Here Now, Doesn’t Mean You’ll Be Right Here Forever
Anxiety loves me. At least, I figure she does because she keeps coming back. I’m not quite sure she even leaves completely, but I know there are times when she is front and centre in my life and there are times when I forget about her completely.
But that’s the thing – when she takes hold it feels like there will be no end. That this is all there is. But she calms down, and slowly I regain control. Every single time.
Just because my anxiety is high right now, doesn’t mean it will be high forever.
Anxiety doesn’t define who I am.
Anxiety is a moment in time. She is part of my life, she isn’t my life.
I am a big believer that we have phases in life. Sometimes these phases are a little stressful, sometimes they are incredibly emotional – especially at times of personal growth, and sometimes they are chilled and relaxed.
But each of these phases gives way to the next. Just because you are in a stressful phase and a full on point in your life, it doesn’t mean you’re going to be here forever. Knowing this can help you cope with the phase you’re in – and my favourite saying is ‘this too shall pass.’
4 – A Bad Moment, A Bad Day, A Bad Week Does Not Make A Bad Life
I’d love to be able to combat anxiety with logic. I mean, after all, I’m quite a logical person. But when she takes hold, regardless of how much I know the logic, it does nothing to shut her down (for me). When anxiety takes hold, a bad moment can make you feel like you’re set to have a bad life. Like it won’t ever end and this is what it is going to be like for you from now on.
When anxiety takes hold there can be many, many bad moments. And those bad moments can give way to bad days. And days keep going, day after day and it’s suffocating.
But with help, with support and with love (from others and from yourself), the good moments come back, and those good moments turn into good days and then those good days keep happening and soon the balance shifts back.
But none of this means you have a bad life.
Whether your bad moment or bad day is because of anxiety, or if it is because of something else happening in your life, a bad moment is exactly that, a moment. Because regardless of how long that ‘moment’ is, it’s all just a moment in comparison to a lifespan. It will pass.
5 – Go After What You Want, No Matter How Impossible It Seems
I am what my husband calls ambitious and determined (my mum calls it stubborn) and have massive dreams and goals. I am incredibly optimistic and often when I set my mind to something, nothing can get in my way.
Except for anxiety.
During my pregnancy with our baby girl I worked hard on building up my business, I went on maternity leave from my ‘day job’ early so I could spend time building it up and creating systems so when our baby girl arrived I could just focus on her. I love my business and I could spend all day working on it very, very happily.
A few weeks after our baby girl arrived, I was ready to give it all up. I was convinced that I couldn’t do it, that I wasn’t good enough, that my business model was wrong and that it was all going to fail. Then I’d fail as a mother, as a wife and as a woman. It was intense.
At that point, success felt impossible. I wanted it, but it felt so far beyond my reach.
During a heated internal dialogue with myself (thanks anxiety) I remember sitting on the lounge, looking at my sleeping daughter and just crying, sobbing, feeling like I had lost myself. It was like I was physically standing in front of a wave of anxiety and waiting for it to just wash over me and take me with it, and that’s exactly how I was visualising it in my head.
At the same time, my phone rang and it was my husband, he was at work and was just calling to check in and see how my day was going. Talking to him always calms me down and pulls me out of my own head.
Once I got off the phone to him it was like this incredible clarity – if my anxiety was this wave that I was standing in front of, waiting to wash over me, why the heck wasn’t I just moving out of the way?
Anxiety kept telling me that I couldn’t be successful, I couldn’t achieve what I wanted – why the heck was I letting it dictate my life?
Overcoming anxiety always felt impossible when I was in the throws of it, but I did it, every single time. I knew this feeling of achieving what I wanted being impossible was just my anxiety talking. Which meant that I didn’t have to listen to it, and that it would go away.
So instead of giving it, I just kept working towards it. Instead of ignoring what I wanted, and giving up, I just kept doing what I had to do. Even if it felt impossible, I kept chasing it.
Then one day I realised it didn’t feel impossible anymore.
This happens at so many stages in our lives. We avoid going for that big, crazy, scary goal because it feels impossible. But if we keep working towards it, if we keep showing up, one day it won’t feel so crazy anymore. One day it won’t feel impossible.
6 – I Am Stronger Than I Ever Imagined Possible
For anyone who has ever suffered from any type of anxiety, you’ll know that it gets in your head and makes you feel like you are far less of a person than you should ever feel. When it comes to perinatal anxiety, it makes you feel like you’re not only failing yourself, but everyone around you, like you’re going against what is natural because you’re such a bad mother.
When I look back now on all I have been through with my pregnancies, births and newborn stages, it literally blows my mind that I made it through that.
Months of Hyperemesis Gravidarum, vomiting 20+ times a day and not even being able to stand, handing over my newborn just hours after he was born to surgeons to literally open him up and not knowing if I was going to get him back, months in NICU, even more months of sleepless nights, constantly questioning if I was doing it right… plus so much more that I’m not even going to get into.
At the time I was charging through, day to day, getting by and just doing my best. But now I can look back and see, I am so much stronger than I ever imagined I could be. My perinatal anxiety stopped me from seeing it before, but getting through all of what I did, plus anxiety on top of it all… if I can get through that, I can get through anything.
My experience with perinatal anxiety was the most intense and crippling anxiety I have ever felt in my life. But with all difficult experiences, I know it forced me to grow and I know I am stronger because of it. My perinatal anxiety taught me these lessons about life, and for that I am grateful.