This isn’t a confession, but it feels like one, and that’s why I’m writing it.
You may know me as Paige of “Jeff and Paige,” and of course I am also Paige, just plain old Paige, mother, wife, and writer. I have written for years about everything from climate change and sustainability to my own recovery from an eating disorder years ago. Now I’m feeling all the threads of my life experience coming together as I feel called to share about my recent postpartum journey.
After our second child, Alice, was born, the rich and complex experience of pregnancy and birth was deepened as I was overcome by extreme postpartum anxiety.* A week after Alice arrived on the scene I stopped sleeping. Make no mistake, she was sleeping. I was not. A creeping dis-ease and otherworldly anxiety was taking over. My four-year-old, Wolf, needed me, in a desperate way that would reassure him he hadn’t been replaced. My breasts were engorged beyond belief, “I’ve never seen a woman so engorged with her second child,” is the direct quote of my midwife, Elizabeth. Physically, other than the engorgement, I was fine. I had triumphantly and joyfully birthed our sweet baby girl at home in our own bedroom. The pictures of me holding her, moments after she arrived shows the bliss that birth can bring.
This made things almost more confusing in my muddled mind, what was the problem? Why couldn’t I relax, or sleep, or even really sit still for very long? I slept less and less. And the less I slept the worse the anxiety became. It grew from a dull roar that I could manage to a screaming pitch that was taking over my life. When I did fall asleep it was fitful and I was visited by strange primordial dreams and images.
I recognize now that it was a passage, a transition, powerful and ripe with meaning, but I lacked any outside help, rituals, or references to contextualize what I was experiencing. I told no one what was going on. I didn’t have the words.
Not that they didn’t notice. My mom, who had come to support our family, and my husband Jeff, were bewildered. They knew something wasn’t quite right, my eyes seemed vacant, I couldn’t carry on much of a conversation, I bit my nails and pulled restlessly at my hair, and the initial outward joy of greeting our daughter had vanished.
As Alice entered her first week of life my hormones and brain chemistry went haywire. I felt as if I were having a never-ending panic attack. Relentless waves of inexplicable fear rolled over me, their crests coming faster and faster.
The pain of contractions seemed preferable, at least that pain was temporary, at least it could be breathed through, and seen by others. The fear was tied to nothing. I wasn’t having thoughts that caused fear, I wasn’t worried about the baby, I was just experiencing the physical sensation of panic. This was part of why I couldn’t say anything to anyone about what was going on, there seemed to be nothing to say. I worried I was going insane and that I would never feel the ground under my feet again.
Luckily I got mastitis.
My breasts were not releasing enough milk, the baby couldn’t eat the volume of milk I was making, and despite my best efforts with castor oil, cabbage leaves, herbal tinctures, and cold and hot compresses, infection set in. I’d been up most of the night pacing my bedroom when a fevered sleep overtook me. My body was grateful to be asleep.
On the morning of the sixth day I woke up freezing hot and shaking. I was sandwiched between my newborn and four year old gasping for air, drowning in the covers.
“Help.” I cried, voicing the word that had slowly been building inside of me. “Jeff! Mom! Help! Help me!” I tried to stand but I was too dizzy. My mom and husband came into the bedroom.
“Something’s wrong.” I said, “something’s really wrong.”
I tried again to stand but it was hard to see straight. My stomach hurt.
“I feel like I can’t breathe.” I stumbled to the bathroom with my mom’s help. Jeff picked up the baby, and soothed Wolf. His face was shattered with worry. Sitting on the toilet I tried to cry but I couldn’t get the tears to come.
“I think I have a fever,” I heard my shaky voice tell them from the bathroom.
“Please call Elizabeth.” There it was, the first clear sentence that had come out of my mouth in days.
Okay that’s a really succinct version of this moment. There were way more tears (mostly Jeff’s it was his 40th birthday, and his parents were arriving from the airport in an hour) a screaming baby, a whining and bewildered four year old. Plus I was still waddling around in adult diapers and spraying warm water on myself after I peed. It was a mess. Thank god for my solid, caring and level headed mother who has been there for me every step of the way in this life. And for my midwife, thank god for my midwife.
Stay tuned for Part Two—Help Comes
This is Part One of a series of posts about my postpartum experience and the resources available in my community (and beyond) to help mothers partners and families with the delicate and profound postpartum transition. A NOTE ON THIS SERIES: This has been on hold since the COVID-19 crisis began. It didn’t feel right to share as we were navigating the early days of quarantine etc. However!! I will resume this series soon.
In the meantime here is a video sharing one of the BEST resources I had to help me through my postpartum experience. The Post Partum Wellness Center. They are offering virtual (and some) in person services!
*I will call what I experienced “postpartum anxiety” for the purposes of having a language to communicate, but labels can alienate and create distance. That’s why I’m taking some time to dig into what it was like for me. And I want to make very clear that what you or others may experience can look very different or very similar to this and you still need and deserve help. It could seem more severe, it could seem less, it could be a day a month, or two years after your baby was born, it doesn’t matter, ask for help, every single parent needs help.