BY ROSIE WITTLEDER
Mental health and having a baby. It’s really something. And it’s not a topic I have written on before. So this is my first go...
I live with PTSD. Actually, I live with complex PTSD. This means I experience the effects of PTSD on a 24/7 basis, to some degree. This comes as a result of all kinds of trauma I experienced while growing up. I’m thankful to say that today, after years of work and healing, PTSD is manageable. But it’s something that demands my care and attention on a daily basis in order to live well.
Over 7 years ago, I had my first child Drew. At that time, I was about three years into dealing with my “stuff” more intensively. I felt much better than I had a year or two before I got pregnant, but I still had a lot to process. I wasn’t entirely aware of my PTSD and how much it was affecting my day-to-day life. I knew ahead of time that having a baby could be a very real challenge for me, but I didn’t know entirely what that meant or what that would look like.
I was terrified of childbirth. I had so many fears heading into it. I remember being at church the Sunday before Drew was born, with tears streaming down my face. I was so scared. Growing up, I was raised in an environment where women and babies died during childbirth due to no medical intervention. Of course, that wasn’t my current situation. But my traumatized brain knew it was a real possibility based on what I saw in childhood. I was tormented for days before Drew was born.
Then he came. Childbirth was far better than I could have ever asked or imagined. None of my fears came to fruition, thank God. It was a very redemptive experience. I faced my fears head-on. I had amazing nurses, an incredible doctor, and felt the presence and peace of God in ways I hadn’t before. I couldn’t have asked for more.
I was over the moon that Drew and I were well. And nothing could have prepared me for the instant love I felt for him. It was surreal. That sense of peace lasted for about 18 hours.
The next night, Drew screamed for five straight hours. I am not exaggerating. It was blood-curdling screaming. For five hours. The nurses told me that Drew was uncomfortable because he probably still had some fluid in him due to his quick delivery. I held him all night and did my best to comfort him. At that point, I had been going for 72 hours with no sleep. Not a wink. Welcome to motherhood.
What I didn’t know then was that I was walking into the five hardest weeks of my adult life. Drew had severe acid reflux, and he screamed and screamed. It was always worse at night. He slept during the day more because he was so exhausted from screaming at night. This made it impossible to feed him because he was either too tired to eat, or he was severe pain.
The doctor eventually put Drew on reflux meds and things started improving. Thankfully. But even then, I was not able to sleep. My mind would race. I was worried that Drew would die of SIDS. I would randomly get up to check on him to make sure he was breathing. It was exhausting and so frustrating. I would become so angry that I couldn’t sleep when I knew my body desperately needed it.
In addition, we were temporarily living with my parents in the country. It was harder for me to see my friends because they all lived at least 30 minutes away. My phone had horrible coverage, so talking on the phone was a challenge. And because Drew was so miserable for several weeks, we couldn’t just hop in the car to go see someone or do something. All of this was a massive set-up for isolation.
At my 6-week post-partum checkup, the Doctor asked how I was doing. I admitted that I was anxious at times and that I had trouble sleeping. She suggested that I take a low dose of anti-anxiety medication until Drew was at least 6 months old. So I did what she said, and I’m glad I did because it made a difference. I started to feel less anxious.
Around this time, I was meeting up with a mentor friend of mine about every other week. We would go on walks together and it was a huge breath of fresh air. After several times of meeting up with her, she gave me the name of a therapist she thought I should consider seeing.
That was the start of my time seeing Allyson, my therapist. I still see her, and her impact on my life has been profound. It was then that I started uncovering my story more and more, facing my pain head on, and addressing my PTSD more actively.
Fast forward to 5 ½ years later. I became pregnant again. And I was concerned that I would struggle in the same ways I had before. So I decided to be intentional and proactive.
I came up with a plan for my pregnancy and postpartum season. Here are some items from that plan:
Exercise: This is always a go-to for me. The impact exercise has on a brain is profound, among other things.
Checking in/Community: This time, I had a much deeper support system. These people knew my concerns and remained connected to me the whole way through.
Medication: Instead of waiting until after the baby came to start anxiety meds, I started taking medicine halfway through my pregnancy. This gave my time for my body to adjust and for the meds to work as effectively as possible.
Asking & Receiving Help: I let people into my life way more than before. I didn’t wait until I was in the weeds to ask for help or make plans. I would ask my sisters – some biological, some not – to come watch the baby so I could take a nap or go to yoga. They gave me meals for weeks. One time, my sister and niece came over and cleaned my house while I took a nap. Yes, even my bathroom. Talk about humbling and vulnerable. With help, the pressures of daily life lessened by about 5,000 percent.
Therapy: I continued to see Allyson during the weeks leading up to birth, and I started seeing her more often to prepare for my daughter Sadie’s arrival. I felt so much more empowered this time around.
Boundaries: We all have people in our lives that provoke stress. It’s just part of life. I know I’m likely someone’s stress person too. It’s okay. When welcoming a new baby, there is much more at stake and many things that make you more vulnerable. It’s good and right to cultivate a safe space while your body grows this amazing person, who feels and experiences everything you do while they are in the womb.
Live-In Help: A woman who is near and dear to me, came and stayed with me for a week. And that first week of recovery, with nursing challenges and no sleep, was brutal for me. This woman was such a comfort to Drew, who had been our only child for six years. They played and played. She cleaned my house. She drove him places so he didn’t miss his activities. She basically kept my house running while I was in my room, dealing with the challenges of that first week. This was a game changer.
Breastfeeding Support Groups: These lactation people were life-savers for me in the early days, with both of my kids. There is no shame in getting help. And it really ends up not being nearly as awkward as you might think.
Bonus: Grace has a bunch of parenting resources on their website. Check it out here.
Things really have been very different, and so redemptive, this time around. I have not had insomnia. I have not experienced the extreme anxiety and panic I experienced with Drew. I haven’t done it perfectly, but I have done it much more intentionally. This vulnerable part of life is very difficult for anyone, but especially those of us with any kind of mental health struggle. But there is hope. We can experience the joys and miraculous gift of a child entering the world, without completely losing ourselves in our different challenges.
If you have struggled after having a baby, what were some things you did to bring relief? What do you wish someone would have done for you? What do you wish someone would have told you?