Melissa: Do you mind sharing the name you picked for your interview? I’m choosing to, across the board, change names of all participants.
Sharon: I picked Sharon.
Melissa: Welcome aboard, Sharon. How long have we known each other?
Sharon: 6 years; can you believe it?
Melissa: I actually can’t believe it! It honestly feels like 100 years! I assume it feels like longer because we are both old souls. Okay, are you ready?Let’s get started. Have you had an experience or experiences which lead you to wonder if there were other people “out there” like you?
Sharon: Yes, being the only “new mom” without a support network was very difficult.
Melissa: Did you feel isolated at all? Or did you have a sense someone else might have a similar experience?
Sharon: I was very isolated. I knew there were other people out there that must have been experiencing something similar, but I didn’t know how to find them. I eventually connected with strangers on Facebook, but that was really the only group that understood what I was going through.
Melissa: That’s really interesting because a few other people have mentioned to me that strangers on Facebook have actually ended up being really meaningful connections to them. There are some serious upsides to social media, I think. Where do you want to start? Can you give us a brief overview of your experience or situation before we “dig in” further?
Sharon: The entire process of having my daughter was isolating. I lived in Chicago for several years prior to getting pregnant, so there was no real family support during fertility treatments and doctor appointments. I went through fertility treatments for two years, which is something none of my friends had ever experienced. There really wasn’t anyone to talk to about it. Friends were as supportive as they could be, but trying to explain the procedures and the weekly blood draws, the shots, etc. It was just something they had not experienced. When my daughter was born, it was just my husband [at the time] and I to manage with her on our own. The first three months of her life were traumatic for me. I was unable to breastfeed. The hospital was “baby friendly,” so that was very shameful experience.
Melissa: I’ve heard consistently from women that they felt incredibly judged if they were unable to or chose not to breastfeed. Wow, so you were unable to breastfeed and alone; what happened next?
Sharon: Because I was unable to feed her, my daughter ended up in the NICU for a week. The worry and anxiety that comes with new mom hormones and a baby in the NICU is almost indescribable. When she finally came home, I was pretty much on my own. My husband at the time returned to work and was working 12+ hours per day. I was alone with my daughter, just her and I, for basically three months until I returned to work. It was very, very isolating, despite visits from a couple of friends. Most of my friends were not comfortable with kids, so no one was able to babysit or watch her while I took a nap or shower.
Melissa: I can imagine being alone without any family or friends to step in had to be incredibly isolating. What happened next?
Sharon: I just took care of my baby. I guess you just do what you have to do. I developed incredibly severe postpartum depression. I would actually hallucinate my baby crying when she wasn’t. I’ve never experienced anything like that before. For a year, I was basically a single mom. I would get up, get dressed, get my daughter to daycare, go to work, pick her up from daycare, feed her, play with her, bathe her and then put her to bed. She had a lot of sleep issues and wouldn’t sleep more than an hour at a time some nights. I would always get up with her. Looking back, I’m actually not sure how I did it. I lost about 30 lbs from stress. It wasn’t good. After a year, my ex husband lost his job, again. We moved back to Michigan where we had family to help. My parents have been tremendously helpful. It made a world of difference. I’m doing much better.
Melissa: You mentioned being anxious, as well as severe postpartum depression due to being a new mom. Can you tell me a little more about how you began to cope with your postpartum? Of course, we can’t know full statistics due to inconsistent sampling, but it is reported that 70-80% of woman experience, at minimum, “baby blues” and 1 in 7 people experience a full depressive episode (postpartum.org).
Sharon: Honestly, I think I didn’t cope with it and [didn’t think it] was a big problem. Even at my 6 week postpartum follow-up appointment, no one took the time to ask how I was *actually* doing. I was so stressed about all of the things you “have” to do with a new baby, that I was totally overwhelmed and just trying to get myself showered was an impossible task sometimes. If I would shower three times a week, it was a really good week. I worried about everything. I worried about not being able to breastfeed and about not reading enough books to her (seriously…even when she was 2 months old). I worried about not playing with her enough (how do you even play with a 4 week old!?). I worried about not getting the chores done. I don’t think anyone actually expressed any concern until I weighed about 30lbs less than before I had my daughter. Looking back at pictures now, it’s pretty disturbing. At that point, I stayed with my parents for two weeks and they helped me take care of my new baby. My husband at the time stayed in Chicago. I did find things got a bit better for me once I got back to work and had a routine. It also helped having my work friends around me, since they were the best support I had at the time. Once I got back to work and gained a little positive momentum, I started seeing a psychiatrist and got on some antidepressants. They helped tremendously.
Melissa: Can you tell me more about your experience with anxiety. How long have you been dealing with anxiety? I often ask people if they would describe themselves as “worriers” and many people with generalized anxiety quickly say yes, they can’t really remember a time that was completely anxiety free.
Sharon: I remember having anxiety since 6th grade. I had a very intense English teacher and for some reason she flipped the “worry switch” that runs in my family. Prior to that, I don’t remember worrying about much, or anything at all really. I think I am predisposed to be a “worrier,” but have done a lot of personal work to manage it. I try to be very mindful of things I can and cannot control. This has been especially helpful during my recent divorce.
Melissa: I think it’s also important to discuss that, while anxiety can ebb and flow for people, it’s also highly treatable. I don’t promise “anxiety free” to clients, but I try and help get it to a very reasonable baseline where it isn’t a daily part of your life. Have you been able to experience that as well?
Sharon: Yes. Trying to slow down and live in the moment has been tremendously helpful. I find this especially with my daughter. I try and mimic how she lives her life. She’s only two and everything is moment to moment. She can be terribly upset and hysterical one minute. Thirty seconds later, she’s happy and has already forgotten about whatever upset her. It seems blissful. My best friend lost her mom 2.5 years ago. She’s definitely taught me that time is the most valuable thing I can give my daughter. When I’m with her, I try to focus on what we’re doing, whether that’s watching youtube videos of cats popping balloons or playing with barbies. Being in the moment with her helps my anxiety and makes me feel happy.
Melissa: Are there times your anxiety has been worse than other times?
Sharon: Definitely. When I’m trying to make a big decision, or sometimes even a little one, I notice my anxiety flares up. Whether it was, “Should I file for divorce?” or “Which dry cat food should I switch my cats to?” (I’m totally serious). I think there is a lot to be said about anxiety and confidence. I spend a lot of time searching for information when my anxiety is high. Learning to trust yourself is difficult.
Melissa: Oh yes, I think anxiety and intuition can run parallel and it can be hard to separate anxiety from your intuition and learning to trust yourself. What has built up your confidence and reduced your anxiety over time?
Sharon: I think looking back and reflecting on all of the things I’ve “gotten through” before. Every time I didn’t think I could do it, I did, and I’m still here. I think also getting older and caring less about what other people think helps, too. You just do what you have to do. Eventually, after so many ups and downs, I’ve learned that every really tough time passes.
Melissa: Also yes, small things, little things, huge things, it doesn’t matter. When anxiety flares up, it doesn’t discriminate- anything can feel huge and overwhelming.
Sharon: Absolutely! And I find when I’m anxious in one area of my life, it seems to seep into every other area as well. It’s like an infection that keeps spreading. The thing I’ve tried to teach myself is to get to the root of the problem instead of just treating the “symptoms.”
Melissa: Are there times your anxiety has been better than other times?
Sharon: When I’m with people I love and I feel supported, my anxiety is much lower. I recently started dating someone that makes me feel safe letting go a bit. I don’t feel like I have to be in control of everything when we’re together. It’s nice to have someone you can rely on and that helps without asking.
Melissa: That makes me so happy to hear. Does he know about your anxiety? And if so, how does he deal with it? Partners can be good anchors.
Sharon: I’ve known him for a very long time, so he is aware of what I’ve gone through. He’s just now learning the extent of everything and he is very supportive. It’s a huge confident boost to have someone say, “Wow, I can’t imagine. I don’t know how you did it.” I think that’s a great thing people can say to provide support. He also has anxiety about various things, so he gets that sometimes the way I’m feeling doesn’t always make sense. That’s very helpful too, so we help each other through it.
Melissa: Do you experience your anxiety mentally, physically, or both?
Sharon: Definitely both. Mentally, my mind speeds up. It’s like my thoughts are train cars running together. Physically, my stomach hurts. I feel short of breath. Sometimes I get migraines.
Melissa: What advice would you give to someone dealing with general anxiety?
Sharon: Focus on what you can control. Try to identify your triggers and work with them, not against them. My favorite metaphor was actually told to me by a friend (um… yes, you, Melissa). It’s like if you have a ball in a swimming pool. The harder you try to push it under the water, the more it will try to pop back up. If you just let it float around in the pool, it won’t be such a struggle…or something like that.
Melissa: Ha, yes, I do LOVE a good metaphor. But yes, anxiety is unique in that anxiety can bring on more anxiety and then you get anxious about being anxious. It’s a vicious cycle. Learning to float alongside the ball and eventually letting it float away is a very liberating process- sometimes easier said than done, of course! What has your anxiety taught you?
Sharon: Most things I’m anxious about don’t really matter. The brain is a silly thing that gets worked up about nothing sometimes.
Melissa: I’ve read some interesting studies that roughly 80-90% of what we worry about doesn’t ever come to fruition (Leahy, 2005). While I believe that was one study, it does actually sound about right- even anecdotally.
A lot of people with anxiety are also natural empaths. Do you find that to be true? If so, why do you think that is?
Sharon: I’m a social worker, how could I not be 🙂 I think people with anxiety feel more fully, perhaps? I think they can really feel the consequences of what may and may not happen, which is what makes them anxious.
Melissa: I could talk about empathy, anxiety and brain science forever! There’s some compelling data about that, too. I’m a real science therapy nerd, clearly. I’ll include some links at the bottom of the interview! What have you learned from your experience?
Sharon: I reach out to all of my friends that have new babies and have a “be real with me, how are you really doing?” conversation. There’s too much shame about “not liking” motherhood. The first three months were awful for me and most people are shocked to hear that because “how could you be unhappy when you have a beautiful new baby????!!!” Eye roll.
Melissa: What do you want to share with people who have had similar experiences to you?
Sharon: You’re not crazy. The system is broken and you need to make your own support networks. Be vocal. Ask for help. Be direct.
Melissa: What do you want to share with people who have not had similar experiences, but might want to know how to help out someone in their life who is facing a similar situation?
Sharon: Even if you don’t like babies, just pretend you do. Go visit a new mom. It’s very lonely.
Melissa: How do you think people should approach visiting a new mom? I think some people feel concerned about boundaries and/or inviting themselves and/or are told that the mom isn’t up for visitors.
Sharon: I think they just should ask the new mom themselves. People seem to imagine all of these strange boundaries that society has created, but no one asks the mom what she wants. Tell her you don’t care what the house looks like, you don’t care what she looks like. You want to spend time with her baby while she takes a hot shower and a two hour nap. Or ask if she wants to spend time with her baby and do a load of laundry for her. I think people forget that a whole village used to raise a baby, so there were always people to help with things that were both child and non-child related. And be flexible. Babies have weird schedules.
Melissa: As you’ve grown over the years, what would you have said to your young self now looking back?
Sharon: I would say, “hey listen, you’re doing a great job.” Don’t put so much pressure on yourself. So what if you can’t breastfeed? Anyone that tells you anything other than ‘fed is best’ can f* off. And don’t worry about playing with the kid right now. She can’t even see colors. Seriously. Don’t worry about the chores. [Ask] your husband do something. ANYTHING. Demand help. It’s okay to ask for what you need because you deserve more than you are getting.
Take care of yourself because that’s what this little baby needs the most. She needs you to shower and eat and take a few minutes a day for yourself. Go for a walk, breathe fresh air. Do one small thing today to make yourself feel better. Tomorrow do two small things and keep building on it. It won’t be like this forever. Things are really hard right now but you’ve got this. You’ll get through this because you’ve gotten through everything else up to this point. You can do this, you already are. And all of this hard stuff right now, it will be worth it. This little girl will be the single greatest thing you’ve ever done in your entire life. Take care of yourself because you are the center of her whole world and she’s gonna need you in good shape for the next 60 years.
R. L. Leahy, The worry cure: seven steps to stop worry from stopping you. New York: Three Rivers Press, 2005.
“Postpartum Depression Statistics,” PostpartumDepression.org. [Online]. Available: https://www.postpartumdepression.org/resources/statistics/. [Accessed: 21-Aug-2018].
S. Remsberg, “What No One Tells You About Not Being Able to Breastfeed,” The Cut, 23-May-2018. [Online]. Available: https://www.thecut.com/2018/05/the-truth-about-not-being-able-to-breastfeed.html. [Accessed: 21-Aug-2018].
Tibi-Elhanany, Y., & Shamay-Tsoory, S. G. (n.d.). Social cognition in social anxiety: First evidence for increased empathic abilities. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22120444