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Why does being alone with my child make me feel so anxious?

Posted Sep 01 2011 9:29am
Ahhh, do I know this feeling!  In fact, this was one of the first symptoms of a perinatal mood disorder I had after L1 that really made me question my sanity.  I had insomnia, generalized anxiety and worries, but the overwhelming panic that came over me as the approaching two week mark when my parents were scheduled to leave filled me with terror.

When we realized that both physically (I had labored 46 hours, 36 of which were done naturally before finally having an "emergency" c-section) and emotionally I was nowhere near prepared or able to care for my family, my mother extended her stay another week.  Surely, we thought, at three weeks postpartum I would be much better and could be without help.  Then that week flew by, my being forced to eat and even get out of bed, and doing little other than pumping breastmilk when it came to caring for L1.  My sister's kids needed caring for back in PA, too, so she left, promising to return in a few weeks.

Our new nanny, the one who wasn't supposed to begin working with us until the last couple of weeks of my maternity leave, was called in.  First for two days a week.  Then, "Well, can you just add another day this week?".  Then, for all five days the following week.  I was slowly realizing that something had to give.  I never got out of bed, but I didn't sleep, either.  I lay there, in my tiny ranch home, listening to each and every move my nanny and baby made.  Why is she opening the refrigerator??  He isn't supposed to eat for another 30 minutes!, I would think.  Where is she taking him?  She can't take him on a walk now.  He'll fall asleep and he's supposed to be sleeping in his crib, not the stroller!  On and on and on the rumination and racing thoughts sped through my mind.  My nanny realized I was not resting, the purpose of her being called in, and offered to take him to her house.  That only made things worse.  Horrible thoughts of him suffocating because he wasn't in a proper crib kept me from resting and made me even more anxious than I was when I could hear every move they made at home.

Once I reached nearly 6 weeks postpartum I had no real excuse for my inability to care for my baby.  The OB had given me a perfect bill of physical health, a stamp of approval on the healing of my scar and off I went.  Except, I wasn't okay.  On the outside I might have looked decent.  But, inside?  Inside I was fragile, weak and felt as if I was dying.

I made the call after one particularly volatile sleepless night of pumping and bottle-feeding.  I quickly got on medication, was ordered to sleep...many of you know the story.  But, the interesting part about those next few weeks is that I got worse, not better.  The anti-anxiety medication wasn't helping me sleep much and the lack of sleep and the time that SSRIs take to build up in your system and take effect was working against me.  I expected to be better.  I felt too horrible to be patient.  And so I analyzed, read, paced, made up dumb reasons to get out of the house and leave my baby with someone else.  Anyone else, just not me.  I would tag along with friends to the grocery store, with my husband to work, hiding in his conference room and making shopping lists for Christmas and reading magazines.  Wasting time, just so I didn't have to be home.

Then, one evening when my husband was supposed to leave for just a couple of hours to go to his jui jitsu studio where he would likely be awarded his blue belt during a ceremony, I had a horrible panic attack.  This one was worse than any of the others.  I was literally frozen in one place, like a seated fetal position, and could. not. move.  I was crying, hysterical, overwhelmed with guilt, shame and terror that I could not take care of my baby and put him to bed so that my husband could go celebrate his accomplishment.  He offered stay home.  "It's okay!", he said.  But, no, it WAS NOT OKAY.  What was wrong with me?  Why couldn't I even be in the same room with my child, let alone bathe him, feed him, and rock him to sleep??  Thank goodness a friend came over and I listened from the living room as she sang to and loved on my baby and put him to bed.  She left her family dinner to come over and do this for me.  For us.  The pain, yet appreciation, that those couple of hours wrought burns a hole in my heart, even now.

A few weeks later (like four or five) I was celebrating Christmas with my family, able to hold my baby, still not well, but so much better.  The medications had been changed and adjusted, I was able to at least sleep a little more and shower and dress myself.  I could muster a smile or a couple of minutes of cuddling without my heart pounding out of my chest.  I was recovering.

The next month I went back to work.  It helped to busy my mind with productive things and have a place for adult conversation.  A bit of my old life had been given back to me and it helped me recognize myself again.  The medication and therapy continued to heal my brain, as well.

On my drive home from work each afternoon I realized that those anxious feelings would return.  I hated that even the thought of the evening ahead was enough to create a sense of unease within myself.  So, I used some CBT strategies and I took a tiny little bit of anti-anxiety medication each afternoon.  It helped me to be more calm and present for those few hours each day I was spending with my son.

Weekends were hard.  The thought of long days, especially when we didn't have plans or when the weather wasn't suited to spending time outdoors, made me feel trapped.  I would begin to ruminate as soon as I woke on Friday mornings.  I realized that the only way to get over this fear, irrational as it was to be afraid to be with my baby, was to face it head on.  I came up with a list of things we could do with free time.  I put him in the exersaucer and let him watch me cook and bake, things I loved to do.  I played music cds so I would become familiar with children's tunes and could sing them to him when I felt up to it.  And I talked about it.  As embarrassing as it was, I shared with my friend, husband and mom how I felt.  Sometimes verbalizing it made it seem less overwhelming.

If I'm honest, holiday weekends, especially, still rattle me a bit, years later.  Summer, too.  All that unplanned time just laying before me with the pressure of entertaining and caring for my kids without help from others.  But, each day, each month, it does get easier.  And even if I have to allow a little screen-time or go shopping just to get us out of the house, we make it through.

I can handle this, and so can you.
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