‘I think there’s something wrong with me. I know I should love her, but I just don’t feel anything.’: First-time mom shares battle with postpartum anxiety, intrusive thoughts

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Disclaimer: This story contains details of intrusive thoughts which may be upsetting to some.

“The words ‘PREGNANT’ flashed on the digital test. My stomach dropped. I had taken three traditional pregnancy tests, but I just wasn’t quite believing those lines were correct. My husband had gone to the drug store to buy a digital test to verify what I already knew to be the answer but wasn’t ready to accept. I paced around our apartment, my mind racing. This wasn’t supposed to happen right now… Sure, we had ‘not not been trying,’ but I didn’t expect to get pregnant this fast. Everyone I knew had tried for months and then finally had the moment you see in movies – you know the one – wife pees on stick, husband and wife joyfully embrace at the realization they were going to become parents. They never seem to show a frazzled woman in an over-sized fuzzy robe who needs to shower earing out the floorboards while having her mother talk her into how wonderful parenthood is.

‘Mom, everyone is going to know I’m pregnant…’

‘Honey, you aren’t going to start showing that quickly.’

‘What if a lift goes wrong or I fall and I lose the baby?’

‘You are borrowing a lot of trouble…’

‘My career…I guess this is the end of it. At least I had a good run…’

‘Honey, you just need to talk to your directors and see what your options are. This is a blessing.’

And then the guilt set in. It didn’t feel like a blessing. How was I supposed to take care of a whole other human being when the only person I seemed to be able to worry about was myself? I was supposed to get pregnant in the Fall after I had performed two more times and was ready to retire. This wasn’t supposed to be my last show and this meant the baby would be born during ‘Nutcracker’ season… absolutely not ideal. I have come to realize babies do not believe in ideal timing. Babies arrive when they feel like arriving. They do not care if you must perform in a week. They do not care if you have shows to direct. This was the beginning of my realization that any illusion of control I had over my life was exactly this: an illusion.

Woman with short blonde hair takes a mirror selfie in a long black sleeveless dress, showing off her belly bump
Courtesy of Nell Goza

The show came and went, and despite me bracing myself for a miscarriage after the stress and strain of show week, everything seemed to be tracking along just fine. I went in to meet with my directors and slid the ultrasound picture across the desk and their eyes widened. ‘You were pregnant at the show?!’ They looked at me in disbelief. ‘Apparently,’ I said, attempting to be nonchalant about the whole ordeal. ‘Well, we know you will bounce right back, so if you want to stay on contract you can.’ ‘Absolutely!’ I was ecstatic, but inside I worried I wasn’t going to just ‘bounce back.’ My body had never done this before… How was I supposed to keep up an end of a deal I knew nothing about?

Then I began the charade of proving to myself and others pregnancy and motherhood were not going to affect me personally and definitely not professionally. I still took class every day and taught every evening. It stung watching other dancers go into my old roles and coaching them through the details and nuances while my body was rapidly changing, evolving, and making it crystal clear I was not in control and it was not my own any more. Being in a room of elite dancers and mirrors for most of your day as a first-time pregnant woman was a special brand of awful I was not ready for. Old disordered eating thoughts began to pop into my head, but luckily a maternal instinct would nip it in the bud before I would end up over a toilet or withhold food from myself. ‘You have to feed the baby’ was the constant mantra in my head. I watched the pounds creep up every time I went to the doctor…numbers I had never seen in my life. I finally had to tell the nurse I would be stepping on backwards and asked her to please not read the number aloud. I had been in remission (you never are fully recovered from an eating disorder) for about 8 years, but my rapidly changing body and lack of control were really pushing my recovery efforts to their limits.

Dance instructor takes selfie of her belly bump in dance studio wearing all black outfit
Courtesy of Nell Goza

The months passed, the morning sickness faded and every OBGYN appointment it began to feel more real. I slowly began to accept the fact I was going to be a mother. I would feel a wave of relief every time they found her heartbeat and every ultrasound affirmed I was succeeding at being a pregnant person. I was checking all the boxes and doing everything ‘right.’ As the months progressed, so did the constant waves of fear, anxiety and Google searches about the ‘likelihood of stillbirth at ___ weeks’ any time I couldn’t feel her move. I was constantly having visions of worst-case scenarios and was researching how statistically probable it was for me to die in childbirth. I never had the pregnancy ‘glow’ everyone talks about. I was just in a constant state of fear I was trying to calm so it didn’t pass through the placenta. Apparently passing your neurosis onto your offspring via the placenta was a real possibility from some article I had stumbled upon. Google is a dangerous place and if I have one piece of advice for any mother-to-be, it’s this: Please do not Google anything. Ever.

My husband was beyond excited from the moment the positive test appeared. He had been dreaming of being a father for years and dove headfirst into creating the perfect and most well-researched baby registry I think I have ever seen. Spreadsheets and product reviews brought him joy and I think made him feel integral to the process. Since his daily life wasn’t truly affected by my pregnancy, besides just having to deal with my cravings, sickness, anxiety and other joys, this was his way of contributing and beginning to become a dad.

Dad sleeps in bed with newborn baby with a striped blanket
Courtesy of Nell Goza

The gifts began to arrive, the baby shower came and went, and the nursery was as picture perfect as I could make it in our sweet little apartment. The due date crept closer and closer and we signed up for a birthing class and hired a doula. I remember sitting in silent shock and utter horror watching the video of what was about to happen to my body. We stopped at a pet store on the way home from the birthing class to pick up some dog food and I spied a sweet little sweater I decided our beagle needed immediately. My husband refused to buy it and I had a full melt-down in the middle of the pet store and left in tears to go sit in the car. My husband, thoroughly confused about what had just occurred, came out to the car to find me inconsolably sobbing about the impending childbirth. Needless to say, he bought the sweater and our beagle still wears it to this day. It’s a small reminder of this chapter in our lives.

My due date was supposed to be December 30th, and once again my daughter had very different plans and made it clear she would arrive when she decided it was time. Since our families lived so far away, we couldn’t travel home for Christmas, and we joked it would be the last quiet Christmas we would ever have. After we opened our few presents, we walked the chilly streets in attempt to induce labor and just live vicariously through all the happy families in the neighborhood. On New Year’s Eve, labor had still not begun. I sat sullenly at a New Year’s Eve party, wanting desperately to be in a hospital bed instead. My husband was slightly upset the baby would not be considered a 2016 Tax Deduction and we would have to wait until the following fiscal year. I had come to terms with what my body would have to endure and had reached the point in pregnancy when you just want the baby to exit as soon as possible so you can just sleep on your stomach again.

My daughter held out until she was forced to evict. I can’t blame her, the world is a crazy place, and I can’t say I would want to leave some place warm and dark for a bright, cold, and very loud environment. At my 41-week checkup, my ‘progress’ and signs of labor were at a solid zero. As a dancer, I felt very in control of my body and knew my body inside and out, so I decided I was going to have an un-medicated labor. I had done the research and decided that it was ‘best’ and would be an empowering and beautiful experience for me and my daughter. I wanted to feel her entering the world and not be numb to her first moments.

My induction date was scheduled for January 5th. I was too nervous to eat, so I choked down a smoothie before we headed to the hospital, unaware the smoothie would be the last thing in my body for the next two days. We arrived at the hospital and I proudly handed the nurse my folder filled with my detailed Birth Plan and gifts for each nurse. She smiled kindly and handed us off to another nurse who gruffly checked us into the triage room and inserted the misoprostol to begin ‘ripening the cervix’ and induce labor. I felt some slight cramping, but nothing I couldn’t handle. My husband and I watched TV and I fell asleep. We were awoken around 1 a.m. and told to pack up our bags and head to labor and delivery. ‘Am I in labor??’ I asked excitedly. ‘No. We just need this room for someone else, so we are transferring you.’ We packed up our bags and followed the nurse to our next room. After my nerves had calmed again, I drifted off to sleep only to be awoken at 5 a.m. by the most blood-curdling scream I had ever heard in my entire life. I sat there in the darkness and asked my husband, ‘Did you just hear that?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘I don’t think I can do this.’ But I knew as I said this that I had no choice.

My body was making absolutely no progress, so they began every method of induction known to man: Balloon catheters were inserted, Pitocin drips began, and oral medications taken as well. Nothing seemed to be working. After 10 hours of no real progress, they began to increase the Pitocin levels. No one had mentioned to me un-medicated births are much more likely to succeed if your body cooperates and magically goes into labor… Pitocin contractions are a whole other level of pain. My husband was watching the contractions on the monitor and he would see the wave peak and look at me worriedly. I’m not one for public displays of pain or emotion, so he was desperately searching my face to see how bad it was as I steeply inhaled. The hours drug on. The pain escalated. My husband slept and ate as I jealously watched on and mentally said ‘Hail Mary’s during each contraction. “’How bad was that one?’ ‘Well, that was a 10 Hail Mary one.’ I am not an especially devout Catholic, but at the time, Mary seemed like the only person I could turn to.

My parents were worriedly texting my husband. My friends and family were sending me words of affirmation and love that I didn’t have the capability to respond to. Finally, on the 36th hour of un-medicated labor, I begged the doctor to just make it stop and give me a C-section (something I had wanted desperately to avoid due to Project Bounce Back After Birth). ‘We don’t just give healthy babies and mothers C-sections,’ the doctor calmly told me. Through tears, I finally agreed to an epidural. They had to try 3 times to make it work due to the intense contractions and my sobs. I bawled as I apologized to my doula and to my husband. I felt like I had failed everyone, but mostly I had failed on my noble quest of proving what a strong mother I was. There is no award for the ‘best birth,’ but my whole life my entire worth was tied to what my body could do. When my body failed me, and everyone around me, I felt like a failure. I was lost. Ashamed. Disappointed.

At 2:13 p.m. on January 7, 2017, 42 hours of labor later, my beautiful daughter came into the world. She was quiet and reserved and took in her surroundings. She didn’t make a sound when she arrived, which of course sent me into an utter panic that something was in fact deeply wrong with her. She was completely healthy with a perfect APGAR score, but like she has lived the rest of her life, she had to assess it all before she committed.

First time mom holds newborn in hospital bed after giving birth
Courtesy of Nell Goza
Newborn baby sleeps in hospital cot with a pink bow on her head
Courtesy of Nell Goza

Once she had been bathed and we were in the recovery room, I vividly remember the nurse brusquely taking over the swaddling process. ‘Don’t you know what you’re doing?’ she huffed. My husband and I just sat there, stunned and probably a little slack jawed. All we could muster to say after 50 hours in the hospital, was ‘No.’ There is no handbook. And you’re supposed to trust your gut and your instincts, but what if your gut is tied in a hundred knots? What if you can’t feel your instincts because you can’t feel yourself in your body? I was hovering above myself, watching myself become a mother, and neither one of us had the slightest clue how to swaddle a baby. I wanted to cry, but no tears could come out.

First time mom looks solemn while holding newborn baby girl
Courtesy of Nell Goza

Then I was given the impossible task of breastfeeding my daughter. Everyone talks about how it’s the most natural thing for a mother to do, and yet here I was, failing once again while a lactation specialist had to tape a tube to my breast so my daughter would be able to get some nutrition in her. Once we got home, I turned to my husband and said, ‘I think there’s something wrong with me… I know I should love her, but I just don’t feel anything. I think I’m missing some maternal gene. She hung out with me for 41 weeks, but I don’t know her. I need to get to know her before I fall head over heels for her.’ I vividly remember having this same conversation with my husband over and over again. I remember jokingly saying, ‘We need to find out if she’s cool before we really invest.’ Humor is always my way out of terrifying feelings and inadequacies.

I was never the woman who saw her baby on the screen and fell rapturously in love. I felt relief knowing she was still alive and growing, but no immediate love or connection. I figured it would come once we met in person. It didn’t. And I felt terrified and ashamed. What mother doesn’t love their child at first sight?! A bad one is the answer I came to. I remember desperately searching her features to see some sign of me and all the hard work I had put into bringing her into the world. But all I saw was a very loud and fairly wrinkly being with a wicked case of acne who had very odd eating and sleeping habits. I remember watching everyone else hold her and how much joy it brought them, but when I held her all I could think about was putting her down again and making sure she was on schedule.

Mom takes selfie looking sad and tired while holding newborn daughter
Courtesy of Nell Goza
Mom looks worn out while she naps next to her newborn daughter in bed
Courtesy of Nell Goza

This is one of the many manifestations of PPA/PPD, but yet I had no idea I was displaying any symptoms. I just thought something was terribly wrong with me. Pure terror, constant anxiety, exhaustion, helplessness, but also the need to obsessively and constantly control every detail of everything was my daily reality. My perceived control was my only grasp on the appearance of sanity and composure. I should have sought help, but the only lifeline offered to me was my daughter’s pediatrician (who we no longer see) aggressively handing me a hotline to call because I had checked the box by ‘have you cried in the last 7 days?’ I felt like I was being punished for being honest and I immediately recoiled. I also thought all mothers felt like me.

I went back to work after six weeks. This is when the intrusive thoughts really began to take hold. I had had some when I had first gotten home and when I told my husband, ‘I keep envisioning dropping her.’ He turned to me, equally exhausted and traumatized, and said, ‘I keep having this vision of throwing her against the wall just to make the crying stop.’ We stared at each other and I came to the conclusion yet again we were not cut out for this parenting gig. However, on the surface I made sure everyone thought we were the perfect parents. I always had my makeup and outfits just-so, I played the part of mom so very well to the outside world. The house was immaculate for any visitor who came and any signs of struggle were kept tightly to ourselves.

First time parents enjoy a lunch outing with their baby daughter
Courtesy of Nell Goza

I remember coming home from work one night, it had been a particularly tough drive to work and home. My brain convinced me if I turned down certain streets I would get shot and die. I was constantly doing the mental math of how much milk I had pumped and frozen and how long she would be able to live off my supply if I died. I also had to talk myself out of just driving into concrete barriers most of the way home. I sat in my car and cried. I didn’t want to go inside and face the reality of the screaming baby who needed me, the incessant noise of the pump, the husband who so badly wanted to reconnect with me but I was incapable of it. It was all too much for me and there was no way out. No way out but through is what I decided, so I walked into the apartment and put on my best ‘Mom’ impression.

After my solitary post-partum check-up (Isn’t that just insane? We go from weekly check-ins to one single checkup after the most intense event in our lives.), my husband bought lobster and champagne to congratulate me for being ‘cleared’ for activity. I had barely been able to tolerate the speculum at my appointment, how in the hell did he expect activity to occur ever again? I stared at him, dumbfounded. This was when I realized he too was grieving and struggling. He had had to watch helplessly as his wife endured pain for 2 straight days. He too was getting little to no sleep. And on top of it all, he had lost his wife for all intents and purposes. His wife was now a mother and was at the beckon call of a very tiny authoritarian boss. His wife was no longer the funny, carefree, and spirited woman he had married. We both cried in the kitchen that night and we knew on top of learning how to become parents, we were also going to have to re-learn how to be husband and wife.

New parents kiss their daughter's cheeks on her first birthday
Courtesy of Nell Goza

Slowly, I came back to who I was before her and she became herself more and more each day. The newborn phase faded away and a toddler and then a child took the place of the squirmy alien-esque being they first put into my arms. We grew up together in many ways and now we are inseparable. It’s my favorite love story. A hard-fought battle to get back to us.

Former dancer does ballet jump over her daughter in photoshoot
Ashley Deran Photography

When my second was born, I felt more ready. I knew the love would come and I would slowly become me again and we could all grow up together. Forever learning from each other, with me learning the most of all. 4 years and 2 children later, I wrote this letter to the woman you see above:

Family welcome their second daughter in the hospital after birth
Courtesy of Nell Goza

‘Thank you for overcoming.

Thank you for trying.

Thank you for being still.

Thank you for getting to know me.

Thank you for honoring me.

Thank you for respecting me.

Thank you for trying to lessen the criticism.

Thank you for being strong.

Thank you for being brave.

Thank you for trying to love me.

Thank you for holding space for me.

Thank you for evolving, growing, changing.

Thank you for being you.’

Mom smiles during family photoshoot with her two daughters
Charlie Howell Photography

So much of my career has been striving, proving, perfecting. I am now realizing truly living is those spaces and moments in between. In proving I can release the need for striving and perfection and work on love for myself. I am done proving myself. The longer I am a mother, I realize how valuable honesty and vulnerability are. It makes the dark nights a little less dark and a little less lonely. No one has my story. There is space in the world for everyone’s stories. The more we hear the world’s stories and hear the truth of humanity, the more the world can heal and progress forward. Progress does not happen in the dark. Progress does not happen in silence.”

Family of four take a photo together in front of a barn
Charlie Howell Photography

This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Nell Goza. You can follow her journey on Instagram. Submit your story here, and be sure to subscribe to our best love stories here.

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