This photo was taken two days after our son was born, on the morning we were discharged from the hospital. See those uncertain smiles? The uneasy posture? That, my friends, is what terror looks like.

I was incredulous that we were being cut loose and sent out into the world as a couple of bumbling amateurs. How was it possible that we were being entrusted with the survival of this tiny, mewling creature? Shouldn’t a license and a PhD be required to operate one of these things? Disaster was clearly imminent.

I had always envied parents who eagerly headed for home mere hours after their babies were born, or who felt most comfortable birthing at home. I imagined that it was probably very pleasant to feel so sure of one’s own ability to do what must be done with newborns. I was not such a person when our second son was born in 2011. I was a hot mess of hormones and trepidation.

Our son was wholeheartedly wished for and loved, and yet his arrival was also cause for panic.  Not only because of our prior loss, but because he’d essentially been just an idea for such a long time. When faced with the visceral proof of his existence, I felt completely unequal to the task of keeping him alive, let alone raising him to be a habitual recycler and non-rapist.  In the hours after his delivery, I began to realize that our living, breathing, pooping baby was no longer an abstract idea, but a concrete fact, and there was no going back. We had stepped through the gates of parenthood and heard the lock click behind us. And we were clueless.

What kept my initial horror at bay was the 24/7 support of the hospital staff. I was grateful to have a beehive of activity outside our door. I slept better during the lonely hours of the night knowing that myriad medical personnel were just a call button away. I felt more secure with a parade of nurses coming through our room to help with breastfeeding, getting my legs moving, and the special hell that is using a toilet after childbirth. My hospital stay was like a hotel vacation, coordinated by a staff of expert concierges catering to all of my needs. When that staff started preparing us to check out and head home, I experienced a complicated, multifaceted dread.

The 5 stages of new mother terror

(with apologies to Elisabeth Kübler-Ross)

Denial

Whenever a nurse mentioned our imminent departure, I would gloss right over her confident tone and order another chocolate chip cookie from room service the cafeteria.

Anger

As it dawned on me that they were serious about kicking us out, I became incensed. I was being turned out! With a six inch incision and 6 squalling pounds of jaundice! What is wrong with a country in which a new mother doesn’t hve round the clock care for a year after birth? I would write a strongly worded letter to our Congressional representatives immediately…as soon as I had a nap. And a cookie.

Bargaining

When I failed to negotiate a longer stay with my OB/GYN, I tried to convince my favorite nurse to come home with me. They were both kind but firm. “You can do this,” they said. “And your insurance won’t pay for another night.”

Depression

With only one more night in our hotel hospital room, I sank into despondency. I was utterly convinced I would never be able to take care of this baby without a team of nurses. He was doomed, we were doomed, the human race was doomed. The chocolate chip cookie sat, uneaten, on my rollaway bed tray as I cried big fat tears of hopelessness.

Acceptance

The sun rose again, like it always does, and D-Day (Departure Day) was upon us. It was time to go. We ventured forth tentatively, squinting like moles as we emerged into the light of the loading zone. After the nurse checked our car seat latches, I clung to her leg, sobbing “Don’t abandon us!” but she shook me off expertly  and disappeared through the giant revolving lobby door. “You’ll figure it out!” she called cheerfully over her shoulder.

And although I did not believe her at the time, I did figure it out…eventually. With a lot of cookies.

Everyone’s experience is their own, but what I have learned over the years is that there are common themes uniting mothers everywhere: isolation, confusion, fear of inadequacy, feeling like everyone else knows this stuff when you don’t. This doesn’t mean you are doomed! Some moms discover at the birth that they have an innate confidence to carry them through. If you are prone to anxiety, you can take extra steps to preemptively ward off the hobgoblins of postpartum. Here’s how.

  1. Surround yourself with — and accept — help at home. Grandparents, siblings, postpartum doulas, friends…anyone with firsthand knowledge of reasonable baby behavior and a desire to see you make the transition successfully. When someone asks you what they can do for you, tell them you planned ahead with a baby registry for postpartum support. Allow yourself to prioritize your own needs by leaning on others, because your baby benefits as much as you do when you take care of yourself. Go for a walk, take a shower, write in your journal, or do whatever makes you feel more like your old self. Above all, let people feed you!
  2. Surround yourself with other new parents. Terror shared is terror halved, or something. Find some mom friends. There are a number of mom/baby groups in greater Portland that meet regularly so you can compare notes while you’re in the trenches; if you live elsewhere, ask your OB what she knows about local mama meetups.
  3. Establish low expectations. Stop looking at Pinterest, and limit your exposure to social media posts by moms who appear to be WINNING AT EVERYTHING. They are not. They are just carefully curating the parts of their lives that they share on Facebook. Let’s be real: there will come a point in the first few weeks of your baby’s life when you will feel a sense of accomplishment for having showered that day. Good for you! Post that on Instagram. Every mom in your audience will nod in recognition and solidarity.
  4. Remind yourself that whatever happens, it won’t last forever. It can’t.Kimmy Schmidt says, "You can do anything for 10 seconds at a time." Keep repeating this to yourself in your lowest moments. Babies are constantly evolving, and while their shifts can occasionally be destabilizing for parents, they also guarantee that difficult stages eventually do pass. Children do not go off to college with colic or in diapers. You can do this.
  5. And when “it won’t last forever” no longer cuts it as a comforting thought, get more help. Talk to your OB, your pediatrician, your primary care physician, your therapist, or your postpartum doula. One in seven women will experience a mood disorder in the year after childbirth — depression, anxiety, and more. This means that whatever you are feeling, you are not alone, and there is a cure. Perinatal mood and anxiety disorders are completely treatable. If you find it hard to put your symptoms and feelings into words, use the Postpartum Progress New Mom Mental Health Checklist to communicate with the professionals in your pit crew. Don’t suffer alone.

Experienced moms: what helped you the most in the weeks after your first baby was born? I want to hear your stories.