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I Traded Postpartum Anxiety for Pandemic Anxiety

postpartum anxiety pandemic postpartum anxiety pandemic
image of author courtesy Trinity Marcum / Trinity M. Photography

Around the time my oldest son turned two, I was able to look back and see what everyone else had seemed to miss after he was born: my postpartum anxiety. With the fog of new motherhood behind me, I could recognize that maybe it hadn’t been normal to track every single thing my baby’s little body did, or how my body responded. Did I really need a detailed log of every poop, pee, pumping session, gurgle, grandparent visit, and Target outing? And even if I did need a record of it in the beginning, did I really need to track all that stuff for an ENTIRE YEAR?

It’s easy to see now that I was trying to control the things I could control to distract me from the things I could not, including but not limited to: other people texting while driving, un-vaccinated cousins, and my seemingly low breast milk supply.

A few years later when we were expecting another baby, my husband and I made a plan for avoiding a second round of postpartum anxiety. It all revolved around my own mental health and self-care. We would prioritize my sleep from the very beginning, supplement with formula (and without guilt) if necessary, and find a reason for me to leave the house alone at least once a week after I was off my pain meds and out of adult diapers.

We planned for every scenario. Except, of course, a global pandemic.

Charlie was born three weeks before the Covid lockdown in March. I was closely following news of the emerging virus, but mostly I was just enjoying every minute of the newborn stage — without the cloud of postpartum anxiety. In fact, things were going shockingly well. I was sleeping, I was producing enough milk, and I told my husband I was ready to get a babysitter and have a 45-minute cocktail date at an actual bar. I even found myself looking forward to being cleared for sex. To be honest, I hardly recognized this cool, calm, collected new mom — but I sure did like her.

Clearly, it was all too good to be true. Well, too good to last more than three weeks, anyway.

I was just about to ease back into freelance work when the world shut down. My husband was sent home from his brewery job (ultimately to never return). My older son’s preschool closed indefinitely. My incredibly helpful in-laws, who live 15 minutes away, may as well have been on another continent.

Overnight, I went from blissfully soaking up newborn snuggles to ordering supplies for DIY bleach wipes, stalking the Internet for just one freaking bottle of Children’s Tylenol, and snapping at my four-year-old for breathing too close to the baby. I was doomscrolling when I should have been sleeping, taking everyone’s temperature when I should have been exercising, and obsessively reading everything I could find (which wasn’t much) on infants and COVID while I was nursing. Every news cycle gave me something new to worry about. I even made my husband wear his lawn-mowing sneakers to the grocery store so as not to bring home any germs on his regular shoes.

All the plans I had for postpartum self-care had become pipe dreams. When I wasn’t holding my still-very-newborn baby, I was attempting to clear the constant clutter that magically appears when a preschooler is suddenly always home, but I could never keep up. I was lucky if I showered twice a week but I cried at least three times a day, and I grew jealous and resentful of my friends who were quarantining without small children. My husband and I panicked and argued about money while I turned down work — but not just for lack of time. I didn’t have the mental capacity to think critically or string words together coherently, either.

My stress and anxiety were compounded by a sense of loss; maybe I’d managed to escape the pit-in-my-stomach feeling of postpartum anxiety, but it had simply been replaced by a constant state of overwhelm caused by the pandemic. When I wasn’t worrying, I was grieving for all the things I was missing, and for the things I knew I’d miss later. My fantasies of long, leisurely stroller walks alone with the baby turned into sweaty, stressful family speed-walks when my older son would have a meltdown and I’d try to make it home in time to swing a crib nap instead. Nursing — which had been a breeze compared to my first time — started to feel like a burden that kept me from the million other things I thought I was supposed to be doing. I still cry when I want to recall details of those first few months of Charlie’s life. I try to picture his little toes, his noises, or what his face looked like when he slept. Mostly I just see myself sobbing uncontrollably in the shower, overusing hand sanitizer, and wishing I had an au pair.

Then there was the guilt. Yes, my situation was tough, and there were no good decisions to be made — but at least I had the privilege of making them. I knew my quarantine problems seemed trivial in comparison to what was happening “out there,” but how was I supposed to find the time and energy to help dismantle the white supremacist patriarchy when I didn’t even have time to brush my teeth?

Like many families, we’ve adjusted to this new way of life. We formed a bubble with my in-laws, Charlie turned out to be a champion sleeper, and I now keep office hours at home while my husband takes care of the kids. The anxiety is still there, and moments for self-care are still few and far between. But I’m also making happy memories with my family, and I try to channel my anxious energy into acts of service (usually delivering diapers or groceries to parents whom the system has failed) and also cleaning. I recently spent an entire Saturday deep-cleaning my bathroom for the first time IN A YEAR and it’s the most accomplished I’ve felt this entire pandemic. Plus, it’s a great way to avoid doomscrolling.

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Emily Farris lives in Kansas City, MO with her burly husband, toddler son, and two rowdy rescue mutts. She's written for Bon Appetit, Food & Wine, and The Cut. When not busy cleaning up somebody's pee, she's posting about drinks and home decor on Instagram @thatemilyfarris.