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Taylor Dooley

Mom Shares What Postpartum Anxiety Really Looks Like

“I realized I didn't recognize myself anymore. Who is this woman? Who is this mother? Who is this wife? I felt like no one could see me—until someone did.”

It happened again. You woke up a little after two hours of sleep. I tried to get you to fall back asleep, but the smile on your face told me you weren’t going to nod off without a fight. Instead of looking into your sweet, innocent eyes and seeing a boy who was excited to see his mama, I saw a little devil child who refused to sleep.

I was exhausted. I was stressed. I got angry. I wasn't your gentle mommy, I was harsh and cold. I wasn't loving, I was distant. And as I forcefully picked you up to rock you, yet again tonight, I counted all the reasons I should’ve waited to have you—my need to sleep being one of them. Then as I sat down, a little harder than I usually do, you cried. I looked down at you for the first time in hours and guilt rushed over me like a tidal wave swallowing me whole, and I cried. I hugged you and held you and hated myself for the angry thoughts I had.

I never hurt you and I never would, but my gentle, loving nature had turned to a hard, cold one, and you felt it. My usual grace and sensitivity was replaced by sharp movements and lack of compassion. This is not me. This is not the mom I want to be. Why do I get so upset when you don't sleep? I want so badly to push myself to be superwoman, to will my body to be alright living off borrowed sleep. I want so badly to be perfect for you, but my anxiety and need for control are sucking the life out of us. It's draining me. It's draining you. I feel like I'm drowning, silently and alone.

I’m sorry that I’m a mess. I’m sorry that I’m letting my anxiety win. I’m sorry that I’m feeling everything. I promise to be a better mommy, a better wife, a better woman. I kiss your forehead as you drift back off to sleep. I'm still crying, because I’m mad at myself. I stare at you falling asleep in bed and I don't know how I ever lived in a world without you. "I'm sorry, I'll be better tomorrow," I whisper as we both go back to sleep.

My son was 6 months old when I wrote those words in my journal. He was my first child, and I never knew what to expect from a newborn and postpartum feelings. I knew sleepless nights would be hard and the transition to being a new mom was a tough one, but I didn't know just how much it would affect me. I tried my hardest to pretend like nothing was wrong, but I was having panic attacks—sometimes a few times a day. I was so anxious that I would snap at everyone around me for seemingly no reason whatsoever. My hair was falling out in droves and I internalized all of my stress.

I had Googled “postpartum depression” during one of my many late night feeding sessions, and after doing some reading I found my symptoms didn’t quite match up. I've been depressed before, but this didn't feel that way. I wasn't sad all the time—in fact, I was rarely sad. What I was feeling was more of an overwhelming anxious feeling, all the time. I wasn’t apathetic; instead, I was more concerned than ever. So what was this? Did motherhood somehow turn me into this rigid woman who panics about every little decision? I wanted to yell at my anxiety to leave me alone, but I didn't know how. So many emotions—including guilt—were wrapped up in my body, but I kept moving forward, hoping one day it would all be better, if only I could just get it right the next time. "I can do better tomorrow” is what I always told myself. I felt like I was slowly losing my mind and that no one understood. What I didn't know was that I was suffering from postpartum anxiety.

It’s taken a while, but postpartum depression is now talked about a bunch. Sometime after your baby is born you'll likely fill out a doctor’s questionnaire to make sure you don't have postpartum depression. The nurses tell you and you partner to watch out for signs of PPD, but no one talks about postpartum anxiety.

I Googled every sneeze and every rash, I panicked when he woke up too early from his naps, I pounced on my husband if things weren't done a certain way, I had panic attacks and sleepless nights over very small things. I've always had a handle on my emotions, and this was just out of control. I felt like my heart was forever racing, threatening to stop at any moment. I remember freaking out during yet another sleepless night, and as my son looked up at me with confused eyes, I realized I didn't recognize myself anymore. Who is this woman? Who is this mother? Who is this wife? I felt like no one could see me—until someone did.

One day about eight months postpartum (and probably after yet another big fight with my husband), my mom approached me and in the kindest way possible recommended that I seek help. I wanted so badly to be seen, so badly to let go of this guilt and anxiety that I had been carrying around like overweight luggage. I finally went to see a therapist and eventually started going twice a week, once by myself and once with my husband.

Let me tell you, it saved my life. When my therapist mentioned I might have postpartum anxiety, I felt like someone finally understood me, and a weight was lifted off my shoulders. I suddenly knew this wasn't who I’d be forever, that I wasn't a horrible mother. I knew this wasn't all in my own head. There was an actual problem, an actual diagnosis, and most importantly, there was actual help.

Talking with someone helped me work through all the anxiety and fear I had kept bottled up. I loved the release of being able to blurt out my craziest stressors and feel validated, but also being kept in check. I had previously felt so out of control, my only answer was to control the things I knew I could. I learned new ways of dealing with those feelings. As someone who’s insanely health-conscious, I told my doctor from the very beginning that anti-anxiety medication was my last resort. For me personally, I wanted to try my hardest to do it on my own first, and if I couldn't, then I’d take medication to help me.

My therapist came up with a personalized plan to help me learn to cope with my elevated anxiety and panic attacks. I learned the importance of deep breathing, self-talk and self-care. I've always been one to put others before myself, but I came to understand how imperative it was to use whatever alone time I had as a chance to recharge my batteries, so I could be my best self for the ones I love. I fell in love with baths as a way to naturally relax and spend some time by myself. I used essential oils, herbal warm teas (lemon balm is my favorite) and CBD oil, and I tried to stay away from things that made my anxiety levels spike.

Photo: Taylor Dooley

My journey wasn't easy, and to be honest, it's ongoing. As I write this, I’m staring at my newborn daughter, my baby number two. She's a good sleeper but still incredibly needy. I’m getting more shuteye than I was with my son at this age, but my days are longer, filled with toddler tantrums and maneuvering two children. The minute my daughter was born, I could feel the familiar tingle of panic flooding back. Only this time, I don't feel so alone. I don't feel like such a failure. I know I have a great support system around me to talk through my feelings, and I've learned some wonderful techniques to calm myself down. I take it day by day and step by step, knowing I may not be the perfect mom, but I’m enough, because I’m their mom.

So know that you’re not alone, mama. You’re not crazy or losing your mind when you suddenly find yourself ridden with anxiety. This is real. This is postpartum anxiety. But there is help, and you’re still a wonderful mother.

Taylor Dooley is an actress (most known for her role as Lava Girl in the childhood film The Adventures of Shark Boy & Lava Girl) and blogger at taylordooley.com. She lives in sunny Southern California with her husband, Justin, 2-year-old son Jack and 2-month-old daughter Adaline. She’s a health enthusiast with a love of wellness, and a self-professed master of sassin' and gangster rappin'. She loves to laugh, take hot baths and have dance parties in the kitchen. You can find her mostly at home getting snacks for tiny humans and waiting to see what crazy adventure life has prepared for her next. Follow her on Instagram @taydools.

Published June 2019

PHOTO: Taylor Dooley