There is a volcano in Washington State with a beautiful snow-capped peak called Mount Rainier. On a clear day the glacial summit of Mount Rainier can be seen rising in the distance beyond Seattle’s skyscrapers like a far away promise. It is iconic in its beauty and majesty, and for the way it towers over the city. But on foggy dull days, it is completely invisible. You wouldn’t know it was there at all.
When I was going through postpartum anxiety and OCD, I would look for this mountain from my bedroom window, hoping to see the bright white peak at the top. It became a symbol of my personal struggle and of my own strength. If I could see the top of the mountain then everything would be ok—I would make it through the day—but if I couldn’t see it, then I questioned my own ability to survive.
When I gave birth to my first son in Seattle in 2011, I had no idea what to expect as a new mother. Before he arrived, I had pictured myself taking my son out for walks in the stroller, playing blissfully together in the calm solitude of our house, dressing him in adorable outfits and showing him off to friends. During my uneventful pregnancy, my husband and I had joked along with everyone else about the sleepless nights and dirty diapers, but we felt secretly confident that we would sail through new parenthood like a couple of pros. How bad could it be? As my husband had said one night, “It’ll just be like life, but with a baby.”
We were utterly blindsided.
Our firstborn son is a mild and easy going boy but he did not sleep for more than a couple of hours throughout the day or night for the first seven months of his life. And so, neither did I. For months I suffered from wild-eyed, bone-twitching exhaustion. I would walk around our Seattle neighborhood, singing or shushing him for what felt like hours, but when he did eventually fall asleep, my mind wouldn’t let me rest. I couldn’t sleep when the baby slept, as everyone tells new mothers to do. It is good advice but for some of us, the anxiety won’t shut down, won’t stop our minds from racing, won’t stop those terrifying intrusive thoughts from flashing across our eyes.
I became obsessed with trying to figure out why he wouldn’t sleep. I stuck masking tape across every crack in the door frame and along the window blind, convinced that if only his room was dark enough then he would be able to sleep. I was obsessed with making sure the temperature in his bedroom was exactly right, changing the thermostat by a degree several times a night. And when our pediatrician told me to start a sleep log, that made things worse as I struggled to remember through the thick fog of exhaustion if our son had slept for 25 minutes or 28 minutes. I would see an ambulance go screaming down the freeway and wish, for a few minutes, that it could be me inside on my way to hospital where I would be cared for and allowed to sleep.
I didn’t realize it at the time but what I was struggling with was more than just new-mum tiredness. I had undiagnosed postpartum anxiety and OCD. I didn’t tell anyone how I was feeling or the scary thoughts that plagued my mind for fear that someone would tell me I was crazy or, worse, take my baby away. There is a stigma associated with being a mother who is struggling. Society tells us that this should be the most blissful time in a woman’s life and that we should sail through motherhood with a smile and a batch of freshly baked muffins. The myth of the perfect mother weighs heavily on us. And so I struggled alone for months.
I didn’t even equate how I was feeling to having postpartum depression, which is the only term I had heard of, because even though things were murky and dark and heavy, it didn’t feel like what I thought depression was. Instead I had swirling panic attacks, shortness of breath when I stood at the top of the stairs with my baby in my arms or any time I held a knife in the vicinity of my son, an inability to concentrate or remember anything, an overwhelming fear of danger at every turn, and of course the ever-present insomnia. I didn’t think those were symptoms of depression, just of a mind unraveling. In my mind there was no term for that other than madness. “This is what it feels like to go crazy.” I thought.
And so I didn’t tell anyone. I did a convincing job of hiding it. To let anyone see that I was struggling was surely a sign of weakness. So I functioned normally. I showered and dressed every day. I cooked dinner. I did the laundry. I went to play dates and music classes and mommy and me swim time. I read to him and sung to him and pushed the stroller around our neighborhood. I went through the motions of motherhood robotically, and I kept myself busy. I knew in my head that I loved our son in a way I hadn’t known was possible, but I couldn’t *feel* that love in my heart. I remember tentatively mentioning to another new-mum friend that I didn’t think I’d miss our son if someone took him away so I could get some sleep, and the horrified look on her face made me realize that was not something new mothers say out loud.
And from the outside I looked like any other mum.
Eventually around seven months old, our son started to sleep for longer at night, and so did I, and the anxiety and dread started to melt away. Not gone forever, but dormant.
And then six months later, when our eldest son was 14 months old, I got pregnant with our second son. A stressful pregnancy, a move, a remodeling project and the demands of caring for a toddler meant that the anxiety and OCD very quickly appeared again. Our second son had reflux and colic and was an extremely fussy baby, who cried for hours every night. Every time I put him down, he would scream to be held. He cried a lot and his piercing cry felt like a hole being burnt in my heart. I felt like my mind was unraveling again. And yet still I pretended to hold it all together. Clutching at motherhood with my fingernails.
It took many months of suffering in silence and a move to California before I recognized what I had been going through. When we moved to San Jose in 2014, I knew I wanted to help other mothers. Previously in Seattle, I had been a volunteer facilitator for PEPS (Program for Early Parent Support), so when I looked for an organization that I could volunteer with here, I was shocked to find that there was nothing specifically in Santa Clara County dedicated to supporting mothers with perinatal mood and anxiety disorders.
I trained to become a California Coordinator and warmline volunteer for Postpartum Support International and I also took Motherwoman’s support group facilitator training, which made me realize that I could be the catalyst in our community to create a place of safety for mothers.
After an honest and heartfelt conversation with my new and wonderful friend Allyson Schaeffer, we decided to start Supporting Mamas.
Becoming a new mom can be a wonderful experience but for up to 20% of mothers, it can also be a time of sadness, depression or anxiety. It can feel exhausting, overwhelming, frustrating, lonely, and sometimes dangerous. And around 75% of women will go untreated due to lack of affordable or appropriate resources and support.
Our goal is to help provide that support and hope to women. On our new website you will find details of local support groups, therapists, and maternal mental health experts throughout the Bay Area, as well as nationwide organizations, blogs and links to websites dedicated to supporting women recovering from postpartum mood and anxiety disorders.
Living in California, I can no longer see the tip of Mount Rainier, but it doesn’t matter now because I know that I do have the ability to survive.
And so do you.
Perinatal mood and anxiety disorders are temporary and treatable. You will get through this with the right support and treatment.
You are not alone. You are not to blame. With help, you will recover.
Hugs and love and light to you,
“Courage does not always roar. Sometimes courage is the quiet voice at the end of the day that says, ‘I will try again tomorrow.’”
― Mary Anne Radmacher