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Angela on realizing her anxiety and sadness weren’t normal

mom holding baby during first birthday party - essay on perinatal mood disorders

Content warning: Discussion of postpartum depression, birth trauma, domestic abuse or other tough topics ahead. If you or someone you know is struggling with a postpartum mental health challenge, including postpartum depression or anxiety, call 1-833-9-HELP4MOMS (tel:18009435746)—The National Maternal Mental Health Hotline This free, confidential service provides access to trained counselors and resources 24 hours a day, 7 days a week in English, Spanish, and more than 60 other languages. They can offer support and information related to before, during, and after pregnancy.

Motherhood. A loaded word, phrase, lifestyle, life sentence, burden, blessing and so on.

For me, motherhood did not come as this magical journey that so many women claim it to be. My story is like many many others and my journey started with feelings such as sadness, loneliness, grief, stress and anxiety. My name is Angela Cuseo. I am 28 years old, living in a suburb in southern California with my husband Brad, puggle Lola and now the newest member, our little rainbow baby Blakely who is just almost seven months old.

Before I got pregnant with Blakely, I had a miscarriage at eight weeks. It was a devastating time for me and the beginning of my loneliness and feelings of isolation. “Why me,” I thought over and over again. Positive pregnancy tests starting popping up all over social media and happy parents with their beautiful babies seemed to be everywhere. During a desperate attempt to connect with women who had been through a similar experience, I found a few Instagram accounts that posted stories of infertility. It was slightly comforting, but there were no resources other than reading these personal stories.

Related: What to say when your friend has a miscarriage

After my surgery, I was beyond ready to be pregnant again—to fill that void and grow my family—something that I wasn’t even sure I wanted before I got pregnant the first time. Regaining my strength, I got back on the saddle, both literally and figuratively, and got down to business.

Fast forward a few weeks and I was packing for my trip to Austin, Texas for a food and wine festival. I thought, if I am going to drown myself in all this wine, and what I assume will be food adorned with unpasteurized cheese, sprouts, and raw meat, I should maybe take a test. There it was. That one dark and one faint pink line. I was pregnant again. The food and wine festival would be bleak, but my God, I couldn’t believe my second chance came so quickly.

Week six came along and I had some spotting. Considering this was how my last miscarriage started, I began to panic. I have never felt so nervous in my entire life, waiting to see that tiny bean on the most ominous black and white screen there ever was. About 30 seconds of rummaging around in my uterus (used to this by now), there it was. A tiny little alien-like pod with a flicker of a heartbeat. The most beautiful sight in the entire world. This was further than we had gotten in our last pregnancy, so naturally my husband burst into tears. I remained stoic but was absolutely bursting with happiness and hope.

Related: The new mama’s guide to pregnancy symptoms

This is the part where I wish I could say that from here on out, I had a beautifully stress-free and uncomplicated pregnancy. For the most part, it was, with just a few major bumps in the road. First, through routine blood tests, we discovered that both myself and my husband were carriers for cystic fibrosis. This meant our baby and any future babies would have a 25% chance of having the genetic disorder. Numerous genetic counseling meetings were attended and we finally came to the decision to get a CVS test done to see if our baby fell under the safe 75% or the 25%.

For those who don’t know about CVS, they plunge a GIANT needle directly into your uterus through your abdomen. They don’t even let the husbands stay in the room because most of them get sick or faint. My husband fainted back when they put a tourniquet on my arm BEFORE they put in the IV in during my D&C—so, safe to say he got the boot out of the room.

The day before I was headed in for this procedure, I came back home from a wedding at 10pm and went pee, but instead of pee, gushes of blood started flowing. It was absolutely horrifying and my first thought was that I without a doubt, having another miscarriage. At 13 weeks, this would have been exponentially more tragic than the first. Our dog was also panicked, so my husband had to drive me to the hospital and go back to tend to him.

Related: 6 things I learned from my miscarriage experience

There I was, alone, bleeding through my tiny insignificant pad in the ER waiting room next to a burn victim and a child with pneumonia. After an ultrasound and blood tests, the unspecialized ER doctor told me that the baby was still alive and moving around, but the reason for the bleeding was inconclusive. He discharged me with a “threatened miscarriage” and sent me on my not-so-merry way. When I visited my OB a few days later, she told me that it was from sex–too much sex apparently. To be fair, I was newly in my second trimester and feeling great.

We went through with the CVS and a week later got a call from the doctor who said they could tell us the gender and the basic genetic makeup. My heart was pounding as I waited for that “B” or “G” and not to my surprise, she said, “It’s a girl!” Call it intuition or mother’s instinct, but I just knew that little bean in there was a warrior woman. A genetically healthy girl.

Related: We may be able to detect gestational diabetes earlier in pregnancy, study shows

We had to wait another week for the cystic fibrosis results, which was the longest week of my life. But when I saw that phone number pop up and the genetic specialist said hello, I had an overwhelming feeling of hope. I will never ever forget those words. “I have great news…” I almost threw up and it was not because I was pregnant. A beautiful healthy girl that was all mine. Finally!

The rest of the pregnancy was uncomplicated and routine. Besides the usual aches and pains, I felt great, physically. Mentally, it was another story.

I was obsessed with my baby being safe, being OK. I was obsessed with measuring the number of kicks and fetal movements and horrified that at any moment, she could not be OK, and I would have no idea. During my pregnancy and a couple years before, I had been working remotely from home. My company’s headquarters is up in the Bay Area and since they wanted to keep me on board, I stayed working remote down here. It was always fine until I got pregnant and realized how lonely I started to feel with these “is the baby OK” thoughts. Lack of adult interaction during the day coupled with the anxiety of this pregnancy started to drive me down a dark path of isolation.

Related: Prenatal depression is the most under-diagnosed pregnancy complication in the U.S.

I was truly very happy to pregnant, but I constantly worried and was ready for her to be out and safe in my arms. “Once she’s born this anxiety will for sure go away,” I thought. I was wrong.

People always tell you, “Enjoy your sleep now. Having kids is the hardest thing you’ll ever do. Take a vacation before she’s born.” I couldn’t have been more sick of hearing that when I was pregnant. It can’t be THAT bad. I wasn’t sleeping well due to being the size of a house in the last trimester, so could it really be that much worse? Oh—it could.

What people didn’t tell me was how hard the transition to motherhood would be. How you would lose your identity and become a slave to this new tiny human that you have no idea how to keep alive. How physically and mentally exhausting breastfeeding is. How your marriage will begin to crumble under the weight of it all. How you will start to mourn your old life and your old body. How maternity leave feels like punishment. How your home begins to feel like prison. How when the sun starts to set, your anxiety starts to rise. How you will think, “I love my baby, but I hate being a mom” and in turn, think you are a terrible mother for feeling that way.

Related: I love my baby, but I miss myself

Here I was again. Feeling the “why me” feelings and loneliness. Why was I the only one not enjoying motherhood? Why wasn’t I like the other women all dressed up, with make up done, parading about with their beautiful new babies? It’s just the baby blues I thought. This will pass and I will be able to enjoy things again. I’ll be able to feel happy soon.

Weeks passed, months passed and while things improved a bit (I cried fewer tears. I wasn’t checking every minute if she was still breathing. I was able to get out of the house every now and then without engorged leaking boobs. There was some tiny bit of sleep, etc.) I was still not “happy.” I still felt isolated and not able to look forward to things like I used to. I was sad about the way I looked. I couldn’t focus on work and just went through the motions. I was still anxious about everything—feedings, naps, diaper changes, anything, everything.

Related: How motherhood myths impacted my struggle with postpartum depression and anxiety

I convinced myself this was my new normal. My old life was gone and I had to adjust to these feelings. I should also mention that my baby does not take a bottle so a huge contributing factor of these feelings is that I cannot be away from her. The feeling of being trapped and not being able to have my own life is…truly devastating. I am a mom, but I am no longer myself.

Another trigger for me was sleep. Before I got pregnant, I could sleep through ANYTHING. I lay down and no more than 30 seconds after my head hits the pillow, I was in a peaceful 8-hour slumber of sweet sweet relaxation. Sleep was my THING. So when I came home from the hospital to some nights where ten minutes was the maximum amount of sleep I could get, my world flipped upside down. I can absolutely understand why sleep deprivation is a form of torture.

About three months in, she started sleeping well. At three and a half months, she was sleeping through the night after being nursed and rocked to sleep. I knew that was a crutch, but I would have done anything to keep those full nights of sleep. At five months, sleep regression hit and I knew what had to be done. The dreaded sleep training. Hearing my baby scream and cry and not being able to comfort her was probably the second worst form of torture, right behind the sleep deprivation. I decided to bite the bullet and pay for a course. We sleep trained for 14 days and she did great.

Related: Baby Sleep Schedules and Guides

Hallelujah, I thought, we’ve come out the other side. Sleep is back, and I can begin to feel normal again. After day 14, we had the rug pulled out from under us and BANG, right back to night wakings. Something about these crying episodes during the night without knowing why coupled with being so tired, became a huge trigger for me and made me SO upset. Here I was again, not able to climb out of that dark hole that I had been convincing myself I’d be out of after two weeks, a month, two months, six months and so on.

Like I had done before, I was searching Instagram for a lifeline or even some sort of validation for the way I was feeling—anything other than the shiny, sparkly, perfect mommy bloggers that littered my feed. Honestly fuck them. And by the grace of God (and I’m not even remotely religious), I found Hello My Tribe. I was hooked after a post about the taboo subject of postpartum depression. I began to watch their Instagram stories daily, read the comments of women who had similar feelings, and even day dream about attending the in-person events in Austin, Texas.

Related: When I tell you I have postpartum depression, here’s what I want you to know

One day, I was feeling particularly low, and I mean really low. I was walking through Trader Joes and it was as if I was looking at everything through a dark tunnel. I could barely see anything past what was right in front of me. Everything blurred past me and as I was walking out, I felt like I barely made it out alive. As I got in my car, Howard Stern was playing “So It Goes” by Billy Joel and I felt so beyond hopeless. I started crying and couldn’t stop. I felt that my life was over. This was the way it would be for the rest of time—sad, hopeless, lonely.

That same day, I saw Hello My Tribe post about a new podcast episode where the founder, Alex and a psychiatrist were discussing perinatal mood disorders. I decided to listen on my way home and this woman’s story—all these feelings—I was experiencing them too. I got home and cried so hard, finally realizing that this wasn’t my fault. I needed help. At this point, I knew these feelings were depression and anxiety and they shouldn’t have to be my new normal. I made an appointment with my physician because I couldn’t wait weeks for an opening with my OB. I had waited long enough.

Related: No, your OB/GYN should not be your primary care provider. Here’s why

Nervously twiddling my thumbs in the exam room, I tried to calm myself as to not have an unusually high heart rate when the nurse took my vitals. “Act normal,” I thought. Every time they gave me that stupid little postpartum depression screening questionnaire, I always felt like I had to fill out the questions according to how I SHOULD feel. “I don’t want to have a low score,” I thought. I don’t want to admit defeat. “Phew, I passed.” I thought every time the doctor would say, “OK, looks great. NO PPD!”

How ridiculous. A sheet of multiple choice questions shouldn’t be the only way to tell if a mother is suffering. Not once did any doctor directly ask me, “How are you feeling?” When the doctor walked in that day and said, “Hi how are you? What brings you in today?” I broke down. I started bawling right there in the middle of the office without even being able to say my name yet. I told him that I was feeling so overwhelmed. I was sad, anxious, stressed and falling apart.

He told me that being a new mother is so hard and it is all very understandable. Things will improve once you can take time for yourself (not being a sentenced prisoner by breastfeeding) and hopefully once sleep improves, but that doesn’t mean you don’t need help to get through this. He prescribed me a small dose of antidepressants which, even if “I wasn’t clinically depressed” would help with the stress management and anxiety. I left feeling like I was finally was able to get a hold of my mental health. There was a light at the end of the tunnel.

Related: Jen on accepting herself as a medicated mommy

Things didn’t get better overnight. There are still struggles and bad days, but overall, today I am better. I am not deep in that hole, and I most certainly feel what I had lost for a long time—hope. I can look to the future and say, “Things will get better for me.” Every hard moment that I’m having now is fleeting and these struggles are temporary. I am finally able to be happy when things are good and be OK with things when they aren’t.

It will take time (and more therapy) and work to get to where I want to be, but I am so much better. I want every mother struggling with postpartum depression or any mental disorder to know that you are NOT a failure just because motherhood is hard for you. You are not alone, and there is hope.