I was having dinner with a friend the other night, and she was sharing with me some real concerns about someone she knew who had been extremely anxious since her now 2.5-year-old girl was born. Did this mom have postpartum depression? My friend described someone who had a nearly impossible time letting her daughter be apart from her. She held her constantly. She had yet to leave her child with anyone other than herself (meaning, of course, that she had not had a break in a number of years). She grew fearful any time her kiddo cried, she panicked any time her baby needed something and she was unsure of what that particular thing was, and she was simply unable to tolerate any independence that this little girl was seeking. Let me also explain to you that this woman was also described as highly competent, loving, and social. This woman’s anxiety and insecurities had, apparently, shown themselves only after her baby was born.
As is typical in these situations, this mama had become very isolated and hadn’t connected much with other new moms. Her marriage was struggling. Family and friends were having a hard time managing their own frustrations with this mom’s behaviors, no matter how much they wanted to help and support her. This mom was pushing everyone away, so it seemed, except for her daughter who she held close to her with a sort of apparent desperation.
I listened attentively as my friend described a situation that felt critical to her, and which she was confused by. And, indeed, this sounded like a situation that was thick with layers of confusion and conflict for everyone involved. I had also heard similar stories numerous times. I had never met the mom who my friend was describing and so was in no place to fully assess the situation, but the themes and conflicts that this mom was experiencing were easy to identify. It was certainly possible that she had postpartum depression or anxiety.
As it turns out, this is a woman who was adopted at the age of two. Although she was raised by loving and attentive parents, she had always struggled with the uncertainty and feelings of ungroundedness that exist for many people who were adopted. This woman has no concrete memories of her earliest years, but, as described by my friend, she had a clear sense of loss connected to this time. Yet, she had never discussed these feelings with anyone in depth, and had not been in therapy at any point in her life. Until becoming a mom she had, very successfully, managed her life in a way that allowed her to move through it with relative ease.
Then she became a mom and – WHAM – this ability seemed to falter.
Many, many women who have some early childhood experiences that are marked by early attachment challenges with their parents, trauma, childhood abuse, and/or conflict and who feel that their earliest needs were not met struggle with a fear around what it means to be apart, separate, or “unavailable” to their own children. These moms are terrified that their own kiddos will feel abandoned by them, that they will be unable to meet their every need, and that they will somehow let their babies down. And so they may overcompensate. Often, these moms feel great fear and anxiety when apart from their little ones for even a moment. They don’t give themselves permission to take breaks. They feel overwhelming anxiety when unable to soothe their babies’ cries or are unable to read their cues and meet their needs. They are hard on themselves and they set expectations for themselves as mothers that aren’t humanly impossible.
And this makes sense. These loving and dedicated moms want for their kids what they didn’t have. The only challenge here is that they might not have a roadmap for how to do this in a way that is healthy for both themselves and their little ones. And, often, these moms may not be aware that the postpartum anxiety and/or postpartum depression that they feel is not just due to the challenges of the postpartum period but may, actually, also be due to very early experiences that are stock full of emotion that is hard to make sense of. When these moms don’t reach out for support, their past and present experiences can become blurred and, despite attempts and desires to be thoughtful and proactive moms, they get into a pattern of parenting that is reactionary; they are, in affect, reacting to their own early experiences and are filled by great anxiety and emotional vulnerability in the process.
This is, to be clear, absolutely NOT the experience of every mom who was adopted herself. But postpartum depression is common for those who’ve experienced childhood trauma or abandonment. Working with a trained professional around these issues can be an important part of becoming the mom that you want to be regardless of your own early childhood. Once the past and present are untangled, many of these moms feel a great sense of freedom, empowerment, and relief. And they find that they can settle into their role as Mom in a way that they never had imagined.
Photo credit (child): Fotolia – © Oleg Kozlov