Motherhood has been an exciting adventure for me over the past 11 months, but it has also been really difficult. In the early days after my son was born, I suffered from postnatal anxiety. It meant I had a genuine fear of leaving the house in case my baby had a meltdown. My son is an incredibly loud child and he would have meltdowns often. I was legitimately petrified about going anywhere for his first three months, only leaving the house in emergencies, like escaping by myself at night time for a McFlurry. Those months were tough, but eventually I got through them.
It wasn’t until my son calmed down when he was four months old that I looked back and realised I had postnatal anxiety. I just thought I was having a rough time. I’m a naturally anxious person, but I never realised how much anxiety would seep into my life as a mother. After some time, I have come to accept that postnatal anxiety will always shape the kind of mother I am.
Unfortunately, I have found that not everyone sees postnatal anxiety in this way. There is still a lot of stigma and negativity surrounding it, making for some hurtful comments from “well wishers”. Many people become uncomfortable when you broach the subject of anxiety. I’ve seen it with family members and friends, ranging from avoidance to downright cruel comments. However, I noticed that these responses have one thing in common – they assume that my anxiety has gone away now that the newborn stage (and my initial trigger) is over. But I’m learning now more than ever that this is far from the case.
In a month’s time, my son will be turning one, and I will be returning to work part-time. As I prepare to return to work, I have found my anxiety re-emerging. Now I am feeling anxious about leaving the house for a whole other reason – I don’t want to be separated from my son. I have spent almost a year in his company – 24 hours a day, seven days a week. After all this time together, the thought of leaving him makes me sick to my stomach. Of course there have been occasions over the past year where someone else has looked after him, but it has usually been when he’s asleep at night. When that hasn’t been the case, I’ve left in tears. The very thought of going through this on a weekly basis brings about a massive amount of anxiety for me, and I’m still working through ways of coping with it.
I’ve looked for support from others, but I’m not really finding it. I’ve found that people tend to associate separation anxiety with anxiety experienced by babies and children. They say things like, “Don’t worry, he’ll be okay,” or “He’ll get used to it eventually”. They don’t seem to realise my own concerns with being separated from my son. I know he will be well cared for and okay — I’m just not sure I can say the same thing about myself…
Then there are others who share pearls of wisdom like, “you’ll get over it” and “life moves on”. They then tell me how I am becoming a helicopter parent. Of course, statements like these only make my anxiety worse.
When I first recognised my separation anxiety, I felt like I had to justify myself. I had to apologise for how I was feeling and explain away my tears, my sadness and angst. I spent extra time explaining that I trusted my son’s minders and that I knew he’d be okay. I had to justify that I wasn’t over-attached, that I wasn’t hovering over him. I spent many conversations trying to get people to understand how I was feeling. And after those many, many conversations, I have come to a solid conclusion.
I really just don’t care.
Why do I feel the need to keep apologising for feeling anxious? Why do I have to explain to others that leaving my son for the day makes me sad? Don’t people understand that I actually enjoy spending time with my son? Does enjoying my son’s company make me a helicopter parent? If it does, so be it.
I may never “get over” being away from my son, and that is okay. I have come to understand my separation anxiety not as a negative emotion, but as a positive one. For me, it symbolises the love I have for my son and the intense joy I get from being in his company. After a difficult first few months, this is a huge victory for us. I hope I always feel anxious about leaving him, because it means that I will miss him and will enjoy the time we do have even more.
If you’re a new mum who is experiencing separation anxiety, I want you to know that you’re not alone. I feel like my anxiety is my way of expressing love for my child, and it makes the time we have together more enjoyable. While I prepare to go back to work, I know I’m going to enjoy every minute of the next month with my son. When I do go back that first day, I know that more than few tears will be shed, and that will be perfectly okay.
If you or someone you know is experiencing anxiety or depression and would like someone to talk to, PANDA is an amazing resource for parents experiencing postnatal depression and anxiety. They have a national hotline, Monday to Friday (10am – 5pm), on 1300 726 306.