It began pretty quickly after I gave birth: Was it the lack of sleep that made me anxious, or the anxiety that kept me up, even as my baby snuffled his sleepy breaths in the bassinet next to me? It’s hard to say exactly what triggered what.
In the end, it doesn’t really matter what came first — the postpartum anxiety and insomnia became a single, terrifying presence I could not kick. For months, I tried everything anyone suggested: calm music, aromatherapy, nutritional supplements, yoga, meditation, exercise, therapy, acupuncture. Remarkably, despite the fact that postpartum anxiety and insomnia are quite common for new parents, there’s a dearth of concrete advice, and I found myself bouncing from one idea to the next, hoping that something would stick.
Fortunately, some things helped more than others.
When my son was about 6 months old I began to feel better. A combination of talk therapy, anti-anxiety medication, and exercise had me sleeping more. Getting more sleep took the edge off my ever-tightening chest and allowed me to breathe more easily. The relief, not just for me but for my incredibly supportive and patient wife as well, was breathtaking. Sanity had returned to our household.
That was January 2020. A new year, a new beginning. Surely it would be better than 2019, right?
It’s safe to say that the past few months have not been great for my anxiety. Among other things, the global pandemic shut down flights, and my wife and I got stuck in Israel with our baby for five months as a result. Since February, we’ve been living with our parents and keeping our careers afloat — working at night when it’s daytime in the U.S. and raising our little one during the day. It’s been a time.
Fortunately, throughout it all, there are a few things that have helped consistently to keep the wolves in my mind at bay. Not always — there have certainly been moments when I felt their teeth nipping at my heels — but most of the time. Enough to keep me present and functioning. Enough to let me sleep most nights.
First, my family and friends — such generosity, such open spirits. My parents and my father-in-law didn’t hesitate to uproot their lives so that we could stay with them. They moved furniture, moved schedules, took care of our little one so that we could work (or nap!). They supported us when we lost work. My parents drove two hours each way to come help us out at my father-in-law’s house, twice a week, for months. Friends and family dropped off bags of clothes and toys for our baby on many occasions as he grew into a toddler during our extended stay in Israel.
Second, therapy and medication. I began meeting with a therapist in New York during the months of postpartum haze last fall. When we found ourselves living across the ocean, I kept it up over Zoom and I’m so glad that I did. Zoom therapy was weird at first — strangely both more and less intimate than regular therapy — but I got used to it. Having a space each week to put all of my fears and frustrations has been key to staying afloat. I also kept taking my anti-anxiety medication and following up with my psychiatrist online. Let me say this part loudly: There are plenty of medications that are safe for breastfeeding mothers. They help. This is not a failure, it is self-love and self-preservation.
Third, self-care. This is a huge one. Exercising regularly (at home, with an app — I use Down Dog HIIT and Yoga), trying to sleep whenever possible (read: family naps in the afternoon with our kiddo), eating nutritious food (and indulging in chocolatey treats). Chatting with my best friends on the phone. Reading books, even if it’s only for a few minutes a day. Putting on music when I shower. Listening to a calming podcast while I clean the house. Anything, really, that makes me feel cared for — each of these little things makes me feel like I still have some control over how my day will look.
Of course, these are more easily said than done. I thank my lucky stars daily for my wife’s encouragement and support. She keeps me accountable but also reminds me to forgive myself. Which brings me to the fourth, most important, most difficult contributor to my health.
Compassion for myself and for others. This one is so hard, but when I manage it, it’s also the most powerful. Finding tenderness for myself when I push myself too hard (staying up ‘til 2 a.m. to meet that deadline) or not hard enough (I really should be exercising, but maybe I’ll pour a glass of wine instead). Finding understanding for others when we blow up at each other, or just can’t be bothered to do the dishes, or buy the wrong kind of cheese. Remembering that these are not actually the things that matter. Remembering that tomorrow is another day, we get to try again. Remembering that I don’t have to be right all the time.
Next week, my baby will be a year old. Yesterday, we celebrated in my parents’ backyard with our immediate family, hand sanitizer, and all. The sun was shining, our little one was toddling around pointing at birds and flowers, making everybody laugh behind their surgical masks. We sang “Baby Beluga” and “Old MacDonald.” We danced at a safe distance and ate carrot cake.
The learning curve of this past year has been steep, like a precipice I’m liable to fall off at any moment. But by leaning on others, by learning to lean on me, I haven’t fallen off yet. I’ve learned that I’m not going to finish learning any time soon. It’s about getting up each day and trying again, trying again, trying again. Being grateful for the chance to try.
Image by Olha Khorimarko/Getty Images