I thought the journey to having a baby would be easy, but I was wrong. I knew being a parent would be hard, but I was completely unprepared for just how impossible it felt. By how completely crippled I became. I realize now that the hard-fought journey, during which I lost four pregnancies and endured multiple surgeries before having my son, made mothering him infinitely harder.
We’d spent years trying to conceive and suffering through recurrent pregnancy loss. I’d had more needles poked into my body than I could count, and I recall being relieved at blood draws when someone else got to put the needle in, instead of having to do it myself. Because infertility and recurrent miscarriage are full of needles. Every single month that I tried to conceive, I had to inject a painful shot into my stomach every night, starting at six days past ovulation until either a negative pregnancy test, a miscarriage, or finally reaching 14 weeks pregnant.
I’d gone from a joyful person to a broken one. I felt physically broken, but I was emotionally broken. Shattered, actually.
I’d gone from a perpetual optimist to someone who felt fiery fury in her veins every time someone told me, “Think positive. Next time will be different.” My world was dark like I was looking through a gray, blurry lens at all times, and I could see no light at the end of the tunnel.
When my Reproductive Endocrinologist found an unexpected uterine anomaly that likely caused my four miscarriages, I felt relief for the first time in years. But when I found out I was pregnant with my son, my emotional walls shot right back up, blocking me from feeling much of anything.
“You must be so excited!” people would say at each pregnancy milestone I’d never before reached.
Excited? No. Terrified of every living moment? Yes.
Growing a human makes you acutely aware of every physical feeling—every pinch, twinge, kick, thump, cramp—everything. For me, it also made me perpetually fearful. When your mind has been trained to believe that pregnancy will always end in trauma, it makes sense that it would be hard to accept that this one might be different.
I never accepted it.
The week before my son was born, my therapist warned me that I might not feel the instant connection and excitement we’re led to expect after delivery. I listened, but I believed there would be no joy because my son would not arrive safely. The night before we checked into the hospital for my induction, I asked my husband how he wanted to split overnight duties “if” we got to bring our son home.
I became strangely calm about it all during labor, fully focused on what my body was doing, and priding myself on getting through it with active, intentional care. But I felt no connection to my baby during this process. The connection I felt was with myself. I was proud of my body for finally doing something right. But I barely thought about my baby.
In the moments after Jack was born, I went through the final part of labor: birthing the placenta. I can hardly explain my excitement when the doctors asked if I wanted to see it. I was elated. Of course I wanted to see it!
My husband thought this was weird. “My body grew an organ!” I exclaimed. “Why wouldn’t I want to see it? This is unbelievable!”
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He humored me, but I can’t help but wonder if it occurred to him that I “should” be equally impressed that my body grew a human. While I oohed and ahhed over my placenta, I think my minutes-old baby was lying on my chest. But I honestly don’t remember. Somehow, he was not my focus.
Then, the chaos ensued, and after discovering that Jack had low blood sugar, nurses whisked him away to the nursery for care. I had to ask my husband to show me a picture of our son. I realized I didn’t know what his face looked like.
Jack spent the first night of his life in the nursery, and it wasn’t until I woke up the next morning that it hit me for the first time that I had a living, breathing baby. And I still couldn’t picture his face.
I feel lucky that we bonded well during the rest of our hospital stay. I felt comfort in the fact that my therapist’s warnings had been helpful, but unnecessary. I did feel joy and even calm peace. I can’t help but wonder if going home would’ve gone better if I’d had equal warning about how emotional that could be.
When we left the hospital, my husband wheeled me into the elevator while I held Jack in his car seat in my lap. Suddenly, I felt like my entire being would collapse. The world became dark and began spinning. I held back tears that I was not willing for the nurse escorting us to our car to see. I began shaking. I was having a panic attack, which would be the first of many in the days, weeks, months, and even years ahead.
When I look back on it now, I feel like I didn’t stop shaking for two years.
I sobbed in the car on the way home. I sobbed at every random opportunity for the coming days, and weeks, and months.
But more than anything, I panicked. I couldn’t sleep. On a rare occasion, I would fall asleep but would wake up within 5 minutes, hyperventilating, crying, almost screaming. Already exhausted, I avoided sleep for fear of an anxiety attack.
Because every time I woke, the panic was back. People kept assuring me that what I was feeling was normal, but because I had been in therapy for anxiety for years, I was thankful I knew that this was absolutely NOT normal.
I slept for 15 non-consecutive minutes a day, waking to a panic attack each time I fell asleep. I fell to the floor sobbing multiple times daily, bruising my knees, and most certainly my heart.
I worked so hard, and with such desperation, to get to this point. Why couldn’t I handle it?
The strange thing was that I was comfortable with my son. I didn’t panic when he was in my arms. But I didn’t stop panicking when he wasn’t.
But even with him, I felt a disconnect. I was that emotional wall of protection I had put up during my pregnancy, rebuilt in an instant in the hospital elevator as I began our journey home. I had a healthy baby in my arms, and yet I remained convinced that something would, in fact, go wrong. That fear left me completely debilitated.
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Thankfully, I had a pre-scheduled phone call with my therapist, who referred me to a perinatal psychiatrist after listening to me sob, hyperventilate, and try to articulate what was wrong, but again be overcome by a desperate gasping for air.
Two days later, my husband and I sat in the new psychiatrist’s office with Jack across the room. When Jack made noises, which were blessedly few during that appointment, my husband attended to him. I was barely aware of his presence.
I most succeeded at getting words out through my sobs as I spoke with this therapist, but when I couldn’t manage through my choking, gasping, empty lungs, my husband filled in the blanks as best as possible. I was diagnosed with postpartum anxiety, which was not news to me, and was prescribed medication that would slowly begin to pull me out of the darkness.
As I became somewhat more functional and less terrified of my own mind, I was finally able to utter the words to my therapist that had been sitting just beneath the surface, fully repressed, but breaking my heart, since the moment Jack was born.
“I don’t like being a mom,” I admitted. “And I feel like a complete failure for that because I worked so hard to get here, and I know so many women who would give anything to take my place.”
When I said the words aloud, an instant relief came over me, combined with a feeling of sheer terror. But what I came to realize was that I didn’t actually dislike being a mom—I disliked how different being a mom felt than what I had expected. When expectations don’t equal reality, things get really hard, and for a new mom whose expectations of motherhood did not equal the reality I’d dreamed of during my years of recurrent pregnancy loss. I felt like I was failing every other loss mom out there. Like I’d been given the gift we all desperately wanted, and I was clearly unworthy.
What I discovered over time was that my postpartum experience was likely harder because of my fertility trauma. Because I could not separate my guilt from my anxiety, or from my understanding of myself. And guilt makes everything worse.
My therapist had warned me that moms who’ve been through infertility trauma often struggle more during the postpartum period, and I desperately wish I’d internalized that message as much as I’d done with his warning about my emotions while in the hospital. But it’s one I hope you’ll take in if any of this rings true to you:
Being a good mother and enjoying motherhood are not always synonymous. You are allowed to struggle through pregnancy and parenthood no matter what it took for you to get there.
Where you’ve been does not define where you are now, and how you feel now should not make you feel guilty because of where you’ve been.
This is hard, mama. But you’re going to be okay. I’ve been you, and I’m here for you.
Katy Huie Harrison, PhD is an author, mom, and advocate for women’s reproductive, physical, and mental health. She’s the founder of Undefining Motherhood, an educational and advocacy website for women at all stages of the childbearing and childrearing processes. She’s the author of a guided journal for women experiencing miscarriage, Mourning Retreat: A Journal for the Sisterhood of Pregnancy Loss. Katy’s work has been featured in places like CNN’s Headline News, Romper, Scary Mommy, Love What Matters, and more. Get to know Katy on Instagram @undefiningmotherhood.