Postnatal anxiety: do all new mums suffer with it?

annie ridout

As a mother of young children, it can be hard to decipher the difference between finding things a bit hard and an actual mental health issue. The editor Annie Ridout shared a post on Instagram about how her anxiety manifests and was amazed (and troubled) by the response…

Motherhood can be incredible and love-filled but also infuriating and exhausting. For me, having two young children – a three-year-old and an eight-month-old – means that I laugh and smile every single day, without fail. I have cuddles and kisses on tap, and this brings huge joy.

But I also say ‘Fuck’ quite loudly at least once a day, too. I say it because I feel frustrated. Or tired. Or because things aren’t going to plan. Pack the nappy bag the night before, lay out clothes, cook the baby food in advance but you simply cannot predict the explosive poo that delays your departure by 15 minutes.

The only predictable thing about parenting is that children are often entirely unpredictable. So for people who like to be organised and plan ahead, parenthood requires a big dollop of ‘letting go’. This is, in fact, my mantra of late: ‘let it go’. Stop trying to control everything, because you will fail.

Only, I find it very hard to let go, because my ‘planning ahead’ is tightly linked to my anxiety. I have suffered with anxiety on and off for years – I think it is the mental health issue of many shy children when they become adults – but motherhood has shifted that anxiety.

Where once, I’d have been traumatised by the thought of speaking in front of a room of people; I now fully embrace this opportunity. In fact, I will be speaking in front of lots of people at Stylist Live this year (more on that soon). Motherhood has given me huge social confidence.

However, becoming a mum has also ramped up my tendency to over-plan. To think about everything very far in advance, and plan for every possible outcome – when often there is no way of knowing how an event, day or conversation will pan out.

It is a symptom of my underlying anxiety and while I try to ignore the nagging voice in my head, sometimes I can’t. So when recently, I was having one of these futile over-planning mental dialogues, I decided to share it online, on The Early Hour Instagram account.

I soon started receiving tonnes of emails, direct messages and public comments from other women who have similar panicky conversations with themselves, and perhaps didn’t realise it was down to anxiety. Maybe they thought it was just part of their personality. In many way, it is.

While I would prefer it if no woman had to suffer with anxiety, I found it hugely reassuring to know that I’m not alone with what feels like such a ridiculous, pointless set of thought processes. It is not ridiculous. It is (often) a symptom of anxiety. It is sad that so many of us suffer in this way.

So for other mothers out there, feeling like you’re going mad with your own thoughts and need to plan everything from the day ahead to the conversation you might have while at a work event in three years time, know that it’s not just you. It’s me, too. And loads of other mums.

Here is my original Instagram post about postnatal anxiety (in italics), followed by some of the responses…

This morning, while rushing to get ready before my husband left for work, I got in a bit of a fluster – over-planning absolutely everything. Thoughts like: if I don’t put the clean laundry away now, I’ll have to do it between bath and bed, when the kids are cranky, as I’m doing bedtime alone. I’ll have a (probably naked, cold) baby on one hip and will be trying to entertain the three-year-old while I push socks into various drawers. So I better do it now, instead.

And then: that wet towel on the floor needs to be hung on the bannister otherwise it won’t dry properly before bath-time and I’ll have to get a fresh one out then there will be too many in circulation so I’ll have to put a wash on. But I don’t have time for that, as I’ll be working once the kids are in bed – and then following them up around 9pm so I’m not tired for my last day with my daughter before she starts preschool full time.

And then I stopped. I took a moment to breathe and recalibrate. I recognised these as thoughts that exist not because this stuff is of any real importance but because of an underlying anxiety making me want to control certain things (eg. the house) to make up for the fact that I can’t control others (eg. how my daughter feels about starting preschool). Taking time to reflect allowed me to reassign these menial tasks as being completely unimportant. And to remember that what is important is to spent time with my daughter, taking about everything and having fun.

I find it far too easy to let anxiety get the better of me and head off into spirals of trying-to-control-every-aspect-of-my-life when really, slowing down and relaxing is what I need to be doing. Sitting and eating cake. Not manically collecting wet towels and thinking that as long as I have hung them up, everything will be fine.

My anxiety doesn’t affect me physically (I have had panic attacks but don’t any more) or socially (I’m confident in public). It manifests in over-planning. That’s my thing. My annoying thing. (I did end up picking up the towel and putting away the laundry. I’m not able to talk myself down quite so easily).

Who else over-plans when feeling anxious?

“I’m 100% an overplanner when I start to stress and get anxious. This was like reading my own thoughts!”

“Wait, this isn’t normal?!????”

“ME!! I do this all the time. I then exacerbate it by getting grumpy about things that might stress me out later, much to the bemusement of the Mr and the kids.”

“I over-plan and when things get really bad I sort Lego.”

“I’ve had hours of therapy about this. I still do.”

“I hear you, I’m very much like this! It feels good to hear someone else describe it! I think that ‘I’ll do this now because if I don’t xyz’ is a very female thing too, I’m simultaneously envious of and annoyed by my partner’s ability to be singleminded! I try to remember to take a deep breath and then do one thing at a time.”

“My over-thinking/ planning/ catastrophising gets so bad sometimes that I end up doing nothing at all because there are too many potential things which could go wrong. Thank you for the reminder to breathe. I should be cuddling up with my 12-month-old post-injection baby not trying to pre-plan every element of a ‘stress-free’ evening. Yawn.”

“You’ve just described exactly what goes on in my head. I recognise now that I was an anxious child who grew into an anxious adult. Now I try and think: one thing at a time and it will all get done eventually.”

“Wow, this is me and I’ve never thought of it like that before. This has been a big eye opener for me. Every morning I try to make the upstairs of my house perfect before I go downstairs. Thank you for a bit of perspective.”

“Wow, this is like my mind. Constantly planning the next few hours and what needs to be done. Worrying when it goes to hell. Feeling annoyed that the other half breezes around untroubled by the things that need doing. It’s taken me ages to realise it might actually be anxiety and more than just the stress of motherhood. Trying to have 5 mins to lie down after a hectic day but the two baskets of laundry that needs putting away are staring at me!”

“That felt like you just described me! And sometimes I rush around so much, I actually bang and hurt myself on things and have to have a ‘mindful moment’ (hot cup of tea) to force myself to slow down!”

“Wow what an insightful post! I’d never realised it in me, but this is ME! Wow. Thankyou, so true.”

“Constant dilemma! ‘Just relax’ is nearly impossible.”

“It’s really reassuring to read this and to hear that many of us do the same. I’ve over-planned for years to relieve/prevent anxiety but before having a baby I was always able to do the stuff I’d planned so didn’t get stressed by it. Now, particularly when I’m stuck in one spot feeding my little one, I’m constantly planning all the tasks that I think need doing. And then getting frustrated that I can’t do them! This has been one of the hardest parts of motherhood so far and I’m slowly learning to try to relax and just be in the moment.”

Are you a new mum, or a mother of young children – and if so, do you suffer with anxiety?

Image credit: portrait on left by Emily Gray Photography, image on right from Designspiration