While I’ve never been officially diagnosed with postpartum depression, I know all too well about the dark days of new motherhood. And believe me, I’ve certainly been where so many struggling parents have been before.
I had just begun the juggling act of working from home, while also caring for my 16-month-old daughter. As I desperately tried to focus on work one day, my baby girl pulled at me for attention. Her efforts turned to tears as she pleaded with me to focus only on her. And that’s when it hit me — a wave of overwhelm so intense it stopped me in my tracks.
It would be months later when I would reach a point so unmanageable that I had to get to the heart of my problem. And it wasn’t until months after that where I would work with a counselor to discover that the challenging moments of motherhood were triggering the physical and emotional traumas of my youth.
But in that moment with my daughter, I was so scared. Because in that moment, I experienced my first real panic attack as an adult. I dropped down into a corner, crying my eyes out and struggling to take in a deep breath. My daughter stood looking at me, a mixture of laughter and confusion on her face. She threw her arms around me, hugging me tight. In that moment of distress, my sweet girl was hugging me.
I wish I could say I felt completely grateful for her in that moment. Sure, I was amazed at how easily she had learned early on to empathize with someone in pain. But part of me resented her. Because I blamed the stresses of raising her for being balled up in that corner in the first place.
When I thought it couldn’t get any worse, the panic attacks grew to a point where I felt as if I’d lost control of my body. They frightened me. They angered me. And I couldn’t understand why I was experiencing them.
During one particularly gut-wrenching attack, I was driving with my little girl. I pulled to the side of the road and frantically Googled local women’s counseling clinics. Then I quickly called one. The therapist on the other end spoke with me for a generous 45 minutes. I calmed down and drove back home with a stark realization — I needed to dive back into counseling.
I was in therapy a few years ago after my last marriage ended, and I credit it for basically saving my life. My heart broke open from the excruciating anguish of divorcing my ex-husband, and the sacred work I did with a therapist helped me heal it.
In that safe space, I felt seen, acknowledged, and supported.
I’m now about three months into weekly counseling sessions and the difference it has made is extraordinary. But there has been one particularly eye-opening experience recently. My therapist explained that if a parent has experienced any major childhood trauma, chances are they will be triggered during moments of parenthood, and reminded of it. As soon as she shared that information, I welled up with tears.
Because it all began to make sense.
As a kid, I was often violently disciplined, and received verbal and emotional abuse. I also experienced sexual trauma at a very young age and was thrown into therapy. After experiencing these traumas, I would often go into a deep panicked state as a kid. I’d ball myself up in a corner, struggling to breathe. Sometimes I’d say punishing words to myself, usually due to massive guilt and shame for whatever I may have done to receive the abuse. Mostly, I would just cry my little eyes out.
While these early experiences left no scars on the outside, there were internal scars so deeply tucked away I forgot they were even there. And each time my daughter challenged me, I was pulled back to those early childhood moments of being hurt, screamed at, and torn down with words. Which meant that each time I felt broken down as a parent, I would go into a terrifying state of fear.
My therapist’s words helped create a context for why I was having the panic attacks. I have now come to realize that my reactive behavior as a kid mirrors what I’ve recently experienced.
Showing up weekly with a counselor has transformed my life. It is in that space where I have learned to support myself in moments of deep distress. It is there that I have learned to love myself again, even when I feel like one hot mess of a mom and human. It is there that I safely leave the traumas of my childhood, and find relief to enter back into the world and parent.
While I still have moments of overwhelm and anxiety, they are much less severe and no longer cripple me. With the work of my counselor, I again feel seen, acknowledged, and supported. And now I have tangible tools that help me when I feel triggered by a challenging moment with my daughter. I first work to ground myself, and remember that while I was traumatized as a child, I am healing myself as an adult. I shower myself with love. I shower my daughter with love. And I breathe, slow and steady.
Please know — if you have children and are experiencing emotional difficulties in raising them, there is no shame in asking for help. There is no shame in acknowledging your parenting flaws and shortcomings. And there is certainly no shame in admitting you are being triggered as a parent by something you could not control as a child.
I am so grateful my daughter has helped me heal the parts of me that have experienced trauma. In a way, my little girl is helping me learn to love the little girl inside. And during those tough parenting moments, when I let go of my anxiety and just hold her close, I become a better mom than I ever expected to be — to my daughter and to myself.