I was reading recently about a mother who felt traumatized — literally — by parenting. She said that years of taking care of babies, newborns, and toddlers had actually caused her to experience symptoms of PTSD.
Here’s what happened: When a friend had asked her to babysit her very young kids, she was instantly filled with anxiety, to the point where she couldn’t breathe. She became fixated on it. Although her own kids were a bit older, the thought of being transported back to having very young kids was enough to send her to the point of panic once again.
When we think of PTSD, a veteran returning home from a war zone might come to mind. PTSD, however, can take many forms. The National Institute of Mental Health defines PTSD more broadly: It’s a disorder that can occur after any shocking, scary, or dangerous event. It can occur after a single shocking event or after prolonged exposure to something that induces the flight-or-fight syndrome in the body. Your body is simply not able to process the difference between nonthreatening events and physical threats any longer.
So, you might be thinking: How could a beautiful thing like parenting a child cause a form of PTSD? Here’s what you need to know.
What’s going on here?
For some mothers, the early years of parenting are nothing like the pretty, idyllic images we see on Instagram or plastered on magazines. Sometimes, they really are miserable. Things like medical complications, emergency cesarean deliveries, postpartum depression, isolation, breastfeeding struggles, colic, being lonely, and the pressures of modern-day parenting can all pile on to cause a very real crisis for mothers.
The important thing to realize is that while our bodies are smart, they can’t distinguish between sources of stress. So whether the stressor is the sound of gunfire or a baby wailing for hours on end for months, the internal stress reaction is the same. The bottom line is that any traumatic or extraordinarily stressful situation can indeed cause PTSD. Postpartum mothers without a strong support network are certainly at risk.
The connection between parenting and PTSD
There are a number of parenting situations and scenarios that could lead to a mild, moderate, or even severe form of PTSD, including:
- severe colic in a baby that leads to sleep deprivation and the activation of “flight or fight” syndrome night after night, day after day
- a traumatic labor or birth
- postpartum complications like hemorrhage or perineal injury
- pregnancy loss or stillbirths
- difficult pregnancies, including complications like bed rest, hyperemesis gravidarum, or hospitalizations
- NICU hospitalizations or being separated from your baby
- a history of abuse being triggered by the experience of birth or postpartum period
What’s more, one study in the Journal of the American Heart Association found that parents of children with heart defects are at risk for PTSD. The unexpected news, shock, sadness, appointments, and long medical stays put them in situations of enormous stress.
Do you have postpartum PTSD?
If you haven’t heard of postpartum PTSD, you aren’t alone. Although it’s not talked about as much as postpartum depression, it’s still a very real phenomenon that can occur. The following symptoms may indicate you’re experiencing postpartum PTSD:
- vividly focusing on a past traumatic event (such as birth)
- avoidance of anything that brings up memories of the event (such as your OB or any doctor’s office)
- panic attacks
- detachment, feeling like things aren’t “real”
- difficulty bonding with your baby
- obsessing over anything relating to your child
Identifying your triggers
I wouldn’t say I had PTSD after having kids. But I will say that to this day, hearing a crying baby or seeing a baby spit up causes a physical reaction in me. We had a daughter with severe colic and acid reflux, and she spent months crying nonstop and spitting up violently.
It was a very difficult time in my life. Even years later I have to talk my body down when it gets stressed thinking back to that time. It has helped me a lot to realize my triggers as a mom. There are certain things from my past that still affect my parenting today.
For example, I spent so many years isolated and lost in depression that I can panic very easily when I’m alone with my kids. It’s like my body registers “panic mode” even though my brain is fully aware I’m no longer the mother of a baby and toddler. The point is, our early parenting experiences shape how we parent later. It’s important to recognize that and talk about it.
Can dads experience PTSD?
Although there may be more opportunities for women to encounter traumatic situations after going through labor, birth, and healing, PTSD can also happen to men. It’s important to be aware of the symptoms and keep an open line of communication with your partner if you feel like something is off.
Bottom line: Get help
Don’t be embarrassed or think PTSD couldn’t possibly happen to you “just” from parenting. Parenting isn’t always pretty. Plus, the more we talk about mental health and the possible ways our mental health can be compromised, the more we can all take steps toward leading healthier lives.
If you think you may need help, talk to your doctor or find more resources through a Postpartum Support Line at 800-944-4773.
Chaunie Brusie, BSN, is a registered nurse in labor and delivery, critical care, and long-term care nursing. She lives in Michigan with her husband and four young children and is the author of the book “Tiny Blue Lines.”