As I rounded the corner of Mariposa and Puerta, walking toward me was yet another “I Love Being A Grandma!” T-shirt. I smiled, but passed her quickly, not wanting to make conversation.
The retirement community where I live is, of course, packed with grandparents. When meeting someone for the first time, the opening chat often includes, “Do you have children?” If the answer is “yes,” it’s followed immediately by, “Any grandkids?” Usually the asker doesn’t really care about the answer; the question is used as an excuse to brag about the cute behaviors and/or successes of their own grandchildren.
Although my answer to that question is still “no,” my beautiful daughter is 6 months pregnant. She has wanted a baby for years, and I’m truly happy for her. However, for myself, major worry has been emerging ever since she shared the news with me. Just as in motherhood, the expected societal emotion is excited anticipation. As much as I’d love to identify with the T-shirts, at this moment I cannot imagine ever doing so.
I experienced two severe, life-threatening postpartum depression and anxiety illnesses after both of my children were born. Horrifying thoughts and images of harm coming to my babies paralyzed me with fear, often literally rendering me unable to move. I was obsessed with keeping my babies safe, and it thoroughly overwhelmed me.
I felt intense inadequacy about my imagined inability to protect them. The terror prevented me from sleeping, eating, or experiencing any joy. I became despondent. The all-consuming hopelessness about ever feeling normal again led to serious thoughts of suicide. I was convinced my husband and children would be better off without me.
I was plagued with this nightmarish mental state every day and every night for years, since there was no recognition or help for these disorders back in the ‘80s. There was nothing but ignorance and criticism surrounding us. Those who loved me tried their best, but no one had a clue how to help.
After a year into my second devastating postpartum illness, I launched into a new career pioneering the field of maternal mental health. I founded my first postpartum organization and started running support groups from our home. Every week between 5 and fifteen women and their adult support people filled our living room. There was no Internet back in 1988, so word about the groups could only spread through a couple of posted flyers and person-to-person.
I remember the mothers of the new moms in my groups wide-eyed as they realized they themselves had gone through the same illness as their daughters. They thought they had been accompanying their daughters to the groups only as supports. It was magical to watch their amazement as their own postpartum puzzle pieces finally fit. They usually ended up participating fully in the groups along with their daughters–- often with tears of relief and gratitude flowing.
I survived those nightmarish years, however narrowly, and managed to eventually develop a close relationship with my children. My career helping suffering parents around the world, writing books on the topic, and training professionals has been flourishing for over thirty years. However, since my recovery decades ago, I have had no interest in becoming a grandmother.
The thought of another baby entering my world rekindles the postpartum trauma which had taken years to resolve and heal. The old disturbing dreams restarted last night, which finally prompted me to write this article. In my dream I was caring for my daughter, who was a very little girl. I eventually lost her in a crowd – I couldn’t protect her – my worst fear. I made myself wake up, and found myself with a tight chest and in a cold sweat.
Every time I picture babysitting my grandchild, tension in my stomach and chest wells up. I utilize the mindfulness techniques I teach my clients as a clinical psychologist, but sometimes the anxiety gets the better of me.
When I tell my neighbors that my daughter is expecting, they automatically assume I’m elated. But when I’ve expressed ambivalence to those who I would have thought would be sympathetic, my feeling is often met with disbelief, surprise, and downright disdain.
Just like the postpartum feeling about my babies, how could a grandmother not fully love taking care of her grandbaby? The postpartum criticism from others plus my own inner thoughts arise such as, “What do you mean you feel so much anxiety you don’t want to be alone with your own child?” “What’s your problem?” “What kind of a woman and mother (and now grandmother) are you?”
Just as parents-to-be and new parents shouldn’t have any shame about depression and anxiety, grandparents shouldn’t either. The more I speak with survivors of postpartum depression and anxiety in my age group, the more I realize how common this phenomenon is. About 1 in 7 new mothers experience postpartum depression and anxiety, so it makes sense that now as grandmothers these old feelings can be triggered.
We need to start talking about it more openly. As we’re helping to rid society of the stigma of depression in mothers (and parents in general), we should do the same for grandparents. Maybe in addition to postpartum support groups we need grandparent support groups that create a safe place to talk about these challenges. Or maybe even combine these groups into one, like what happened spontaneously in my living room years ago.
I look forward to embracing this baby and experience with open arms and lots of hope for the future. And, who knows? My grandma ambivalence may disappear in time, and I just might join the, “I Love Being A Grandma!” T-shirt brigade in the coming months.