When I was pregnant for the first time, I couldn’t wait for my baby to arrive. I knew it would be hard—people had warned me it would be hard—but I also anticipated a profound love and connection that would make the inevitable sleepless nights worth it.
I’d also put time into preparing myself and my relationship for this monumental change. My husband and I had written out, in detail, who would be responsible for cleaning the house (him), cooking (him), and changing diapers (both of us, but mostly him). We’d set up a meal train. We were in the incredibly fortunate place of being able to take ample time off work to care for and bond with our newborn.
Then came the fateful day of my labor. It was excruciating back labor—pain worse than anything I can imagine. When little Marie was born, I felt awe at myself and immense, profound relief that the pain was over. I also felt completely, utterly overwhelmed, like every single nerve in my body was being stimulated at the same time.
That feeling took a long time to wear off. Indeed, for much of the first year of my daughter’s life, I felt like an emotional IED, ready to explode with the slightest provocation. I loved her profoundly, but I also felt so wired by the intensity of the new parenthood experience. And I felt incredibly lonely, because when I talked to other new moms and shared my experience, I was rarely met with the recognition and connection I so desperately craved. Instead, I often walked away from conversations feeling like something was wrong with me.
I didn’t fit the clinical descriptions of PPD or PPA. I wasn’t constantly consumed with worry about my child (though I was certainly anxious more often than many other moms I knew). I wasn’t excessively sad or overcome with the sense that I couldn’t care for my baby.
My “symptoms” were a little different. I basically contorted my life to prevent my daughter from expressing discomfort. I walked around feeling hypervigilant—always trying to prevent a cry before it happened, because the sound of my daughter wailing would send my heart racing. I had a hard time drifting off to sleep, even once my daughter was sleeping through the night, because I knew a cry might be coming.
To be clear, it wasn’t just the sound of the cry that I found upsetting. I was so emotionally attuned to my daughter that when she was distressed, I felt distressed. Preventing her sadness became a strategy to keep me from feeling sad.
For that first year, Marie, like any baby, had a lot of discomfort—we struggled with our breastfeeding relationship, she took short and unpredictable naps, she got seemingly all her teeth at once. As a result, I was always emotionally on guard.
I can feel my heart rate rising as I write this. It’s still so visceral.
Paradoxically, I was doing all this while trying to embrace a parenting ethos that resonates so clearly with me: one in which we validate our kids’ feelings and help them build self-regulation skills, rather than trying to stop the feelings so we’re not triggered by them. When Marie did get upset, I absolutely wanted to let her feel her feelings. But I simultaneously geared so much energy toward preventing that upset in the first place. Frankly, it didn’t make sense.
Only now, nearly four years and another child later, do I have a decent understanding of why I had such a hard time during that newborn-infant-new toddler stage—and why, despite having done it before and being far better prepared, I still found caring for a newborn the second time around nearly all-consuming.
It turns out I have “sensory processing sensitivity.” In more accessible terminology, I’m a “highly sensitive person.” Research suggests something like 15-20% of people are like me: high on the sensitivity spectrum. We take in sensory stimulation like everyone else, and then we process it much more thoroughly. Because our brains are doing all this extra processing work, we get overstimulated much more easily than other people. How does that manifest? Well, basically, we turn into the “new parent” version of me: anxious, flustered, irritable, overwhelmed.
If you’re a relatively high-functioning person who’s also highly sensitive, you’ve probably got a lot of coping mechanisms in your back pocket. You probably, like me, prioritize getting enough sleep, spending a lot of time alone or in an otherwise low-stimulation environment, taking time to yourself when you need it, and generally avoiding high-stimulation activities unless you’re feeling particularly ready for that kind of environment.
Well, guess what? When you have a baby, suddenly, you can’t choose when the stimulation will come in, how intense it’ll be, and how long it will last. Babies are an exercise in “going with the flow” for every new parent, but that exercise can be especially hard—like, physically arduous!—for a highly sensitive new parent. You also can’t simply choose to decompress whenever you want; sometimes you really are the only person who can be with the baby.
Before you know it, you can find yourself living a relatively isolated existence. Leaving the house with the baby introduces a whole range of unpredictable factors that could directly aggravate you, or that could set off the baby and thereby throw you into a state of overwhelm.
If this is all sounding a bit familiar, I highly recommend taking a self-assessment (developed by Dr. Elaine Aron) to determine whether you are a highly sensitive person. If you are, let me know in the comments below. I’m considering writing up some strategies that helped me cope as a new, highly sensitive parent. These include building in space for decompression and quiet time throughout the day, breaking patterns of emotional co-dependency, and still doing hard, overstimulating things (on occasion!) in order to build in that muscle memory and trust that you can, in fact, still be a part of the world.
In the meantime, please know that you’re not alone. ❤