Postpartum is an equally exciting and scary time for a new mom. You’ve carried a growing baby for nine months and by week 40 of pregnancy — or past the due date, as many first time moms experience — you are pretty good with the whole pregnancy thing and ready to issue an eviction notice.
For me, my postpartum experience (after a traumatic labor, nonetheless) was a blend of confusion, exhaustion, anxiety, and unexplained physical symptoms that my doctors dismissed — but that I knew weren’t my “normal.” I’m sharing my story in hopes that other moms and future moms out there will be empowered to advocate for themselves during a tumultuous time. Here’s my story of my postpartum experience.
An Emotional Last Few Weeks of Pregnancy
The last eight weeks of my pregnancy with my now six-month-old, vibrant and healthy girl, were emotional. At my 32-week checkup, my OB-GYN wasn’t happy with my measurements and had another ultra sound scheduled to investigate things further. My daughter, who had been growing on track up to that point, was now measuring small in the abdomen, but with normal head and limb measurements. This indicated to my doctor — echoed by the ultra sound doctor — that there was likely an issue with my placenta. When oxygen or nutrients aren’t traveling optimally from the placenta to baby, it is often the result of intrauterine growth restriction (IUGR). The body adapts its circulation to preserve oxygen and nutrient supply to the baby’s brain.
I was told to stop exercising beyond walking (I remained athletic throughout my pregnancy, and continued Soul Cycle classes until receiving this feedback from my doctor). Luckily, things turned around quickly, and she caught up size-wise, but visiting the OB’s office twice-a-week for eight weeks to check the baby’s heartbeat on the Doppler was incredibly stressful. I held my breath every time, hoping to hear a healthy heartbeat come through the machine.
“I experienced intense contractions that were spaced 2-3 minutes apart for 3 days.”
I elected to be induced when I reached my due date because I was worried about the wellbeing of my daughter and convinced she would do better on the outside. As it turns out as I right, as my placenta was about 25 percent calcified upon delivery — the beginning of the intuition trend of this story.
My labor was traumatic, to say the least. Because I was induced, I went into the experience fully aware that it would be a long process. But “long” is an understatement. 56 hours after the process was initiated, I gave birth to a healthy, perfect baby girl.
That’s right — I experienced intense contractions that were spaced 2-3 minutes apart for 3 days. After six hours without pain meds I asked for “that epidural, pleeeeeease” quite expeditiously. Then laid around and waited. I watched a lot of daytime talk shows and soap operas to pass the time in a windowless room. By the end of day two, a C-section was looking eminent.
However, because my doctor is really smart and awesome, he told the nurses to take me off Pitocin and let me eat and sleep for a while — my body was likely overworked and in need of a break. I ordered a burger and forced it down despite intense exhaustion. After a few hours of rest, I was put back on Pitocin and went into active labor within an hour. Because my water had broken 24 hours prior, I almost didn’t experience a vaginal birth due to developing a 103 degree fever and infection. My body kicked into action at the last possible hour, suddenly realizing what it was supposed to do. I consider this the silver lining in my story, and I couldn’t think of a better gift than delivering my daughter without major complications.
She and I were put on antibiotics, which we remained on for three days in the hospital.
“I didn’t leave the hospital with a feeling of elation to be a mother.”
Labor was likely the catalyst of postpartum health issues for me. The stress my body underwent, plus antibiotics, sleep deprivation… it was a lethal combo. I didn’t leave the hospital with a feeling of elation to be a mother. I felt drained, emotionally and physically. I loved my daughter and was so thankful for her, but didn’t experience that overwhelming joy I had heard so many moms talk about.
This filled me with a lot of guilt — guilt that wouldn’t leave me for weeks. I was sure that something was wrong with me.
It turns out I was right, but for reasons I wouldn’t discover for a few months. I was initially diagnosed with postpartum anxiety, when — as soon I returned home from the hospital — I began experiencing extreme anxiety and panic attacks, which prevented me from sleeping. New parents are all too familiar with sleep deprivation, which is pretty unavoidable in the first few months of a baby’s life, especially if you’re exclusively breast feeding. But anxiety-induced sleep deprivation is something entirely different.
I was put on medication and started going to therapy to work through my anxiety, not knowing that there was something much more serious going on inside of me.
An endless array of unexplainable physical symptoms
It wasn’t until a few months had passed and I saw extreme weight fluctuations week-over-week, that I began to question if the weight I was gaining, losing, gaining… wasn’t actually the result of breastfeeding and normal postpartum hormone changes, but something else.
There were the strange night sweats and shakes, intense reaction to heat and cold, my hair was falling out much more than normal postpartum hair loss, my skin was breaking out and appeared a pale and dull hue, despite my very healthy diet. I felt jittery and exhausted at the same time. I was told by my primary care physician at the time that my symptoms were “normal — just annoying side effects of postpartum,” and also that I was probably eating more than I realized and should log my food intake for a few days… I work in/am in school for nutrition. Not only was I insulted by this remark and reaction, I was unwilling to accept it as a reasonable response.
Advocating for myself — and asking for what I needed
So, I went around my doctor and had a blood test taken at a functional medicine clinic. After everything I had read about my symptoms, all signs were pointing to a thyroid issue. So I had a biomarker test and full thyroid panel taken.
When the results came in, my suspicions were proven right. My T4 hormone numbers were off the charts, signifying hyperthyroidism. Additionally my A1C blood level was 5.7, indicating I was borderline pre-diabetic. The cruel irony is that I eat virtually no added sugar. Somehow, chronic stress had caused my immune system to attack my thyroid gland, and had also affected other body functions, resulting in insulin resistance.
I scheduled an appointment with an endocrinologist immediately, who confirmed that I had postpartum thyroiditis, a rare and temporary auto immune disease that effects about 5-8 percent of postpartum women. It usually goes away by 12-18 months postpartum, or develops into long-term hypothyroidism (low-active thyroid), which follows the hyperthyroid phase. Not every woman will experience both—some only experience a hyper or hypo phase. But many experience a hyper phase for a few months followed by a hypo phase, before returning to normal thyroid function.
What today’s “normal” looks like for me
At just over six months postpartum, I am still in a hyperthyroid phase, and have taken many proactive measures to help reduce symptoms of the auto immune disease, as well as manage my blood sugar. I went on a modified auto immune protocol diet, cutting out most nightshade vegetables, legumes, grains, dairy and sugar (besides low-glycemic berries). The purpose of this diet is to help my body achieve balance again, by reducing stress from inflammatory-causing foods. This diet is far too restrictive for healthy individuals and should only be followed with support of a doctor.
I also added a lot of supplements into my daily mix, including iron, D3 with K2 (which helps direct calcium to bones and muscle to be absorbed), and Vitamin B-12, which I was deficient in.
Why I’ll never ignore my intuition
The moral of this story is that we should always trust our intuition and listen to our body. We can’t put all of our faith in the medical system and doctors to fix us. They can’t feel what we feel. They don’t know what our version of “normal” is—this is personal and subjective. It really is our responsibility to be our own advocates, speak up when things don’t feel right, and be proactive.
I’m proud of myself for caring enough of about my health—for both my benefit and my daughter’s wellbeing—to seek help and not accept a medical opinion, which is what symptom dismissal without testing is. But I don’t blame doctors, solely. I think it’s a systemic problem, and one I shined a high-beam light on through my experience. The solution is much more complicated than I have the time or energy to narrow in on, but I do know that taking charge of my health is the one area I can control. So I do, and will continue to. We all have that power, and should do the best we can to use it whenever we need to.