Laura Prepon on the Intense Anxiety of New Motherhood
I’ve always loved a thrill. I thrive on challenges like driving a motorcycle, playing in the World Series of Poker, and jumping off a cliff just because I see a cool video of someone doing it. I once agreed to hike up Mount Kilimanjaro on two weeks’ notice even though I’d never so much as hiked to the Hollywood sign when I lived in L.A. I got terrible altitude sickness, but I made it.
I used to pride myself on doing these crazy, stressful things, but nothing could have prepared me for the ride that is motherhood. When I had my daughter, Ella, in 2017, I was completely incapable of dealing with the level of anxiety that came into my life. Just the thought of taking her out of our house gave me a panic attack. For a new mom, it’s usually a godsend when your baby is sleeping. But I was so scared she’d stop breathing in the middle of the night that I’d risk waking her up just to know she was still alive. I was traumatized by the thought of what could happen, and I was grinding my teeth so much that I broke a tooth in half while I slept. My need to protect this baby was debilitating.
It got to a point where I didn’t even recognize myself in the mirror. My husband [actor Ben Foster] saw me struggling. I looked at him one night and said, “The woman you married is gone.” I truly felt like someone had hijacked my brain. It was scary. I had read plenty of books about pregnancy, but I couldn’t find anything I could relate to in terms of what would come after those nine months. Which is, you know, the rest of my life.
We have a macho approach to maternity in America; we’re a very production-based society. I went back to work on Orange Is the New Black six weeks after Ella was born, and I wore it as a badge of honor. Nothing was going to stop me from doing an incredible job, but I was in a complete daze. I was barely sleeping, burning the candle at both ends, and my milk supply was taxed. It was wreaking havoc on my body, yet there I was on set, starring in and directing an episode. I was bouncing a crying newborn while trying to edit on a deadline. Nobody knew how much I was struggling — I made sure of that. But I don’t think I could have handled one more crew member joking about whether or not I was getting any sleep. When the exhaustion is that intense, you can’t even laugh about it.
You hear about postpartum depression, but I knew that was not me. I wasn’t depressed. After doing research, I came across postpartum anxiety. I had never heard those words before but quickly realized that was what was going on. Let me tell you, hormones are real — and I had no idea how strong a hold they had on me. I was never a crier before I had Ella, and suddenly I cried all the time. Even now, if an emotional Bank of America commercial comes on, I burst into tears.
People have always come to me to get things done; I’m the tough one who knows how to handle a situation. Even the characters I usually play are strong, independent women. But becoming a mother was something I had never done before. It had a whole new set of rules, and it taught me that the saying “It takes a village” is true. Turning to my Mom Squad — which includes [OITNB creator] Jenji Kohan and [That ’70s Show co-star] Mila Kunis — for advice has made me feel less alone. They’ve walked the road ahead of me and taught me that when you have kids and go back to work, you need help. I always equated asking for help as a sign of weakness, so it took a lot for me to understand that it wasn’t.
Now I just remind myself not to white-knuckle anything. I can’t control what’s going to happen, so I need to be comfortable in not knowing. It took me a long time to get over the anxiety, but it helps that my daughter is getting bigger. She’s more sturdy. It’s intense when you first enter this incredibly heart-wrenching, eye-opening journey, and as you’re going through it, you think, “How could I ever do this again?” And yet here we are, blessed and incredibly excited to be welcoming our second child into the world. So, yeah, I’m convinced that the survival of the human race is based on female amnesia.
Prepon’s book, You & I, as Mothers, is out on April 7.
For more stories like this, pick up the April issue of InStyle available on newsstands, on Amazon, and for digital download March 20.