Postpartum Anxiety and the Nine of the Swords

I bought my first tarot deck six months after my second son was born. I had two children under two years old and I felt unmoored. Pregnancy and postpartum hormones had taken my usually temperate feelings and whipped them into a hurricane. Everyone expected me to be blissed out on new motherhood, but I felt wild and lost. In retrospect it’s obvious that I had postpartum anxiety, but at the time I didn’t know that postpartum anxiety existed. My doctors talked about postpartum depression and they talked about baby blues (my god, what a condescending phrase). But I wasn’t sad after I had my children! I felt instead like my uterus had been emptied of a baby and filled with a vast ocean of panic. That anxiety was easy to dismiss, though. New mothers and new worry are bosom friends, right? It takes time to adjust, right? But I couldn’t adjust, and I was casting wildly about for anything that would ground me. I bought the deck on a whim. My reason was, quite literally, “Why the fuck not?”

Nine of Swords, Rider-Waite Tarot

Nine of Swords, Rider-Waite Tarot

One of the cards I pulled consistently during that time was the Nine of Swords. The traditional image is off-putting. It shows a person sitting in bed and clutching their head in their hands while nine swords hang above them like so many sharp and terrifying possibilities. It’s a dark picture. But for me it was comforting, because it spoke so deeply to the anxiety I felt during that time. It showed me the moments I jolted awake at 2 a.m., panicked over the nightmare scenarios that played in a loop every time I closed my eyes. It illustrated my particular brand of new-mother worry, wherein I convinced myself that every terrible thing I could imagine would most certainly come true. These nosedives into catastrophic thinking were present—right there!—in the Nine of Swords. I had sat up in bed just like that, wide awake, nursing my newborn,feeling like my heart was a wild animal trying to escape my chest.

Objectively, I guess it’s sad that the card I most associate with my experience of new motherhood is the Nine of Swords, instead of, I don’t know, the Empress or one of the more tender Cups cards. But that was the reality of my situation.

I’ve developed a deep relationship with tarot in the last few years. In general, the relationship I have with the cards is a proactive one. Tarot is good at getting me out of my own head so I can see more clearly the reality of a situation, and it gives me a template for working out solutions and untangling ideas. But sometimes it’s even simpler than that. When I pull a card like the Nine of Swords, I feel seen. Nothing more and nothing less. As a new mother, that simple witnessing was so powerful. After my kids were born, I felt like I was in a near-constant state of fight or flight. There was never any real danger, obviously, but it felt like I was waiting in the eye of a storm, that it was going to hit me at any moment. I was eaten up by worry. And so to pull a card like the Nine of Swords so consistently, to see my own anxiety mirrored back at me over and over again, was a strange kind of comfort. It didn’t offer me a solution, but it did offer me a witness to my worry.

Nine of Swords, Pagan Otherworlds Tarot

Nine of Swords, Pagan Otherworlds Tarot

I still pull the Nine of Swords sometimes. Not as often as I used to, but often enough to notice the pattern. It always feels like a gentle nudge toward the truth of my feelings. The truth is, my postpartum anxiety never really disappeared, even though it lessened with time. It ebbs and flows, but it’s still a part of the landscape of my emotional life. Despite that, it’s easy for me to convince myself that I don’t really have serious anxiety, whatever that means. That I’m just a “worrier,” whatever that means. As a mother, I spend a lot of time managing my children’s feelings. I’m often so drained from practicing the heavy emotional labor involved in raising children that I don’t have the energy to examine my own emotions. Honestly, it’s easy to use my busy days as an excuse to ignore my own emotional health. But every time I pull the Nine of Swords, it brings me back to myself. It encourages me to look my anxiety in the eye. To sit with the weight of it. It forces me to face that truth, no matter how uncomfortable that truth might be.