My Toddler’s Meltdown At the YMCA Was a Turning Point in My Postpartum Anxiety

Public meltdowns can be triggering for many moms—but they can also provide an educational moment, too.
how to handle toddler tantrums

It happened. My postpartum anxiety actualized. 

I was about halfway through a BodyBalance workout class at the Y when a worker approached me and told me that my daughter was inconsolable in the childcare room. I glanced at my new mom friend and let out a heavy sigh. All that work to get out of the house…for nothing, I thought. I pulled on my sneakers, grabbed my puffer jacket and headed down the stairs. 

I felt a twinge of anger, exhaustion and hopelessness for a moment. And though I knew better than to get my hopes up with unpredictable toddlers, I had done all the things the previous night to make the next morning’s routine seamless. 

You know—all of the invisible labor that moms do to make everything easier for their families to get out the door. 

I packed snack boxes, filled water bottles, laid out play clothes, came up with a breakfast menu and briefed my husband on the following morning’s gameplan. He will focus on getting our oldest ready; I would focus on getting our youngest dressed. Go, team? 

Of course, my daughter was understandably upset, but damn, how I longed to move my body once again, to have my body, just for me

When I arrived at the childcare room, my precious daughter’s eyes were red from crying, and her body was warm from the exertion of tears. Cue the instant mom guilt. I embraced her deeply, consoling her with my soft words and hums. 

So much of motherhood is exactly this: regulating your child’s emotional dysregulation.

Nearly four years ago, after I gave birth to my first daughter, I struggled immensely with postpartum anxiety and depression. In a lot of ways, that struggle has eased, but it still materializes and maternalizes in certain instances, particularly when venturing out into the world. 

Truthfully, as a stay-at-home mom of two girls, I still find it incredibly challenging to get out of the house, especially in the colder days of winter. In fact, joining the local YMCA was an effort to beat the blues I knew were coming.

The “me” who signed the membership contract at the Y rationalized it would improve my “cabin fever” anxiety that is exacerbated during the winter, and it would also help get my youngest used to being cared for by other adults. 

After I left the Y haphazardly, holding my toddler, carrying a diaper bag and water bottles and jackets and being followed by a screaming three-year-old, I texted my new mom friend in my “soccer mom” van before pulling out of the parking lot, “Well, I tried.” 

Her reply? “You did great! Parenting is so inconvenient.” 

And, damn, if that didn’t lift me up while also bringing me back to Earth. Bless, this woman, who despite not really knowing who I am as a person, saw me, praised me and used humor to lighten the situation and also ease my anxiety. 

Her response is exactly why mothers need mothers.

And, also why I will continue to build my village, to attempt anxiety-inducing outings and to keep “mom-ing,” despite the obstacles that my toddlers (and life) will inevitably throw my way.

It’s a real shame that society tells us that we are bad mothers when our children express big emotions when we are out in public. The looks or comments that some people make add to the feeling of shame that we feel as moms incapable of controlling our toddler’s behavior. 

My hope is that our generation leads the way in putting an end to this unfounded and unhelpful messaging. I’m always relieved when I make eye contact with another mother, and she gives me that nod—you know, the one. 

These mamas are the real MVPs who are fostering this beautiful shift in the way society views a mom with her young child—one who is, in fact, exhibiting completely normal developmental toddler behavior in the real world.

Anger, sadness, guilt and embarrassment are all so much easier to choose in motherhood, but one thing therapy has taught me is to feel the feeling, allow it to pass through my body and to gently move forward as best I can, even if it is imperfect. There’s such sage wisdom there, and not always something that I can synthesize.

As I pulled into our driveway and reread my friend’s text, I made a choice: I decided to let this minor disaster of an outing slide off my back, along with the humiliation and shame it made me feel.

I decided to choose joy, despite it being the last thing that I wanted to choose at that moment. 

My joy of choice? Allowing my girls to open an early Christmas present: two long-sleeve, soft pink tutu dresses and a pair of leather ballet slippers. 

I pulled up “Feliz Navidad” from Spotify–one of the songs my oldest daughter has been rehearsing for her upcoming school holiday concert—and connected it to our living room speakers.

We danced and danced and danced. And, in those sweet moments of pirouetting, jeté-ing and relevé-ing, I couldn’t help but feel the tears well up. 

It is exactly this kind of moment that makes motherhood incomparable to anything else in life.

I would even argue that it is the opposite of grief; it fills your heart and soul up so much that it overflows with abundance, and it makes your shitty morning a distant memory. 


  • Katrina Donham

    Katrina is a wife and SAHM of two, living in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina. In her past life, she was a middle school English teacher in Austin, Texas and NYC. When she can carve out time to herself, she enjoys writing personal essays about parenthood and mental health, listening to podcasts and audiobooks, cooking nutritious meals for her family and dreaming about a life well-lived.

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