I know last week I said that I was going to write a blog about taming ‘ugly mommy’ next, but this was the post that was bouncing around my head and heart these past few days. And as a writer, I have learned that you accept inspiration in whatever way or timing it comes to you. The result is always much more authentic that way.
Becoming a parent was a profoundly transformative experience for me. All the regular things changed – my priorities, my sleep schedule, my level of freedom to come and go as I pleased, my relationship with my husband, my body, the amount of time I had for my friends or family, my identity. To varying degrees I was anticipating at least some of these changes.
I was ecstatic to be pregnant. I read parenting book after parenting book, piling them high on my bed side table. I eagerly awaited each new week so that I could read about what tiny developmental changes were happening inside me. I was as expectant as you could get.
But there was one change I didn’t anticipate.
I didn’t expect that bringing my children into the world would mean that I would never be the same person ever again. I knew I would likely have stretch marks. I knew I would have a triumphant story to tell about my grit and determination to bring my little boy into the world. I knew I would have an unconditional sense of pride in my child that would stick with me forever. All of these things would understandably change me for good.
But I was not prepared for the reality that my brain would change in an utterly fundamental way. And that it would never change back.
You expect to feel a bit out of it for a while. Labour and delivery is hard on you. So is waking up countless times every night. And the hormones that come with feeding your baby throw you for a loop. They tell you to expect to be ‘off’ for at least a little while.
And they even warn you about the possibility that you could be sad. You could feel exhausted and tired and blue. You might not even really feel ‘in love’ with your child right away. And you may even be unlucky enough to suffer some kind of post-partum mental illness, like depression or anxiety. In fact, 1 in 5 mothers will – that’s significant odds.
I think I considered all these possibilities, even if it was only momentarily. But I know for certain what I didn’t do was believe that any of them would come true.
After all, I had lived an idyllic childhood. My mother had the art of mothering down pat. She had made it look so easy – surely it would be the same way for me. I had no reason to expect any different.
And I had watched enough movies and television to know that every new mother lives a blissful existence, nuzzling, cuddling and singing to her brand new bundle of joy.
Having been the first of my friends to have a baby, I hadn’t had a good firsthand dose of parenting reality yet. So I trusted in the imagery and stories our society loves to tell us about motherhood. As a result, I knew that new moms pick up the art of breastfeeding with ease because it ‘comes naturally’ to them. I knew that a new mom may be tired from a lack of sleep, but that she need only look lovingly at her babe asleep in her arms to know that ‘it’s all worth it’. I knew that, even though every new mom spends all her waking moments drinking in the subtle cues and cries of her baby, when strangers and loved ones claim to know how to soothe or settle her baby best, she should just hand him over, because after all she still has so much to learn. And most of all, I knew that the new moms who were ‘coping the best’ were the ones that kept their house the cleanest, had supper ready when daddy got home from work, and showed up to play group each week with flawless hair, makeup and nails. These were some of the things I believed about new motherhood.
So when breastfeeding was horrendously painful, awkward and not at all intuitive for me; when I found myself alone in my baby’s nursery crying in the middle of the night while he screamed about what – God only knew; when I had to fight every instinctual discomfort in my body in order to pass my crying infant over to those who claimed to know him better than me; and when I couldn’t even find the time to take a shower let alone get dolled up to pretend I was supermom-of-the-year at a weekly parenting group – I began to feel duped.
And not to one-up or ‘best’ any of those what I now know to be pretty commonplace realities for new moms. But when the universe decided to pile on a two-year long dose of post-partum depression followed up by a life-altering and frankly terrifying episode of post-partum psychosis –duped was no longer an accurate description for how I was feeling.
To be honest, I was angry.
I had plans. I had expectations of myself – expectations that by the measure of someone with depression could now never be met. You see when your mind has been overtaken by depression, that critical inner voice we all deal with daily, grows and takes on superpower strength. Although I headed into the adventure of motherhood excited and confident, it didn’t take long for depression to begin to throw its weight around. Before I knew it my critical inner voice was taking way too many liberties with my self-worth.
I don’t like being duped. But when everyone is being duped, we all take solace in being duped together, right? Isn’t that why it’s so comforting to talk (rather vent) with other parents? Don’t you just feel so relieved when you manage to find another straight-talking mother who isn’t afraid to tell it like it really is? You usually have to tread lightly while you build trust. And then one day your relationship reaches that level where one of you finally has the courage to stop pretending that you have it all figured out. Then you both let out a collective sigh of relief and so begins the real friendship.
Having friends that can relate to us is really important support when we are navigating the choppy waters of new parenthood. A simple chat with a friend can be cheap therapy.
But what if no one is talking about your truths?
Imagine you have given birth to a beautiful and precious child, and then the very process of bringing them forth into this world causes a change in the biochemical makeup of your brain. This physiological change results in you not having the energy to get willingly out of bed for months. Or maybe it causes you to be so irritable around everyone you love that they can’t stand to be in the same room as you. Perhaps you start to have daily, or worse, hourly thoughts about how the world and your child would be better without you. Or you might spend hours each day carefully sterilizing and re-sterilizing your baby’s bottles certain that if you don’t do it precisely the same way each time bacteria will make your child fatally ill. Maybe the most unfortunate combination of lack of sleep and brain imbalance creates a ripe condition for mania and you slip into a state where no one can follow your thinking patterns, you shed weight by the tens of pounds and you lose the ability to fall asleep entirely. Each night you lay still beside your partner purposely mimicking the slow breaths one makes when they sleep, all the while wide awake, desperate and pleading with your thoughts to slow down enough so that sleep will find you.
These are just a teeny, tiny few of the realities new mothers with various post-partum mental health conditions could potentially experience. And here’s the real kicker – I would be willing to bet that not a single one of them are things that you would easily share over coffee with a girlfriend. These things are super scary to admit to because they all invite judgments or assumptions from people who can’t relate.
And let’s face it, unless you have experienced how destabilizing and debilitating a mental health condition can be firsthand – it’s tough to relate.
But here’s the thing. One in five women experiences some kind of mental health illness on the post-partum spectrum of baby blues, depression, anxiety and psychosis. That makes for a good number who can relate.
For crying out loud – let’s get talking.
I want to encourage you to be a courageous and understanding friend to all new moms. When you go to visit a new mom, hug her warmly and congratulate her efforts to birth her baby first before turning to ogle over the new baby. Bring freezer food and Epsom salts as a ‘new baby gift’ – let her know how important self-care is. Be authentic – tell it like it is. Swap your real stories with women and new moms – not the ‘super-mom’ version, that doesn’t help anyone. Try your best to suspend your judgments if you have a friend brave enough to confide in you about post-partum issues. Encourage them to see it as a challenge that can be treated and improved with the right kinds of love, help and support. Always use a gentle hand to guide them to the help they need – sometimes it requires persistent and herculean amounts of patience, but it almost always works better than a firm hand. And share posts and stories like this with everyone you know – you never know who amongst them will need to read it the most.
And if you can relate to any of my ranting above and you feel alone, trust that you aren’t. Consider letting someone who loves you in. Tell a friend.
If you enjoyed this, try reading My Story.
“Do we need to take your child away from you?” Whoops – maybe not the best thing to say. Check out this list of 25 things you should never say to a new mom with Post-Partum Depression.
Wondering about the symptoms of post-partum mental illness? Read more here.
Worried about someone you love? Want to know how to start the conversation? Check out this post at the Bipolar Burble.