“Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.”
I clearly remember my midwife asking, during a birth preparation class, for us to think of a challenging personal experience- a time when we’d been pushed up against the wall, scared, stuck, unsure how to “make it” and how we had overcome it, how we’d risen to the occasion, proven ourselves to be more capable and stronger than we’d thought. All I could come up with was the experience I’d had just a few months earlier when I had been caught in a rip tide. I was playing in the gentle waves with my husband on a sunny Australian beach. We were close to shore when, suddenly, my feet could no longer touch and I couldn’t make it back to the sand. I quickly panicked. I was embarrassed by my lack of strength and ability. As I looked over my shoulder – out to sea – all I saw was wave after wave coming in. Damn, I “should” be able to swim right through these little waves and wander with my pregnant belly back onto the warm sand. But I couldn’t.
All ended well. Lifeguards were alerted. Australians know their beaches well, and after my husband waved his hand for help, (there were a smattering of surfers and windsurfers around us) it came relatively quickly. But I felt pathetic; I was embarrassed and filled with “should haves.”
Several months later when my midwife asked about experiences of power, courage, strength and resilience – all I could access was fear and failure. I spoke with my midwife about changing my attitude and perspective – trying to remember that I’d made it out of the water – noticing that I was there, safe and healthy, with my first son growing in my belly. I could say the words but couldn’t really “get” the concept of success in that situation. In retrospect, it felt like a foreshadowing of what was to come.
Fast forward to the day I went into labor. It was 4 weeks earlier than expected, but overall seemed pretty darn good. I felt powerful and free and excited- so much of my labor was really positive. I dilated relatively quickly, surrounded by those I loved the most, and I sort of felt like I was “nailing” this whole labor bit. And then it was time to push.
And I had absolutely no urge to push. For ages. When I needed to take action, I shut down, terrified of not being able to make this happen. Terrified of “failing.” My “look-good” suddenly took over my labor. I locked myself in my bathroom. I panicked, threw up, felt numb and alone and embarrassed. And scared, yes definitely scared. At some point, trying a different tactic, my midwife basically told me I had to start pushing. Pretty checked out, I rejoined the “party” and did what she told me. It took a long time, but I did actually push the kid out – feeling none of the powerful things I thought I was “supposed” to feel – instead feeling a profound sense of fear and failure.
Suddenly a strange looking creature was being placed on my chest. He looked like an alien. I was “supposed” to love him? I was “supposed” to feel crazy connected to this strange, slimy, cone-headed thing? I was so so tired. I wanted to hide away. Make everyone leave and be completely alone. My gut wanted them to take him back. And there was my baby, my “sweet beautiful perfect” baby. That was what I was “supposed” to be feeling??!?! It was far from my truth. Little did I know that this was the very beginning of the most insane “supposed to” period of my life.
Getting stitched up after tearing was awful. Nursing was awful. Lying next to him while trying to sleep was awful. Trusting myself was awful. Not feeling head over heels in love was awful. The overwhelm, fear and complete sense of being broken and bad at this, was undeniable.
That is how motherhood began for me.
What followed were months and months of struggles. Feeling deeply mortified by the fact that I wasn’t “good” at this, that it wasn’t coming naturally, that everyone else seemed to “get” it, that I was completely and utterly broken and messed up. My “look-good,” which I’d always had in some subtle fashion, completely took over my life.
While I used to be crazy social and upbeat, I stopped going just about anywhere because I figured my kid would cry (which he did a lot) and I wouldn’t be able to stop it, and that people would be able to tell that I really had no clue what I was doing… that they’d know, I was the mama who just didn’t have it in her… that they’d think I wasn’t meant to do this, that it was an irreversible mistake. I was terrified that everyone would know how bad I was at this. I figured out that walking and walking and walking, with my son on me, would keep him relatively quiet; I could see people out in the world and look like I somehow had it together.
Nothing felt easy or natural. Those first few weeks I cried all the time. In later weeks I turned numb – and even wished for tears, for some sort of release. I think that the outside world probably thought that all was relatively good with me. I could smile long enough to act like I had it handled. But inside, I was so panicked, completely lost. It was awful. And I felt so alone.
I remember making it to one library story hour but I felt so completely uncomfortable in my own skin. I compared myself and my baby to everyone else the entire time. And we “lost” on almost every front. We weren’t happy enough, relaxed enough, cute enough, dressed well enough, natural mothers enough, etc… I left – alone, rejected (I didn’t have any new mama friends my head pointed out), incapable, definitely NOT a successful mother. Fuel for the fire that kept me alone.
My partner, at this point, was pretty panicked too. What had happened to his positive, out-going, enthusiastic wife? Months and months into parenthood, he was trying so hard to get me out of the house. He actually arranged mama dates for me with friends I was losing touch with. He tried to make us social. I had met a lovely group of soon-to-be mamas during my birth preparation class. Several play dates were organized after the babies arrived, but I don’t think I made it to a single one until far after a year. In the beginning, we had all shared our birth stories and updates. Most were really honest and many shared the true tough-ness of labor, but I was still sure that I was the only one completely struggling, the only failure. To save face, I stayed home, isolating myself further and further. And I vacillated between isolation, self-deprecation and an immeasurable numbness. As time went on, and the teary period passed, panic and resentment and even deeper self-doubt & hatred seemed to settle in.
Being in business with my husband, we had planned from the start for me to head back to work after a few months, casually job sharing, taking the baby to work, working while he napped, etc… While some peaceful inner voice of mine authentically did want to stay home, a much larger fear-based part of me was terrified of going back out into the “real” world. I was sure there was no way I would be able to hide how messed up I was. If I couldn’t handle mothering, how in the world would I be able to juggle my job, my clients, and the “real” world as well? I was a wild bundle of nerves in public. Juggling strange nursing paraphernalia, a screaming baby and my sweaty anxiety attacks, didn’t make me eager to be out anywhere – never mind work. But choosing not to head back into the workplace also left me defeated on a whole new level. Suddenly I had no lengthy list of achievements, adventures and exciting tales to recount. There was nothing “worthwhile” to keep me busy.
The concept of depression never crossed my mind, I wouldn’t let it. My mom and my sister suffer from chronic depression. I’d always been the one who had it “handled.” I had to succeed. This failure I was feeling wasn’t an option. If I didn’t look good and have it handled, what the hell did I have?
Around a year or so into this journey, we took a family drive out to a local beach. I remember sitting in the passenger seat, numb. I was angry with my partner for “making” me get out. I was sure we weren’t going to have fun (as that was something we just didn’t have any more.) I sat there defeated as we drove. And then my cell phone rang. It was a friend I had been avoiding (I had been avoiding my closest, oldest friends, the ones I had to be honest with.) But I answered the phone, and the floodgates burst. I remember almost hyperventilating as I told her how awful I felt. That we were on our way to beautiful Sauvie’s Island. That I mostly felt nothing. That the little I did feel was resentment, failure and fear. And I remember saying to her, between gasping tears, that I thought I was depressed – words that carried so much intense power because of the prevalence of depression in my immediate family. And I remember the relief and the sense of almost lightness I felt once the tears had passed and once I had put words to my pain.
After that I made it to therapy. And I made it a Baby Blues Connection support group. And I started to realize that I wasn’t the only mother who felt like a failure. I started to realize that being honest about my messed-up mind was an essential step in clearing & healing. I started to feel again. It wasn’t a magical overnight process but it happened. Little bits of light came back in. Even our walk that day on the beach was nicer – nicer than I’d expected, nicer than I’d experienced in ages. Not perfect, not easy, but not utterly painful or void of all feeling.
Finding myself again has been an ongoing process. A sometimes super ugly and crazy hard process. I am not the woman I was before becoming a mother. I am messier for sure. I still find myself aching for aspects of my pre-kid self. But then I notice the immeasurable love that I now have. The connection- the beauty of these little people in my life and the rightness, all of which reside in a bigger, sloppier, more loving and less controlled life than I’d ever imagined.
It’s been a crazy big and difficult path. I am still floored by how hard parenting is sometimes. This morning I yelled at my preschooler. After asking him at least half a dozen times to put on his shoes, I lost it. I felt awful immediately. That is not the kind of mother I want to be AND I know that I’m not broken. I know that I love him deeply. I know that I’m a good mother. I apologized and worked to let go of the guilt. I texted a friend later to tell her how really crabby I’d been. I rolled my eyes at his completely annoying antics. And I mostly let go of it.
We’re not perfect, none of us are. But oh my goodness, in the early days (months, year) I so desperately thought there was a right way to do this whole motherhood gig. I was convinced that I was not made out for this, that I was the only one failing to this absurd degree, the only one just plain broken and worthless.
You are NOT the only mama to struggle, to fall apart, to want to run away, to hate it, to feel so damn broken and messed up that you’re beside yourself. You are not alone.
I was sure I’d never feel better. And I do.