Letting Go of the Mother We Think We Should Be

A while ago I watched a video of Karen Kleinman speaking at Byrn Mawr Hospital shared on the Postpartum Stress Center Facebook page. Karen Kleinman is a a therapist and well known expert on postpartum depression and author of several wonderful books that I will link at the end of this post. Part of the reason I’ll never forget the video is because it was from 1989 and Karen was rocking a polka dotted headband and very large purple button earrings. But most importantly she said something probably not many people had acknowledged before. She said, and I’m summarizing here,  “What we need to understand is that having a baby is a tremendous loss; loss of independence, loss of self.”

Letting Go of the Mother We Think We Should Be

This spoke to me for two reasons. One being that I really related to it. One of the most difficult things I’ve experienced is a loss of who I was after I became a mother. After being an achievement addict, a dedicated social worker, and a social butterfly I seemed to lose all of that when I had my children. When I didn’t have time to dedicate to my work, decided to stay at home, and couldn’t engage with my friends as much as I used to I felt lost. Secondly, I feel this is a concept that our culture doesn’t want to recognize. Many people say, “Being a parent is the best thing that will ever happen to you.” There is obviously truth to that in the love we all have for our children. But just because something is wonderful doesn’t mean it isn’t difficult. Changing our notion of accepting parenthood as a both a gain and a loss, as both an exciting time and a stressful time, as both a time to celebrate and a time to grieve empowers parents to navigate the journey with recognition of their emotions and grace with understanding it all as a process.

Something else that I’ve recently learned that is also a loss we experience is the loss of the expectations we had about parenthood to begin with. We also have to grieve that sometimes we don’t turn out to be the mother we wanted to be.

We all have these visions of the mother we’d like to be when we’re pregnant. And although I refer often to mothers in this post I think this same notion can apply to fathers using the societal expectations we place on dads also. We may envision ourselves joyfully playing with our children on a swingset, preparing fresh homemade meals for them to enjoy, making arts and crafts projects, providing comfort to our child when they skin their knee. I, for one, didn’t envision myself crying in a bathroom with hair that hadn’t been washed for three days as I binge ate Thin Mints.

But children teach us a lot of lessons and they are amazing at getting us to know ourselves a little better. Children are truly a gift when it comes to giving us a mirror to look at ourselves. It’s as if they say, “You thought you knew yourself? You thought you had life figured out? You thought you had total control? Oh boy, you thought wrong.” You don’t need an Eat Pray Love type of adventure to get to know yourself better. Just pop out a child or two, get in some sleepless nights, be pushed to the brink of your sanity every couple days and you’ll start to get to know yourself really well.  Maybe even better than you’d like to .

So when our reality doesn’t fit our expectations we struggle. We try to fit ourselves into the mold of what we wanted but no matter how hard we try we might not fit. So instead of taking a new shape we frustrate ourselves to no end trying to make a square peg fit into a round hole. But we often embrace as parents the notion that it is our jobs to raise our children to be the best version of themselves, not of anyone else. Why can’t we apply this concept to ourselves as parents?

Rejecting societal pressures or the pressures we place on ourselves to take on traits that we don’t have doesn’t mean there is something wrong with those traits. We can accept that those traits just aren’t who we are. For instance, I’m beginning to understand that I will never be the type of mother that is a good homemaker. I envisioned myself as a Pinterest mom with a well kept house, wonderful homemade meals every night, and having the walls of my home lined with my children’s monthly photos and handprints. But that didn’t work out for me. And I’m starting to learn that if I really wanted to be that way I would make it happen somehow. But I don’t. So I’ve come to understand that why being a great homemaker is an awesome trait I felt the pressure to be that way because of society and not because it was something that I truly wanted to be. So when I get down on the ways I’m not the mother I thought I’d be I start to think of the mother I truly am. I’m a mom who gets her kids outdoors, who lets her kids run wild, who is out of the house a lot meeting other moms for playdates and doesn’t have a lot of “routine”, who is not present 24/7 because I’m working on my own work projects, and who is trying everyday to give more grace to my children to make mistakes as well as myself.  Take it all with the good and the bad and I realize I’m the mother I’m meant to be. And I hope you can realize that too.

 

Self-Reflection Exercise-

Reflect on your own projections of what you thought you’d be like as a mother. Answer some of these questions or  complete these sentences to dig deeper.

What did you envision yourself being like as a mom?

As a mother I always thought I’d be more _____________________.

Where did your hopes for yourself as a mother come from? (i.e. your own childhood, watching others, society,etc).

What surprised you after motherhood in terms of the mother you’ve become so far?

What can you try harder to accept about yourself as a mother? What could be the potential benefits of those traits?

What can you start to let go of in terms of your expectations of motherhood? What has your children taught you about yourself?

 

 

Books by Karen Kleinman

This Isn’t What I Expected: Overcoming Postpartum Depression

Dropping the Baby and other Scary Thoughts:Breaking the Cycle of Unwanted Thoughts in Motherhood

What Am I Thinking?: Having a Baby after Postpartum Depression

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Wide Open

“Looks great. It’s wide open.”
Those were the words the cardiologist used to describe my 2 month old daugter’s aorta after open heart surgery. It was said with a beautiful relief. Something was as it should be. And we could breathe again.

It also described exactly how I have felt throughout parenthood and even more so in these last few months. I felt as if I was in out in the wide open with a foreboding sense of how vulnerable I am to attack. It became apparent to me since I heard the words “narrow aorta” at my 20 week ultrasound that what matters to me most in this world, my children, are with me in this wide open. They are vulnerable to illness, accidents, and harm. I can try to shelter them but nothing can fully protect them -not all the information, not all the right decisions, and in the end things may harm them and there is nothing I can do to stop it.

 

During the time my daughter was being assessed and prepared for surgery many people told me how strong I was acting. But I didnt feel strong. I put up some thick walls, I shifted myself into survival gear and I tried my best to navigate each day without falling apart. But I wasn’t feeling, I wasn’t experiencing, I shut down and closed up. I felt the need to protect myself. It wasn’t until I stepped out of that wheelchair and carefully placed my baby girl into the arms of the anesthesiologist that I realized there are no walls that can contain the strength of my love for my children. The doctor asked me to say goodbye and give her a kiss and she looked up at me with her wide eyes. Then the walls came crashing down and I turned towards the wall in the lobby as we waited for the elevators and sobbed. It was when I broke these walls down that I felt more capable of really being there for my daughter. I still cried when they put her feeding tube in after many attempts to get her to eat. I cried as I crawled into her hospital bed next to her when she was in pain that first night. I cried but I felt strong. I felt that I was truly with her and for the first time during the whole experience I didn’t want to run and hide.

Parenting is jumping into the deep end of the vulnerability pool. It puts you in the crossfire of insecurity, fear, judgment, and the ability to lose something you love even more than yourself. It’s gambling with everything you have but also knowing that if you lost it there would be no regrets. This wide open feeling, as scary and breathtaking as it can be, also comes with a feeling of being free, being whole, and truly understanding love. Even when it comes with a numbing fear or immense pain when something bad does happen it is all worth it ten times over. Each smile, laugh, milestone, hug and kiss is worth more in its weight than this fear.

But with this vulnerability comes a freedom only if we embrace it. We are free to love more deeply instead of distancing ourselves for protection. We are free to live more fully if we try to see the beauty in the hard times. At the end of the day this wide open love is there and can heal the deepest of our wounds with our connection to these beautiful creatures that are an extension of ourselves, biologically or not. We can learn to embrace all moments even the ones where we are in the waiting room waiting for the call from the surgical nurse, the ones when our patience is tested by their tantrums, the ones where they’ve come clean about a big mistake, and especially the ones where they are scared and need to know we are there. This wide open love allows us to say what every child deserves to hear, “this is hard, I’m scared too, but I’m not going anywhere.”

So here I am in the wide open trying not to put a shelter around me despite how vulnerable I feel, trying to open myself fully to the intensity of this love for these tiny humans, trying to lean into fear with courage because it only signifies he depths of my love. Parental love is like a wide open aorta, allowing the fullness of the human experience to course through us, to make us breathe, function, and thrive.
I love my children. And this love is scary, and beautiful and risky and fulfilling. And it’s just as it should be, wide open.

Heart, Perfected

PicsArt

Many people have been recently talking about Jimmy Kimmel’s recent monologue where he shared that his newborn son was born with a congenital heart defect and underwent surgery in his first few days of life. If you haven’t seen it I highly recommend it, its a very touching video showing the emotions of a scared and grateful father.

I pour a lot of my emotions into this blog, I try to be raw and reduce the stigma of struggling with emotional and mental health concerns as a mom. I try to break down the myth of a perfect mom or that motherhood is joy 24/7. I try to be real because I know that being real can help other mothers feel less alone. But for some reason I’ve been hesitant to share something here.

At our 20 week ultrasound my husband and I were told that our unborn daughter had a potential heart defect. I didn’t want to write about it because I was processing it still and there was so much uncertainty leading up to the birth about what was actually wrong with her. I couldn’t write about what I didn’t know and the only thing I could really talk about what the intense uncertainty we felt and how hard that was to deal with and every time I sat down to write I couldn’t process it into words it was this ball of intense anxiety and dread and I was almost so afraid that if I wrote it down it would become more permanent in some way. I talked to many family and friends about it so I didn’t keep it inside but most conversations huddled around what was going on, what did we know about her, what were the medical decisions that were going to be made by the doctors. Not many people truly asked how either myself or my husband were coping with all of it. But I understand that, its really hard to open that conversation with someone when you don’t know what to say or you can’t truly relate. In some ways I felt alone along with my husband but in others I was immensely supported.

Flash forward to my birth- my beautiful birth. A small bit of pitocin, an epidural (because thats my choice and my jam ;)) and about 10 pushes and she entered the world into a room filled with doctors and nurses. Luckily she didn’t have any signs of distress and I got to hold her for 15 minutes. It took me awhile to grieve before she was born that I wouldn’t have her in the room with me and that she would be in the NICU but in that moment as hard as it was to hand her over I did it gladly, knowing that we needed more information to make sure she was okay and if that meant a heartbreaking separation fromm her- so be it. Several days and tests later and she was diagnosed with a mild form of a very serious defect called Hypoplastic Left Heart Syndrome. A couple weeks later and another defect was confirmed, a very mild form of coarctation of the aorta. Very mild. Those two words couldn’t be more comforting. Before her mild was my preferred type of salsa and now its my preferred type of heart defect.

Her future is uncertain but as my sister in law reminded me- so is everyone’s. No one is safe from heart issues, cancer, accidents, anything. That would normally be so daunting of a statement to someone with anxiety issues like me but because I was so afraid of what would come in those first few days of life I find myself appreciating the moment so much more than ever. Today she doesn’t need surgery. Today she is breathing and nursing and kicking her legs and feet. Today is a gift.

I also received the gift of being a part of the heart parent community. I am so incredibly inspired by these parents who have been through so much and so much more than me. And when I’m overwhelmed about her future and what could happen that I can’t breath and tears are rolling down my cheeks I think of those parents and believe that whatever is on our path we are up for and we can manage because we are a strong family, we have so much support, and because those same heart parents will be rooting in our corner.

Our journey with our daughter has given me a profound gratitude for the present moment and how letting go of the anxiety over the future and the anguish about the past can truly be liberating. We can experience fully the moment even when the moment is difficult and this makes us so very alive. I don’t know what I believe about the meaning of life and our purpose here but I know when I am in the moment holding her, smelling her head, hearing her cries even that I am so very much here with her and the precious present.

My daughters heart defects have perfected my own heart in a way by giving me the grace of gratitude and the gift of living in the here and now.

Forgiving Myself

I have had enough. Today I am choosing to forgive myself.

 

Forgiving Myself

 

I’ve built quite the “bad mom” rap sheet these past couple of days.

I’ve been in a cycle of 3rd trimester pregnancy horomones, sleep deprivation, and burnout. I’ve yelled, been short and snippy, ignored and isolated, and made some over the top disciplinary decisions that were neither age appropriate for my son or fair. (My child development professor in grad school would not be happy with me.) I’ve been disconnected, not present, finding any way I could to escape the hum drum routines of the day that felt as if they were swallowing me whole.

I chose to stay stuck in this cycle because what I often do when I make mistakes is to enter into a tug of war with myself. The downside is no side wins, we just keep pulling at one another. On one side is this fierceness of holding on to my anger and stress as a right because I’m defensive about feeling this way. I spend the day thinking of all the reasons I have the right to feel this way, “I’ve gotten NOT time to myself lately!”, “This pregnancy has been hard!,” “I never get to put myself first!” These aren’t gracious self-talk statements, these are angry picket signs in my mind that fuel the anger and rage. They don’t come with solutions or hope, they just keep me angry. They keep me holding tightly to my negative cycle instead of realizing the most powerful thing I can do is let go.

On the other side of the rope is the self-loathing and negative thoughts… that I’m really an awful mother, a monster, a person not even capable of trying to change so I might as well just throw in the towel and succumb to the fact that I’m awful and my kid will be forever screwed up. What’s the point in changing? I can’t. So again, I’m holding tightly to this tug of war on both sides because I’m afraid I don’t have the strength and the power to just let go.

During nap times and when I get a minute to catch my breath I find myself using my old defense mechanisms-explaining it all away, minimizing it, procrastinating changing and telling myself that I will be better when __________ happens. These are lies with false hope, pretty little wrapped packages with nothing inside them. I procrastinate taking that next step in breaking the cycle, waiting for an external event to happen for things to get better.

It hit me today that the only way to stop this is to be vulnerable and be forgiven. And no one needs to forgive me more than myself. I will make amends to my son- make attempts to re-connect, correct my direction and be more confident when standing by his side. But the hard work is putting down the rope and walking away from the game. The hard work is looking myself in the mirror and saying – yep, you screwed up this week, things have been hard but you’re still amazing, you’re still what your son deserves, you still are exactly who you need to be. It’s putting the rope calmly on the ground and putting my hands in the air. I surrender to the game, I don’t need to win it, I need to leave it all behind. It doesn’t mean things will all of a sudden be easier. But with forgiveness comes a head that is looking straight ahead,  not looking down in shame. Because if I’m going to be my awesome self and get back to where I want to be I have to see where I’m going.

 

 

 

Bits of Apple and Letting Go

Bits of Apple

Bits of apple, sticky and sweet, are scattered across the coffee table.

I will wipe the table, again, even though I just wiped it five minutes ago.

No, I will wait.

bits-of-apple-and-letting-go

 

 

 

 

These are messes of motherhood that have been a strong thorn in my side not only because of the added labor but because of the symbolism that leads to so much anger within me. I know as a therapist that anger is often a feeling that is masking another. So I take a deep breath and take off the mask. What I am feeling? Out of control. 

My initial reaction is to take control. To rush to the table, start wiping it down, and exhaustively sigh in front of my son showing him my exasperation. But I know that although that brief interaction will not have much large of an impact on me will stick around in my son’s head and heart. An intention to play and explore connected to an annoyed and exasperated mother.  A sense that attempts to have fun and be creative brings about conflict and anger in the relationship that matters the most to him. And that just isn’t worth a clean table.

So I step back today and wait. I have to start to see these bits of apple differently because they happen every day and I cannot be feel out of control like this any longer.

I haven’t felt really in control since the day before I gave birth. Before I was able to keep order. I was able to make decisions with careful thought instead of feeling like I was always just reacing. I came and went as I pleased,  I gave of myself to the things I wanted to and I could count on my housework accomplishments lasting for more than a couple of minutes.

When under stress a fierce type-A personality emerges within me trying to make order and sense of things and fit things neatly into boxes. This goes there, that happened because of this, everything has a place and is right with the world. I can put it all back together. I can fix it.

But you can’t do that when you’re responsible for a human being. Human beings are beautiful, but very messy. So now my coping mechanism isn’t as effective because no matter how hard I try I simply cannot control it all. So I have to reframe my perspective and see this new life as beautifully messy.

I’m starting to believe that western ideals have started to butt heads with motherhood. In my generation women (and men) are raised to believe in individualism, quantitatively measurable achievement, freedom of choices, and adventure. We were raised to poster our lives in front of others for validation of our efforts. “Look at me, look what I’ve done, look where I’ve gone, I’m worthy now.” We believe we control our destiny and we are all destined for greatness.

So when we learn to expect greatness and connect it to our self-worth it’s hard to see it in a messy kitchen, poopy diapers, and a loss of willpower to shower or wear our hair down anymore. We start to feel that we are being controlled by a tiny human and it’s no wonder we feel disillusioned, lost, and chaotic.

But what if we embraced the chaos? What if we learned to love the hurricanes that come our way? What if we started to see the beauty in those bits of apple? What if we unlearned some of these ideals that we held so tightly to as young women and threw them out with the bathwater?

It’s going to be a journey. It’s going to take practice. But each time I take a deep breath and sit down instead of rising to rush in and control I am not only trying to accomplish a better outlook and mood I am teaching my son some new ideals. Sometimes you need to let the universe happen to you. Sometimes not controlling is the most control you have. Sometimes you need to sit with a mess and embrace it for it’s beauty before it’s time to clean it up.

So I look hard at what these bits of apple really mean. A little boy’s attempts to cut it up with a plastic knife because he wants to be like mommy and daddy. A little boy’s security that he can freely explore and create and won’t be punished or yelled at by his mother. A mother’s willingness to let go and enjoy the moment in order discard her anger in a healthier way, even if it’s just for this minute.

It’s time to leave for our nature playgroup. Today we will jump in muddy puddles. I don’t have the proper wet gear or even rain boots. Anxiety creeps in about the mess that will happen and how I’ll handle it all. I take a deep breath. I look at the bits of apple on the table and decide to leave them there. “Let it go,” I say to myself, “it’s not a burden anymore.”

 

You Are Worthy

YOU AREWORTHY

 

First off let me start off by apologizing because I made a mistake. I took a hiatus, I didn’t post about it, I just kind of stopped writing here. I can give you all the reasons that this happened but it doesn’t matter what the reasons were, I just should have communicated that I wouldn’t be writing for awhile.

I wondered if I would get back to my blog. A part of me wondered if all this time I put into was really worth anything, I don’t get paid for it, I’m not sure if anyone really reads it, and now that I’ve lost my momentum, what’s the point?

See when I make mistakes or when things don’t turn out to be my idea of “successful” I run and hide. I avoid thinking about whatever I was working on because I feel ashamed it didn’t work and I start to distract myself with other things.

But here’s what I’m trying to learn. I am worthy enough to make mistakes. I am worthy enough to keep trying. I am worthy enough to do something I enjoy even if it doesn’t make a difference to anyone. I’m worthy enough simply because I am.

I wonder how many times as mothers we put ourselves down when we make mistakes, dismiss all of our efforts the minute we lose it and yell at our little ones, minimize the importance of our work in the home because it doesn’t bring in money, lather ourselves in guilt when we can’t “have it all.” How much time do we invest into making our children feel worthy while we demean ourselves and place ourselves inferior because of mistakes or judgments from others?

Here’s an important reminder- your worthiness does not lie within motherhood. It’s simply within you. It was there before you child was and there before you had a career. You’re worthy whether or not you pushed out a baby. Whether or not you have a degree. Whether or not you’re pretty, or patient, or penniless. You are worthy even when you yell, even when you feel like you want to get in the car and drive away forever, even when you’re not sure you’re doing your best.  You’re worthiness is within you all the time, it’s up to you to realize it’s there and start owning it

When you recognize your worthiness so many positive things happen. You can –

  • Take responsibility for mistakes without shame
  • Pick yourself up and try again
  • Ask for what you need and want
  • Recognize the difference between a sacrifice of love and being a martyr
  • Demand respect and recognition from others
  • Give the best parts of yourself without fear of failure
  • Realize what is not worth your time, energy, and effort

 

So when you feel yourself starting to tear yourself down with shame, insecurity, and fear remember- you are worthy, simply because you are. Now start acting like it.

The Mom Who Won’t Stop

In the movement of encouraging moms to realize that they are enough and they do enough I believe myself to be an advocate. I’m tired of all the competition and the pettiness among moms. Whether you stay at home or work you’re accomplishing something. Whether or not you decide to join the PTA doesn’t indicate who you are as mom or establish you as a “better” member of the community. But…

Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explo (1)

 

 

….sometimes I feel like a hypocrite speaking out to moms about this because even though I try to believe I am enough I can never seem to stop. Stop signing up for things. Stop making plans. Stop finding projects. Stop thinking I always need to do more.

I’ve always been the person who signs up for everything. I like my hand to be in many pots at the same time.  A lot of the times I spread myself too thin. Even my past employee evaluations would note that at times I can “bite off more than she can chew.” Sometimes I  come across as the overachiever. While sometimes my overextension habits have lead me to a nervous breakdown or two they have also brought me out of really dark times. And I would be lying if I didn’t say that some of the the time I’m getting involved in too many things for not the right reasons- to please others, to be admired, to increase my self-worth because of the recognition and not because it just made me feel good. But I’ve also come to realize that I’m just that person who can’t stop because I like the pace of a thousand miles per hour. When motherhood came along I went to snail’s pace in life. I wasn’t working and wasn’t sure what to do with my energy. So I started looking for and creating as many opportunities as I could to exert my energy.  In the 2 years since my son was born I started my own parent’s meetup group, ran support groups for new moms, worked a part time job, started a blog, moved across the world, and started an  online mentoring program for moms. I join as many moms groups as I can. I reach out to other moms new to the city I live in now. I find as many programs that my son and I can attend together as I can.

Some might think it’s a problem to be this way. To not be able to slow down and just be present.  I get that and I know that’s something I need to work on. I try to work on the balance while also respecting what is just genuinely me.

But I can’t stop. I won’t stop.

I’ll probably be the mom in the PTA, a den mom in Boy Scouts, managing moms groups and playdates left and right. But please don’t peg me as “that mom.” Because I’m not
“that mom.” I don’t try to control, or judge, or look better than other moms. I just really like connecting to people, giving back, and most importantly, getting this nervous energy out of me. If you’ve got work/life balance down pat or prefer the quieter life I totally respect you. In fact, I’m a little jealous.

I think a lot. I say a lot. I do a lot. But here’s the thing. It’s not to show you up. It’s not to believe I’m better. It’s because I can’t stop. I won’t stop. See I have this belief that looms over me every single day and it says “You’ve only got so much time” So yea I think a lot, I say a lot, I do a lot. But it’s only because I’ve got this one life and I want to say I said a lot, I gave a lot, and I lived a lot.

So I tread on striving to believe that I am enough even if I stop. But I can’t stop. I won’t stop. Because I’ve got so much to do.