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Postpartum depression left me feeling empty with holes I didn't know how to fill

I had desperately wanted to be a mother and was so grateful for my daughter's health and happiness, but it felt like large chunks of me were gone, scooped out, and I had empty holes I didn't know how to fill.

Postpartum depression left me feeling empty with holes I didn't know how to fill

Nine weeks after giving birth to my daughter, I scheduled a horseback riding lesson. I'd been stuck under a wave of postpartum depression that was stubbornly lingering, like the cold damp that refused to let up even though the calendar said spring. The advice from everyone—friends, family, even my doctor—was to do something for myself, something I had enjoyed pre-baby.

Horses, I thought. Horses would be that. My weekly lessons had never failed to bring me joy. I loved everything about the barn: the sweet smell of sweat and hay, the way curious heads poked out over the half doors of their stall, the feel of the leather tack, the power and harmony and effort it took to make the riding look seamless, effortless.

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Horses were supposed to make me feel better. They always had before. But when the day of my lesson arrived, everything that could go wrong was going wrong. My daughter had received her first round of shots the day before and was more fussy and clingy than she'd ever been, sleeping poorly and waking up hourly to chomp at my breast.

After a night spent holding and rocking her, I watched dawn break to that annoying in-between rain/not rain— the kind of mist that somehow leaves you wet without ever feeling a drop. It would be too cold and muddy to ride outside, sidelining us to the small indoor ring whose roof shook in the wind, spooking horses and necessitating extra work on the rider's part, effort I wasn't sure I still had.

My instructor was running behind. I anxiously watched the clock as my lesson got pushed back 15 minutes, a half hour, an hour. My mind calculated how fast I would have to drive to get back before my daughter was due to eat again, a feat that was looking less and less likely.

As I sat shivering in the cold office, I was gripped by how stupid the whole thing felt. Horseback riding was something little girls with pigtails on ponies did. Horses were for skinny teenagers balancing lightly atop a nimble steed as they soared over a jump.

Horseback riding wasn't for new moms whose hair was still falling out in clumps from the drop in pregnancy hormones, who was hiding her belly by hiking up her riding tights over the fleshy bump that no longer contained a baby, who should be saving money for diapers, formula and college.

I felt selfish. I felt silly. I watched the lesson before me and, embarrassed, felt the hot prick of tears behind my eyes.

It felt like I'd already given up so much to be a mom, in a million ways I had never anticipated. I loved my daughter but still hadn't experienced that overpowering sensation of devotion everyone else seemed to have. Instead, my love felt like it was buried under guilt (as she drank and drank more formula and less breastmilk), fear (checking her breathing once, twice, three times during a half-hour nap), anxiety (was she making enough wet diapers? Was she sleeping enough? Was she too hot? Too cold?), and worst of all, an uncertainty about how I now fit in the world.

I had desperately wanted to be a mother and was so grateful for my daughter's health and happiness, but it felt like large chunks of me were gone, scooped out, and I had empty holes I didn't know how to fill.

I watched the group of high school girls flawlessly guide their mounts over a series of impossibly tall fences and felt almost a sense of grief—it seemed like even the barn, which had been a safe haven to me for so much of my life, would be another thing that didn't align with my life as a mother.

A pair of tiny paws scratched against my thigh. I looked down and saw Sally, my instructor's scraggly mutt, pressing her feet into me. I quickly rubbed her ears, expecting her to do her typical seconds-long pause before bounding away to nip at the horses' heels. But instead of running away, Sally climbed into my lap. She curled herself around my belly, settled her head against my hip. The warmth. The positioning. The near impossible lightness of her tiny weight. The way her little body relaxed in my lap, like melting. Just like my daughter.

Sally craved comfort from me, but, at the same time, she was giving it, a two-way street. I had been so obsessed with my part in caring for my daughter, I hadn't stopped to think that she was here as a person, capable of giving so much to me.

I wouldn't know it then, how infinitely easier it would get as my daughter got older. A few weeks from that moment she would start smiling at me as I got her dressed, her face lighting up as if she couldn't believe how lucky she was. Giggles followed that—a sound so pure and precious I would try to hold it in my mind, recall its echoing chimes whenever we were apart.

She'd reach for me, throwing her tiny body towards me if she was upset or scared, turning her bashful face to my shoulder when she was excited, snaking her arm around my neck into the first semblances of a hug. As she grew, the love everyone talked about streamed in and filled the holes that gapped in me; holes that I had no idea how to fill in those first shaky months of motherhood.

Now, at six months I feel like Kintsugi pottery—broken yet put back together with gold.

At that moment, I knew none of this. So, I did nothing but hug Sally. I gave and received her comfort as best I could. Then I went home to my daughter, with aching muscles, stinking of horse, ready to try again at being a mom.

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This is how we’re defining success this school year

Hint: It's not related to grades.

In the ever-moving lives of parents and children, opportunities to slow down and reflect on priorities can be hard to come by. But a new school year scheduled to begin in the midst of a global pandemic offers the chance to reflect on how we should all think about measures of success. For both parents and kids, that may mean putting a fresh emphasis on optimism, creativity and curiosity.

Throughout recent decades, "school success" became entangled with "academic achievement," with cases of anxiety among school children dramatically increasing in the past few generations. Then, almost overnight, the American school system was turned on its head in the spring of 2020. As we look ahead to a new school year that will look like no year past, more is being asked of teachers, students and parents, such as acclimating to distance learning, collaborating with peers from afar and aiming to maintain consistency with schooling amidst general instability due to COVID.

Despite the inherent challenges, there is also an overdue opportunity to redefine success during the school year by finding fresh ways to keep students and their parents involved in the learning process.

"I always encourage my son to try at least one difficult thing every school year," says Arushi Garg, parenting blogger and mom of a 4-year-old. "This challenges him but also allows me to remind him to be optimistic! Lots of things in life are hard, and it's important we learn to be positive during difficult times. Fostering a sense of optimism allows kids to push beyond what they thought possible, like biking without training wheels or reading above their grade level."

Here are a few mantras to keep in mind this school year:

Quality learning matters more than quantifying learning

After focusing on standardized measures of academic success for so long, the learning environment this next school year may involve more independent, remote learning. Some parents are considering this an exciting opportunity for their children to assume a bigger role in what they are learning—and parents are also getting on board by supporting their children's education with engaging, positive learning materials like Highlights Magazine.

As a working mom, Garg also appreciates that Highlights Magazine can help engage her son while she's also working. She says, "He sits next to me and solves puzzles in the magazine or practices his writing from the workbook."

Keep an open mind as "school" looks different

Whether children are of preschool age or in the midst of high school, "going to school" is bound to look different this year. Naturally, this may require some adjustment as kids become accustomed to new guidelines. Although many parents may wish to shelter our kids from challenges, others believe optimism can be fostered through adversity when everyone is committed to adapting to new experiences.

"Honestly, I am yet to figure out when I will be comfortable sending [my son] back [to school]," says Garg. In the meantime, she's helping her son remain connected with friends who also read Highlights Magazine by encouraging the kids to talk about what they are learning on video calls.

Follow children's cues about what interests them

For Garg, her biggest hope for this school year is that her son will create "success" for himself by embracing new learning possibilities with positivity.

"Encouraging my son to try new things has given him a chance to prove that he can do anything," she says. "He takes his previous success as an example now and feels he can fail multiple times before he succeeds."

There's no denying that this school year will be far from the norm. But, perhaps, we can create a new, better way of defining our children's success in school because of it.

This article was sponsored by Highlights. Thank you for supporting the brands that support Motherly and mamas.

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