I walked through much of my life confident in my own abilities, satisfied with my appearance and up for new challenges. A deeply competitive spirit lent itself well to accomplishing major and minor goals. Tempering the general woes of womanhood with an easy ability to move forward from self-doubt, I felt able. Strong and able.
My experience has been far from pictures of new mamas holding fresh babies, lamenting their bodily and emotional changes while simultaneously praising the shift that this child has changed them, made them, and brought forth their destiny as mothers.
After the birth of my daughter, I constantly read beautifully worded captions on perfect pictures and believed I was falling short again and again and again. In an important and necessary point of clarity, I acknowledge that this may actually be true for countless women. Perhaps the final pangs of childbirth truly did usher in a new and better woman, one they embraced wholeheartedly and openly. I did not feel or see the same magic.
While for so much of my life I managed to avoid the detrimental effects of societal expectations, I was unmoored by the arrival of my first daughter and found myself adrift in a sea of constant comparison, clinging to Instagram posts as a lifeline. A lifetime of loving kids did not immediately translate into loving motherhood. I gave up sleep, rational thinking and self-confidence about my forever changed body. I was desperately trying to determine where I went wrong and make sense of what had happened.
Why didn’t I look at my daughter and feel empowered? Where was this mythical primal motherhood instinct? Did I miss something crucial in the nine months of preparation? And in a much more sobering realization, did I love my daughter? Would I ever find my way back to myself?
People that I cared about and that cared about me were asking if I was OK and no, I was not OK. I had a lifetime of proof that I could handle hard things and motherhood was not supposed to be hard. Not this hard.
My mind went into hyperdrive and I stayed up when I should have slept, desperately trying to figure out what was my responsibility and what wasn’t. And I never figured it out because it all felt like mine. Who was I as a mother? Why couldn’t I find myself in this new space? I was supposed to be enthralled by my tiny daughter, not wishing I could leave for a few months and come back when she was crying less and sleeping more.
This seismic shift broke something crucial in my spirit. It did change me but not into someone or something that I welcomed. I cried out to Jesus in the most vulnerable space of my life, deeply lost and aching for something familiar.
Darkness moved in while my confidence moved out, and I did not notice the subtle exchange. I did not know how dark it was until I began to look back nine months into her life, peering into the perpetual night and attempting to make sense of my experience. I was unable or unwilling to take up the heavy mantle of motherhood and still occasionally struggle to embrace this title of responsibility and expectation.
Even now, the term “postpartum anxiety” is whispered in passing, soft stigmatized words to explain what happened and give credence to the emotions and actions. I tried hard not to cave under the casual judgement of friends and loved ones and abandon seeing my counselor. I told myself that if I didn’t tell anyone, everyone could continue assuming I had a natural affinity for being a mother.
Though the therapy work has been hard, the work is worth it. I saw light slowly begin to emerge again as the weekly sessions empowered me to extend myself grace and understanding.
The assimilation process is ongoing. I am coming up on a year in therapy, striving for balance and assurance that the anxiety that plagued me after the birth of my first daughter was not abnormal. Or my fault or failings.
I am now expecting my second child. A second daughter will join our family in late spring, bringing again the sleepless nights and eventual inexplicable joy. I am not sure what this next period of infancy will bring. Even now, I hear the sweet voice of my first born calling out, “Mommy go?” and I am both torn in desiring my own space and fleeting time alone, and somehow missing her after an hour apart.
I believe there is a difference in the daily frustrations of being a mother, and the deeper pangs of longing for an old life or something different. Because of course I have come to find greater joy in raising my girl than I did think that I would. But, I also cannot pretend to be someone who paints a picture of parenting as only comical frustrations of spilled food at dinner, tantrums of wanting one toy over another, or beloved stuffed animals found in the toilet. Yes, those things have occurred in my household and have been funny and not so serious. And also, there have been nights when my child would not sleep and I felt the same overwhelming need to be apart and alone. To quit.
I am fearful of disappearing again. Not always, not all the time. But now and then, the familiar anxiety creeps in and I already resent the lack of sleep, the endless feedings and pumping, and even the post-birth recovery period. These things have not yet even happened. I sometimes still do not love being a mother. I miss being alone or leaving my house without preparing a toddler who hates the car.
Are there not others who feel this way? Who are these other women who thrive in pregnancy, marriage and parenthood, and do they ever have small moments of feeling the way that I do? And where are the women who know precisely what I have experienced?
I want to create relationships that foster truth and provide support when the more serious feelings of wanting to be done with this role begin to surface. I do not need more 30-minute meal tips, toddler activity resources or advice on screen time. I desperately need more women, not just mothers, to rally together and offer genuine encouragement to one another over real thoughts and emotions of being in the trenches, and of knowing that we will not be leaving anytime soon. I long for a village of women who band together instead of staying secluded in their own messy homes, cleaned before visitors.
I am both ready and not to welcome another child into our family. There were and are sincere moments of joy. I deeply and wholly love my children and that is not the point.
I am learning to be gracious to myself.