“Why didn’t you seek help back then?” she asked me.
I waited, thinking, not sure how to answer. After a few moments, I responded, “I didn’t know I needed it.”
My therapist and I have been talking about the early baby days. About my transition from working in an office, getting dressed every day, focusing on my career, engaging with other humans all day and bringing home a paycheck, to the SAHM life.
We’ve been talking about how my initiation into motherhood was nothing at all like I thought it would be.
I wanted to be a mom my entire life. I began babysitting at 12 and remember rocking babies and toddlers to sleep in my own tiny arms, thinking of the day I’d have one of my own. I was ready to start having kids from the minute my husband and I said our vows (even before we said them, if I’m being honest).
I was so ready. So prepared. (And so naive.)
It was my choice to become a stay-at-home mom and leave a career I loved, a career in which I was thriving in at the time. I wanted to go all in on the motherhood thing, and I didn’t think there was room for my teaching career too. At least not right now, I told myself. I can always go back.
So many of us never go back. And that’s not necessarily a good or bad thing—it just is. I don’t regret not going back, but the journey sure hasn’t been smooth.
“Tell me about those first few years,” my therapist says.
I sit back on her brown leather couch, close my eyes, and try to sift through the fog. How do I describe it? I see a woman, un-showered, tired, shoulders hunched, cooking pasta on the stove. Or maybe folding laundry.
I see a baby in the exersaucer or pack and play. I hear the pitter-patter of feet as a toddler comes barreling into the room wielding his latest play-dough creation.
I see her look up and glance at the clock. Two in the afternoon. She’s been alone with the kids for seven hours. Four or five more to go, she’ll say to herself. (Unless her husband is traveling. Then it could be days. Or weeks.)
She looks at her kitchen, at her house, at her kids, at her life. She has it all. Healthy kids. A beautiful home on a cul-de-sac. A minivan. A steady income provided by her husband. The stay-at-home mom life she wanted.
It’s perfect. It’s wonderful. She’s so fortunate. So grateful.
So why is she empty? Why is she looking at that clock? What’s missing if she has it all?
Measurable markers of success. That’s what my therapist says was missing in that season of my life. Something I crave. Something I’ve relied on my entire life to feel valuable, important, successful: Grades. Paychecks. Awards. Evaluations.
But in motherhood, there are no grades, or awards, or gold stars when your child writes his name. Or pees on the potty. Or behaves well at the grocery store. You just have to find pride in it yourself. And I didn’t know how.
I had kids who were bright, on track with their peers, often told they were a joy to be with, so why did I feel like I was failing? And why was I jealous and resentful of my husband’s career achievements?
Because he received awards, raises, bonuses and promotions. I did not.
He had business dinners and last-minute lunch dates. I ate cold hot dogs left over on my kids’ plates.
He had bosses praising him. I had small children telling me I was mean because they couldn’t have fruit snacks for breakfast.
He was using his college and graduate degrees. At the time, I felt like mine were just collecting dust.
I was depressed, but I didn’t know it. Or at least, I couldn’t admit it. Because that would mean failing at the one job I had wanted my entire life. Why didn’t I love every minute? What was wrong with me?
Therapy has helped me see exactly why it was so hard. Why a mother of three healthy children with food on the table and a roof over our heads could be in such a hole. And why, in actuality, there was nothing “wrong” with me. And I wasn’t “failing” as a mom.
Therapy has helped me see how abrupt the shift to my new life was, having worked until the day before my first son was born. It helped me see how unprepared I had been at how unrealistic my expectations of motherhood were prior to taking on the role myself.
I wish I could go back and sit with that mom, hunched over the stove, or matching up tiny socks. I wish I would put my arms around her shoulders and tell her that it’s okay to feel empty some days. And that she should go talk to someone now, not a decade in the future.
I wish I could tell her that, in 10 years, she’d have her measurable markers of success again. She’d be a writer, working from home, and those tiny babies and toddlers would be thriving children, running the neighborhood, playing baseball, writing stories, and making her feel immense pride.
I wish I could tell her—promise her—that it gets better. That her cup will be filled.
I can’t go back and help the person I was so many years ago. But I can be grateful for what I’ve learned. Turns out, it doesn’t make you a failure of a mother to seek help. In fact, and I know this now, it makes you a success. And that’s a relief, since “success” is, in fact, my favorite word.