Thanksgiving of 2014 was filled with anticipation for me. After years of breastfeeding, four kids total, I was finally going to wean the 17-month-old twins. I had grand visions of what life would be like when no one was dependent on my body as a food source, when I wasn’t pregnant as soon as the nursing stopped, and when I might actually sleep like a normal person again.
On November 27th, I pulled the plug on being a milk machine and expected to feel like a new person, refreshed and ready for energy to flood my system.
Eight weeks later I was face down on my bedroom floor, the world spinning out of control as I battled vertigo. This started happening regularly, and I was unable to get out of bed three days of my life every month. It would be another 12 months before I knew what was wrong with me and another 20 months from the diagnosis to figure out why.
My dreams of feeling better after pregnancy and nursing were replaced with a physical and mental battle that pushed me to the limit. I wasn’t prepared to deal with this battle because no one had ever told me that pregnancy can break us.
Women aren’t basketballs
In our culture, the main focus when it comes to postpartum life is how fast a woman bounces back in the appearance department. Celebrities are scrutinized to see if they hold onto that extra baby weight, and regular women are expected to make it back into those pre-pregnancy jeans, as if that is the mark of their true worth.
Women don’t bounce back because we’re not basketballs, we’re humans. Nothing is the same after giving birth. This encompasses all of the issues that occur within our bodies that can’t be seen as easily as our stretch marks.
Researchers now say it takes a full year for a woman to recover from giving birth, and women aren’t happy with the post-natal care they receive that dismisses them a mere six weeks after having a child. Many of us experience health breakdowns that last even longer than the full year a normal recovery takes.
I found that out when I was finally diagnosed with Meniere’s disease in January of 2016. I didn’t connect vertigo, exhaustion, depression, anxiety, or hearing loss with what my body went through having four kids in four and a half years. The diagnosis couldn’t be explained to me except to say that something had gone wrong in my body, and this was the result. There’s no cure, only symptom management.
I was able to find ways to handle the physical symptoms, but the depression and anxiety drove me to contemplate self-harm, and that’s when I knew I had to find an answer. Exhausted, depleted, and overwhelmed by even getting out of bed in the morning, I had vial after vial of blood drawn and grabbed books on any possible causes of my mental decline.
My OB attributed my mental state and exhaustion to having four kids. “What did you expect motherhood to be like?” she asked, dismissing me despite all I had told her.
My chiropractor wasn’t so quick to give up. “Your body is broken, and we just have to figure out why.”
Without knowing what we were looking for, we set about breaking me open for clues because I did not bounce back. I crashed.
Throughout my ordeal, people commented through social media and even to my face, telling me I was Superwoman for raising four kids. I told them I was not, that I was struggling, but this didn’t end up being what anyone wanted to hear.
“Your kids are great! You are all out of the house. Everything is fine!” I was assured.
I eventually gave up on explaining because the transparency I was offering made people uncomfortable. I started out being open about my anxiety and depression, mining every conversation I could to try to figure out if I was the only one suffering, if anyone had the answers.
There were times when another mother would share her story of brokenness, how her teeth started cracking while she was nursing, how her gallbladder crashed after giving birth. One of my family members developed an idiopathic form of anemia after having her child, something that is still not completely healed although her daughter is now 10.
We hear Superwoman as a name used to describe us, and those words go down like cheap candy, sweet but offering absolutely no sustenance. What all of us want, besides answers on how to heal, is someone to admit that we can’t fly.
#Blessed and the problem with gratitude
One huge obstacle to finding answers is the #blessed culture we live in. Gratitude is a beautiful expression, but it shouldn’t be a wall we build to keep people from expressing real problems and seeking help.
An acquaintance had her attempted unmedicated birth end in an emergency C-section where she and her son were both in danger. After all she went through, she then had trouble finding a community to help her walk through the post-traumatic stress she suffered following the birth. Everyone told her to be grateful her baby was okay, because in the end that was all that mattered.
These statements, while coming from the mouths of people who were likely genuinely trying, didn’t help. Like any mom, she was very grateful her son was alive and safe. She risked her life to ensure that he was.
However, her well-being does matter, not just because she is the mother raising this child, but because she is a person. Telling a mom she should weather through whatever comes after birth without complaint as long as the baby is okay is akin to silencing women who dares to admit that they are not okay. It’s a punishment for being honest, for refusing to embrace the Superwoman role and instead admit that we are mere mortals, and we need help.
When you support everyone but yourself
I made my way to a naturopath in August of 2017, which I had been saving for last because insurance covers none of the visits. I realized pretending that I might miraculously recover wasn’t working, we weren’t finding any new answers, and my husband was no longer accepting my excuses about the expense.
“It’s worth whatever it costs if she has some answers,” he said.
She did. My adrenals are trashed, and I am somewhere between stage two adrenal issues, defined as wired and tired, and stage three, complete collapse. Adrenal problems are a catalyst for Meniere’s disease, the mystery condition I developed after weaning the twins.
“Your body supported your pregnancies, supported your babies. Then when it didn’t have to do that anymore, it broke.”
I broke. My body and my mind, they broke.
It’s going to be a long road to recovery. My kids lived with an irritable, stressed mother because I bought into the idea that I was both lucky and not worth taking care of. In the #blessed culture, I have a lot going for me. My kids are healthy, we have food to eat, and I never made good on those self-harm temptations. Maybe that seems like it should be enough, but we need to give women permission to say it’s not.
We don’t have to be Superwomen. We just need a language that lets us communicate our brokenness so we can truly find ways to heal.