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  • hatheoharis

Longing, Loathing, and Loving in Motherhood.

Updated: Aug 20, 2020

As a younger woman, *Heather had a t-shirt with the blazing title, "GIRLS KICK BUTT". Heather lived these words. She studied hard, excelled academically, and found success in a male dominated science field. Exams were easy, problems had obtainable solutions, and she was confident in her abilities; conversely, if she came across a challenge which she wanted to overcome, she did.

As she entered motherhood, Heather quickly discovered she struggled to kick butt. Heather stated, "I felt like with being a new mom, I didn't know how to pass the test. I couldn't study enough. I couldn't get it right. That had never happened to me in life. I was always able to put in the hard work and get whatever success I wanted."

Heather and her husband, a well-respected professional, live in an affluent neighborhood in Western, NC where yards are forever green and the homes have an air of quintessential respectability. Their 2 young boys can often be seen running around the expansive front yard sheltered by massive oak trees providing shade in the summer and piles of multicolored leaves in the fall.

Western society's expectations for mothers are loud and pervasive. Our bodies can morph into the unknown during and after pregnancy while we work 40+ hours/week, manage a household, maintain a sense of self separate from soon to be mommy-land, and find peace and healing after the birth of our child. We feel confident we will be one of the "super moms" who never complains, keeps a household and returns to work full time after a quick maternity leave. This western illusion can set us up for disappointment, unobtainable expectations and self-loathing. Instead of being able to dive into this tremendous transition period with love, compassion and care, we instead feel the pull towards doing more, being more and being everything.

Heather stated, "In a lot of ways, I felt like it’s all a lie. Society lied to me. Girls kick butt and are still supposed to have the babies and do it all." She continued, "[There are so many pressures of motherhood such as] ruining the environment if I use disposable diapers, worrying my child will be obese if I don't breastfeed, trying to get him to sleep through the night, the cost of childcare, and having to decide whether I use all my FMLA but then rationing my PTO just in case he gets sick and I have to take off." Lastly, "Women in the science field … the men expected me to stay home because their wives all stayed home. But I wanted to be back at work and found that expectation offensive. And, when I couldn't do it all, when I couldn't get back to it, I felt this tremendous sense of guilt that I couldn't really kick butt and that society was lying to me."

"I suffered in silence", Heather stated as she described how feelings of guilt, exhaustion, and fear enveloped her new world as a mother and transitioned her into an unplanned and isolating experience of anxiety, depression, obsessive compulsions and intrusive thought patterns. Unable to fully understand her experience and in turn unable to fully discuss it with her husband who struggled to understand it himself, Heather survived alone. She stated, "We had a balcony. I was afraid I was going to throw [the baby] over it. I had these horrific fears that I would trip and drop him and he would fall. When I fed him in the middle of the night, I was so afraid of dropping him that I would stand with my back firmly pressed into the wall and hold him as tight as possible. [At the same time] I had such intense anxiety that I couldn't be separated from him at night. I slept on the floor by his crib because if I didn't, he might die."

Heather did everything she could to ensure her son's safety and to be present, yet, "felt like the worst mom in the world." She stated, "I felt so lost. I didn't know what I was doing. I was angry a lot and irritable. I couldn't really process why I felt this way."

A statement often heard in baby birthing classes round the world, "You will have your life before your baby and you will have a life after your baby". The magnitude of this statement becomes sincerely evident when you fall into the suffocating arms of postpartum distress, wondering where is the bliss, where is my life, and why did we have this baby?

Heather stated, "I didn’t feel this intense desire, the all encompassing love [for my baby]. I wanted to be myself still and yet, I felt selfish [for feeling this way]."

Disconnect from oneself post baby is a loud booming noise among the other anxieties, fears, and feelings of detachment from motherhood. "Who am I", Heather found herself wondering in the wee hours of the morning as she was trying to find love for her son and love for herself.

Our personal expectations and visions of who we will be as a new mother can be just as, if not, more powerful than the one's we have from the larger society. When invasive thought patterns, intense fears and anxieties and feelings of self-loathing envelop what we think is supposed to be the most loving experience of our lives, it's difficult to not only take time to reconcile with these conflicts, but also to verbalize them and seek help.

Heather stated, "I didn't know if this was normal. I didn't know any other mother who was experiencing the same thing so I thought maybe I'm just making this up. I think I wanted somebody to ask me if I was okay and really listen and help. I don’t know how they would help because I couldn’t tell them the truth. I didn’t feel like the truth was safe. I feel like you are not supposed to have a hard time, like you are just supposed to be good at it all."

Exhaustion so extreme we can barely shower and brush our teeth, invasive intrusive thoughts, and anxiety snatching our every moment make the idea of reaching out for help suffocating of time and emotions we don't have. If we feel able, we seek help from a person with whom we have a close relationship. When this person then gives us counter to what we need, we retreat inward. Heather stated, "I tried to tell my husband. He expressed fear about having to commit me because he thought that is what it meant. After his feedback, I accepted that [the symptoms] were normal for me and held it all inside."

Weeks after the birth of her second son when the symptoms returned, she sought help. It wasn't easy. Heather stated,"I was mad at myself that I couldn’t be the perfect mom I thought I was going to be. I felt guilty for wondering where was the time for me and where was the strong sense of self I had? And, I couldn't understand other moms, how nothing was ever wrong for them."

Recovering from perinatal and postpartum distress is different for every parent. For Heather, it meant a number of strategies: weekly counseling, eventual medication for depression, learning how to notice and balance a triggered nervous system, exercise, and normalizing her experiences as normal, not crazy.

Heather stated, "Talking about this... it’s difficult… I wish I could change how I felt, that I could have felt happier then, and that I hadn’t felt so alone. It's hard for me to look back at the reality of what i felt."

Recovery has meant, finding "acceptance of self, strengths and limitations. Also, recognizing that I'm not going to be perfect and wonderful all the time and in all things. There are wins and losses with parenting."

Even still, Heather expressed, "I want a do over." This is a common sentiment of moms who have experienced perinatal and post-partum distress. Whether it was a traumatic pregnancy or a difficult birthing experience or depression, these events change our relationship with our bodies and the world. When the curtain falls down and you can finally breathe again and look upon yourself as a mother with joy, there comes an associated feeling of grief, sadness of what you missed, and a wish to go back.

We can't go back and we don't need to. The strengths and the sense of self which were once hidden will emerge again and find their footing solidly planted. We find how to keep our true self awake and alert while complementing her into her role as mom. Some days will be challenging and others will be a breeze. Ultimately, we need to accept ourselves and recognize we are deserving of compassion and patience. Heather stated, "I feel lost sometimes as we navigate new situations. I also feel accepting of my abilities and inabilities. I feel like I’m doing okay. The other day, my oldest son said to me, 'I’m so proud of you. You got the new job. I love you, you're so kind and caring, smart and snugly. And you have soft skin.' I’m a safe place for him and that felt good. Felt like I was winning as a mom in that moment."

*Name changed for confidentiality purposes.

** Thank you, Heather. YOU DO KICK BUTT!

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