Thursday, April 12, 2012

Motherhood Changes Everything

Motherhood changes everything. Even when you think that things couldn’t possibly become any more different—they do, and you are once again plunged into the dark unknown, completely against your will; completely unprepared, yet again. I’ve been a mom for seven years, and each age and stage my children have gone through has been harder, and better, than the last.

Such was my life during my son’s first year. The first six months, when my days were spent trying to decipher Alex’s cries, settle him to sleep, feed him, bathe him, all while trying to squeeze in a shower and maybe a glass of water for myself, seemed like a cakewalk when I returned to work and post partum depression reared its ugly head. It was as if nothing in the outside world was different. Other than the occasional query about my baby, people’s lives went on, unchanged. How was this possible when my entire world had become impossibly twisted? The earth had not stopped spinning because I had become a mother, at least not to anyone else but me.

It felt odd to walk around without my big belly after almost a year of being pregnant. My body was different. I’d been through so much in labor and delivery, and in addition to pregnancy weight, I’d gained stretch marks, a lingering baby pouch, and so much guilt-- about, well, everything.

I had expected motherhood to make me feel confident, invincible, and happy. Instead I was unsure of myself, vulnerable, and miserable. I felt so guilty for working, and that emotion consumed me. I was constantly exhausted and emotionally drained. I missed my baby intensely and I felt like I never saw him. I had enormous amounts of confusion and uncertainty about what my life was about. All this was such a blow to me, as I had thought motherhood would bring about all the opposite. I was also confused because since I had experienced the normal baby blues immediately following Alex’s birth (and come through them easily) this new set of feelings was unexpected.

The whole world suddenly seemed different; bigger, more dangerous—and having produced a human being inside my body that was now out in that same world, I felt intensely protective and helpless. A car could hit me on my way to work. My baby could die of SIDS. In the mornings, I made sure to memorize what color shirt my husband was wearing, just in case I had to describe him to the police later on because he disappeared. I recognized these thoughts as irrational, but I couldn’t stop them. The very thought that we were not going to be in this world forever to protect our baby filled me with despair.

Could I ignore the changes to my marriage? It was as if we had never existed as a couple before our son. What did we used to talk about? What did we do on our dates? Would we ever have a date, or time alone, again?

I also eventually had to admit that the difficult labor and delivery I had with my son had a lot to do with how I felt that entire first year. My experience was emotionally devastating, to say the least (and that’s another blog post!), and left me feeling helpless, scared, and not trusting of myself and my abilities as a mother.

Looking back, I should have asked for help. I spent too many days feeling despondent and unhappy, crippled by emotions that I couldn’t describe to anyone. Why is it that so many new mothers experience some form of depression or anxiety yet so many are unwilling to talk about it? The first year is so hard. There are infinite changes, and it’s normal to feel ambivalent about motherhood, resentful of the new responsibilities; even trapped. Not discussing it, or hiding it, is in part what leads to depression. I’ve never heard any new parent say, “yeah, we go to sleep at the same time we always did, take long showers daily, and eat dinner together every night.” Why is it that we can so easily discuss the logistical changes in our life as we knew it, but not the emotional ones? We all try to lose the pregnancy weight, go back to work, get back to normal, so quickly—as if we’re in a rush to prove something, as if we don’t want to admit that we’re not so sure about this new life as a parent—that everything is different. And it always will be.

Susan Maushart discusses this very thing in The Mask of Motherhood: How Becoming a Mother Changes Our Lives and Why We Never Talk About It. Says Maushart, “Experiencing ambivalence about motherhood is one thing. Expressing it—and by extension, legitimizing it—is quite another. The mask of motherhood ensures that the face of ambivalence, however widely or keenly felt, remains a guilty secret.” She found that the women who were able to be honest about their emotions were the ones least likely to be depressed.

Slowly, my life returned back to normal. Or, I should say, we all found a new normal. I am not who I was before I had children—I’m better. My husband and I now date regularly—even if it’s just a bowl of popcorn and a rented movie. We eat dinner together every night, and we talk, a lot. His compassion, patience, and support make him a wonderful father and an amazing partner. Years have passed since those early foggy days, but certain things will bring me back; a smell, a lullaby. I remember where I was and am proud of myself for how far I’ve come.

I know my feeling better was gradual, and the depression I experienced was relatively short-lived. But I honestly only noticed how different I am now compared to a few years ago just this past summer. After an afternoon out and about, as I was walking home with my children, I happened to notice how blue the sky was that day. Then I noticed the leaves blowing in the trees, and heard the birds singing.  And as I lifted my head up, I closed my eyes, felt the warm sun on my face, and I took a deep breath--I thought, my god, finally, I am happy. And it was the most amazing feeling. 


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