So, I’m what is delicately called an “older” mom. I got married in my mid 30’s and immediately began purgatory, also known as the pregnancy loss and infertility years. It took seven years of trying and failing and more than five years of painful and expensive fertility treatments to have a baby.
I have a three-month-old baby now. I am thrilled to finally be a mommy! Frankly, for a very very long time, it looked like I was never going to be able to describe myself as a mom. When I finally got pregnant with my baby girl, I found it very hard to let go of what I knew, which had always and only been loss and heart ache. To simply trust and accept the fact that our baby was making her way to us seemed so difficult to do. At the same time, I celebrated and felt overjoyed at the mere possibility of her existence. F. Scott Fitzgerald said: “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” I don’t want to boast about my intelligence, but holding two opposed ideas in mind at the same time while staying functional is how I lived through the pregnancy.
I totally “enjoyed” the nine months I got to grow and carry my baby, as much as anyone can truly enjoy the dramatic changes of pregnancy. Despite the fears over a high risk pregnancy due to “advance maternal age”, the discomfort that naturally befalls a pregnant body and my own well-earned anxieties over all the “what-if’s”, I felt so happy and very grateful for every ache and pain and swollen hand and foot. In the last weeks of my pregnancy, I’d beam at anyone who would listen and say earnestly: “it’s taken me 7 years to get here, and if I had to carry this baby for another 9 months, it’d be my pleasure and privilege.” I meant that. No matter what it took, how hard it was, and how scared I felt about the birth and my eventual, medically necessary C-section, nothing else mattered. No discomfort was too uncomfortable for me. I was there and I was ready to do whatever was necessary to find my way to my baby.
Along the way, I had heard the usual from my mommy friends: “it’s the toughest job you’ll love; your life will never be yours again; you’ll never eat, bathe or sleep again; you’ll miss adult interaction.” I listened politely, but deep inside I knew I would be different. I know I would feel differently. I knew deep in my bones that nothing would be hard enough to frustrate, exhaust or disturb my motherly bliss. This was what I had waited for, worked for, wished for, suffered for all these years. It was going to be amazing and I was going to have an unprecedented amount of strength, patience, tenacity and personal fortitude, which would make motherhood a lovely, miraculous journey and such source of constant peace and utter happiness on daily basis. Can you hear the soaring music in the background as you read my words? I swear I used to hear music swelling, melting my infertile heart at the thought of the constant 24/7 responsibility of raising a child. My optimism was boundless.
Then, the baby came. This tiny little creature that had sprung from pure hope. A little girl straight out our dreams. She was a living, breathing miracle. She was (and still is) achingly beautiful and the source of more joy than I could accurately describe. Ten fingers, ten toes and the cutest little nose. She was/is pure love.
And that’s when things began to get hazy. Hormone levels began to crash. My body deflated as days went by, my formerly beautiful baby bump collapsing onto itself. The pain began to feel concrete. Sleep departed our lives. I needed help sitting up, getting out of bed, or simply going to the bathroom. Standing at the foot of my baby’s bed was impossible. Picking her up was impossible. Taking care of her was impossible.
What was possible was crying. I sobbed when she was born. I sobbed when she was put in my arms. I sobbed when I fed her. I sobbed when I was told she had jaundice and had lost 10% of birth weight. I did the one thing that I seemed to be able to do well. My feet swelled, my brain shut down, my body ached, and my tears kept on coming.
In the immediate weeks that followed, I simply breastfed, worried and sobbed. Everything made me cry: how long it had taken to have this baby, my utter and complete inability to get a handle on my emotions, my trepidations over whether I was doing things right, my anxiety over my own physical wellbeing, the exhaustion of being surrounded by people who wanted to help and the sheer panic over them leaving me all alone to tend to this little prefect thing I was the mother of.
And alone they left me. Hour by hour. Little by little. Day by day. Week by week. I was left in charge of my little baby with no real break, help or a pause button. You have to go the bathroom? Too bad, the baby is feeding now. You’re hungry because you never had breakfast—or lunch? Tough! The baby is taking her 3rd nap—on you—move her and hear her roar. You’re thirsty? Well, you get the point. All personal needs, wants and even basic bodily functions became unimportant and irrelevant to the reality of my baby and her needs.
Suddenly, all I saw surrounding me was an ocean of unsolicited, unwanted, and, at times, completely incorrect advice. Apparently, I am at all times doing EVERYTHING wrong! Is that even possible? According to the masses it sure is and I’ve achieved. From how to dress, when to dress, to how to feed, how much and how often to feed, to my emotional responses to hearing her cry (I usually end up crying as I console her)—all wrong, wrong, wrong. As a perfectionist who’s always abhorred peer pressure, I find the anxiety society tries to put on new mothers to conform and heed advice they didn’t ask for disgusting and extremely unhelpful to the process of caring for an infant while physically healing and trying stay sane doing so. The deluge of differing advice on various topics can feel crushing and, at times, the very source of the much talked about and feared postpartum depression. After all, who can blame an novice, inexperienced, still healing woman for feeling sad, angry or inadequate when all she hears is: “this is how you should feel, think, and take care of this most important person in your life.” And if she doesn’t or can’t conform, she’s only normal in feeling like a failure in the face the huge pressure being put on her.
This is when I noticed I must have had a brain transplant. I found myself not only not celebrating my lack of autonomy (like I thought I would), but struggling against the current to retrieve it. Instead of finding this new intense “togetherness” precious, I found it stifling. Instead of “enjoying” this all consuming relationship that seems to never let up, I found myself struggling for stolen moments of individuality and separateness from my sweet baby. I love this baby with every cell in my body, but I yearn to be alone from time to time, to be restored to the human being I once was, along with my own personal time away from her. What? At this early age, I am striving to find alone time, I asked myself in a panic. What’s wrong with my brain? This is NOT the brain I used to have. Who switched it while I went to have my baby!?
The confusion I felt over my feelings was real, heavy and inescapable. How could this be me? How could I want to be away from my little star for any time at all? How could I feel anything other than pure privilege at the thought of consistent, unrelenting, continuing care for a baby I sought out for so long? I used to say: “I’ve had alone time all my life. If I never have it again, it’ll be okay.” Where did that lady go, because the one I find myself to be is absolutely not okay with not having some alone time here and there! The only explanation seemed to be that I had a brain transplant, unbeknownst to me, at some point in the last few months. Yes, that explains it. Someone changed my brain with a defective one!
Of course I in fact had not had a brain transplant, but simply arrived at the juxtaposition of my dreams, my idealized goals, the reality of my life and the person I’ve always been. I am an independent, individualistic person who values self care and self development above many things in life. I am a woman who has built herself step by step through extensive periods of reflection and quiet meditation. I am a person who needs some time each day to simply reflect, think and process this journey called life. And, while having a baby has altered, morphed, evolved and healed me in many many ways, it hasn’t changed my belief in and my need for self development, realization and care at all. And no amount of rhetoric to the contrary by the society seems to extinguish my instinct to seek some amount of daily solitude, even as a mother.
And that’s okay.
Studies show postpartum depression to be real and prevalent among new moms. It’s also been shown that it can persist, not only in the early months but for years in a mom, surging up by the time her child is four years old. One factor contributing to this persistent and continued condition is the utter lack of self care and the absolute focus on the life of another (no matter how cherished or dear). And what I’m witnessing happening within me is the instinctual internal battle for restoring some level of self care and for being centered around my own person instead of around another.
This is not weird, crazy or bad. This is not the result some glitch or a lack of motherly instincts. And it’s definitely not the result of a brain transplant. It is simply the normal reaction of an adult independent mind, struggling to find equilibrium. It’s simply the drive to strike a healthy balance between adapting to the most rewarding and all consuming of jobs (that of being a mother) with the absolute need, desire and right to remain a fully functioning, autonomous human being who takes time to tend to her own emotional, physical and personal needs. And a healthy balance must be struck, not just for my benefit, but for the sake of my beautiful daughter who will look up to me and learn from me. What kind of lesson would I teach her if I lost myself in the process of raising her, growing more and more anxious, depressed and emotionally haggard?
Now, I say all this and mean all this down to my very core. But, of course saying it, believing in it and intending to achieve it do not mean succeeding to reach it. The deck is often stacked against finding this balance in this day and age and in this country. I’m not an exception. I live far far away from any family who might help care for my daughter in my place, and finding affordable reliable childcare is not as easy as one might hope. In other modern Western countries, new mothers are entitled to help and support, from extensive medical supervision in monitoring their postpartum recovery to access to childcare and high quality subsidized preschool programs. Such is not the case here. In other modern Western countries, work weeks and hours spent chained to a profession are not punitive and incapacitating. Families can and do come together for dinners and togetherness at the end of each day. Women are not sent home, half-healed and left to their own devices to fend off for themselves, while trying to figure out what to do with their babies when they need to use their hands, energy or mental faculties on something other than their babies momentarily. These societies realize that it takes a village to raise a child and they do something about it. That’s not the society I live in.
So, I look back and feel sentimental about my naïve point of view of the past. I look back and see how I bought into the martyrdom theory of motherhood that swirls around me. I look back and see how untenable my expectations were. And I look forward, knowing that I need more. Having and raising my baby aren’t happy endings, but energizing beginnings. They are a springboard for forging ahead and redefining life. They’re brand new opportunities to reinvent myself while doing my best to raise a happy, healthy, well-cared-for child. They’re my cue to find a way to be true to myself, while teaching my child to be true to herself and to never ignore or minimize her health, wellbeing or personal needs. This is challenging. It’s also a challenge and a call to action for me. And, I must rise up and meet this challenge for me and for her.
So, mystery solved. There has been no brain transplant or personality swop. There’s just been healthy dose of personal struggle for answers. Nothing that a little quiet time for reflection couldn’t cure. Now, if I could just find time to be alone….