Suffering in Plain Sight

I wanted to be a mother since I was a child.  I remember playing house (and mother) on the empty lot that eventually became the home that I grew up in. It took a long time to realize that dream of parenthood.  When I finally became pregnant in my mid-30’s, I was ecstatic. While I did not suffer from full-blown mood complications, I do remember very clearly experiencing an anxiety that was new and all-encompassing.  I worried about my baby dying of SIDS, or rolling off the changing table.  I felt like I had to hold her constantly in my arms fearing that if I didn't, she would not feel secure.  And the big mother of them all - I worried about me being a good enough mother. I remember family members noticing and commenting on my increased anxiety.   I did not know at the time that the emotional alarm system in my brain, my amygdala, was on hyperalert. This is true for all new mothers in the first two months of a baby's life.  I didn't think to talk to anybody about my fears.  I didn't realize that they were typical.  I wish I had because I think it would have helped. I didn't quite realize how vulnerable that first year after give birth is for all new mothers.

I was ready and willing to bleed myself dry (literally and figuratively) if that’s what it took to make my child feel loved and valued. (I didn’t know how much was enough so I decided to err on the side of giving and then giving more.)  I survived on less sleep than I thought possible. I nursed day and night and day again, feeling sometimes more cow than human. 

In the first year of my daughter's birth, I was fascinated with this whole transition to motherhood.  I read book after book about child development and the changes that women go through as they transition their identity up the generational chain from daughter to mother.  I was already a psychotherapist but did not return to work in this capacity for a while. I did not want to be separated from my daughter and I also did not feel like I had enough left over to give to my clients. I attended an intensive conference on perinatal mood complications and loved it, and simultaneously felt frustrated that I couldn’t put any of it to use just yet.

 As my children grew older, I eventually returned to work as a psychotherapist. (In the mean time, I had been doing part-time work as a parent educator and loving it.) I’d never forgotten my interest in the perinatal period, and so I begin to work with new mothers.  I am struck over and over again by the both the resilience and the pain that these women carry as they walk into my office. They come in smiling and confident, and are often in tears the moment I ask them how bad they really feel. They often do not understand what is happening to them, nearly all stating they no longer know who they are. They blame themselves for their struggles, wondering if they made a mistake becoming a mom, or worse. Some come from other therapists or doctors having been told they are not safe to be alone with their baby or worried about their literal sanity.  (This is only true with psychosis which is extremely rare.)

It is an honor and a privilege to be part of this great sorority called motherhood and to be a guide for those still finding their balance.  As a perinatal therapist, I focus on the practical matters at the beginning: sleep, social support, exercise, and possibly medication.  I instill hope that my mothers can feel better (truly believing that they can). Sometimes the hardest thing they often need to learn is to ask for and accept help instead of being the one to give it.

Aside from being a mother, I never really knew what I wanted to do when I grew up.  Now I do.