Busting the Myth of the “Natural” Mother

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I want to write about the joy I’ve found in motherhood, and one day, I will. But that joy is so relatively fresh and new, and joy itself so conflated and inflated with mothering, that I see less importance in giving voice to it.

Yes, my toddler daughter brings my heart a happy warmth and fullness that words are insufficient of capturing or conveying. But that’s the standard rhetoric, isn’t it? That’s what we collectively “know” and expect about mothering–that it brings the greatest happiness to women that they’ve ever known, that transitioning to motherhood is a natural and easy process, that it’s so rewarding it makes all the pain and sacrifices worth it.

We don’t have the same sort of collective dialogue, understanding, or even acknowledgement about the negative side of it or of those stories that don’t follow this trajectory. Because the misery, shame, and regret were so huge and profound for me–and for so many other women–I find it much more necessary (and personally cathartic) to share tales of my own dark and terrible experiences with motherhood.

When I became a mother, I had a whole new set of experiences, worries, and concerns unique to parenting and no mom friends to discuss them with. Sure, I could tell my childless friends how completely overwhelmed and exhausted I was, but they couldn’t commiserate or truly understand. They couldn’t relate to the loneliness I felt when I was left alone to breastfeed my daughter when we left the house, or during the quiet hours of the night when other people, including my partner, slept. They couldn’t understand the relentless care I, as a breastfeeding mother, had to provide for my newborn. Nor did they understand how I felt I had forever lost myself and unwittingly become someone else entirely. Although I almost didn’t recognize the comically haggard and increasingly wild-eyed woman staring back at me in the mirror, it was more than cosmetic–I no longer felt like or saw myself anymore.

I had a few friends who were also moms, but we weren’t especially close. I tried reaching out to them, but found our differences limiting. One had multiple children and actively wanted more, the other had only one, but experienced her transition into motherhood much more seamlessly than I did. Neither shared my history of sexual abuse, worked outside the home, or had the same financial struggles. Undaunted, I was added, and requested to join, three separate Facebook mom groups, but our commonalities (cloth diapering, home births) weren’t enough. Those moms expressed similar frustrations periodically (sleep deprivation) but no one openly related to my feelings that I’d lost myself and my identity or my heavy, intense–and thankfully temporary–regret that I’d had my daughter at all.

The friend I was closest with seemed genuinely horrified and insulted when I asked her if she regretted having her kids. I wanted to admit these terrible truths to other mothers without fear of their judgement. Most of all, I desperately wanted and needed someone to tell me that they, too, had had those doubts and regrets and come out of it to find contentment and acceptance–but no one did. I slowly retreated away from these mothers, because they inadvertently made me feel even more alone and alienated than before. I tried reaching out to my existing friends, but found any tales from their childless lives made me increasingly bitter and sad. I felt as if I were a sequestered passenger on some swiftly departing vessel, watching my old life shrink from view until it was no longer visible or accessible to me.

There was an extended period of time after my daughter was born that I didn’t just miss my old life, I very honestly grieved its loss. I was bereft. More than anything else, even sleep, I missed being able to spend time with my partner. All of the tiny, incidental, precious things I’d taken for granted before our daughter was born were gone, seemingly dead to me, and I was heartbroken.

One day, when our daughter was a few months old, we left her with her grandparents long enough to make a quick grocery run. I hugged my fiance in the middle of the spice aisle and started to openly sob because it had been so long since I’d been able to simply put my arms around him and keep them there. I realized that that moment was the happiest I’d been in many a moon, and the stark contrast between our lives pre- and post-baby made me indescribably sad. Even though my partner was there, living it with me, our lives were new and ironic: so much time spent together physically, but so little time actually together. All our attention was focused on our daughter. I found bits of happiness in that new life, but they were slippery and ephemeral. Other than brutal exhaustion, the only real constant I felt was deep, deep sadness and shame over how unhappy I was with my new life.

Despite my best efforts against it, which included regular exercise and ingesting my own encapsulated placenta (and suffering through their revolting burps), I found myself cripplingly depressed. Although I’ve battled clinical depression throughout my life, this was different: it was an inescapable beast that clung to me like a spiderweb. In my best moments, I felt like I was in a haze, almost as if I were watching myself float through someone else’s life rather than living it myself. In my worst, I felt like a caged animal, trapped and suffocating under the inescapable realization that I’d not only ruined my life by having my daughter, but hers and my partner’s as well. The only solace I could find was something I kept tucked away in the back of my mind like a spare key under a mat: when I found myself home alone, I would shoot myself in the backyard like a dog. When I admitted this to those closest to me, they were understandably distraught. Yet no matter how heart-wrenching their reactions were, my depression was impenetrable.

One day, a dear, childless friend told me she thought I had postpartum depression. She offered to put me in contact with a friend of hers, who I’ll call Emily, who’d found herself so wrecked following the birth of her baby that she’d once screamed “I HATE YOU” into her crying baby’s face. I felt an instant, tender kinship with this mother. Though I’d never screamed at my baby, I’d whispered sorrowful, apologetic words to her through streaming rivers of snot and tears–something none of the other mothers I knew online or in real life had ever done.

I reached out to Emily and found in her the judgment-free understanding and reassurance I’d been longing for. She told me that she too had initially found no joy in motherhood, only deep, endless sadness. Only after she’d began taking antidepressants had she been able to not only accept, but grow to love, her new life. She encouraged me to see a doctor for medication, but at the time, it wasn’t feasible. I’d lost my job shortly after my daughter was born, and had been piecing a living together with food stamps, WIC, unemployment benefits, and whatever freelance and contract work I could find. Emily swore it made all the difference for her, going so far as to say she owed her sanity to her medication. She felt confident it would work for me, too. I desperately wanted to believe her, but I didn’t. Thank goodness for Emily–she became my sole hope and lifeline over those long, bleak months when things got progressively worse. I emailed her many times, often just begging her to promise me things could get better. She always did.

It turns out she was right. Mere weeks after I got on antidepressants and antianxiety meds (a beyond-generous gift from my best friend), I felt like a completely different person. My mood stabilized and rather than be destroyed by the mundane annoyances of motherhood, I was able to withstand them. I fell madly, completely in love with my daughter. Rather than constantly lament the fact that it was no longer just the two of us, I was able see the magic that my family of three create together. Slowly but surely, my new life became more familiar, and evolved into what Emily had told me it would become: a new normal.

None of this means that my new life is perfect–any more than it means my pre-baby life was. But it does mean that my new life is now manageable–and more often than not, it’s pretty great. While the natural progression of age and time made parenting and adjusting easier, I’m confident that medication saved my life. I had a severe chemical imbalance that required pharmaceuticals to correct, and I am grateful I was able to access it.

I am also confident that Emily was instrumental for my recovery, too–not only because she encouraged me to seek out medication, but because she affirmed for me the normalcy of my own struggles with parenting and identity. Just as no two people are alike, there is no one way for women to adjust to and/or become comfortable or confident with motherhood–and yet there is one dominant narrative that doesn’t include struggle, regret, pain, or misery. Some women struggle more than others, and those of us that do often feel deep shame because of it. The notion that there is one way or experience of mothering is not only inaccurate, it is quite literally dangerously false. Only by sharing our truths and challenging the prevailing, warped narrative of motherhood will we combat the shame and silence that threaten our health and happiness.

Image: pixiedust8605

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