Self-care. It’s a term that’s become part of the mommy zeitgeist to the point where we can’t open our Instagram feeds without being bombarded by memes touting, “Caring for yourself is mandatory” or “Put your oxygen mask on first.” Between us mamas, it’s getting kind of annoying.
The first issue is, the current conversation about what self-care means is shallow.
It goes something like this: “Go get a manicure or a quick massage and you’ll come back refreshed and ready to handle motherhood again.” That’s what we’re told. Here’s what we hear: Self-care is as easy as painting my nails and will make me a better mom.
Wait, so, a new coat of nail polish is a mommy miracle that will make us happier about our child having a tantrum in Target? Not buying it.
Issue #2: Making superficial self-care the de-facto norm assumes all moms have access to both the childcare and the cash to spend on it.
My dream is that with motherhood comes only empathy and connection, not judgment and shame. My dream is that all moms feel empowered to ask for help, receive it and realize that doing so doesn’t make them failures. My dream is that all moms realize that taking care of themselves and their needs isn’t selfish, but necessary. My dream is that all moms feel safe enough to be honest about their lives, even the scary parts. My dream is that all moms have access to affordable care for mental health issues such as postpartum depression and anxiety. My dream is that no mom ever feels alone as she struggles. My dream is that all moms recognize motherhood is not one-size-fits-all and no two journeys are the same. My dream is that all moms support each other’s choices and embrace each other’s differenes. My dream is that all moms lift one another up because they understand that we are all in this together.
When I was eight months pregnant, a friend asked me if I was worried at all about postpartum depression. I quickly shot her down. “Oh, that would never happen to me,” I said. “I’m so excited to be a mom.” As far as I was concerned, I was going to give birth to my son the old-fashioned way, fall deeply in love with him, breastfeed him for months like a champion, transform into the DIY domestic goddess I was always meant to be, and take him with me everywhere I went.
Instead, I was in labor for 24 hours, a process that led to two hours of pushing, followed by a C-section. Afterward, I found that I felt nothing toward my healthy new baby boy, became crippled by anxiety, quit breastfeeding after five days, decided I had made a terrible mistake becoming a mom, started taking antidepressants, and barely left the house for six months.
Maybe if I had received more education about postpartum depression, I would have been more aware of what was happening to me, less ashamed, and more prepared to seek help. There are so many things I wish I’d known about postpartum depression before I became a mom, and I want you to know them too.
Four years ago, when my son was born, and I battled severe postpartum depression, I felt so alone. I wanted—no—I desperately craved meeting another mom like me. Another mom who would put her hand on my arm, look me in the eye, and say, “I’ve been there. I get it.”
I didn’t find these moms until I got better almost a year later when I started sharing my journey from postpartum depression to healthy, happy mommy. And most of them I met virtually. I was amazed by how many moms would respond to my story with those powerful words, “I’ve been there. I get it.” Where were these moms when I was suffering? Most likely, they were also suffering and too ashamed to come forward just like I was.
It was then I realized the power of those two little sentences and their importance and necessity when it comes to the struggles of motherhood. Whether it’s depression, anxiety, body image, relationship issues or something else, we all struggle as moms and we want to know we aren’t the only ones. We don’t always want advice. We want to feel normal. We want to know there are others out there who get it. Who get us.
In the hospital, I thought I loved my baby. I thought I wanted to bring him home and be his mother. Then I got home and my thoughts drastically changed. I wanted nothing to do with my new son. I decided I had made a terrible mistake becoming a mother.
With these new, irrational thoughts came a feeling of heaviness on my chest as if an elephant had all of a sudden taken up residence there. I couldn’t breathe. The feeling creeped into my throat. It woke me up at three am every morning. It exhausted me to the point where all I wanted to do was sleep forever yet I could never fall asleep because the anxiety made my heart feel as if it would leap out of my chest.
What was happening to me? Why do I feel this way? Where did this overwhelming anxiety come from? Why won’t the tears stop? Why don’t I want to get out of my bed when there is a healthy, beautiful baby boy in the next room who needs his mother? How do I make it all stop?
The day after I arrived home with my new baby boy, I was hit with severe postpartum depression. I never thought it could happen to me and it came out of nowhere. I went from filling out all 1’s on the happy scale the hosptial gives you before sending you home to being at home thinking I had made a terrible mistake becoming a mother, and trying to figure out ways I could get sick or hurt so I could return to the hospital where everyone would have to take care of me and I never had to take care of a baby.
How do you tell your mom friends you feel this way when you have been led to believe the only normal feelings new moms experience after giving birth are magic, bliss, joy, love, and an intense attachment to your baby? How could I tell them the only thing I felt was paralyzing anxiety that made it difficult to do anything but cry ugly tears and lie in bed pleading for it to all go away so I could love my new baby boy and be a good mother too. How could I tell them I resented them for being so much better at motherhood than me? So much better at breastfeeding. So much better at simply wanting to spend time with their babies and leaving the house with them, something I was terrified to do.
I didn’t have any friends who had postpartum depression before me. I didn’t even know postpartum depression was what I had until I found the right therapist who diagnosed me. Now I didn’t only have postpartum depression. I had to go on antidepressants and anti-anxiety medicine to cope with motherhood. Again, what would my friends think? From what I knew of other moms (close friends and the ones on social media I didn’t know personally), motherhood was easy and came naturally. I thought of myself as a horrible mom and a failure. I failed at breastfeeding. I failed at Pinterest. I failed at wanting to be a mother. Would my friends judge me as harshly as I judged myself?
After battling and surviving postpartum depression, I have received the following question repeatedly: “Jen, I think my friend might be going through something like what you went through. I want to say something to her about it, but I don’t want to upset her. How do I bring up that she isn’t acting like herself lately?”
I wish I had a simple answer to this question, but it’s never simple when it comes to postpartum depression, which is not a one size fits all illness. Every mom’s experience with PPD is unique to her. Her risk factors, symptoms, feelings, and length of illness won’t look like that of any other mom suffering. Just like PPD, every mom is different and motherhood is also not one size fits all.
Before you confront a mom and suggest she might be suffering from PPD, here are some factors I think you should consider: How will she react? How receptive would she be to the idea of needing and asking for help? I think you should also ask yourself, “Am I the best person for this conversation or is there someone else that should be having this conversation?”
I was once getting a manicure next to a woman who asked if I had children. At the time, I told her I had a one-year old boy. She then asked my favorite question most people follow that up with. “When are you having your next one?” I told her I wasn’t–that my husband and I decided one was enough and the right decision for our family–we were one and done. I don’t even know why I felt like I had to justify my decision to a complete stranger. I guess I didn’t want my response to be met with the usual, “You will change your mind.” Or “What do your parents think? Don’t they want lots of grandchildren?” “It’s so much nicer for kids to have a sibling to play with.”
But she surprised me. She informed me she only had one son and that sometimes when you create a masterpiece, it doesn’t make any sense to paint over it. Thank you manicure lady for immediately accepting my choice and making me feel good about it! It doesn’t always happen like that.
In fact, most people respond with confusion, sometimes horror when they find out you are “one and done.” I love that phrase. It’s short and sweet and very blunt. It leaves no room for interpretation. Those people do not. Sometimes those people are strangers. Other times they are acquaintances and family members. All I can say, is that at the end of the day, you don’t know what it’s like to walk in my shoes–to live my life–to know what I need and what’s best for me. Only I know that, especially when it comes to motherhood. I also want to say that I am in no way promoting ”one and done” as the best or easiest parenthood choice. If you don’t want any kids or want to have two, three, even five kids, I think that’s incredible. Do it! It’s just not the right choice for me. And I have yet to come across any parenthood choice that is easy.
I don’t know about you, but I’m a big fan of the F-word. It’s extremely versatile and can be used in so many different situations. As a writer, I love that it can be a noun, verb, adjective, and more. As a mom, it comes in very handy when I’m frustrated, tired, and overwhelmed or I feel the need to be dramatic about all the above. You step on a Lego and scream, “FUCK!” Your kid wakes up four times in the middle of the night and you quietly pray each time, “Stay the fuck asleep.” You get projectile vomited on and blurt out, “Fuck me!”
And when you can’t take it anymore you dramatically declare that if anyone needs you, you can be found hiding in your closet with that pint of Haagen Dazs chocolate-chocolate-chip ice cream because you are frustrated, tired, and overwhelmed “As Fuck” (AF). I’ve even recently heard it used to describe the phase my son just entered: “The Fucking Fours.”
When I gave birth to my son almost four years ago (before I made regular use of the F-word in everyday motherhood), I discovered my second favorite F word. Formula. Yes, you heard me correctly. Formula. Let me say now that this is not an anti-breastfeeding, pro-formula-feeding post, nor am I exclusively in support of one food source over the other. I am exclusively for feeding your baby, however that works best for you. Now back to our regularly scheduled program…
I have very strong feelings about breastfeeding. It’s not because I’m anti-breastfeeding or anti-formula. In fact, I’m the opposite…I’m pro- women should choose what works best for them and their mental health and sanity during what might be the biggest transition of their lives…motherhood. And no woman should ever be made to feel like she is a failure or a terrible mother because she chooses formula over breastfeeding or even supplements breast milk with formula.
Now I know there are the people who believe that becoming a parent is all about sacrifice. We sacrifice for the well-being of our children and therefore moms should breastfeed no matter what. Well I’m here to call bullshit…because at the end of the day, giving your baby a happy, healthy mommy is just as if not more important than giving your baby breastmilk at the expense of your well-being. What about women who don’t produce enough milk? What about exclusively breastfed babies who don’t gain enough weight? No mom should ever be made to feel bad about how she nourishes her children.
Social media is filled with celebrities promoting breastfeeding. Celebrities not so subtly telling you that breast is best…the only proper way to feed your baby. And it’s not just celebrities…regular women like you and me love to judge and shame moms who choose not to breastfeed. Doctors and lactation consultants lay the guilt on thick for new moms who struggle with the decision between breast milk and formula. None of this is fair to new mothers. Plenty of studies show breastfeeding to be the better option and the same number of studies claim that these studies have no merit…which brings me back to my main point…choose what works for you…because your baby will be fine… and fuck the haters and everyone else.
Here is my breastfeeding story: It’s not a fairly tale.