Parenting is the hardest thing I have ever done.
That’s stating the obvious, right? I mean, one can’t open Facebook without finding a meme that involves children and the need for copious amounts of wine (or maybe that’s a reflection on how mommified my Facebook feed has become?)
I don’t think there is a parent out there who doesn’t feel tired (emotionally, physically, mentally) MOST of the time.
Steve and I have been married for nearly 9 years. We were the people who were waiting, hoping, yearning for the day when we have our own child. We have been (relatively) open about our struggle with infertility. In our circle of friends, we were one of the last couples to have children. So we had heard about all the challenges of parenting: how difficult it was, how we should enjoy our sleep while we could (i.e. pre-children) as well as the heavy toll on marriage and social life.
Our choice to have children was deliberate. It involved intensive medical intervention for us to have a child. Time consuming, emotional, uncomfortable. No accidental pregnancy here.
On the 19th October 2015, our little Luca (“bringer of light”) entered the world: our medical and spiritual miracle. All the anticipation and longing finally come to fruition. Our happily-ever-after. Because, after all the struggle, surely this was time to insert the happy ending?
The first few weeks of having a baby were up and down; exhausting as expected but as frequent visitors and fellow moms assured me, it was normal and would get easier.
But it didn’t get easier. It almost felt like it got harder. I convinced myself that it was just hormones, lack of sleep and that I was just adjusting to my new life: from a social, active and intellectually stimulating life to (what felt like) endless hours of breastfeeding, nappy changing and trying to induce sleep in a not-so-sleepy baby. I felt resentful of this tiny creature that had turned me into an anxious, sobbing mess. I missed my pre-baby days of independence, order, freedom, flexibility and purpose.
So through a blur of sleepless nights and occasional teary days, I persevered. And then there were days when I wanted to throw Luca against the wall, when I screamed at him, when I handled him roughly, when I hit my head against the walls and scratched myself in fits of anger. When I had panic attacks in the night, pacing around the room trying to rock him to sleep.
And after the outburst, then the spiral into guilt and shame would follow. I didn’t deserve to be a mother. He would be better off being cared for by someone else. It would be better if I died.
It took months for us to realize that I had post-natal depression. We kept hoping I would get better, that maybe if I prayed harder and found more time to connect with God, I would feel better. That maybe all I needed was more sleep, a break from Luca. It even took a few months of therapy to realize that I needed antidepressants.
My husband and I are both doctors, and while neither of us is directly involved in mental health, we have encountered mental health issues both professionally as well as in our immediate family and circle of friends. And yet we struggled to accept the diagnosis and the need for medication.
Why was it so hard for us?
* Because we are capable people. Type As, perfectionists, achievers. We don’t let ourselves give “excuses” like mental health (otherwise summed up with the label “failure”)
* Because if we just try harder, do more, be better…
* Because parenting is hard right? Everyone struggles?
* Because postnatal depression doesn’t happen to people like me
* Because the depression didn’t manifest as we expected – it wasn’t feeling sad all day and being unable to get out of bed.
* Because how could we admit that we were struggling with a baby for whom we had prayed so fervently (and for whom we had asked other people to pray)
* Because some days were good days. Surely if this was a chemical/physiological disease it would be more consistent?
* Because so much of the manifestations looked like character issues: irritability, anger, frustration, anxiety
* Because maybe this was spiritual testing/trial and we just needed to connect with God in order to over it.
Of course, I can see the flaws in our reasoning. That’s the gift of hindsight.
There is a lot to be said about postnatal depression. I do not claim to be an expert but this is what I have learned from my experience.
Firstly what is the difference between the “normal” struggle of parenting and disease? My red flags included:
* Lethargy out of proportion to sleep deprivation
* A deep, internal fatigue, dread of each day, wishing the hours away
* Anxiety around getting things right (which can be normal) to the point of being unable to relax or sleep when there was opportunity (e.g. when Luca was sleeping or when others would try to take care of him)
* Disconnect and difficulty bonding
* Inability to experience joy
* Irritability: always being on edge with Steve, very little capacity to deal with any challenge to the day, losing my temper easily
* Resentment toward Luca, Steve and everyone in the world who was able to live a “normal” life
* Thoughts of harming Luca
* Feeling inadequate and that it would be better for someone else to care for Luca…which ultimately lead to
* Thoughts and plans of harming myself
The journey of recovery has been a protracted one – it has taken time to take decisive action, and it has been the combination of approaches that has made the difference. For this me this has involved medication, therapy, a support group, keeping busy (getting out the house!) as well as help in looking after Luca.
There are still ups and downs. I have to change my expectation about being the perfect mom and accept that, given the right circumstances and triggers, I will still lose my cool, get frustrated, feel tired and inadequate. The difference is that now when the storms do descend, I find it easier to navigate through them. It’s not about denying my humanity but rather learning to breathe, apologize (to myself and others), acknowledge my emotions and move on without spiraling into an abyss of self-loathing. Because hopefully in finding my weakness, I can teach Luca to recognize, accept and make peace with his failings. I hope that I can teach him compassion, extended to others but starting with self. I can model what it means to live in the freedom of grace rather than clawing at the illusion of perfection.
Despite everything we have been through I am not only grateful for my child, but for the opportunity to get to know myself better. To confront my true self has been humbling but it has been the greatest gift. And I can truly say that being “Luca’s mom” is wonderful. Not a giddy, happy high but profound joy with a deep love for my precious son.
I thought that in our journey through infertility that the story of redemption would lie in conceiving and birthing a child. And yet, it has come through the brutiful (beautiful and brutal) reality of parenting.