When I had my first baby, I was woefully underprepared in all the ways that mattered and over-prepared in all the ways that didn’t. I was an only child who felt awkward around children who couldn’t talk so I didn’t do much baby babysitting. The first diaper I ever changed was in the hospital after giving birth. I had endlessly researched and planned a home birth, we ended up in the hospital just to be safe. I worried and worried about breast feeding, but it was smooth sailing, though still exhausting. I learned everything there is to learn about cloth diapers (there is way more than there should be), because I wanted to help the planet, but ended up driving myself into exhaustion to keep up with all my own standards instead. (In that state: who was I helping exactly?) I wanted to be an excellent mom who did all the things and made all the best decisions. I painted a portrait for myself that looked nothing like me. She had a cape and never needed sleep.
One ordinary Saturday in that first year, I found myself screaming in the shower, holding the shower curtain in my teeth to keep myself from ripping it down. I was filled with unbridled rage I’d never felt before. I didn’t know that humans shouldn’t exist on less than 6 hours of a sleep at a time for more than a week. It was an entire year before my first baby slept through the night. I wasn’t doing good. My coworker’s words haunted me as I was packing up for maternity leave “Sleep now!” she cackled, “you won’t have chance later!” I nervously fidgeted my way out the door, not knowing exactly what that meant.
What I didn’t know at the time was how to be gentle with myself. I didn’t know how to prioritize myself or even ensure that my basic needs were met. I didn’t know that a dirty house and a relaxed mind is preferable to a rage-filled, mom stewing in a nauseating cocktail of resentment, exhaustion and frustration— but have you seen how her laundry is done and the kitchen is clean? AND her baby has fresh clean CLOTH diapers!
I went to the doctor for my 6 week postpartum check up and my doctor said I might have— a bit of baby blues, whatever that means. It didn’t mean getting any help, that was for sure. I checked in with my midwife, she recommend I see someone. How was that supposed to happen? I had a full time teaching job during the day, my husband worked nights so we could afford to… ya know like live and stuff. I also had to pump, manage milk all the time (donate the excess!), do all the diaper laundry, keep the house clean, make my own baby food, lose 65 lbs of baby weight, grade papers, process whatever trauma happened at work (which was a lot at the time.) I just didn’t have the capacity to navigate the mental health care system and find the time off.
Knowing what I know now, I just want to give my past self a hug, make her a nice meal and tuck her in for a nap and tell her she can just stop. It felt impossible at the time. My cortisol levels were so high I couldn’t sleep when the baby sleeps. Pretty sure that was when the depression and anxiety really set in.
I never even saw my husband, so I spent my days thinking about how I wish he were helping more, getting more done, being more affectionate, did more nice things, had more time for me. I had a long list of reasons why HE should improve. Oh and he should definitely appreciate me more because I was doing all the laundry. We were so exhausted that we couldn’t even fight anymore. We spent a lot of time just looking out opposite windows and just staring. I missed my old life a lot. It was filled with sleeping and things I liked.
But the crazy part is that now I see that every single one of my stressors was something that I chose. I chose to have a baby in the first place, I chose to use cloth diapers, I chose to be a teacher (a career known for being underpaid and overworked, and I still chose it), I chose to continue working full time, I chose to move away from my friends, I chose to marry someone whose strong suits are many but do not include folding laundry. (That was how he came, why would he change because there was suddenly more?)
I chose not to get help when I definitely needed it. I chose to give up all my hobbies and interests. I chose to keep my house cleaner than absolutely necessary. I chose to commit to losing the baby weight faster than was healthy so I didn’t have to buy a new wardrobe. I chose a life where napping wasn’t easy.
I didn’t know that by prioritizing myself after everyone and everything else was slowly wearing down my identity until it was actually completely gone, leaving me unmoored and hopeless and still very very angry.
I didn’t know that motherhood requires a completely different approach than what I was used to. The work ethic that I’d learned in college and the work world wasn’t the miracle solution I’d always assumed. I was showing up with the wrong tools for the job.
I did manage to go to hypnotherapist after I raged and knocked over and broke a glass in the living room. He told me that I “seemed stressed.” Thanks buddy, here’s $150 — buy yourself something nice, I know I won’t be. I was a victim of my own making and victims don’t buy themselves presents.
After that first year, I managed to make a few better decisions but my relationship was still in shambles and would continue to deteriorate until I filed for divorce in 2017. I thought I would be better off alone than with a man that actively despised me. I was pretty unpleasable at the time, which is difficult for husbands to handle.
When we separated, I started to take the burden of taking care of me off him and back onto me where it belonged. I started doing things I liked and I felt so much better. But I missed my husband. He was my soulmate. We had a lot of dreams together and it was hard to imagine me doing it alone, having my kids part time. Actually it was easy to imagine, but it wasn’t what I wanted. We decided to stay together since we had another baby on the way anyway.
I was determined for this to be different. I committed to sleeping at least 6 hours a night, getting proper health care and medications if I started to spiral again, and I wasn’t cloth diapering this time BECAUSE I’M NOT SUPERWOMAN. (Sorry Earth! I’ll make it up to you in other ways!) I’m a regular woman, who needs sleep, and relaxation, and time to herself. And I love that about me. It doesn’t make me a failure. It makes me lovely. Lovely to be around. Lovely to interact with. Lovely to look at. It makes me feel lovely inside (instead of the old fiery caldron ready to be splashed on the nearest bystander.)
Now motherhood looks like taking 5 to 10 minutes to myself after every chore. It’s sitting and playing a random game of uno, or crawling into a fort built by my kids, who are now excellent at sleeping through the night. It’s thanking my husband for making me delicious meals and drinks. It’s staying in bed longer than I should according to any responsible person’s schedule. It’s taking a bath instead of doing dishes if I feel like it. It’s telling my kids that I’m taking time for myself and laying out consequences if they pester me. It’s communicating clearly what I want in a way that husband hears it.
He makes sure I’m taken care of now, because he sees me doing it for myself.
He’s happy, I’m happy, and I get to stay with the man I married and enjoy it. Was it easy? No. Would it have been easier if I had had someone to help show me that I didn’t have to do all the things to be a good mother? Definitely.
We’ve got to change things for ourselves. Let’s rethink some standards we have for ourselves here. Let’s give ourselves lots of breaks. Our nurturing spirits need ample nurturing. I serve from my overflowing cup instead of being angry that it’s always empty because no one else filled it up for me.
Some women hear this and say, “How I am I supposed to take care of me too? That sounds like another responsibility!” And I say let’s look around and see what you can drop so you have enough hands to pick yourself up. No one is going to do it for you. Plus you are better at it than anyone else anyway. It just takes commitment and some easy and very-rewarding planning. Find out what you are choosing to prioritize over yourself and stop. Just stop. Rest regularly. Let yourself just flow and own your choices. Maybe you’ll even find some gratitude just in time for Thanksgiving in a year where it’s been difficult to find.
I’m grateful for having a working washer and dryer, disposable diapers, hot meals that my husband makes, being home together all day every day, living in this amazing community on this incredible land and so much more. I’m grateful for my transformational reprioritization. I’m grateful for my health and my mental peace. I’m grateful that I rarely lose my temper anymore. I’m grateful that it all worked out. The self-portrait makes so much more sense now. She takes lots of naps and wears vintage skirts with sewn-in pockets instead of a cape, which is still pretty badass and much more useful.