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The Fight For Healthy Motherhood

The first time I realized that I struggled with my mental health I was eighteen years old. My college plans had been changed in dramatic fashion and instead of moving into the honors dorm as had been my plan for over a year, I found myself reeling because of circumstances outside of my control and I would instead be commuting and continuing to live at home. While this may cause a shock for anyone, it sent me into a spiral. For two weeks I laid in my bed or on the couch, occasionally venturing to my mom and dads’ bed because they had a TV and I could watch The Office until I fell back asleep and put myself temporarily out of my misery. I cried and didn’t eat. I didn’t shower and I struggled to change my clothes every twenty-four hours. My parents begged me to get up. They offered to prepare my favorite meals, take me to the movies or simply sit outside on the porch with me. In a last ditch effort they called two of my cousins and asked them to invite me over. I turned them down, so they sweetened the pot with the promise of at home manicures and pedicures and pizza from our favorite restaurant. I finally relented. I showered, scrubbed my face, put on my clean pajamas and headed over.

After that I realized I was no stranger to little depressive episodes over the course of my life. I was just skilled in hiding it. In high school I played basketball and cheered, so there was no way I could stay in bed for weeks, even when I felt like it. I bucked up and put on a smile after crying in my bed or the bathroom and headed out to live my life. I often woke up feeling sad, for no apparent reason. I couldn’t pinpoint the inception of the sadness, but it erupted in my chest and left a gaping hole which often caused me to struggle for breath. Anxiety and depression were close friends and they traipsed through my being, hand in hand for years.

College proved to keep me busy, and while anxiety had a field day, depression stayed at bay. As long as I kept going, I seemed to escape it. Anxiety, I thought, I could handle. I could use the adrenaline to help me accomplish my tasks, so I never truly dealt with the issue at hand.

Then I became a mother.

A family of four standing together in front of a wooden background Image via Carlo Nasisse

Motherhood rocked me like a roundhouse punch from a heavyweight champ I had no business being in the ring with. I knew that what I had was not the forewarned about “baby blues”. I knew something was wrong. Badly wrong. Friends and family wanted to come visit my new baby and I could not handle having him out of my hands for more than a few minutes without panicking that something was going to happen to him. One night, as a few friends came over, I went to my bedroom, shut the door, put my back up against the wall and sobbed. I cried for time that was flying by with my sweet baby boy and how he would never be as small as he was again. I cried for how my body had betrayed me and resulted in a c-section, I cried because I thought my relationship with my husband would never be the same. My world was spiraling out of control, and my baby was only five days old.

Things did not get better when he turned six days old or six weeks old. While loving him so much I still felt catatonic. I sat and stared at him all day. When he cried, so did I. When he slept, which was rare, I monitored him almost nonstop. Between lack of sleep, hormones, and having almost no coping mechanisms, I spiraled again.

At my husband’s urging, I began to take walks with the baby. Sometimes we walked 10 minutes, sometimes for hours. Sometimes we walked around the block, sometimes around our entire neighborhood and to the soccer complex where I watched pickup games. I did note that the fresh air did something for me. It by no means “cured” me but it did clear my head. It cleared my head to the point that at six months postpartum, when my therapist that I had been avoiding reached out to me for the fourth or fifth time while sitting on the front porch, I took a deep breath of that fresh air and texted back, “put me on your schedule.”

A woman walking outside with a baby cradled to her chest

It was a long and tumultuous ride, but by the time he was 18 months old, I felt back to my old self. The postpartum depression and anxiety had been worked through, and now I was back to ground zero, with the regular depression and anxiety to work through. Since then, I have had another child, gone through a pandemic, moved twice, had a major career change and more and I would love to tell you, the outdoors healed me, but that’s not the whole truth. It’s not even the half-truth. And that’s because I’m not healed.

My mental health is a day-in-and-day-out struggle for me. Sometimes the struggle is small, like playing tug of war with a kindergartner, and at other times it is like trying to stand my ground amidst a stampede of raging bulls. Nothing has changed on that front, but what has changed is me. I have developed coping mechanisms; I’ve learned to stop negative self-talk in its tracks. I now can ward off panic attacks when they begin. What did it take to develop those mechanisms? Therapy. A lot of it. It took medication. It took putting systems in place to force me out of the house and out of bed every single day.

A young kid with long curly hair and a backwards hat wearing a blue backpack standing at waters edge

I’ve found that mothers in particular are supposed to care for their children, their homes and their partners without considering themselves. Women are fed the lie that they should do it all and be it all while needing nothing. And to that I say, no thanks. We are not cactuses. Made to thrive in any condition with minimal care but damaging when touched. If we are supposed to be warm and inviting in our homes and to our children, we are going to need some TLC. We have to fight back against that narrative and care for ourselves. That may look different for everyone, but for me it means having hobbies that don’t include my kids or my husband, moving my body for the sake of moving it and not punishing it for being softer and more rounded than the former version of me. It means scheduling time for myself to be unproductive and listening to my body and giving it rest when it needs it.

Motherhood, while making me realize that I needed help, is also a catalyst in being better. On days when I feel like I can’t function, I have two little boys that need me. When I feel like I bring no value to the world, I’m reminded that to them, I’m everything. When I’m tempted to criticize myself or my body, I recognize that they are watching me. When I’d like to clam up and burrow into a depression nest, I remember that getting outside teaches them coping skills they may use in the future. For every hardship motherhood has brought, it has increased my quality of life tenfold. Those two little cherub-faced boys have kept me going more times than I can count and the love and light in their eyes remind me that I’m necessary, even when it seems like the world wouldn’t skip a beat without me.

A family of four sitting on the porch together with their basset hound pup Image courtesy of Wondercamp

This isn’t a, pull yourself by your bootstraps and it will all be better, story. I got help and I needed it. Taking that action has helped me to help myself. I now know how to care for myself. I know how to prioritize my mental health and create a life that helps me thrive. That doesn’t mean I’m not depressed or anxious, it means I’ve learned to fight back and to fight for myself. If you’re in the same boat I’ve been in, I’d ask you to do the same for yourself. Fight.

A family of four standing outside of a building smiling and laughing with each other Image via Kristen Fondon

 

Featured image via Tommy Cory