Let’s Rewind: The Isolation of Motherhood pt. 2

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My family and I headed to a castle. No big deal.

My family and I headed to a castle. No big deal.

Parenthood is, in a lot of ways, just a bunch of sleepless nights bleeding into long days. That sounds kind of bleak, but I’m not sure there’s a more complex state of being than that of being a parent. You’re always being pulled in multiple directions and overcome with conflicting emotions. And, honestly, I’m not sure that it’s ever as hard as it is in the first gritty-eyed months of having a freshly baked baby.

Throughout Archer’s first year, inertia carried me. Once I went back to work, the force of my footsteps was the only thing that propelled me forward. Daycare. Work. Pump. Coffee. Pump. Lunch. Pump. Daycare. Home.

And through it all, I felt alone.

Physically, distance crushed me. I was half a continent away from my family. Emotionally, disconnect destroyed me. Most of my friends did not have children of their own. If I could have articulated how abandoned I felt, my words would have been scarcely a whisper.

But, again, let’s rewind.

Breastfeeding came easily to Archer and me. Despite his time in the NICU, he latched quickly and nursed like a champion. The emotional trauma of his tumultuous birth experience was healed by our outstanding nursing relationship.

Nursing sustained us. It bonded us. It provided just the right dose of feel-good hormones to shield me from the undercurrent of isolation that tried so insidiously to steal my joy. When we weaned, the loneliness reached up from the deep below and quietly pulled me down.

Without realizing it, my body and mind were being realigned as Archer nursed less. The chemicals in my brain like tectonic plates, slowly and imperceptibly shifting to create entirely new and unrecognizable continents within my psyche.

I left my job to pursue a freelance writing and marketing career and I spent each day deafeningly alone. Just me and my deadlines and – I know now – my depression.

Despite having solid support systems and amazing friends, I was borderline non-functional by the time I admitted that I needed help. Depression is a liar and she told me that no one knew my plight – that such loneliness was the result of being undesirable by friends and family alike.

In my first postpartum counseling session, I sat across from my psychiatrist and psychologist – both specially trained to work with mothers with mood disorders – and told them how impossibly isolating motherhood was. My doctor pushed up his glasses, looked me in the eye, and said, “Liz, I am not here to belittle your experience, but I want you to know that every mother who has ever sat in that chair has said those same words.”

Now, let’s fast forward.

With a diagnosis of “post-weaning depression,” I restarted on my Lamictal and recovered, once again, quickly. And, again, we reveled in my stability.

Archer became our co-pilot on a new adventure and we moved from Baltimore to Germany for a three year assignment with my husband’s job. In our time here, the isolation of motherhood combined with the isolation of ex-pat life to create a sort of mecha-loneliness that has tried to cut me down many times. If I’m being honest, sometimes, it has succeeded.

Enduring a rough pregnancy an ocean away from family and friends did little to quell the rising tide of lonesomeness. Late night nursing and long days working ignite sparks of heartache that occasionally rekindle the flames of alienation.

But, in my worst days, I rewind to my psychiatrist’s office and remember that my isolation is not a unique condition of my experience with motherhood.

You see, motherhood is a weird thing in that many mothers experience the same things, but in different ways. There are times when all of us feel alone. Motherhood, on some level, breeds some amount of isolation. But, in that isolation, we are – in a twisted way – brought together.

 

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Let’s Rewind: The Isolation of Motherhood

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Liz Bauman is an American wife, mom, and writer living in Weisbaden, Germany. When she’s not camped out behind her computer screen, she quests for castles, plays Dungeons and Dragons, and drinks a lot of tea. Earl Grey. Hot. She’s also one of my favorite people, and a woman who’s personhood and journey through motherhood while living with mental illness always leaves me inspired and hopeful. If you’re so inclined, you can learn about her, tweet at her, or hire her. I’m thrilled she’s sharing her experience with us here on Postpartum Progress this week. Here is part One of her story. 

 

Archer at 16 days old

Archer at 16 days old

If asked to describe my experience as a mother in a single word, I’d love to say something like “joyful” or “empowering.” There are certainly days where I feel like motherhood has made me a strong advocate, a better feminist, and a compassionate member of the cult of womanhood. Sometimes, I go weeks at a time feeling like my two children have made me a better, more resilient woman. Like all that breastfeeding and babywearing have somehow infused my very essence with radioactive awesomeness, transforming me into some kind of Hulked-up mama hero.

But, the truth is, my motherhood has been isolating.

Let’s rewind.

Back when my husband and I were young and wild college kids in the expansive plains of South Dakota, we decided we would get out. Get far, far away from small town life and farms and go have big experiences in big cities. Shortly after we got engaged, the husband got accepted to George Washington University and I – on uneasy terms with my family – agreed that we should set forth on our grand adventure.

After 7 years in DC/Baltimore sprawl, we welcomed our son, Archer, and my world got simultaneously brighter and darker.

Let’s rewind again.

I struggled with mental illness since my teens. My diagnosis was a fast-cycling flavor of bipolar disorder characterized by frequent, but largely harmless ups and downs that rarely affected my life profoundly. But, a miscarriage at 23 triggered some major shifts in my brain chemistry that twisted my “frequent, but largely harmless ups and downs” into a screaming spiral into the gnarly pit of mix-state madness that nearly shattered the foundations of the life my husband and I worked so hard to build.

It was my first dose of the vicious isolation of motherhood and I didn’t even get a baby out of the deal. We had told no one that we were expecting, so I grieved our lost child alone. I internalized it and the sadness wrapped sticky, black anger around my bones that eventually permeated my heart and mind.

Broken and desperate, I hit rock bottom and my husband made me promise that I’d seek help.

A new shrink and an RX for Lamictal later, I was better. That seems like an over-simplification, but it was a pretty uneventful period of recovery and we spent a couple years soaking in our baby-free life, just being young and married and loving life on the East Coast. We both had our dream jobs and, with time, overcame the anxieties of miscarriages and mental breakdowns and I weaned off my meds so we could try, once again, to bake ourselves the proverbial bun.

It took a while, but – after 8 months of trying – we discovered we were expecting Archer. And things were good. Pregnancy was wonderful to me. It was my renaissance. I was stable, productive, and happy-all while being unmedicated.

When Archer was born, via emergency c-section, his resultant NICU stay tested my mental fortitude in a way I couldn’t have expected. Without going into all the triggery details, he spent his first couple of days drifting down the “will he/won’t he” line and I wouldn’t wish that sort of terror on anyone.

As he and I recovered, I found myself alone in the hospital. I was discharged and my husband – an important dude with a high-pressure job – went back to work. The nurses, taking pity on me, let me camp out in their on-call room so I could nurse Archer through the night because they didn’t have on-site rooms available for discharged moms.

I cried a lot. I’d never felt so alone. “Is this what motherhood is supposed to look like?” I asked myself as I cradled him his next to his incubator, lights blinking and monitors blooping.

Now, as I sit on the cusp of my second child’s first birthday, I can say pretty definitively, that it may not be what motherhood is supposed to look like, but reality is Kryptonite to supposition.

 

to be continued…

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Overcoming Resistance in Therapy

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auggie bdayChanging our habits is one of the most conscientious things we do in our lives. It’s more than training yourself to drink eight glasses of water, or to exercise for an hour each day. Changing our habits means retraining our mindset, and not just our bodies. In how we process events, think about ourselves, and our self image. We know these are good things for us, but why do we resist suggestions to change? Are there strategies for overcoming our fixed reactions and coping skills that don’t serve us well?

Only to Just Begin.

When I was living through my postpartum depression, I was seeing my psychiatrist for medication prescription, and my mental health counselor, Susan, who worked with me, (heavy emphasis on work). Susan taught me through application examples, of how I had become who I told myself I was. She explained the tendency to resist cognitive therapy when we don’t see ourselves as being capable of getting better. I had to learn new skills if  I wanted to succeed, and I had to start seeing myself as someone who would recover.

I learned that a barrier to behavioral therapy, is lack of genuine introspection. Therapy was going to be work, and I had to be honest with myself and acknowledge what my challenges were. This meant examining issues about myself, not something flattering to do, that’s for sure. I had to admit that I was a pessimist, and I felt doomed at the start of any homework before I even gave it a try. For us to even bore an inch into my stubborn persistent negative self image, I had to be painfully honest. I had to face my dysfunctional emotions, maladaptive behaviors and cognitive processes. In Susan’s words, “To change a behavior, change an action.” This was beyond the petty advice given by friends and family of “mind over matter,” or “cheer up!”

I didn’t like this part of therapy.

Who likes to think of themselves as dysfunctional and negative? Yet, that’s the truth that I had to accept. With plenty of reading from books that Susan recommended, and from months of honest answers to questions in therapy, I began to turn my self concept around and talk to myself in a positive way.

I thought twice before saying, “Not me.”
I didn’t automatically begin to think, “That’ll never work.”
I stopped myself from saying, “Yeah, but…”

“Yeah, but” was the biggest obstacle we had to overcome together. “Yeah, but, I tried that,” and “Yeah, but, that didn’t work before,” and “Yeah, but, I’ve tried everything.” Self-condemning was the biggest road block to possible improvement. Without the door to my mind and trained thoughts even open a crack, what light would ever get in?

We resist when someone asks or tells us to do something because our self talk makes us lose the war before we even march onto the field. The thing is, without change, there will be no change. Doing things my way hadn’t been working for me… so why did I persist with pessimistic negative thought patterns?

I know I didn’t want to be that way, but I had trained myself over a lifetime. The cost of continuing in that way was becoming evident. We lose friendships, without understanding why. We exhaust family members, unclear why they have no patience. Our marriages barely hang on by a thread from the emotional fatigue of supporting a person who never has hope and is always down.

My question to anyone “stuck” and wanting to change, is this. Examine the impasse. Do you need to find a more pro-active physician? Is there a therapist that’s been recommended to you, but you haven’t sought out yet? Have you resisted suggestions of medication, or continued talk therapy? Work with your medical team and be open to their suggestions for change. Our trained minds are stubborn. My default setting of pessimism was stubborn enough to not even consider suggestions by my therapist. I would think, Why try? Nothing ever works anyhow. Susan taught me how to change the way I view and experience events, ideas, concepts and emotions to find more positive alternatives.

Over a lifetime of negative thought patterns and reactions, our default is set. In my case, comfortably, to see myself as always being anxious, depressed, low energy, and being that one in a thousand who will never get better. The thing is, we can get better. Postpartum depression and anxiety are mental health disorders, but with treatment, people with PPD and PPA  do recover. But as in anything, work and commitment are required to deconstruct ingrained and automatic behaviors.

I once saw myself as eternally depressed. I once saw myself as that one with postpartum depression and anxiety that would never get better. After 11 months of weekly therapy sessions, I began to improve. I saw success and that made me try again, and try harder. It wasn’t an overnight process, and it wasn’t an easy process. It was work, and it’s still not my nature to be hopeful, but through honest dialogue with myself, I had a starting point of recognition and awareness of this about myself.

I had to begin, with difficult questions. By asking others to support and help me. I had to put my ego aside, and ask myself how I talked to myself. I asked trusted friends to be patient with me while I grew in a new, beneficial direction. I had to listen when my therapist told me that I was allowing no room for positivity, or change.

None of this was fun, but all of it was life saving. This work made me feel uneasy, vulnerable, raw. It was hard. I felt shaky, as a new me began to battle with the old me. Much of the time, my new thoughts didn’t feel like mine, so unfamiliar that triumph was hard to imagine — I was not a positive person, remember? But with time, and repetition, as my new thoughts grew to become my own thoughts, I felt capable and stronger. And I began to feel that victory was possible.

My self concept now is of someone who has overcome things that she thought she never would. And it began, by beginning.

*If you’d like to explore more, these are the books that Susan had me read. My therapy wasn’t based solely on positive thought, but together with medication and talk therapy, challenging my self concept was an integral part of my treatment plan. Once my therapist and I worked on (it took a year!) helping me see that recovery was possible, hope set in. Before then, I was resistant. Medication helped, talk therapy helped, eating sleeping exercise support and friendships helped, but it wasn’t until I changed my inner talk, that things began to look hopeful.

Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life by Martin E. P. Seligman
Optimal Thinking: How to Be Your Best Self by Rosalene Glickman
Optimism: Learn the Power of Positive Thinking. Our Thoughts Shape our Attitudes  by Abe Kass

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