When I gave birth to my first born over 11 years ago, I had just celebrated my 23rd year of life, and like most of my contemporaries at that age, thought I had it all figured out. I didn’t realise it at the time, but what I thought it meant to “have it all figured out” really meant, I was “barely holding it together” but doing a pretty good job convincing myself that I was. So when my daughter was born with some unexpected complications, and a long 10 week stay in the neonatal intensive care unit no less, my armour was taking a beating.
Looking back it’s really no surprise that, when we could take our baby home with us and finally begin to transition into normal life as a family, things didn’t feel so normal. I was feeling constantly uptight and anxious; everything had to be just right. I was super controlling and overprotective. I didn’t realise it at the time, but I didn’t feel safe in the world and was terrified that I wouldn’t be able to keep my little girl safe from inevitable threats. And I was tired. So very tired. Because whenever I tried to nap, my mind would go racing and I had to keep going so I wouldn’t get washed away by the anxiety.
Looking back, it doesn’t surprise me that I was struggling. I had very little dependable emotional support from my family, few friends and, a co-parent who was duped, like I was, into believing that I, and everything, was fine. I did a pretty good job at playing it calm and confident, but I wasn’t fine.
When I was willing to consider the possibility that my struggle wasn’t normal, I considered postpartum depression as a cause, because every new mom knows the signs of PPD. But here’s where things get tricky: I was so committed to holding it together, that I couldn’t and wouldn’t admit to experiencing any one of the symptoms listed for postpartum depression. Plus, I loved my baby so much and was happy to be a mum. Like most parents, I just figured everything I was experiencing was a normal part of life with baby.
Fast forward a decade, and like so many of my colleagues who are determined to understand why they think, do and feel the way they do, I studied psychology, and I am now a clinical psychologist in private practice. I have since had four more pregnancies and one miscarriage. I have made two international moves and currently live thousands of miles away from any family with my husband and four kids.
From the birth of my first born to the present day has been a heroes journey, with it’s triumphs and losses. The struggle to find myself amidst the haze of motherhood has been tough. But my personal and professional journey has lead me to understand a few things:
- The first is that a tumultuous transition to motherhood is a far more common experience than most believe.
- Second, while the systematic categorisation of mental health disorders has it’s benefits and uses, I believe it contributes to the stigmatisation of mental health challenges. People don’t get help because they don’t want to be thought of as “crazy”. And because we have superimposed the medical model of the body onto the healing model of the mind, we mistake mental health challenges as “illness”. Nobody wants to be sick.
- And finally, I’ve come to understand that internal struggles with life, that manifest as physical symptoms are not a sign of failure. They are an inner calling, an opportunity, for healing and growth.
If I could go back and speak with my younger self, I would praise her for all of her accomplishments (hello! You created, sustained and are nurturing LIFE), I would listen to her experience without judgement (no solutions, please) and I would express my understanding (it’s tough). I would tell her that even if there isn’t a name for your experience (ie. Even if you don’t fit the diagnostic criteria), you’re struggle is real and it matters. I would also encourage her to get help. I would tell her that she might encounter some helpers who don’t get her, but to keep trying; searching, and then discovering, that you can count on someone, even if you can’t count on everyone, is all part of the process.