Many people have been recently talking about Jimmy Kimmel’s recent monologue where he shared that his newborn son was born with a congenital heart defect and underwent surgery in his first few days of life. If you haven’t seen it I highly recommend it, its a very touching video showing the emotions of a scared and grateful father.
I pour a lot of my emotions into this blog, I try to be raw and reduce the stigma of struggling with emotional and mental health concerns as a mom. I try to break down the myth of a perfect mom or that motherhood is joy 24/7. I try to be real because I know that being real can help other mothers feel less alone. But for some reason I’ve been hesitant to share something here.
At our 20 week ultrasound my husband and I were told that our unborn daughter had a potential heart defect. I didn’t want to write about it because I was processing it still and there was so much uncertainty leading up to the birth about what was actually wrong with her. I couldn’t write about what I didn’t know and the only thing I could really talk about what the intense uncertainty we felt and how hard that was to deal with and every time I sat down to write I couldn’t process it into words it was this ball of intense anxiety and dread and I was almost so afraid that if I wrote it down it would become more permanent in some way. I talked to many family and friends about it so I didn’t keep it inside but most conversations huddled around what was going on, what did we know about her, what were the medical decisions that were going to be made by the doctors. Not many people truly asked how either myself or my husband were coping with all of it. But I understand that, its really hard to open that conversation with someone when you don’t know what to say or you can’t truly relate. In some ways I felt alone along with my husband but in others I was immensely supported.
Flash forward to my birth- my beautiful birth. A small bit of pitocin, an epidural (because thats my choice and my jam ;)) and about 10 pushes and she entered the world into a room filled with doctors and nurses. Luckily she didn’t have any signs of distress and I got to hold her for 15 minutes. It took me awhile to grieve before she was born that I wouldn’t have her in the room with me and that she would be in the NICU but in that moment as hard as it was to hand her over I did it gladly, knowing that we needed more information to make sure she was okay and if that meant a heartbreaking separation fromm her- so be it. Several days and tests later and she was diagnosed with a mild form of a very serious defect called Hypoplastic Left Heart Syndrome. A couple weeks later and another defect was confirmed, a very mild form of coarctation of the aorta. Very mild. Those two words couldn’t be more comforting. Before her mild was my preferred type of salsa and now its my preferred type of heart defect.
Her future is uncertain but as my sister in law reminded me- so is everyone’s. No one is safe from heart issues, cancer, accidents, anything. That would normally be so daunting of a statement to someone with anxiety issues like me but because I was so afraid of what would come in those first few days of life I find myself appreciating the moment so much more than ever. Today she doesn’t need surgery. Today she is breathing and nursing and kicking her legs and feet. Today is a gift.
I also received the gift of being a part of the heart parent community. I am so incredibly inspired by these parents who have been through so much and so much more than me. And when I’m overwhelmed about her future and what could happen that I can’t breath and tears are rolling down my cheeks I think of those parents and believe that whatever is on our path we are up for and we can manage because we are a strong family, we have so much support, and because those same heart parents will be rooting in our corner.
Our journey with our daughter has given me a profound gratitude for the present moment and how letting go of the anxiety over the future and the anguish about the past can truly be liberating. We can experience fully the moment even when the moment is difficult and this makes us so very alive. I don’t know what I believe about the meaning of life and our purpose here but I know when I am in the moment holding her, smelling her head, hearing her cries even that I am so very much here with her and the precious present.
My daughters heart defects have perfected my own heart in a way by giving me the grace of gratitude and the gift of living in the here and now.
I have had enough. Today I am choosing to forgive myself.
I’ve built quite the “bad mom” rap sheet these past couple of days.
I’ve been in a cycle of 3rd trimester pregnancy horomones, sleep deprivation, and burnout. I’ve yelled, been short and snippy, ignored and isolated, and made some over the top disciplinary decisions that were neither age appropriate for my son or fair. (My child development professor in grad school would not be happy with me.) I’ve been disconnected, not present, finding any way I could to escape the hum drum routines of the day that felt as if they were swallowing me whole.
I chose to stay stuck in this cycle because what I often do when I make mistakes is to enter into a tug of war with myself. The downside is no side wins, we just keep pulling at one another. On one side is this fierceness of holding on to my anger and stress as a right because I’m defensive about feeling this way. I spend the day thinking of all the reasons I have the right to feel this way, “I’ve gotten NOT time to myself lately!”, “This pregnancy has been hard!,” “I never get to put myself first!” These aren’t gracious self-talk statements, these are angry picket signs in my mind that fuel the anger and rage. They don’t come with solutions or hope, they just keep me angry. They keep me holding tightly to my negative cycle instead of realizing the most powerful thing I can do is let go.
On the other side of the rope is the self-loathing and negative thoughts… that I’m really an awful mother, a monster, a person not even capable of trying to change so I might as well just throw in the towel and succumb to the fact that I’m awful and my kid will be forever screwed up. What’s the point in changing? I can’t. So again, I’m holding tightly to this tug of war on both sides because I’m afraid I don’t have the strength and the power to just let go.
During nap times and when I get a minute to catch my breath I find myself using my old defense mechanisms-explaining it all away, minimizing it, procrastinating changing and telling myself that I will be better when __________ happens. These are lies with false hope, pretty little wrapped packages with nothing inside them. I procrastinate taking that next step in breaking the cycle, waiting for an external event to happen for things to get better.
It hit me today that the only way to stop this is to be vulnerable and be forgiven. And no one needs to forgive me more than myself. I will make amends to my son- make attempts to re-connect, correct my direction and be more confident when standing by his side. But the hard work is putting down the rope and walking away from the game. The hard work is looking myself in the mirror and saying – yep, you screwed up this week, things have been hard but you’re still amazing, you’re still what your son deserves, you still are exactly who you need to be. It’s putting the rope calmly on the ground and putting my hands in the air. I surrender to the game, I don’t need to win it, I need to leave it all behind. It doesn’t mean things will all of a sudden be easier. But with forgiveness comes a head that is looking straight ahead, not looking down in shame. Because if I’m going to be my awesome self and get back to where I want to be I have to see where I’m going.
Bits of Apple
Bits of apple, sticky and sweet, are scattered across the coffee table.
I will wipe the table, again, even though I just wiped it five minutes ago.
No, I will wait.
These are messes of motherhood that have been a strong thorn in my side not only because of the added labor but because of the symbolism that leads to so much anger within me. I know as a therapist that anger is often a feeling that is masking another. So I take a deep breath and take off the mask. What I am feeling? Out of control.
My initial reaction is to take control. To rush to the table, start wiping it down, and exhaustively sigh in front of my son showing him my exasperation. But I know that although that brief interaction will not have much large of an impact on me will stick around in my son’s head and heart. An intention to play and explore connected to an annoyed and exasperated mother. A sense that attempts to have fun and be creative brings about conflict and anger in the relationship that matters the most to him. And that just isn’t worth a clean table.
So I step back today and wait. I have to start to see these bits of apple differently because they happen every day and I cannot be feel out of control like this any longer.
I haven’t felt really in control since the day before I gave birth. Before I was able to keep order. I was able to make decisions with careful thought instead of feeling like I was always just reacing. I came and went as I pleased, I gave of myself to the things I wanted to and I could count on my housework accomplishments lasting for more than a couple of minutes.
When under stress a fierce type-A personality emerges within me trying to make order and sense of things and fit things neatly into boxes. This goes there, that happened because of this, everything has a place and is right with the world. I can put it all back together. I can fix it.
But you can’t do that when you’re responsible for a human being. Human beings are beautiful, but very messy. So now my coping mechanism isn’t as effective because no matter how hard I try I simply cannot control it all. So I have to reframe my perspective and see this new life as beautifully messy.
I’m starting to believe that western ideals have started to butt heads with motherhood. In my generation women (and men) are raised to believe in individualism, quantitatively measurable achievement, freedom of choices, and adventure. We were raised to poster our lives in front of others for validation of our efforts. “Look at me, look what I’ve done, look where I’ve gone, I’m worthy now.” We believe we control our destiny and we are all destined for greatness.
So when we learn to expect greatness and connect it to our self-worth it’s hard to see it in a messy kitchen, poopy diapers, and a loss of willpower to shower or wear our hair down anymore. We start to feel that we are being controlled by a tiny human and it’s no wonder we feel disillusioned, lost, and chaotic.
But what if we embraced the chaos? What if we learned to love the hurricanes that come our way? What if we started to see the beauty in those bits of apple? What if we unlearned some of these ideals that we held so tightly to as young women and threw them out with the bathwater?
It’s going to be a journey. It’s going to take practice. But each time I take a deep breath and sit down instead of rising to rush in and control I am not only trying to accomplish a better outlook and mood I am teaching my son some new ideals. Sometimes you need to let the universe happen to you. Sometimes not controlling is the most control you have. Sometimes you need to sit with a mess and embrace it for it’s beauty before it’s time to clean it up.
So I look hard at what these bits of apple really mean. A little boy’s attempts to cut it up with a plastic knife because he wants to be like mommy and daddy. A little boy’s security that he can freely explore and create and won’t be punished or yelled at by his mother. A mother’s willingness to let go and enjoy the moment in order discard her anger in a healthier way, even if it’s just for this minute.
It’s time to leave for our nature playgroup. Today we will jump in muddy puddles. I don’t have the proper wet gear or even rain boots. Anxiety creeps in about the mess that will happen and how I’ll handle it all. I take a deep breath. I look at the bits of apple on the table and decide to leave them there. “Let it go,” I say to myself, “it’s not a burden anymore.”
I was in a dark place this last week.
It was dark outside. It was dark inside my mind. I was not me.
I allowed myself to stay in this dark place for quite awhile. I allowed the sleep deprivation to keep me under water. Instead of fighting to thrive I just decided to survive.
Some days as moms we talk about how it is just about getting through the day. But when that becomes every day for a period of time it starts to feel like a dark place. You don’t want to just survive. You want to live, to experience happiness, accomplishment, connection, and fulfilment.
And then this morning I took a brief walk. It was just 5 minutes around my city block while I listened to music but the air felt fresher, my eyes stayed forward instead of looking down, there was a bounce in my step. And it hit me- I had reached the other side.
It’s hard to remember when we are in our dark place that the other side exists. That is is waiting for us. Sometimes it’s up to us to get there and sometimes life circumstances brings it to us. But it is there. Sometimes it gets hard, really hard to find it or wait for it to come. But it’s always out there somewhere.
It’s the place where our best self exists. It’s the place where we feel more whole. The sun shines in our mind. We see all that is before us and are grateful. We see a beautiful self in the mirror and not the monster that was there before.
I write to remember this moment, that refreshing moment of entering the other side. I write so that I remember that it exists if I leave it and am in a dark place again.
I will not get this past week back. I can not take away my mistakes. I can not erase the irritability, the coldness that I spread to my son because he was the only one there to take it. It hurts when I think about it. But its something else I need to remember. I am capable of allowing myself to be less than I am when I’m in dark place. I must be gentle with myself and then others, I must assert my needs, I must ask for help.
So I’ll hopefully be on the other side for awhile. The dark side will start to slowly pull me back. My self-awareness is my best weapon. My belief that I am worthy of always being on this side can help keep me here longer. And if I do get pulled back to the dark side my memory of the other side can hopefully keep my stay there shorter and the strength and motivation to get back to it stronger.
In the movement of encouraging moms to realize that they are enough and they do enough I believe myself to be an advocate. I’m tired of all the competition and the pettiness among moms. Whether you stay at home or work you’re accomplishing something. Whether or not you decide to join the PTA doesn’t indicate who you are as mom or establish you as a “better” member of the community. But…
….sometimes I feel like a hypocrite speaking out to moms about this because even though I try to believe I am enough I can never seem to stop. Stop signing up for things. Stop making plans. Stop finding projects. Stop thinking I always need to do more.
I’ve always been the person who signs up for everything. I like my hand to be in many pots at the same time. A lot of the times I spread myself too thin. Even my past employee evaluations would note that at times I can “bite off more than she can chew.” Sometimes I come across as the overachiever. While sometimes my overextension habits have lead me to a nervous breakdown or two they have also brought me out of really dark times. And I would be lying if I didn’t say that some of the the time I’m getting involved in too many things for not the right reasons- to please others, to be admired, to increase my self-worth because of the recognition and not because it just made me feel good. But I’ve also come to realize that I’m just that person who can’t stop because I like the pace of a thousand miles per hour. When motherhood came along I went to snail’s pace in life. I wasn’t working and wasn’t sure what to do with my energy. So I started looking for and creating as many opportunities as I could to exert my energy. In the 2 years since my son was born I started my own parent’s meetup group, ran support groups for new moms, worked a part time job, started a blog, moved across the world, and started an online mentoring program for moms. I join as many moms groups as I can. I reach out to other moms new to the city I live in now. I find as many programs that my son and I can attend together as I can.
Some might think it’s a problem to be this way. To not be able to slow down and just be present. I get that and I know that’s something I need to work on. I try to work on the balance while also respecting what is just genuinely me.
But I can’t stop. I won’t stop.
I’ll probably be the mom in the PTA, a den mom in Boy Scouts, managing moms groups and playdates left and right. But please don’t peg me as “that mom.” Because I’m not
“that mom.” I don’t try to control, or judge, or look better than other moms. I just really like connecting to people, giving back, and most importantly, getting this nervous energy out of me. If you’ve got work/life balance down pat or prefer the quieter life I totally respect you. In fact, I’m a little jealous.
I think a lot. I say a lot. I do a lot. But here’s the thing. It’s not to show you up. It’s not to believe I’m better. It’s because I can’t stop. I won’t stop. See I have this belief that looms over me every single day and it says “You’ve only got so much time” So yea I think a lot, I say a lot, I do a lot. But it’s only because I’ve got this one life and I want to say I said a lot, I gave a lot, and I lived a lot.
So I tread on striving to believe that I am enough even if I stop. But I can’t stop. I won’t stop. Because I’ve got so much to do.