I’m five months into motherhood and the things that I thought would be hard (what if she doesn’t sleep? Can I bring myself to let her “cry it out”? And what if I can’t get her to stop crying?) turned out to be easier than I imagined: we are very lucky that Ellie sleeps well thus far, and is generally a content, happy baby.
Instead, there have been two things that have challenged me more over the last five months – and as different as they are, I’ve discovered that they can be addressed with the same remedy.
The first challenge had to do with something I had heard many times before having Ellie, but never really understood it on a visceral level until she was here. That is, when you have a new baby, you can’t do anything else. Your life becomes a Groundhog Day cycle of feeding, soothing, rocking, changing diapers, sleeping, eating when you can. Pretty much everything else goes out the window. Somewhere I got the idea that this was considered acceptable for about six weeks, but that once that window was over, I had to be “back to normal.” I should be going on errands, taking my baby on outings, cooking, exercising, working. In other words, once the six weeks was up, productivity needed to be back on the agenda. An agenda needed to be back on the agenda.
As you might’ve guessed, this was not how it worked. While I did venture out some – I went on walks, I cooked a tiny bit – the housebound, stay-in-pajamas-till-the-afternoon way of life continued far beyond six weeks. I judged myself for that. I made myself feel bad for not being more productive. Weeks went by where I didn’t do anything other than take care of Ellie. I didn’t see this as being productive, even though I was spending every waking second with her, feeding her from my body, nurturing a tiny human. Because I wasn’t writing, working on my business, cleaning out my email inbox, folding every tiny piece of baby clothing or meal planning, I didn’t feel productive. I also must add that unlike a lot of new moms, I’ve been lucky enough to not have to go back to a full-time job outside the house, and I don’t take my circumstances for granted.
It’s only been in the last couple of months that I’ve started to realize a few things about how I was judging myself, and about productivity itself. First, as I already touched on, taking care of a baby is inherently productive. It takes up enormous amounts of energy and full-time caring for an infant is quite literally, nurturing a small person’s physical, mental and emotional growth and development. Second, and maybe a little harder to admit – I realized that I didn’t want to be productive in the same ways that I had been pre-baby. All I wanted to do in Ellie’s first few months is take care of her and be with her. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that. But, at times, I really made it wrong because I felt conflicted just wanting to be with my new baby. Then I read this the other day, from Maria Popova at www.brainpickings.org, “Presence is far more intricate and rewarding an art than productivity. Ours is a culture that measures our worth as human beings by our efficiency, our earnings, our ability to perform this or that. The cult of productivity has its place, but worshipping at its altar daily robs us of the very capacity for joy and wonder that makes life worth living…”
I thought, you know what else robs us of that capacity for joy and wonder? Spending lots of mental and emotional energy worrying about not being productive. Because that train of thought takes me out of the present. Taking myself out of the present right now means I can’t enjoy the tiny human in front of me who is transforming before my eyes. I kid you not, one day I stared at Ellie’s face and realized that she had eyelashes. They grew overnight.
The other major challenge I’ve had is a lot harder to reveal, but in talking to other moms (and spending some time on the internet), I know I’m not alone in what I experienced. About a month ago, my parents had a party for Ellie. A family friend at the party asked me, “What’s been the hardest part of motherhood so far?” I didn’t hesitate to answer. I told her that I’d experienced intrusive thoughts. Maybe it’s because she is a mom of four, because she genuinely seemed to want to know or because I knew that I was beyond the hardest days of this challenge, but I put aside my shame, and told her what it was like to have these beyond dark thoughts, and exactly how I dealt with them.
In case you haven’t heard of “intrusive thoughts” – the name pretty much describes them. One definition is “Intrusive thoughts are frightening thoughts about what might happen to you or someone you care about, or what you might do to yourself or another person. They seem to come from outside your control, and their content feels alien and threatening.” They can be a symptom of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, Post-Partum Depression or Post-Partum Anxiety. In my case, these thoughts ranged from imagining accidental horrors like “What if I dropped my baby on the concrete right now and her skull cracked open?” to the more horrific “What if I held my baby’s face under this bath water right now?” So, for me they had to do with both terrible things that could happen to Ellie or terrible things that I could do to Ellie. It’s difficult to admit this and harder still to write it down.
When someone deals with not just the thoughts, but also the impulse to act on them, the symptoms move into another category: post-partum psychosis. You may have read or heard about mothers harming or even killing their babies – and these people likely have post-partum psychosis, which is believed to be related to bipolar disorder or schizophrenia, and related to hormonal shifts, having a difficult birthing experience, sleep deprivation and/or stress.
When I started to have these thoughts, I (go figure) got really upset. Even though I knew that I would never act on any of them, I felt sickened that thoughts about both deliberate terrible actions and possible accidents would continue to pop up. I wondered why I was having these thoughts. A couple of things I realize in retrospect are that becoming a parent after experiencing pregnancy losses can mean that your mind tends towards the morbid at times. It’s natural and normal to imagine the worst.
In addition, the first few weeks of parenthood can feel like a job. It’s a myth that everyone falls in love with their baby at first sight. I love my baby more than anything now, but at the very beginning, I worried that I didn’t love her enough. The overarching emotion I felt for her was a strong urge to keep her safe, but that urge didn’t feel like the love I expected to wash over me when she arrived. At times, it felt like the first few weeks of Ellie’s life and taking care of her was simply a new 24-7 job I now had, with a very steep learning curve. I remember thinking “I hit my goal” when she reached a certain weight at her doctor’s checkup. It felt strangely like past experiences of meeting sales or fundraising goals at work. It makes sense to me now that feeling like my child was a job could encourage more of a propensity toward disturbing thoughts. Especially when said child is too young to provide much feedback in the way of smiling, cooing or laughing.
Like any stressed out and panicky new mom does, I started to google. I found that rapidly changing hormones can be a major contributor to intrusive thoughts. Knowing that felt somewhat validating, but these thoughts were still very unwelcome. However, hoping they would go away and in turn, trying to banish them when they did visit me wasn’t working (it never does). So, I started to practice welcoming them when they visited. I started engaging with the thoughts and the part of me that brings them up. What I found was that the same part of me that is calling my attention to these horrific scenarios is actually trying to keep me and my baby safe. When I was able to talk about it with my husband Mike, he helped me come up with a practice, that ultimately brought me back to presence. When an uncomfortable thought would visit me, I’d say to myself “I’m so grateful that I am mentally and emotionally sound, and that I would never hurt Ellie.” Or “I’m so grateful that Ellie is safe and here in front of me.” Since I’d be able to bring myself to a grateful state of mind, and recognize that I was separate from these thoughts (which sadly, sometimes moms with post-partum psychosis cannot do), I also was able to bring myself back to the present, to whatever I was doing with Ellie. So in a roundabout way, it was a gift – because I would become even more present in that moment with her. And that’s exactly what I want and need, as her infancy already feels like it’s flying by. The underlying gift in these intrusive thoughts is that while they initially take me away from the present, if I can simply recognizing them rather than trying to forcibly banish them, I more easily and quickly get to acutely experience and appreciate the golden moments of being with my sweet baby.
What I have realized in the five short months of Ellie’s life so far is that nothing is more important to me than being with her right now. All the things that I thought I needed to do to feel productive or “in control” don’t really matter in the grand scheme of things. All that matters is this time with my daughter that is only here in this moment, that evaporates more quickly than I could’ve imagined.
Hormonally influenced or not, thoughts are powerful. Thoughts have the ability to rob me of joy. But, thoughts also have the power to bring me back to the present moment, which is all any of us have. It’s often said that you can choose your thoughts and I don’t disagree entirely. But while we do have the ability to choose our thoughts, we often don’t make that conscious choice. Our subconscious patterning is deep and ingrained – and not always easy to dismantle. But it’s totally possible to understand the patterns from a new vantage point. Sometimes trying to choose a happier, “better” thought to overcome an uncomfortable one is simply slapping a band-aid over what needs to be expressed. The work, and ultimately the transformative payoff is to be with the uncomfortable thoughts and see what lies underneath them.