Goddess myth gone too far

Pregnant womanThe mental health toll on mothers striving for perfection at all costs

In the weeks following the birth of my first son I was extremely anxious about the fact that I was his sole source of food. Unlike so many mothers I know, breastfeeding was one of the few things that went reasonably well for me. My milk was flowing and my son was thriving, but the same couldn’t be said for me. Suffering from postpartum depression and anxiety that I had not yet recognized or sought help for, I was mentally unravelling. The mere thought of leaving my son – even for a few minutes to go to the grocery store by myself – triggered panic.

If I walk out the door, I take his next meal with me, and every one after that. What if I’m killed in a car accident? If I don’t make it back, how will he survive?

I recently started thinking about my own experience after reading a Time Magazine article that explores what the author, Claire Howorth, refers to as the goddess myth – essentially the unrealistic and incredibly problematic notion that motherhood is innate and that a woman’s body is designed to bring forth and nourish human life as nature intended.

It’s a myth reinforced by the idea that a “natural” birth without pain medication is somehow better and by the pressure to exclusively breastfeed because the medical community preaches that “breast is best.”

Regardless of the intention, the message heard by moms is that to do anything less is to fail straight out of the gate. It’s a pressure amplified by social media posts that rarely reflect the ugly truths about motherhood, and comment sections that too often give voice to mom shaming at its worst.

As Howorth rightly points out, the goddess myth impacts all mothers and the guilt and shame it leads to takes an incredible toll on the way we feel about ourselves. But I would argue that for mothers at risk of, or already suffering from postpartum mental health issues, the implications can be far more dangerous.

Shortly after her first son was born, Florence Leung, a 32-year-old mother from Vancouver, went missing in October, 2016. Media reports indicated that she had been suffering from postpartum depression, and was seeking treatment at the time of her disappearance. Tragically, Florence never returned home to her baby and husband. Several weeks after she was last seen police reported that her body had been found and foul play was not suspected.

It’s impossible for anyone to understand how Florence was feeling, or to know what she was thinking at the time of her death, but several months later her husband alluded to her mental state and the pressure she was under in a statement posted to a Facebook page dedicated to her memory.

“For all the new moms experiencing low mood or anxiety, please seek help and talk about your feelings,” he wrote. “You are Not alone. You are Not a bad mother. Do not EVER feel bad or guilty about not being able to exclusively breastfeed, even though you may feel the pressure to do so based on posters in maternity wards, brochures in prenatal classes, and teachings at breastfeeding classes.”

The pressure to breastfeed doesn’t cause postpartum depression or anxiety, but there’s no question that for many mothers it’s a contributing factor.

A mother is not a goddess. We are strong and we are fierce, but more importantly we are human. Our bodies have limitations that we cannot change no matter how hard we try.

The sooner we let go of the goddess myth, the better off our mental health will be – and a healthy mother is exactly what a healthy baby needs.

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Mother’s Day musings of an anxious mother

Card_cover

I had a few tears this morning even before my first sip of coffee.

My oldest son – six years old and in grade one – gave me a Mother’s Day card he made at school.

Made of pink construction paper, the cover features a hand drawn heart with two smiling figures in the middle holding hands. They are “Mom” and “Lukas” according to the labels he penciled above them. Surrounding the heart, in large crayon-coloured bubble letters, he had written “I Love You Mom.”

Glued to the inside of the card is a sheet of paper titled “All About Mom” where he filled in the blanks with some fascinating tidbits of information about me:

My mom is 37 years old.
She likes to watch me play hockey.
The best thing she cooks is macaroni and cheese.
Her favourite food is macaroni and cheese.
Her favourite thing to do to relax is colour.
We like to do French together.
She is really good at cooking macaroni and cheese.
As you can see, my mom is special because she lets me do anything.  

Clearly there’s a slightly concerning emphasis on macaroni and cheese and the final comment suggesting I’m an overly permissive parent who lets her children run wild may or may not be entirely accurate. But whatever. I digress.

Something about seeing my role as a mother though the eyes of my son completely broke me open emotionally.

As an anxious mother I spend an obscene amount of time worrying about whether I’m doing right by my children. I try my best to manage my anxiety but there are times when it boils over and I’m not the mother I so desperately want to be. I’m beyond irritable and impatient – I’m angry, and it shows. These are the ugly moments of motherhood that don’t get talked about enough. They are buried under a load of guilt and shame that is far too heavy to lift.

I fear these are the moments that will live on in my son’s memory. That they will somehow overshadow all the “good mother” moments – all the times I watched him play hockey, coloured with him, practiced his French vocabulary and made macaroni and cheese over and over again because it’s actually his favourite meal, not mine.

As I read what he wrote in the card, I saw myself as he sees me – as the mother who holds his hand and loves him no matter what.  And what I realized in that moment is that deep down inside, underneath all my fear and anxiety, I know he feels the same way about me.

Dear Facebook, Re: all the things I never told you

Your seemingly innocent question stares back at me from the screen.240_F_79565605_3GdAHEX674xehbvEIgE4HVa1vOvy64P0

What’s on your mind?

The cursor blinks, waiting for a response.

What would happen if I answered truthfully? If I just laid it all out there for you to see. Put it out in the open for you to judge.

A quick scroll through my timeline reflects the life of a mother who adores her family. Just look at my boys in their superhero Halloween costumes, and their matching hockey jerseys. Could they be any cuter?

And there’s my husband, handsome as ever, curled up with the dog. How precious is that?

And that family photo in front of the Christmas tree – the one where the stars somehow magically aligned and we’re all looking at the camera and smiling. Oh yah, that’s the money shot. Eat your heart out Norman Rockwell.

Don’t get me wrong, Facebook. I didn’t lie to you, I swear. These moments are real and so are the beaming smiles on our faces. These moments happened and yes, they were worth sharing. But they don’t tell the whole story – not even close. They are mere glimpses of a life that is far messier and more complicated than anything that can be summed up with over-filtered selfies and meaningless hashtags.

It’s what I didn’t share that’s eating away at me. It’s all the things I never told you.

You see FB…can I call you FB? What I failed to mention is that I struggle with my role as a mother nearly every day. In between the moments of joy that I post, there’s an ugly side to this life that doesn’t get captured on my phone or shared on social media.

What if I told you that I feel uncontrollable anger sometimes? I’m talking zero to 100, real quick kind of anger. What if I said that I never felt that kind of anger before I had kids? If I posted about the inescapable shame and guilt that comes with this inexplicable rage, would you still want to know what’s on my mind?

Should I tell you about my anxiety? About that time I had a panic attack after I dropped the boys off at daycare? How I drove back home in tears, parked in the driveway and struggled to breathe. How I felt so completely and utterly alone in my panic? Is there an emoticon for that?

What if you knew how scared I am sometimes? How my mind spins with worry and negative thoughts about how I’m not good enough to be a mother. How I’m just not strong enough to handle the overwhelming responsibility of raising these kids. Would you respond with a “like” and a thumbs up?

That’s the kind of shit I don’t tell you, FB.

What will you think of me now that I’ve said these things? Will you judge me? Trust me, it won’t be harsher than I judge myself.

But here’s what I’ve come to realize. Every time I open up to someone about my mental health, I am met with compassion. Every time I let my guard down and show my vulnerability, I am embraced with empathy. Time and time again, without fail. It’s a beautiful thing that catches me by surprise each time it happens.

That is what’s on my mind today Facebook, and I’m more than happy to share.

Julie

Decision to medicate a tough pill to swallow

Pill bottleThe pills were yellow. Bright yellow. Sunshine in a bottle perched on top of the stove alongside the salt and pepper shakers.

A few weeks before I was due to give birth to my second son, I had the prescription filled. The spot on the stove was intentional. I wanted to see them. I needed to know they were there, patiently waiting for me to decide if and when I needed them. Their mere presence gave me comfort.

They were the same pills that brought me out of the darkness of postpartum anxiety and depression the first time. When I couldn’t fall asleep because my mind wouldn’t stop spinning. When every decision and task was an overwhelming obstacle I just couldn’t face.

When I completely fell apart and lost myself, it was those yellow pills that brought me back.

That was five years ago and since then I’ve talked to a lot of moms going through similar struggles in the weeks, months, even years after giving birth. I’m often asked about my decision to take an antidepressant – mostly from mothers who are grappling with the decision themselves.

By the time I realized I needed help, things were bad. I was desperate and more terrified about what would happen if I didn’t take the pills than if I did. Yes, part of me felt like a failure for not being able to just fix it myself but I had to push that aside. It wasn’t about me anymore. My family needed me, and I owed it to my son and my husband to get healthy.

Do I think everyone mother experiencing postpartum depression should do the same? Of course not. It’s an extremely personal decision. But I encourage every mom to consider all her options and make the choice that is right for her, whatever that may be.

Live to Air on the 2014 IWK Telethon

It was about this time last year that I had an opportunity to share my experience on the IWK Telethon broadcast. It was a great chance to get the word out about postpartum mental health and let other families know that there is help available.  I just got a hold of the video clip, so check it out:

Valentine’s Day 2013 – a day I’ll never forget

Two years ago Valentine’s Day took on a whole new meaning for me. There was no candlelit dinner. No chocolate. A bottle of wine was out of the question.

Me and my giant belly waiting to see my doctor.

Me and my giant belly waiting to see my doctor.

But nothing says romance like a trip to the doctor for cervical sweep, am I right ladies?

I was five days overdue with my second son, and desperate to get him out. If you’re lucky enough to have no idea what a cervical sweep is or what it involves, I suggest you take a moment to throw some gratitude out to the universe.

I’ll spare you the unpleasant details but I think we can all assume that any sweeping motion associated with my nether regions at this very late stage of pregnancy wasn’t going to feel good. Even if doc had warmed me up with chocolates and wine beforehand – which she didn’t by the way.  Talk about being a foreplay killjoy.

A cervical sweep hurts.  It hurts to have it done, and it hurts afterwards when the contractions and severe cramping trick you into thinking you finally get to evict the stubborn squatter from your belly.

How do I know?  This was my fourth sweep. If at first you don’t succeed, Happy Valentine’s Day to me.

Needless to say, my anxiety was high and getting higher with each passing day that didn’t bring on labour. Knowing my history with postpartum anxiety and depression (you can read my story here), doc understood the fragility of my mental state. With empathy and kindness she called the hospital to request an induction for the following day if the fourth sweep proved as ineffective as the three before.

So my husband and I went home to wait.

The cramping started almost immediately, but that was no surprise.  After three failed attempts that each brought on brutal pain, I didn’t give it much thought.  But when the pain brought me to my knees on the bathroom floor within 20 minutes of arriving home, I knew it was go time, and time to go fast.

The race to the hospital was dramatic, to say the least.  I was like an injured, wild animal trapped in a cage.  The contractions came one right after the other, with barely any time in between for relief.  With both hands gripping the ceiling handle of the car I convulsed in pain, pleading with my husband to drive faster, and banging on the window as if that would somehow make the red lights turn green.

Tangled up with all the physical pain was the sinking feeling that I wasn’t going to get an epidural.  It was all happening too fast.  I was terrified.

When we pulled up to the hospital I couldn’t even stand up on my own.  My husband helped me inside to the registration area where I doubled over the back of a chair waiting for someone rescue me. Within minutes a group of nurses arrived with a wheelchair and whisked me off to the delivery room.

“I want an epidural.”  The first words out of my mouth, obviously.

I begged for drugs – something, anything, please!  I didn’t care what as long as it took the pain away. The nurses calmly and quietly explained all the reasons why they could only offer me laughing gas to take the edge off.  I wanted to punch them. Furious, I bit down on the tube and tried to huff my way into oblivion.

Nothing.

Left with no other option, I somehow pushed my 9 lb 13 oz baby boy out into the world.

When I close my eyes and conjure up the memories of that experience, it’s not the pain, anxiety, panic or fear that floats to the surface.

It’s the sunlight that I remember, and the way it poured in through the windows of the delivery room and made it glow with warmth.  I remember holding my sweet baby boy against my skin and breathing him in for the first time. And most of all I remember the overwhelming sense of calm that washed over me as I realized I was going to be ok.

I was prepared this time. Therapy sessions during my pregnancy gave me the tools and the confidence to take care of myself, speak up and ask for help and not feel any sense of shame or failure for taking an antidepressant.  I had been down that dark road of postpartum depression before, and I sure as hell wasn’t going back.

I still have anxiety ups and downs, and probably always will.  Managing my thoughts is an ongoing challenge and some days are better than others.

But I can always close my eyes and go back to that moment.  I can feel the sun and the calm, the contentment and the love.

No Valentine’s Day gift will ever top that.

Me, Oprah and my experience with Postpartum Depression and Anxiety

My oldest son is four. He loves books, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and asking questions – lots and lots of questions.

If you make the mistake of not answering in a timely fashion (ie: within seconds) he repeats the question over and over again until he receives a response he deems satisfactory.

His curiosity is insatiable. His love of learning knows no bounds. He searches for meaning in everything.

It’s a quality as irritating as it is endearing.

“But why Mommy? But why?” he pleads, looking up at me with his big, innocent eyes and expecting me to have all the answers. Sometimes responses come easy.

“We’re going this way because it’s faster.”

“You can’t sit on your brother because you’ll hurt him.”

“You’re going to bed because Mommy and Daddy need to watch Game of Thrones.”

I try to answer honestly. I really do. But sometimes the answer is too complicated to explain in terms he’ll understand and it’s just easier to say “I don’t know” and distract him with another subject.

I resorted to this strategy when I spoke about my experience with Postpartum Depression and Anxiety on the IWK Foundation’s Annual Telethon in May.

Talking about Postpartum Depression/Anxiety on IWK Telethon

Talking about Postpartum Depression/Anxiety on IWK Foundation Telethon

Not surprisingly the news that mommy was going to be on TV opened a floodgate of questions from my son. I explained to him that after he was born I got sick and the people at the hospital helped me get better.  By going on TV and talking about it I was helping the hospital do the same for other moms who need help.

“But why did you get sick Mommy?”

That’s when I pulled out the distraction technique. It was just a whole lot easier than explaining what I’m about to tell you.

I’ve thought a lot of about why I experienced postpartum depression and anxiety. Sure, there were risk factors, most notably a family history of mental health issues. But I don’t believe I got sick because my grandmother suffered from depression or because my mother has struggled with anxiety for most of her adult life. It’s bigger than that. How do I know? Because Oprah told me.

I can hear the collective groan as I write this. If you’re rolling your eyes, trust me, I totally get it. But before you click away, hear me out.

My maternity leave with my first son coincided with the final season of Oprah’s show. What a happy coincidence! Queen O was seriously crushin’ it on every episode and I looked forward to tuning in every day. By the time the season came to an end I was preaching from the gospel of O. I hung on her every word during her final show, but one thing in particular has stayed with me since:

Everybody has a calling, and your real job in life is to figure out what that is and get about the business of doing it. It lights you up and it lets you know that you are exactly where you’re supposed to be, doing exactly what you’re supposed to be doing.

It wasn’t until I started this website and blog, shared my story and spoke out publicly about women’s mental health that I discovered the true reason why I got sick. This is exactly where I’m supposed to be, doing exactly what I’m supposed to be doing.

This is what lights me up.

So I’m going to get about the business of doing it.