Tuesday, February 18, 2014

a slip, not a fall [post-partum depression, part 2]

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The path was worn and slippery. 
My foot slipped from under me, 
knocking the other out of the way, 
but I recovered and said to myself, 
"It's a slip and not a fall." 
– Abraham Lincoln

Photography was a gem for me. It helped me cope during Jon’s deployment. It gave me a much-needed creative outlet during my “playtime” in medical school. And as my skills grew, my camera grew. And my business grew. Capturing life was honorable and enjoyable-it reminded me of why living and loving and friendship and faith were such important bookmarks.

But the irony came when I didn’t want to take pictures of my baby. Without iphones and Instagram, I’m not sure Thatcher’s first months would be captured. My memories of them are formed through photos—my own mind provides only deep space of sleepless nights, feelings of inadequacy, and innocent threats to my own self-worth. I felt frozen, symbolically cold. Looking back, I realize now that I did things because I was supposed to. I took him for walks. I gave him tummy time. I dressed him and changed him and fed him. And I suppose that I loved on him. 
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It was months before I finally starting loving him.
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I cringe even writing that. Mom’s are supposed to love their babies. A new-mom-friend texted me last week and told me that she couldn’t wait to pick her baby up after their nap. Another cried at the thought of going back to work. The harsh truth is that I wasn’t in a good place. My valley was deep. I couldn’t wait to put Thatcher down for his naps—my space bubble was invaded all hours of the day and night. Going back to work wasn’t negotiable for me, and so we dealt emotionlessly with the throes of pumping and feeding and nursing and schedule changes and long-call-shifts and unpredictability. I shed no tears over my return to the job—if I’m honest with myself I was excited to get back to the only scheduled thing in my life.
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The fog started lifting around the 10 month-mark. I was back to (and well-below) my pre-pregnancy weight. My boobs were finally tamed and I no longer had to bite Popsicle sticks during nursing sessions. We’d successfully made it through 4-failed-“Get Your Kid to Sleep” books, 1 horrendous OB call month, 35 days of Daddy being away, and 7 months of working-pumping-not-sleeping-during-residency insanity. And while I was certainly still feeling insane, the communication between Jon and I was finally turned back on. We started to connect again. He’d found his way through the spiderweb of feelings I had spun and figured out how to best support me. And I took my “my kid screams all the time” earplugs out long enough to listen to his feedback.
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We’d made it through the lowest point in our relationship. And though involuntarily and probably subconsciously, I’d started to hike out of my own valley.
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I gave up my cleaning schedule. My floors were swept every 2 weeks and collected crumbs and dirt and mud and tears and dust bunnies in between. I’d managed to plant a garden during the summer (I needed something to do during the 2+ hours of cry-it-out each night) and felt satisfied about the freezer stocked well with harvest. Our marriage was growing stronger—slowly and painfully, but growing. And miraculously, Thatcher had survived my black abyss that clouded the first months of his life. I finally started to enjoy him—the smiles and babbles and food-fights and habits that he had developed shone light into the fading darkness.
His sleeping is still irregular. But around 15 months, another month of OB-call shifts forced him into a more rigorous schedule. We are still waking up 1-4 times per night. He is almost two. I’m waddling now from another baby on the way (1 month and counting). And the truth is that I’m in a much better place. Sometimes memory gets in the way of living. In this case, though, it is memory that provides life. I didn’t realize the depth of my despair as a new-mommy until recently—friends having babies and being in such different places than I was served as a hot-plate of reality that what I referred to as a “blur” or even “post-partum adjustment” was depression. It was true and real and unsympathetic.
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The scientist in me still attributes it to changing hormone levels, a c-section with maximum intervention, and a personality that goes against the grain of deep sentiment. But I’m learning to be a realist with my feelings and call things as they are. And although it has taken me almost 24 months to fully admit it, I was depressed. Those months were hard and dark and the despair ran deep. The feelings of inadequacy plagued every breath and utter exhaustion filled every space in my life. The self-criticism was ruthless and pungent—its stagnant odor piercing everything from body image to baby gear. I think if I am honest with myself, I’ve always viewed depression as a form of mal-adaptive weakness. In other words, something that certainly was not me.
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But it was me. And in many places, it still IS me.

There is a certain amount of fear that hops alongside the depressed—like a remora on the back of an aging whale. The fear dictates feelings and hopes and dreams and emotions. And when pressed the wrong way or twisted the wrong direction, it bites.

My 4-inch surgical scar was just the beginning.

My identity as a mom is still in flux. The truth is that I hope it always will be. Stagnation forms blood clots and smelly ponds—two things my heart and life don’t need. I’ve had to re-evaluate my priorities (more than once), (try to) give up my self-fulfilling desires, and learn the hard way that I’m not number one in my life. Perhaps this is obvious to most mom’s. Our culture feeds a pre-packaged meal of low-fat love and chemically-laden falsities when it comes to parenthood. The glam is highlighted in golden sparkles and the trenches are made out to be for weak ones. But the truth, as I am learning, is that LIFE happens in the trenches and valley’s and deep, dark places. It is dirty and tiring and dangerous and sometimes it is stagnant.
Babies come and leave cuts and scars and bruises. They give us wrinkles and gray hairs and saggy stretch-marked skin. Along with the package of parenthood are free sleepless nights and bubbling frustration over spilled fingerpaints and cultural fallacy that bunnies and fulfillment are at the end of each rainbow. But also with those sleepless nights, toothless smiles, and (out)bursts of joyous emotion from unregulated toddlers is rich, rich reward that cannot be duplicated or imitated. For as much as Thatcher has taught me about parenthood, he has managed to teach me more about myself—my selfishness, my commitments, and my timeline—none of which were ever mine to control in the first place.
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Many days of the week, I am still a disappointment. I lose my temper. I find myself playing with the fire of high expectations. And what I’m guilty of most is missing the blessings disguised in unpredictability.
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Maybe parenthood itself is a valley. And on our way up to sea-level, maybe we are meant to brave the rocks and dirt and smelly pond water. It is inevitable that we will stumble. We will learn to work hard and play harder. We will learn to love the trenches--and decorate the walls with Pinterest crafts and clean the floors every 2 weeks because it is all we can mentally handle.  And somewhere along the way, we’ll learn to embrace our scars. The old ones that have healed with keloids and memories. The unexpected ones that have branded us in places we didn’t want visible. And the ones yet to come that will shape our failures and our futures.
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On our way out of that valley we’ll encounter inclimate weather, lose pavestone, and setbacks. We’ll inevitably emerge with new scars—the result of lose soil and clumsy footing. But I keep trying to remember that when I find myself face down on those dirty floors of mine, the ones that haven’t been cleaned in 2 weeks, that I’ve only slipped.
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It is a slip, not a fall. 

Sunday, February 16, 2014

broken strings [post-partum depression, part 1]

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My first breakdown was when he was 6 weeks old. I’d fallen asleep nursing (again) and Jon came in to check on us. The end result was a two hour conversation, an entire box of Kleenex tissue, and heaving sobs from the new unknown I’d become.

It wasn’t pretty.

I was exhausted from his birth. The c-section was a surprise—I’d gone in hoping for minimal intervention and walked out of the hospital with a new kid and a 4 inch scar across my lower abdomen. It was the first of many cuts.
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I look back at photos of that cold day in February: membranes ruptured, walks and bouncing and stair-stepping and deep-house-cleaning and 12 hours later just a hotspot of back pain without much progress, and into the hospital for waiting and rolling and deep breathing and stalling and IUPC’s and epidurals and cutting and first breaths and crying. It was all so rote for me—routine, emotionless, numb. I remember the back pain, the breathing. I remember the referred right shoulder pain and the bruise that the anesthesiologist left on my trapezius—probably some deeper sign of the metaphoric changing colors happening inside. I remember the awe that Jon captured through the camera, the tears that flowed freely from the Grandma’s, and the Benadryl that was like a sweet relief for me at the end of a long day. I remember all these things—these good things, exciting things, new things.
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But I don’t remember smiling.
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I didn’t take things seriously for a while. The day after surgery I walked around the room like a zombie—learning to breastfeed, feeling poked and bruised and cut-open. And for the healing that had already happened, I felt like I had a million more contusions to work through.

The first week home I ate an entire pound of Kirkland Fruit and Nut Medley, a few bites of cottage cheese, and choked down the water that was forcibly leashed to my side. Thatcher had jaundice with an elevated bilirubin, which meant daily trips to hear him scream while they squeezed rich red out of his heels. My milk was in 3 days after he was released into our lives—making me feel both satisfied that my body was doing exactly what it was supposed to and miserable that my clothes and bras and conscience were now even more cluttered with awkward lumps and sag than before.
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I’d committed myself to Baby Wise. The rave reviews from family and friends convinced me that because I wanted a baby who was a scheduled, dependable sleeper, it was the best answer to a problem I didn’t know existed yet. And so, for the following six weeks I violated every law passed down by Matriarch’s: I WOKE THE BABY. We ate. We played. We tried to sleep. I was a stickler for the dream of routine. And by “we”, I really mean Thatcher—the kid who nursed every hour for 45 minutes and refused to sleep in blips longer than 20 minutes.
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I don’t think I loved him then. I liked him then—he was our kid, afterall. But I never felt drawn to him as much as I felt obligated. There were no tears of joy after the birth; I told Jon he looked like a bruised old man. I wasn’t overwhelmed with motherly love.

I expected the feelings to pass—I expected to love him more and want to hold him more and just relish in being his mommy. I expected more feelings to come, ones that were good and plenty and whole.

But the feelings never came.

And at the 6-week mark I found myself sobbing over a finally-sleeping 16-pound baby that had literally and figuratively sucked me dry. I blubbered over all the disappointments and unexpected feelings. I didn’t like being a mom—it wasn’t anything like I had expected it to be. Some days I didn’t even like my kid—the one who sucked on me and invaded my space bubble and ruined my sleep schedule and left purple ugly lines on my stomach and flab on my love-handles and challenged me in ways that I DIDN’T WANT TO BE CHALLENGED. Motherhood was not looking good on me. I was ready to throw in the towel or throw down a stiff drink laced with Prozac.

It was my deepest valley.

I gave up on Baby Wise and I half-abandoned hopes of a scheduled child. Just six weeks later I would find myself on 24 hour calls every-other-day, delivering other people’s babies and watching the obsessive, uncontainable joy through sobs of Daddies and the satisfactory hard work of laboring mommies.

I truly couldn’t relate.

Jon left in June for his month of obligatory National Guard duty. This left me with a 3 month old sleepless, schedule-less child, 24-hour OB shifts, and a sister who was a saving grace in every sense of the word. It also left me feeling like a weary lunatic.

We did cry-it-out.
We Feberized.
We cradled.
We rocked.
We nursed.
We did cry-it-out again.
We tried the Boppy. And towel rolls. And the swaddle. And the absence of them all.

And still, Thatcher ate and grew and ate and cried and ate and really didn’t sleep.

Residency changed my mindset. Ask me where I spent most of my time between 2006 and 2008 and I’d be able to tell you that aside from 45-60 minutes at the gym every day and 2 hours on Saturday mornings when I was leading Sit and Be Fit and Bingo classes at the local nursing home, I was sitting on a black pleather office chair studying. I stayed up late. I got up early. I studied in the coffee shop and at dinner and  even in the shower. And as a result, sleep became secondary. VOLUNTARILY secondary. I learned that old saying about Working Hard and Playing Harder was true. And so, on weekends and weeknights and every moment in between, I studied and played myself through medical school.

And then residency came. I expected the worst. And to my surprise I found that it was bad and sour and awful—but not that bad and sour and awful. I was just tired. ALL THE TIME. And sleep deprived. ALL THE TIME. But the truth was that I was used to it. And when the Sleep Angels did visit me? THERE WAS MUCH REJOICING. I learned to cherish my sleep—the little that I was allowed. Naps were taken. Saturday morning sleeping-in was initiated when possible. And I (we) survived.

And then we had a baby.

When Thatcher was 6 weeks old, I was tired.
When he was 12 weeks, I was exhausted.
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And at 6 months and 9 months and 12 months when he still wasn’t sleeping through the night, I was shattered. The places that I had invested my hope—the sleep, the schedule, the sweet coo’s of a baby—were things that I’d held on to so tightly, by necessity or obligation or frivolity. The gray hairs popped up and the stretch marks started to fade and the strings of that hope were stretched and thinned and worn and bruised and cut and stitched.
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One day, they finally broke. 

{continued...part 2 coming soon}

Wednesday, February 05, 2014

on getting bucked off.

Decaf coffee was probably my first bad decision today. Actually, come to think of it, maybe getting out of bed at all was. Today was not my day. I argued with my toddler. I was bitter. I said a four-letter-“s”-word more than once…maybe more than three times. I was ungrateful. And frustrated. And perhaps a bit too eager to throw in the towel.

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This, after the thought that life really couldn’t get any sweeter last night. And this, after my heart almost burst with love yesterday for that little human who almost ruined me today.

Motherhood makes me feel like a lunatic sometimes.

When I was pregnant with Teaspoon, people asked me if I was excited. My reaction—steady and emotionless—probably should have been the first clue-in that I wasn’t going to fall into the category of a doting, love-at-first-breath mother. I watched as my friends fell head-over-heels for their sweet bundles of pooping joy before they left the hospital. And I sat in awe as they talked about their love for nursing and the bond and the baby and the boobs and IT WAS JUST ALL SO AMAZING. I couldn’t relate. And some days, I still can’t.  For as devastating as it was for me, I don’t think I realized the depth of transition, emotion, detachment at the time. The truth is that I think I’m still grappling with Teaspoon's “fourth trimester”—a time frozen in my mind of which I only recall sleepless nights, sore nipples, and his incessant crying. I’m also just now realizing how difficult of a baby he really was.

Maybe motherhood is like this—the gradual realization that nothing is how you intended it to be and everything is just as it is supposed to be.

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I tend to err on the side of pessimism and on bad days, like today—the ones that start with 3 night-wakings, 2 trips to the potty for my acorn-sized bladder, 1 diaper blow-out, 2 skipped-naps, 2192 time-outs, and frustration that boils out of my mommy-heart and drips on the floor behind me like an over-thought wedding veil—on bad days I convince myself that no other children, no other mother, no other woman has ever felt like this. I somehow finagle my heart into believing that the clock will never hit midnight and my head into thinking that at any time in the schedule book, I’m way beyond the grips of Grace.

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My Grandparents had a horse named Skojo when I was growing up. I first learned to ride when I could barely walk. She had a long back—perfect for 4 or 5 grandkids climbing up and taking a leisurely stroll around the pasture. She handled bare-back perfectly—which was convenient for the kid who hated the saddle. I was old enough to be riding solo when she first bucked me off. Apparently she had decaf coffee that morning or something—it just wasn’t her day. I don’t even remember now who was there to pick me up out of the dirt (manure?). The point, though, is that I fell: off the horse, through the air, into the dirt bruised and scraped and shocked. And the bigger point is that I got back on. Not immediately. Not willingly. Probably not even gracefully. Given the (ehem) emotional child that I was, I would imagine that the scene was ugly-full of tears and wailing and kicking feet. (Something to match one of my own toddler’s tantrums today about reading the wrong page in a book or refusing to let him watch Mickey Mouse Clubhouse for the 92nd time this month.) Skojo waited while I climbed back on. My memory has conveniently deleted the subsequent events—for all I know, I could have been bucked off again and landed on my head, an event which would surely explain so many things about my life right now.

But I got back on the horse.

The little minion is sleeping now. The one is my stomach is training for the 2034 Summer Olympics gymnastics events. And I am here…finally, in the quiet dark of deep breathing. I stepped on two toys on my way to the couch and half-tripped over a pile of clothes waiting to be taken to the thrift store. The dirty dishes are piled in the sink, the laundry is spilling out of the washroom, and the toilet still needs to be cleaned. But I am here. Finally present for today—the day during which nothing went how I would have hoped and everything went as it was Planned.

And maybe tomorrow will be different. Then again, maybe it won’t be. My kid will still be almost-two. My heart will still work overtime for the mommy-bond-with-holes. My dishes will still be undone. And the toys will still spill out of their hiding places and find their way to the soles of my feet. But the clock will have struck midnight and we’ll all get back on that proverbial horse trying to ride again. And maybe tomorrow instead of decaf, I’ll slowly sip the Grace that is sure to come with each new morning. And maybe I’ll let life buck me off a few times and depend on the Hand with Holes to pick me up. And if I’m eager enough about life, I’ll watch the kid-who-makes-me-crazy “toot toot” his trains around the house and rebuild the train track 39 times before 9am and savor the strips of sunlight in this gray of winter, knowing full-well that this day and this stage and this life can only be lived once.

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And everything is just how it is supposed to be.

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