This is quite a different post for me, and to be honest, a little scary. However, May is Mental Health Month and we just celebrated Mother’s Day, so I decided to share. I wanted to share so I could share the hope that can be found in such a dark time, and so other mamas struggling can know that they are not alone!
So, here we go. Let’s start from the beginning: June 3rd, 2016, the day I peed on a stick and saw those two pink lines. I was pregnant. I took a picture of the test and periodically looked at it all day at work to make sure it was actually real. We weren’t planning on having kids until my husband was out of the military so this pregnancy was quite the shock, and in those first few weeks I often had the thought that I should give the baby to a couple struggling with infertility. I thought ‘it’s not fair I can be pregnant without even trying when they can’t, and I’m only 24, unprepared, and scared.’
Obviously, I didn’t follow through with my thoughts, and I knew they were irrational – I was in a loving marriage and we were financially stable (though, of course we could always have more money) – but I was in shock. Probably the first 6-10 weeks of pregnancy, I felt terrible. Not only due to morning sickness, but I just didn’t feel like myself, and I wasn’t excited. I actually felt nervous to tell our families because I was afraid they would say we were irresponsible for getting pregnant. Again, irrational, because plenty of people have surprise pregnancies, and everyone was excited for us.
I continued on to have a healthy pregnancy with no complications; excitement and fear would come and go in waves, and occasionally a bout of sadness. I don’t do well with change, the unknown, or failure. Everything was changing, I didn’t know what to expect (though I read that book and plenty others), and I was afraid I would fail at motherhood, though I had always dreamed of being a mom. All in all, pregnancy was a breeze for me physically, but tough emotionally and mentally.
We had a beautiful birth (you can read Zemirah’s birth story here) and, aside from the usual soreness/bleeding, no problems with nursing. I know birth trauma is real for some mamas, and breastfeeding challenges can bring on a whole host of mental health issues, so I truly feel blessed that we didn’t struggle there. However, immediately following birth, I simply wanted everything to return to “normal”, and had a hard time accepting our “new normal” as a family of three.
About 4-5 weeks postpartum, I got it in my head that the house was crowded. I was feeling claustrophobic (looking back now, I should have just strapped Baby Z on and gone for a walk outside!), and randomly decided to put our coffee table out on the curb, re-do the garden, and put together a new set of patio furniture. After all of this work, my postpartum bleeding picked back up heavy and bright. I should have taken that as a sign to rest more, but I wanted to feel “normal”, and normal for me was busy and working. I was missing my job, my students, and feeling like an adult. Now I felt trapped and isolated in the house, with only my fussy baby to keep me company.
That brings me to Zemirah’s infancy. She was a tough little cookie! The lactation consultant in the hospital called her a “piranha” (so you can imagine how that felt!), she was holding her head up and halfway rolling over at 2 weeks old, and she cried. a. lot. I tried everything to make her stop crying, and I never understood why she was crying. That instilled fear in me because I thought, ‘I thought moms were supposed to know their baby’s different cries, and usually babies stop crying when their mom holds them. She screams even more when I hold her – does she hate me?’ I struggled to feel that magical bonding that moms talk about; in between feedings, I didn’t want to hold her, and I resented her for crying so much. The fear grew more and more, and the isolation felt worse and worse.
David (my husband) was preparing for a deployment, which meant he worked a minimum of 12 hours a day, and oftentimes weekends. He would sometimes work 15 or 16 hour days, and sometimes go a full 3 days without seeing Zemirah at all. I resented him for it, though it wasn’t his fault; we hit our first rough patch in marriage, and I didn’t know how to deal with it, or who to talk to. Most of my stay-at-home-mom friends had moved (military wife life), and we were 1,300 miles from family. I had never felt so alone, so afraid, and so…incompetent.
The incompetence came into play because of my personality type and my fear of failure. I felt emotionally incompetent in my marriage; I remember telling David, “I need more from you, but I don’t know what I need” and, “I feel distant but I don’t know how to fix it.” I felt incompetent as a mom; I remember when Zemirah was 3 weeks old, David had overnight duty so it was just she and I in the house. I thought, ‘I’m not old enough/mature enough or a good enough mom to be trusted alone with a baby all night.’ Again, I didn’t know her “different cries”, I didn’t know the best way to comfort her (usually only David could), I didn’t know how to play with her, and I especially didn’t know how to get her to sleep. I would feel fearful of taking her to the doctor if she had a diaper rash or an eczema patch because I was afraid they would lecture me on how to parent better. One time I accidentally bonked her head (I’m pretty sure all new parents do it!) and I was afraid she may have a concussion, but couldn’t take her to the ER because what if they took her away from me?!
I’ve always struggled with confidence, but this was a whole new level. I loved my baby, and thought she was so cute, but I didn’t know what I was doing or who I was anymore. Finally, we got involved in a new church that we loved, and I got involved in a women’s bible study. I met a nice, more experienced mom, and asked her to mentor me, but when she stopped reaching out to me, I retreated from bible study. I thought ‘She probably thinks I’m weird and a terrible mom.’ Again, my isolation got worse.
When Zemirah was almost four months old, both of my grandparents on my mom’s side passed away, only 12 days apart. I couldn’t fully grieve because I was dealing with so much emotionally already, and I felt so stressed about traveling with this cranky baby who didn’t sleep. David flew with me to the funeral, thankfully, but I was planning on staying a little longer to be with my family, and was going to fly back with Z by myself. The day of the double funeral arrived, and I could hardly take in the service because I was so stressed figuring out when/where to pump, and having to leave Zemirah with a baby sitter for the first time, not to mention driving from the hotel, to the funeral home, to the church, to the graveside with a cranky baby who hated her car seat. I took her to the babysitter at the church nursery and almost lost my mind when she SHOOK my bottle of hard-to-come-by pumped breast milk. I then snapped at my darling husband for going to the bathroom without telling me – I was coming unglued.
I was feeling more and more trapped inside my head, and just wanted to sleep. I sought all sorts of advice on baby sleep, I read all the books and blogs, I put her on a schedule, I let her cry, I did “gentle” sleep training. Nothing. Worked. I remember one night specifically: by 5 AM I had only slept for 20 minutes all night. It was partially due to Zemirah waking up every hour and a half (ugh), but also because my anxiety and fear would prevent me from sleeping, even when she was. I started to be afraid of the night. As the sun would be setting, I would feel my anxiety rising, and when I was up in the middle of the night, whether it was for night nursing or insomnia, I was afraid.
When Zemirah was five months old, things really went south. I started having what I later found out were nervous break downs nearly every night. I’ve never really struggled with anger, but every time Zemirah would wake up, I would fly into a panicked rage. I was mad at her for not sleeping like every other baby did, I was mad at David for his useless nipples and the fact that he could sleep so soundly, and I was mad at myself for not knowing how to get this baby to sleep! It was terrible – I would turn into a monster I didn’t know. I would pace, throw things, scream, scratch myself, and pull my hair. Now I was afraid of myself. My new thought was, ‘What if I’m one of those women that hurt my baby? What if David comes home from work and I’ve completely snapped and hurt Zemirah and myself?’
These scary thoughts (which I now know are called “intrusive thoughts” and are normal) started to take over (the “taking over” is not normal). I was afraid to be in the kitchen with knives, I had visions of throwing myself off bridges, I had nightmares of watching people commit suicide; I was in a dark yet anxious place. I prayed for rest and relief, but felt that God was far away. Yet I KNEW He wasn’t, so I sought solace in church. There were many Sundays when David couldn’t come due to work, and I would take Zemirah to the nursery, sit in the back, and cry silent tears during worship.
Around this time, a childhood friend’s little brother passed away unexpectedly in a car accident. Such tragic and untimely deaths always make people reflect on the fragility of life, and this sweet young man’s passing was no exception. But in my current state, it amped up my fear. I went through the stress of traveling again, this time alone both ways, with a heavy heart and a panicked mind.
Upon returning home to California, I decided I needed to seek help. That decision alone brought along so many more anxious thoughts. I didn’t feel like I had the mental strength to deal with our health insurance and try to find a provider in network, so instead of asking for help, I just sat on the decision for a while. Finally, I found a free counseling center for military families, but didn’t want to go alone, so I had David come with me. I honestly thought we needed marriage counseling because we were struggling – imagine my surprise when, on our first meeting, the counselor suggested that I come in alone.
Thankfully, I had recently made friends with a new neighbor, who openly talked about her struggle with postpartum depression, how counseling helped her, and she was willing to watch Zemirah for me so I could go to counseling. So I did. I found it so helpful to talk with my counselor about all my struggles adjusting to motherhood, and she didn’t criticize me! She sympathized with me! We worked on how I could effectively communicate my needs to David, practical ways to handle Zemirah and all her sleep struggles, and we did some EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) Therapy, which is commonly used for victims of trauma, to help my emotional and logical brain sync up in my times of extreme stress. She didn’t judge me when I told her about my anger/panic fits in the middle of the night – she told me they were nervous break downs and told me to work on lightly touching my arms or having David stroke my hair during these times so we could calm my nervous system down without me hurting myself. She suggested melatonin to help me sleep, which was a welcomed idea. As David’s deployment approached, she encouraged me by saying that if I could have a medication-free birth, I could do anything, even make it through this hard time! She also helped encourage me that it probably was a wise idea to move in with my parents during this time. I was afraid it would make me appear weak, but David and my counselor knew it was the best decision.
When Zemirah was around nine months old, she started only waking up once for an early morning feeding, then eventually sleeping 12 hours (most nights) straight. The counseling, in combination with more sleep, improved my mental health significantly. There’s a reason that sleep deprivation is a literal form of torture. I finally felt like the scary fog was lifting, but it was overlapping with the sad cloud of saying goodbye to my husband for six months. He was my rock through this time, though he was probably confused by my actions and words because I didn’t share openly enough, and it was hard to say goodbye to both him and the house we brought our baby home to.
Though there were sad times during David’s deployment, such as him missing Zemirah’s first Christmas, birthday, words, and steps, I was so grateful to have a big support system around me, and I felt like Zemirah and I finally experienced that magical bond. And it was during this time that I discovered the Whole30 (you can read more about my journey with food and anxiety here) and my mental health improved even more! I had no idea what kind of journey I was starting on, but I am so glad I started it! Moving back to California after David’s deployment, I was a little afraid I was going to sink back into loneliness, but instead, I found my Stroller Strides mamas and a new, healthy village. David, Zemirah, and I enjoyed our summer to the fullest, knowing it would be our last one in California; I basked in the Cali sun and the joy of having my family back together again.
Now here we are, homeowners and civilians in Texas, close to family, and getting involved in a new church. My mental and physical health are the best they’ve ever been, I sleep like a rock, and, though I have some very challenging days with my now two-year-old, I love her to pieces and love seeing how far we’ve come.
I wanted to share this story because, though it’s dark in places, there truly is a light at the end of the tunnel. God isn’t far, He’s near, and He wants to comfort you. Humble yourself and let Him be your strength. And mamas, if you are struggling with your mental health, you are not ALONE! There are so many moms out there having the same struggles, but no one wants to talk about it for fear of judgement. We may not even want to tell our husbands, family, or friends because we don’t want to appear “crazy” – I know that was the case with me. But as soon as I started opening up, both to David and my counselor, things seemed less scary.
So, if you are a new mom reading this and think you’re alone, I beg you to reach out to someone before you sink down deeper in the hole. My Facebook, Instagram, and email are below, and you are more than welcome to reach out to me! You are important, mama, you are strong, and you love your babies, even if they drive you crazy 😛 So, the moral of this very long story is – reach out…and enjoy your pinch of crazy!