Photos by Dogwood Photography
See the full photo session here http://www.dogwoodphotography.com/the-courageous-mother-project/
Motherhood was nothing like what I thought it was going to be. It was such a shock to find that I was a mother who was completely undone, frazzled and overwhelmed. The first 3 years of motherhood were a blur filled with sadness, disillusionment and discomfort. I remember one day in particular, when my children were 6 months old and 2 yrs old (#3 wasn’t even an blip on the radar), and I spent the whole day on the living room floor feeling like I couldn’t move. The heaviness of my despair and exhaustion physically weighed me down. I just lay there praying for the clock to tick faster, for the day to end and for everyday to just please pass me by. I wanted someone, anyone, to come and rescue me from this life.
I write this letter from my present day self to myself 5 years ago on that day, my darkest day.
Dear Mom on Your Darkest Day,
I see you on the living room floor and I know that what you are experiencing right now is crushing and heavy and guilt ridden. I also know that you will survive it. Becoming a mother broke you, stripped you bare and pulled into question everything you believed to be true about yourself. It made you think you were a really bad person who had somehow managed to fool everyone in your life into thinking that you were a good person. It made you think that deep down you must be an angry resentful wallowing pile of self pity and it took two tiny little humans to prove it, and to expose you to yourself. I have a message for you, because I lived through it and made it to the other side. You will eventually get your life back and it will be even better than the one you had before.
You’re in your living room today totally bare, with all of your former self in pieces on the floor around you, with only the raw inner core of who you are left. You feel vulnerable, raw, ugly and exposed. The thing is though, is that before you were stripped down like this you didn’t really know what that inner core contained. When you passed through this transformative and painful time you were stripped of all of your masks, your unrealistic ideals, and your perfectionism. You were left with only the true core of yourself. When the worst is over you will get to pick up the pieces of yourself that you want to keep and leave the rest on the floor of that messy living room. Motherhood tore you down but it also gave you the chance to rebuild a better and stronger and more contented you.
Postpartum depression was your cocoon, tight and binding and suffocating but you will emerge a butterfly.
You began this journey into motherhood wanting it so badly. There were awful moments in the difficultly conceiving that you thought you might never get to have a child. So then when you find yourself 3 years later with 2 beautiful, healthy children, but you’ve never been so miserable, you begin to wonder what is wrong with you? What could ever make someone like you happy if not these beautiful children? Why can’t you feel joy? What kind of a monster are you if you can’t find joy and peace in loving your own children?
You are on the floor in your pj's with messy hair and giant bags under your eyes, the baby is on the floor beside you while the toddler is watching TV (again) and eating fish crackers (again). You just want to close your eyes for a few minutes. When you finally do your mind is flooded with images of all the other Moms who are out there with their kids. They are all learning, playing and laughing outside, while you are in here just wanting the day to be over. You torture yourself with comparison to these utopian Moms.
You can’t see the bigger picture because you are in the middle of it. But I made it through that day to the other side and so I can see what you can't.
Let me tell you what I see.
I see a mom who is too exhausted and depressed to play but who uses physical closeness to let her kids know she is there. Yes they're eating crappy snacks and watching TV but you're right there holding them and responding to their cries and utterances. All you can muster in that moment is meeting the most basic of needs and giving physical affection. But you know what, at the core, that's all your kids really need from you right now. Like you, they will survive this time and they will be ok.
If you zoom out just a little bit more you would see the whole townhouse complex in which you live and I assure you that there are other moms at home on their dirty living room floors feeling as lonely and as failure-y as you are. You don’t see them when you go out and so you think you’re the only one. You are not the only one.
Zoom way way out and you will see the context of where you live in time and culture. In a society that puts you in an unfair place of high expectations and little support. Society says motherhood is beautiful and natural and effortless. You find it beautiful and relentless and all consuming. All of your circumstances combined to result in where you are. It is not a deficit in you.
You thought maternity leave would be a vacation because up until you had children, your home was a place of rest and rejuvenation. So logic said when you got to stay home everyday it would be restful and relaxing. But actually maternity leave is more like bringing your work life home with you...to live. Moving your desk and phone and computer and colleagues and boss right into your bedroom and working 24 hour days for the next 2 years. All of your colleagues get to go home and shower and dress everyday while you have to stay and work in the same pyjamas with no shower or meal breaks.
But it won’t stay like this. Do you know what the key to your redemption will be? A mommy group of faith where women who are awesome and amazing will share that they struggle and fail at motherhood all the time. At first you will think "well they must not actually be as bad as me because I see them as amazing.” Yet you will hear about their struggles and be surprised to see lovely peaceful women who speak of rage and yelling. You almost won’t be able to believe it.
These women will surround you with love and grace until it sinks in and you begin to feel it for yourself. You will wonder how they can’t see for themselves how great they are. You will extend grace towards them and wonder why they can’t do that to themselves. You will extend encouragement and support to them and wonder why they can’t be more kind to themselves. Then it will click, why can’t you allow all of those things for yourself?
Over time you will find out that you are more like these amazing women than you thought you were. Brave, faithful and grounded.
I will leave you with this, dear struggling Mama, your future contains 3 (yes 3!) amazing beautiful children. Even in your darkest days your children felt your love for them. On your darkest day your spirit feels dull and distant and you’re worried this is the new you. It's not. It's temporary, like your spirit is at the shop for a tune up. You'll get it back even better.
Much love and hang tough precious Mama,
I was 6 months deep into complete sleep deprivation, after the birth of my 3rd child, when I received an Evite for a friends baby shower. In that moment I was really only a shell of the person I used to be. I was running on automatic mommy robot mode, and so I admit, that my reaction was less than ideal. Dread and panic. Not because I didn’t want to celebrate my friend, but because I didn’t want to have to pretend for 2 whole hours that motherhood was AMAZING and that I LOVED it and that getting away from the kids in the afternoon (and being dressed) was NO BIG DEAL.
Is there any social situation more awkward than a Burnt Out Mom of 3 (BOM3) attending the baby shower of a bright eyed Brand New Mom To Be (BNMTB)? I can’t think of one, but I’m pretty much a hermit that drags around an infant by the breast, so I could be wrong. I don’t get out much. But the whole experience of being a BOM3 and attending the BNMTB baby shower really shook me up.
It’s like this; hey ladies, I have a great idea! How about we help our friends PREPARE for motherhood by throwing them an afternoon kid-free party where we dress up pretty and nibble on snacks while balancing drinks precariously on our knees? Oh and how about we bring gifts, like frilly outfits and peepee teepees, so that when the baby gets here she’s all ready to care for an infant. We will be giddy and happy and talk about how much she will LOVE motherhood. We will pretend that an afternoon spent with girlfriends is nothing. No, no, finding childcare? It’s a breeze! Oh arranging the breastfeeding and nap schedule to coordinate with a 1 o’clock party?…piece of cake! This outfit I’m wearing? I have a closet full of cute clothes that fit me perfectly post baby so really the hard part was choosing which one to wear!
Ok, so I’m a little cranky, but really how is this supposed to help our dear friends step into Motherhood? It doesn’t. Not at all. One could even argue it does a disservice for the BNMTB by maintaining the picture perfect ideal of motherhood that society serves up to us everyday.
But on this particular occasion I was too tired for critical thinking. I decided to pull myself together and just show up for my friend. I prepared myself to uphold the Sisterhood of Silence which says motherhood is effortless and natural and excessively wonderful. I tried to squash the fantasy of offering Lucifer as a baby name suggestion should I be asked. Nope, I was going to Hold. It. Together.
I somehow managed to arrive looking calm and competent. Not long after I arrive, we are, of course, sitting in the obligatory gift circle around the giddy BNMTB. The teeny frilly outfit makes it’s way around the circle to me. Did anyone notice grimace that passed my face before the wide smile? Are my Oooohs and Ahhhhs passing for sincere while my inside voice screams "are you kidding me? This outfit will fit for 2 minutes and that white ruffle will be annihilated on your first poo-nami! What you really need is a good baby thermometer, washcloths and a marriage counselor. But ANYHOOOO!"
No, no reign it BOM3...I try again with the tiny stack of onsies. I manage not to hurl them aggressively to the next person like a game of survivor hot potato. All I can think about is how there are bottomless laundry baskets full of these all over my house. I mean why the hell would I want to touch this? Oh no, Hold. It. Together. Deep breaths. The good news is that there is wine here and I’m actually childless right now. Except I keep panicking that I’ve left the baby in the car until I remember he is home with Daddy. What’s with that? But I digress.
The thing is that I do want to be supportive and excited for my friend, but I’m just too weary (and maybe a little jaded) to gloss over the real experience of parenting. I mean I kinda get the whole baby shower thing and I don’t want to be the kind of friend to tell war stories of doom and gloom either. It isn’t all terrible. I’m pretty sure last weekend there was 10 whole minutes where everyone was playing nicely while my husband and I sat on the same couch drinking hot coffee, and we looked at each other and said “This, this is what we dreamed of.” It was a snippet in a crazy week but it was beautiful. So I guess what I want to give the BNMTB is a more balanced idea of what motherhood is. I want to celebrate with her and at the same time let her know that it might be really hard.
I see that BNMTB and I remember myself in just the same spot 6 years ago. My own expectations were so high that the reality of motherhood shocked me, made me feel like a failure, and I thought I was all alone. No one I knew at the time admitted to anything less than motherhood bliss. (I thank God a few years later I found woman friends who tell it like it is! I love to hear their stories of epic tantrums and packaged foods and endless tv and think that maybe my own kids might just pull through this.)
But seriously when I was the BNMTB I thought I was going to glide through motherhood and it would be the best years of my life! I imagined endless time to care and nurture my little family by gardening and making delicious food, playing and laughing all day long in my beautifully tidy home. Who knows maybe I’d even take up running? Yes, running, I thought, I would look amazing running along the sea wall pushing my BOB. It didn’t seem to matter that I didn't do any of these things currently (or live near the sea) because somehow the miracle of motherhood and maternity-leave would open up so much space in my life that I would be able to do all of it. And be f-ing awesome.
It was such a blow when it didn’t quite pan out like that. I think it would have helped if someone had whispered “call me if things get hard when baby is comes”. I would’ve been like “haha, no thanks weirdo, I’ll be great!” but I would’ve remembered later when I was in bed leaking with a crying baby and eating frozen pizza for the 3rd day in a row. "I think I’d better call that friend now. Maybe she could bring me a vegetable and help me get the dishwasher unloaded."
I remember at my own BNMTB baby shower one lone person brought me a practical gift: a box of things for baby from the pharmacy (like a thermometer, nail clippers, bandaids, etc) which I thought at the time was super lame. What a delusional dreamer I was! Turns out it was the best and most thoughtful gift of all. When my baby had her first fever and I went to my box to get that thermometer I thanked God for my thoughtful friend. We need more of this. And real stories. With a rounds of “you will succeed and fail at motherhood all the time” “believe it or not, you are the best mom for your baby” and "I'm here for you."
I think I’m going to become the Mom who shows up with a box of important pharmacy items and maybe some important phone numbers too like 811 and Le Leche League and Post Partum Support. And most importantly my number laminated that says "call ANYTIME, chances are I’m up anyway." The BNMTB might think it a lame gift but when the shit hits the fan (by way of the frilly outfit) she’ll remember that box and she’ll know she’s not alone.
But then again, maybe if the BNMTB is not quite as naive as I was, perhaps she's already suspicious. Especially if she’s married and already gone through "the wedding" which totally prepared her for marriage.
Photo by Michele Mateus Photography
Karen Barré is an accomplished mom of 3 that can make snacks ALL day long and still find the time to make light-sabers out of paper and duct tape. As long as the conditions are perfect. And everyone slept the night. And we have groceries in the house. Or paper. Okay, I did it once, it was a highlight.