Month: October 2015

Overcoming Postpartum Anxiety and Depression

My heart was pounding somewhere in my throat, every muscle tense as I dialed the number. My paper thin resolve wavered as the first ring sounded in my ear. If I hung up now, no one would know. I could go on as if everything was fine, even though I knew it wasn’t.

I never imagined I would become this woman.

It happened to other people, people with problems, issues, insecurities. Not to me. Not now.

A voice on the other end of the line answered up and I took a deep breath. I was about to admit to a perfect stranger what I’d been trying for weeks to talk myself out of: I was suffering from postpartum anxiety and depression.

Mybaby

Never did I think the words “depression” and “anxiety” would be in my vocabulary after the birth of my first baby. I was the kind of child who adored playing with dolls; a girl who, at age six, thought my brand new baby brother belonged more to me than to the woman who’d given birth to him. I never doubted that one day, I would be a mother myself.

My daughter Meredith’s delivery was traumatic, the birthing room a flurry of activity, her first hours spent apart from me in the NICU. But when I finally cradled her in my arms for the first time several hours later, I knew for certain this was the singular purpose of my life. This tiny creature miraculously grew inside my body, had her daddy’s nose, and my mother’s eyes. Her entrance into the world had stopped my own and set it spinning on an entirely different axis—and I was so happy.

For ten months, happy was exactly what we were. Meredith was a dream baby; she slept well and often, nursed with no problems, and hit every milestone right on schedule. I transitioned into my role as a mother with relative ease, too, feeling capable, confident, and fulfilled.

But at ten months, Meredith decided she was done breastfeeding, and self-weaned in quick and decisive fashion. Logically, my previously absent monthly cycles returned, and soon after, I began to notice an uneasiness creeping over me. I wrote it off. What woman hasn’t felt off balance at some point in her life, especially with the added fuel of shifting postpartum hormones? I assured myself it was normal, it was nothing.

But it wasn’t long before that mild annoyance became something much more crippling. I remember with such clarity sitting in the living room of our tiny apartment, my husband kissing the baby and me goodbye as he left for work, and bursting into tears the moment the door closed behind him. I felt nauseous, panic rising in my chest, irrational fear washing over me.

I was alone with the baby I’d always dreamed of having, and suddenly, it terrified me.

I told myself that in a few days, or a week, maybe a month, I’d snap out of it, wake up one morning without the familiar heavy feeling of dread crushing my lungs. I avoided being alone with the baby to an almost obsessive degree—not because I feared I would harm her or myself, but because suddenly, I felt wholly and inexplicably incapable of being her mother. I stopped doing the things I used to love, like sewing and reading. When Meredith napped, I’d crawl into bed and turn on the TV, counting down the minutes until my husband would return home from work, the sick feeling in the pit of my stomach instantly subsiding as he walked through the door. Often, I’d pack up the baby and drive us across town to the sanctuary of my mom and dad’s house, for no other reason than to fill the hours with company that didn’t flinch at my red-rimmed eyes and downcast spirit.

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There was only one thing I was absolutely sure of: I was never going to feel like myself again. How often did I choke out those words through despondent tears in the arms of my tender but perplexed husband? It became my greatest fear, this idea that my formerly happy, confident, feeling good self had been jettisoned out of my reach, replaced by this pitiful creature strangled by the fear of inadequacy.

It was a horrifying prospect. But eventually, it and the support of my family is what led me to pick up the phone and place that call to my doctor.

When the receptionist picked up the phone and cheerfully asked what I needed to be seen for, I faltered. I told her I’d had a baby a year ago, that she was great but I was feeling…

“…you’re just not feeling like yourself,” she finished for me gently. I breathed again as she assured me it was nothing to be ashamed of, how she took at least one of these calls every day from mothers just like me. “You’ll feel better,” she reassured me.

For the first time, I started to believe it.

It took a visit to my doctor, a good cry in her exam room, and a prescription for an antidepressant, but slowly, I did start to feel better and find my footing as a mother again. I started feeling like myself again, and stopped feeling panicked when I was alone with my daughter.

I wonder now why I waited as long as I did to seek help. I felt awful for at least two months before I made that call. In my case, the delayed onset of symptoms probably contributed to my reluctance to call it what it was (although much less publicized, postpartum depression and anxiety can present months after delivery, or as a result of weaning and the accompanying hormone shift), but the larger, more concerning reason, was that I thought I might be judged as weak or a bad mother if I did.

But that notion couldn’t be more wrong. CDC statistics show one in seven mothers will be affected by postpartum depression within the first year of giving birth—with the caveat that those numbers are based on women who self-report symptoms; presumably there are thousands more affected to some degree who are suffering in silence.

It also all but guarantees you know a woman who has or will have a perinatal mood disorder—you just might not recognize it. She’s leaning on the cart behind you at Target, wearily going through the motions of buying cereal and shoes. She’s the friend you meet for coffee who spent the morning dreading this public outing for fear of being paralyzed by anxiety over what to order. She could be part of your family, quietly struggling to convince herself there’s nothing wrong as she cries alone in the bathroom while the baby sleeps peacefully.

She might even be you.

Often, these are women you would never suspect are dealing with depression or anxiety. They’re successful. Happily married. Outwardly confident. But many are expert concealers of their inner struggle, too ashamed to admit what they worry would label them as “bad” mothers. What those women need to hear—what I, gratefully, received—is acceptance and support, from others and, almost more vitally, from themselves.

There’s no shame in seeking help. Admitting you have a problem doesn’t make you a terrible mother—it makes you normal, human. You love your baby, but recognize you can’t do it alone. There’s no shame in it. Seeking help in the form of therapy, connecting with other mothers who’ve been there, taking medication, or some combination of them all is OK. You are OK. You will get better. You will feel like yourself again. You may not believe that’s possible now; cling to it anyway.

It takes time. It takes action. It takes bravery.

Make the call anyway. You are worth it.


Postpartum anxiety/depression resources:

Postpartum Progress (START HERE!)

Centers for Disease Control

Dr. Sears on Postpartum Depression

Video worth every second spent watching: We are the faces of postpartum depression (courtesy of Baby Rabies)

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The Fear of Letting Go

Fear of letting go

The baby didn’t sleep last night. Again. She’s really not a baby anymore, I suppose, at 16 months, cutting three molars (at once…delightful), learning to count, and running faster than her little legs can carry her towards anything resembling danger.

And yet, I still see her as my baby in so many ways. She’s quick to fall into my arms in moments of uncertainty, when the big, exciting world grows too big and exciting. She’ll nestle her head into my neck like a fuzzy kitten, stilling for brief moments her busy business of growing up. She’s relies on me, still, for so much, even though she’s constantly pushing the boundaries of her independence and self-awareness.

In my head, I know she’s no longer a baby, but how can I allow myself to see her as a child?

Who do I become

I wonder if it’s because she’s our third. Three children. We’ve reached that point where people generally assume there’ll be no more additions to our family. Three kids? How nice! Four kids? How…nice? It’s an interesting thing, this raised eyebrow reaction bubbling below the surface when families reach a certain size. We’re not even there yet (and who knows if we ever will be), and still I sense it.

Cultural influences aside, I think what’s really making it harder to accept this one running headlong into childhood is my own insecurity. What if she is my last baby? It’s a mildly terrifying thought. Do I know how to be anything other than the mother of young children? How do I transition from changing diapers, wiping noses, and rocking sleepless babies in the middle of the night into…what? Who do I become when there’s no longer a baby in my arms?

Motherhood truly is a mystery of constant evolution. These precious moments with our babies are fleeting, but leave powerful imprints on our very beings. Selfishly, we wish they’d stay babies forever, depend on us just a bit longer; but oh, how our hearts swell with pride as they spread their wings and fly, secure in the love we so fully gave. Somehow, seamlessly, we have to learn to embrace both ends of the spectrum.

And you know what? It’s really hard.

So forgive me if for now, I go on grumbling about a baby who doesn’t sleep—while secretly loving it for the echoes of “my baby” it allows. And one day, when she’s grown, sleeping soundly in her bed all night as her big brother and sister do, I’ll look back on these nights and smile.

And no matter who I become, however my identity as “Mom” looks in years to come, I’ll treasure these moments in my heart forever.

Baby mine

(Originally published 6/14/15 at https://www.bisonbooties.com/blog/the-fear-of-letting-go/)

10 Steps to Becoming an Actual Grown-up

1. Wear lipstick. Is lipstick still a thing? I remember breaking out my mom’s tubes of pretty pinks and red and playing with them when I was, oh, 6. Don’t think I’ve touched the stuff since. But I should??

2. Stop thinking of yourself as perpetually 16. (Not to be confused with dressing like I’m still 16; that body ship sailed somewhere around delivery of kid number 1, a fact of which I’m well aware.) Turning 30 felt oddly similar to turning 16. I feel like I’m still the same person inside, but somehow I have a husband, three kids, a house, and a minivan. What?!

3. Use anti-wrinkle cream. The dermatologist gave me samples of this along with the cheery suggestion that I start using it, and I almost fainted on the spot. How is it possible I need to use something that’s only for OLD people (see no.2 above)?

4. Let the 90s go. The 1990s were two full decades ago. TWENTY years. I’ve been in silent denial of this fact, but there it is. It seems impossible we were watching Boy Meets World and blasting Ace of Base on the radio that long ago, but the calendar can’t lie. And it stings a little.

5. Start shopping in grown-up clothing stores. First there were catalogs (Delia’s anyone?), then trips to the mall with friends to stores like American Eagle and Maurices. But now? I’m stuck in some clothing limbo where the only solution is Target, and that’s only because I’m already there 12 times a week for diapers and dog food.

6. Make a will. File this one under “always mean to do it but never quite do.” Once you get past the mortality of it all, it really is a good long-term planning idea.

7. Toss all remaining clothes from high school. Why do I hang on to that 9th grade basketball T-shirt? Or those jeans I haven’t worn since senior year? There is no good answer, and it’s becoming mildly embarrassing.

8. Accept that other (actual) grown-ups can be younger than I am. You make an appointment to see, say, a doctor. Doc walks in, and is most definitely younger than you—maybe even a younger classmate you recognize from school. Are they giving MDs to middle schoolers now? Or you tune into “The Bachelor” and realize most of the contestants are at least 5 years your junior. Suddenly, other people are just as likely to be younger than you than they are to be older—and that’s a tough one to swallow.

9. Floss. Other than the day I go to the dentist, and the three other times I think of it, I mean. Don’t tell me I’m still the only one?!

10. Go to bed before midnight. This one I blame on the kids. How am I supposed to find any “me time” if it’s not at 11pm when no tiny humans are vying for my constant attention? My grandpa used to say every hour of sleep after midnight only counts as half. Come to think of it, maybe that’s why I’m apparently now in need of anti-wrinkle cream.

(Originally published 6/7/15 at https://www.bisonbooties.com/blog/10-steps-grownup/)

A Flood of Memories

Note: That’s my house in the photo above, still underwater about a week after the crest of the Mouse River in Minot in 2011. Our home saw 5’5″ on the main level (water that sat about 10 days), and many homes in the city saw up to double that. At the time, we had two young kids–ages 2 and 3mos. old–and the following is my recollection of the evacuation that preceded Minot’s historic flooding, which displaced some 12,000 residents.  

June 22, 2011—12:57pm

I’m sitting on my mother-in-law’s couch, gazing out the window at the lush green of North Dakota’s countryside in full bloom. It’s the kind of day we relish in Minot; hot summer sun is fleeting in the northern plains, tightly bookended by the slide into and out of long winter months. But this day is textbook perfection by all accounts.

Except for one thing: life as we knew it is about to be swallowed up by the raging Mouse River.

Typically the Mouse (or Souris River, as its known in Canada) winds through this town of about 40,000 people, gently halving it into “North Hill” and “South Hill” with the tree-lined valley at its heart. It’s a quiet river, rarely gaining attention or drawing concern. I grew up a stone’s throw from the water, never worrying it might spill over its banks.

It’s a complicated system, the way this river is managed; four upstream dams—Alameda, Rafferty, Boundary, Lake Darling—are controlled by the US and Canada via international treaty. In years when snowpack and runoff are high, additional government agencies get involved, adhering to a manual agreed upon by the two nations. Target flows, water levels, cubic feet per second—there’s little room for flexibility, by design, in hopes that a scientific approach will usher water through the region without incident.

But 2011 set up like a perfect storm. The bathtub, if you will, filled up faster than the drain was being allowed to run. Dams neared capacity. Downpours oversaturated the ground. Spring runoff reached record levels. The drain was opened incrementally, but it was too little, too late. Soon, the bathtub would overflow, even when the drain was pulled completely.

By June 19th, local news video of water crashing out of the gates at Lake Darling Dam was shocking, sobering. Minot was going to flood—and it was going to be bad. I’ll never forget the moment that day—Father’s Day—standing in my living room watching Minot’s mayor confirm the news with a drawn, grim face: water will destroy the valley. Evacuate now. Take all you can. Hurry.

And so, the exodus began. Flatbed trailers, moving vans, anything with wheels flooded the valley first, as we scrambled to salvage what we could. Looming catastrophe was thick in the air. It was, quite literally, as if all your neighbors decided to move away on the same day. Despite the circumstances, it was eerily still—almost as if a nuclear bomb had fallen. The quiet was deafening.

By that Wednesday afternoon on June 22nd, our house had been stripped of every item of worth or sentiment, an empty shell waiting for impending disaster, perfectly mirroring my own feelings. There would be a time for hope, for grit and gratitude, self-reliance and hard work, but this was a time for sorrow. As the sirens began their somber wail 57 minutes and 20 seconds after noon, signaling the first of the water overtopping the dikes, we all felt the incredible pain it signified.

As I sat on that couch on the high ground of Minot’s South Hill that afternoon, the TV news anchor’s voice (a voice, incidentally, belonging to my father) filled the airwaves on televisions glued to his station’s 24/7 coverage: “Water is inundating the city and is moving over the top of the dike system…It’s a dike system that has done its job over the past few weeks to give citizens safety and comfort but unfortunately, it’s just too much for it to handle. The question now is can we all pull together and make sure that we are able to handle what comes in the coming days and weeks?”

From the comfortable distance four years affords, sitting inside my rebuilt home, I know now the answer was, “Yes.” Because while the Mouse roared, unleashing its far-reaching, catastrophic physical damage, something else was rising in us: strength. We grieved that day for what we’d lost, we got mad, we felt despair. But quietly, steadily, we grew determined to come out the other side of it stronger, better, more weathered but wiser.

It’s why four years later, recalling that sound, that sinking feeling, that day—there’s room in my heart for more than pain. There’s pride for being part of a community that rose to the challenge of rebuilding our lives—and becoming the better for it.

(Originally published 6/22/15 at https://www.bisonbooties.com/blog/a-flood-of-memories/)

Why the Middle Matters

from a mom to her middle child, a loving message about love and family

Back-to-school buzz is everywhere, isn’t it? I know you’ve noticed—you sat in the shopping cart while we picked out school supplies for your big sister, frowning over all the brand new pencils, notebooks, and markers (“Can I just have the orange one?”). You watched as we labeled and packed them up in her backpack, and dutifully tagged along as we dropped her off on her first day of first grade.

As the second born, it probably feels like you’re constantly playing second fiddle. Your sister is older, taller, more self-assured. When she does something big like heading off to school for the first time, your dad and I can get a little carried away because it’s a milestone we’ve never experienced as parents either.

But I want to remind you of something really, really important: your firsts matter just as much as hers.

Right now, you’re too young to grasp what it means to be the middle child, sandwiched between the pioneering oldest and the “awfercute” youngest. Believe me, I get it—I’m in the middle, too. People will tell you how lucky you are to be second, how you’ll benefit from having more experienced parents, skirt the coddling as the baby of the family. Well-meaning teachers will compare you to your older sister, say how much they loved having her in class, what a great student she was. Strangers will gush over your adorable little sister, exclaim how fun it must be to have her around to play with.

Sometimes, it will feel like it’s always about them, and never about you.

It’s not.

In a few days, you’ll start preschool. Your dad and I are veterans this time, of course, having sent your sister a few years ago into the very same room. We know the teachers, and they’ll remember your early morning perma-scowl (it’s why we enrolled you in the afternoon session, by the way). But what they don’t know, what your dad and I haven’t yet experienced, is you in this moment. Not your uncertain half smile as you pose outside the door for a ceremonial photo. Not your finger painted wobbly letters and gluey macaroni art. Not your puffed-out chest distributing cheese crackers as the designated “snackee” of the day. It’s all new to you, which will make it all new to us.

Because even though this path has been blazed by your older sister, you’re making it wider. You’re adding unexpected detours and giving us beautiful new views.

Before you were two years old, you talked in complete sentences. I remember us standing in line at a department store one day; we’d just dropped your sister off at school, and you started jabbering in your tiny toddler voice. A woman ahead of us glanced back, then did a quick double-take when she saw it was you doing the talking. “How old is he?” she asked, incredulous that such a small person could carry on such conversation. When I told her, she shook her head and smiled down at you. “What a smart boy you are, with so much to say!”

How right she was: you have much to contribute. You have stories to tell and pictures to paint of things we thought we’d already seen. From your spot in the middle, you’re discovering the joys of life in a new way—in your own way—and helping us discover them again, too.

And that, my child, is something only you can do.

(Originally posted 9/17/15 at https://www.bisonbooties.com/blog/middlechildren) 

Life in the face of death

Recently, a local young mother lost her life just six weeks after being diagnosed with cancer. I didn’t know her personally, but our community is small enough that we have a handful of mutual friends. She was in her mid 30s, married with three young children, and so much life yet to live.

Her story left many of us shaken.

Strong, young, healthy people aren’t supposed to get sick. They aren’t supposed to be given devastating diagnoses in sterile doctor’s offices.

They’re not supposed to be robbed of the fullest, sweetest years of their lives.

Mothers should be grumbling about their lack of sleep over cups of coffee with sympathetic friends. They should be nuzzling newborns in sunlit nurseries, breathing in the downy scent of tiny heads, memorizing the feel of warm little bodies snuggled at their breast.

Mothers should be bundled up on the sidelines of soccer games on brisk fall evenings, cheering on lanky, still uncoordinated children and passing out sports drinks and granola bars after the final goal. They should be packing school lunches. Escaping with their husbands for overdue date nights. Lunching with old girlfriends.

Mothers aren’t supposed to be stolen away by cancer.IMG_8611

It’s unfair. It’s infuriating. It’s unfathomable. And as a young mother with three kids of my own, it stirs a raw fear hiding deep in my heart. If it happened to one just like me, it could just as easily happen to me.

That, self-centered as it sounds, is terrifying.

It’s chilling to imagine your little world, the lives who depend on you, the partner who sustains you, the daily tasks that require you, going on without you. It’s a thought that flits across most of our minds at one point or another as we’re busy raising our families, but we’re quick to push it aside. Those thoughts are uncomfortable and unnerving.

And, after all, that sort of thing would never happen to us.

But then, a young mother is healthy one month and gone the next. Another starts a course of rigorous treatment. Maybe you have a slight scare yourself. It brings it all back into sharp focus, the precarious, precious nature of this life.

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I found myself awake with my toddler overnight, rubbing gentle, absentminded circles on her back as we sat together on the couch in the predawn stillness. As I reveled in the solid weight of my youngest child sprawled across my chest, her deep, even breaths warming my cheek, my thoughts drifted to the mother who isn’t there in the middle of the night. Why her? Why now? Why is there so much suffering, such deep, heartbreaking scars for those left behind?

A few hours later, I slipped into my first-grader’s bedroom to wake her for school. As I reached down to brush her hair from her pink cheek, she opened her eyes and grinned up at me, already awake.

“Mom,” she said. “Guess what I was thinking about?”

“What?” I asked her, warming at her early-morning exuberance.

Her face grew solemn. “’Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil for You are with me. Your rod and your staff, they comfort me. You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil. My cup overflows.’” She beamed up at me, searching for my approval. It was two verses in Psalm 23 she’d been working to memorize the past week for her Wednesday night church program, and she’d recited them flawlessly.

I closed my eyes, my throat tightening. The valley of the shadow of death. Lately it seems like death is lurking around every corner, nipping at our toes and threatening our comfortable, predictable lives.

And yet, there is hope.

I smiled at my daughter, hugged her tight, and let the words still hanging in the air fill the space around us.

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It’s one of the great mysteries of human existence, I suppose—the way we grapple with our own mortality. We struggle to come to terms with it and live with it at a comfortable enough distance to go about our daily lives. But lurking just below the surface is the knowledge that our days are numbered. Most days, that thought is mercifully far from our conscience. Sometimes, it bubbles over.

That’s OK.

Grieving the tragedy of lives lost is necessary. Anxious thoughts of our own mortality are normal. Looking into the eyes of our children and feeling limitless love and simultaneous terror is what it is to be a mother, what it is to be human. We know sadness. Sorrow. Heartache. Loss.

But we also know joy. Happiness. Love. Fulfillment.

It would be easy to let what we cannot control consume our lives. To slip from feeling into fearing, drowning out the whispers of hope and truth.

Don’t let fear win.

Joy comes with pain. Happiness is coupled with sadness. Living means dying. But each day we have air in our lungs—each morning we’re greeted by the shining eyes of our children—is an opportunity to live. To love. To hope.

Despite sorrow, beautiful truth remains: life is a precious gift.

My cup overflows.