Break Open

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They say your life changes when you have a baby.  No matter how many times I heard this cliche, it still hit me like a turbulent wave.  Last October, my life transformed the moment my son was born.

Pregnant at nearly 41 weeks, I felt I was ready enough.  Ready to give birth.  Ready to be a new mom.  Ready for the sleepless nights with a newborn.  Didn’t the pregnancy serve as the training ground to prepare for the real event?  I was eating a healthy diet, careful to avoid high-mercury seafood and alcohol.  I drank a daily green smoothie or protein shake.  I regularly practiced yoga and stretching exercises.  I went for walks.  I prepared frozen meals to have available.  I meditated and listened to positive affirmations each night.  In the final week before I went into labor, I had a few sessions of gentle labor-inducing acupuncture and a labor-ready massage.  My pregnancy was thankfully a smooth journey, so I was hopeful it would carry over into the birth.

You have a sense where this is all going, right?  The course of life is not a predictable one.  As valuable as my health practices were, it could not guarantee any outcome during labor and delivery.  I was blindsided.  Over the course of 36 hours, many complications occurred that ultimately led to a frightening C-section experience.  I would spend three days in the hospital unable to walk.  I would need to recover indoors for another 6 painful weeks, my mobility and independence severely limited.  I would feel trauma and fear following my son’s birth, uncertain of myself, and suddenly feeling betrayed by my own body.  As ready as I thought I was for the birth, I was not ready for the aftermath.

My first month as a mother was an intense and lonely time.  I burst into tears whenever I recounted the night of the delivery.  I was angry at my body for being in pain whenever I moved or from being too uncomfortable to get the sleep I desperately needed.  The first few weeks of adjusting to a newborn required my husband and I to take separate shifts caring for the baby.  The backdrop of the nightmarish election and reading the news coverage added an ominous layer of fear.  All of this was certainly difficult, but there was something that made it much worse.  My inner critic.  That voice constantly looped: What did I do wrong?  Motherhood shouldn’t be like this.  I shouldn’t feel this way.  I should be appreciative that I’m alive and that my baby is alive.  I felt ashamed of my thoughts and my emotions, like I could not voice them without sounding ungrateful or that I was too weak to deal with the challenges of motherhood.  The self-judgement and shoulds added to my pain, what mindfulness teacher Tara Brach calls the second arrow that brings suffering.        

None of this is easy to write about, but it’s important to share.  Many women face postpartum baby blues or depression.  Given my work with college students and in teaching the importance of mental health, I took the first crucial step: I reached out for support.  I shared my deepest fears with my husband.  I connected with close friends, many who are also mothers.  I listened to encouraging podcasts like Tara Brach and The Longest Shortest Time.  I went to counseling, where I learned that I was going through multiple complex processes:  grieving my former life, adjusting to motherhood, and recovering from trauma.  All of that takes time and patience.  Self-love and kindness.  I couldn’t fix or force my way out of this.  I could only meet each day with grace.  My counselor gently reminded me to tell myself: Whatever I’m feeling, thinking, or doing, it’s okay.  Even if I don’t like it, that’s okay, too.  I learned not to feel bad for feeling bad.  And when I had days where I was able to take care of one small thing, like putting the laundry away or writing a paragraph in my journal, that was to be celebrated.  Celebrate the small wins.

When I felt isolated and helpless, it was easy to believe that it would be like this forever.  I didn’t believe people when they reassured me it would get easier; it would get better.  Cognitively, I knew it was true, but it took awhile for the rest of my emotions to understand that.  My counselor said that I didn’t need to believe it in order to take action.  I could still make positive choices every day that will help me heal, like contacting a friend or going for a walk.

Gradually, it did get better.  The physical and emotional healing happened simultaneously.  As my body healed, my competence and confidence as a mother improved, and my baby began to develop sleep and feeding patterns.  The turning point was around six weeks – the day I officially recovered and was able to take my son out for the first time on my own.  It was a milestone moment for both of us.

As difficult as it was, I wouldn’t wish for a different experience.  I am learning to find strength in my birth story, one that has deeply humbled me and broken me open.  One that showed me the profound lesson of practicing self-love, the foundation from which all else springs.  One of my good friends told me that one day I would feel empowered by my birth story, not fearful of it.  I am starting to believe her.

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