I’ve been trying for months to spit out some words. I have started and then failed to complete any number of thoughts in a way that would be, best case scenario, marginally intelligible to readers. I had more or less given up on the idea of creating useful or insightful content, primarily because every concept I entertained eventually slipped through my sieve-like mind. The mental fog has been so great, I haven’t been able to string words together, let alone thoughts.
There were times when the desperation felt so great, I didn’t want to write at all. I crawled over each task on my belly and every word I attempted to write felt like mountain in a long, desolate range than stretched as far as I could see in either direction. Naively, I believed I was just tired, overwhelmed with work and the stress of raising a toddler. I didn’t see how my mental health was spiraling out of my control until I was on the precipice of a crisis.
The signs of a major depression are known to me and have been for a long time, but I still managed to take the sadness, the intolerance, the anger and loss of interest for granted. Recently, when my behavior escalated into full-blown mania, I couldn’t pretend that I was getting by anymore. Hard to feel healthy and grounded when your mind is propelling you straight into the sun.
I’ve been telling myself to that I need to bounce back. Pick yourself up by the bootstraps and move on. Just get up off of the floor. Stop doing this — get. up.
Every day I am trying very hard to be here.
I recognize that there will always be times that life leaves you in places of despair. This time, in attempts to insulate from those places and those people, I chose to withdraw back into myself, knowing it was a risk. But I have tried to withdraw in the direction of the Right Things: my husband, my child, my work, my tribe. I have been trying to care for myself the way a mother would, because I know that I need caring for.
“You have to find a mother inside of yourself. We all do. Even if we already have a mother, we still need to find this part of ourselves inside.”
– Sue Monk Kidd, from The Secret Life of Bees
I am searching for that part of me inside that is going to push me to bounce back in the way that I must. The woman who will nurture me and encourage me to try something new. To turn away from relationships and loves that no longer feed my soul. I am trying to identify that voice inside that says, “Get up. Breathe. You can do this. Don’t sell yourself short. Just breathe. Breathe, and go eat a good meal, and wash your hair, and then get in bed early. Get up in the morning at a reasonable time. Go to work. Do your best like you always do. Work, and work on you. And work on those things that are important to you. Brush yourself and the naysayers right off. Trust that you are a good mother. Trust that you know what you’re doing is right, because you know what’s right for you. Leave fair-weather friends behind, and then forgive them. And then forgive yourself, because you are worthy of being loved just as you are, which is just as I made you. Circle back in on yourself when you need to, but grow. And live. And love. And at the end of every day, let your final take-away be this: My darling girl, look how far you have come.“
Look, I get it, all right? I have cute aggression, too. I can’t resist those chubby thighs, those chunky cheeks, the little Michelin tire rolls ‘round ankles, bellies, and wrists. I mean, let’s just face it: skinny babies just aren’t as cute as the rollie-pollie kind.
But so help me God, if one more person calls my baby a “chunky monkey”, or squeals with joy while pinching her delicious little rolls between their forefinger and thumb, I’m going to lose it. God bless my girl friend who heard this from me recently after telling me she, “loved Moira’s chunk.” “Don’t call her that!” I said, a little snappily. My girl friend was chagrined, but listened kindly as I tried to dismantle my aversion and explain my reaction. Yes, Moira is chubby. She is rounded in all of the delightful ways a healthy young child should be. And unfortunately, I am a product of a society that equates “chubby” with “fat” and tells us that fat is just about the worst thing a person can be, so I’m a little sensitive to comments about my child’s looks. Until “fat” ceases to be synonymous with “lazy”, “unhealthy”, and “frumpy”; until “fat” is no longer antonymic with words like “beautiful”, “healthy”, and “attractive” — don’t call my baby fat. In fact, why not praise her for all other salient reasons for which she ought to be praised, rather than her looks? Her intelligence, her kindness, her joyfullness, her curiosity? Praise her being, not her body! But, that’s another blog post.
Before Moira was born, I made a pact with myself that she was going to grow up different than I did. That promise entailed a great many things, but chief among them were the lessons I learned about food, body image, and self-esteem. After I learned I was having a girl, I began to anticipate what an immense responsibility I would have in addition to being this child’s mother — I was going to be responsible for stewarding this perfect little girl through a world that would gladly strip her down to flesh and bones, both metaphorically and in body, to meet their idealized and unrealistic standards. I was going to have to fight for her right to be and do everything that made her heart feel right, damned what the world thought, because who is going to teach a girl how to be a healthy, happy woman, except her mother? Since she was born over 18 months ago, I’ve been increasingly defensive about my daughter’s body. It began with the acknowledgment of my own insecurities and a solemn promise to never share them with Moira. I can directly trace my own insecurities back to observations of my own mother, who would constantly poke, prod, and abuse herself for her plump physique. I recognize that if I don’t learn to put a cork in it (or, better, actually start loving myself), I’ll be hurting my daughter. As far back as I can remember, I was concerned about body image. I distinctly recall being no more than seven years old (SEVEN!) and sucking my tummy in as I walked past boys in the supermarket because I wanted to seem appealing to them. But why? Where did I learn that behavior, those values? Yes, I was rounder, less lithe, than the other girls in my grade school, but I definitely wasn’t obese by any stretch of the imagination. So tell me how my self-image became so tarnished? My mother, I think, failed to realize how her example would affect me. Every time she talked down to herself, admired another woman’s thin athletic build while simultaneously degrading her own, I listened and incorporated her perspectives into my own world view. Every time she went on a crash diet, eschewing meals for “milkshakes” and killing herself on a Stairmaster for hours into the evening, I watched and I learned. When she would criticize herself in photos and compare her thighs to my grandmother’s while sighing mournfully, every time she took me with her to shop for clothes and berated herself in the dressing room, I logged it away for later use against myself.
There are probably many more reasons for my low self-esteem and my lifetime struggles with weight. I wasn’t raised to be a healthy eater. I wasn’t raised to be especially active. I had a negative self-image from very early on, but as I got a little older and started to fill out in ways that weren’t considered healthy, I was subjected to a lot of criticism, both at home and at school. I don’t recall my pediatrician ever commenting that I was overweight, but I remember my parents scolding me for what I ate, and when, and how much. Our home was emotionally fraught and sometimes violent, and I began eating as a way to self-soothe. I would binge eat and hide it from my parents, and they would become effusively angry when they busted me (Tip: if your child is an emotional-eater, there are way better ways to confront that issue than shaming them about it. See “opposite of intended effect”.) Somehow, it never occurred to them to change their own habits in order to set an example for me to follow. People aren’t born thinking that being fat is a bad thing — we have to be taught to hate ourselves or each other, and I definitely was. I was taught by two adults who didn’t much care for their own bodies how to hate my own. I don’t think they ever considered how their well-intentioned criticism, or their own self-hatred, would influence me. I’m a parent now, and I keep my mother and father’s example close to my heart. Not because I want to follow it, but because I want to avoid it. All of the wrong decisions my parents made, and all of the wrong decisions I later made for myself, I’m using those lessons to concentrate on making the right choices for M. Still, people allow their distorted perceptions of beauty and health standards color their view of our family and even our parenting choices. Yeah, I’m fat — does that mean that my daughter will be, too? No, of course not. I suspect that many people look at me and assume that a.) I’m unhealthy, lazy, irresponsible, etc., and b.) assume that I will graft my flaws on to my daughter. However, nothing could be farther from the truth: my husband and I make very careful, conscientious decisions regarding food and activity choices in order to set her up for life-long health. Note: health, not thinness, because we’ve got our priorities straight. Does she still eat pizza? Sometimes. (“My monkey, my circus”, remember?) You see, I don’t want to take all that I’ve learned about being healthy and run to the other end of the spectrum, counting calories and obsessing over what goes into our bodies. In the end, that attitude would defeat the purpose of what I’m trying to achieve: raising a healthy, intelligent girl who is able to appreciate all things are best in moderation. Regardless of the size of her dress or the number on the scale, she will know that she is beautiful, valuable, and important, even if she does keep her chunky-monkey rolls all the way into adulthood. Eff your beauty standards — those thunder thighs are a family legacy. And we are gorgeous.
One year, my brother sent our mom a birthday card that really made her smile. It wasn’t one of those Hallmark deals with corny poetry and glitter — it was just a cheap little card. It had a photo on the front of a little boy sitting on the steps outside of his school, with his lunchbox beside him and his head on his lap, as if he were crying. Inside the card it said: “Some days, I still just want my mommy.” I think she loved it because she loved feeling wanted.
I think about that card a lot, particularly the sentiment printed inside: I just want my mommy. That thought wandered into my head the other night, as it often does, when I suddenly realized the date. March 8th. March 8th, the absolute worst day that ever was, ever.
In the seven years that have passed since she died, I have never gotten into the habit of honoring the anniversary of her death. March 8th is not the day I choose to remember her. It isn’t the same as those birthdays, Mother’s Day, or Christmas. Or any of the other happy occasions that bring her to mind and make me wish she were with us. The anniversary of her passing is a black mark, a day that got knocked off the calendar in sheer repulsion. A day too sad to commit to memory.
A pattern has emerged in the last few years. The anniversary goes by without my paying any mind — no more than usual, that is, because I think of her every day — but I don’t think about holding her hand in the hospital bed, listening through the night as she struggled for breath and the morphine slowly stole her life away. I elect to avoid that place whenever possible. It is as if I am walking down memory lane, the branches pulled aside to clear the path ahead. The coast is clear and then smack! One of the thin, springy branches snaps back and whips me in the face. I often feel guilty for having forgotten: I mean, here I am years later, still locked in a prison of grief. Should I not have kept count of all the awful days that have gone by and how many times I have needed her? I am forever affected by her death, but somehow, I sometimes forget that she died.
When the realization hits me, I count on my fingers — how long has it been? Seven years? Seven. Years. How it that possible? How I am still walking around with this hole in my gut, like the umbilicus that once tied me to her never healed? But then, maybe it didn’t. What is the shelf life of a mother-daughter relationship after the mother is dead and gone? At what point do I cease to be hers?
When shall I no longer wish to curl up beside her warm, soft body, my head in lap as she strokes my hair? When does a child no longer want or need their mother? I can’t fathom it, and I don’t want to. I don’t want to let go, because she was mine and I was hers and whatever wrong she did — and there were wrongs — and whatever I took for granted — and I did so, regretfully — she is mine. And I am hers: a mournful child crying on the front stoop, waiting for my mommy to pick me up and make me feel good again.
Parenthood — motherhood in particular — comes loaded with a lot hidden programming. Sure, there’s a lot they don’t tell you — I did not anticipate, for example, having my moderately sized 36Bs landing in the 40F range by the time it was all over.
Besides boobs more massive than Husband or I could ever have dreamed of, there’s also the ability to diagnose minor ailments by glancing inside a poopy diaper, and the somewhat less desirable ability to hold protracted conversations about what I have found within those diapers. But there are also things I wouldn’t have believed, things that well up from deep within.
There exists an intrinsic desire to care for every aspect of your child’s well-being, to make sure that they are safe at all costs — it is deep, lizard-brain, instinctual caveman shit. And if you’re a mom, I speak primarily of the Momma Bear Protocol.
As a new mother, you may not realize that you have downloaded this critical programming until after you have given birth. Perhaps not even until long after, not until your child stumbles unwittingly into a situation of some minor threat or danger, and you quite suddenly find that the rational, pleasant, complimentary person you once were has suddenly left the room and a wild, raging animal has taken her place. The Momma Bear Protocol has been activated.
Perhaps the most surprising this about the Protocol is that there are no caveats or exceptions: it applies to all offspring (it can even apply to children under the care of the Momma Bear but not otherwise related, or children who are in the vicinity of the Momma Bear but not witnessed to be under the care of another Momma Bear) and the Protocol contains no fail-safes or contingencies for the other caretakers of the child or children, nor the inherent integrity of those caretakers — if they fuck up, GOD HAVE MERCY ON THEIR SOULS.
Case in point: the night my husband accidentally locked me out of the house while our infant daughter slept upstairs.
He didn’t mean to do it. He works nights and he was running late, so in the rush to get in the house, change clothes, get back outside, and switch cars with me, things got a little hairy. He assumed I had my house keys. I assumed that anyone with a brain would know better than to lock the door with an infant in the house and no adults inside. Clearly, there were some failures in communication somewhere along the way. Be that as it may, none of of that really mattered once I was standing on our porch, listening to my daughter cry upstairs, with no way to get to her.
Momma Bear Activated: I broke the window next to the door, reached in and threw the lock.
Moira was fine, of course. She was already back asleep as soon as I was in the house, but that didn’t mean that I was any less hysterical. I called my husband’s cell phone and, in a voice that was two decibels higher than dog’s can hear, left a message that would have melted his ear off, had he been able to understand me. He called back to apologize, but it wasn’t until he came home the next morning to take in the broken window and my messed up arm that it really sunk in.
The moral of the story: Don’t mess with Momma Bears.
May is a crummy month for people without a mom. More than at any time of the year, there is a constant reminder that you have lost that most influential person in your life.
Even as I worked in my office today, there was a Mother’s Day Craft Fair going on outside. Nope, no thanks. I don’t want to look through the various trinkets and see what she might have enjoyed.
For the past several years I’ve been quite happy to celebrate my mother-in-law on Mother’s Day and leave it at that. But I’m a mother this year. There are a multitude of new layers to my usual Mother’s Day grief that weren’t there before.
In a case of bizarre synchronicity, I found myself having a meltdown over my motherlessness just earlier this week in reaction to something that had nothing to do with Mother’s Day approaching and everything to do with needing to talk to my mother. It’s possible that subconsciously, I was feeling a little bit off-center already due to the holiday coming up and was therefore extra sensitive, but whatever the reason my desperate need to speak with Mom coupled with my despair at leaving my daughter in the care of others while working and my umbrella fears of inadequacy converged to create a big, unholy mess. At the end of the day, I sat down with M in my lap and thought that all of it, all the tears I had cried that day, were actually about my need to be reassured that I’m a good mother — and the person I needed to hear it from isn’t around anymore.
Truthfully, I don’t miss her with my whole heart every day. Most days, in fact, I’m practically normal. But sometimes — and more often since becoming a mother myself — there is a day when I need her input. And what I’m learning is that this is normal. Particular to the loss of a mother, the grieving process doesn’t end at acceptance — it doesn’t end at all. It is a process, and ebb and flow of sadness and peacefulness, that continues for a lifetime. This is a comfort to me, as there have been several exasperating moments over the last six years when I’ve wanted to bang my head against the wall — “Why aren’t you OVER it already?!” Well, because I’m never going to “get over” it or “past it”. “Moving on” really isn’t an option for those experiencing this kind of grief. Our roadmap of the grieving process is really a curriculum of coping techniques and emotional management. And then being kind to yourself when you have days during which coping is unmanageable. As Hope Edelman says in her book Motherless Daughters: A Legacy of Loss, there will be days when you are just as sad as you were on the day she died. And that’s okay.
I suspect that this Mother’s Day will be both the same, and a little different, from years past. I will miss Mom anew this year, because I’ve joined her ranks and she isn’t here to share that with me. I’ll give flowers to my mother-in-law and my hanai-mom, because they have graciously mothered me in my mother’s absence. And I’ll finally experience Mother’s Day from the other side of things — a side that hopefully includes a little bit of sleeping in and breakfast in bed.