Can we be human, and mothers?
It feels taboo to be struggling with mental wellness as a mother. Sure, so many aspects of motherhood feel like overwhelming little tests to the mind and emotions, but really battling with diagnosed mental illness? How can these two things co-exist?
When I was diagnosed with ADD and an anxiety disorder this past spring, I didn’t tell anyone. I didn't really know how to tell anyone. Even though I actually found a lot of relief in the diagnosis. It was quietly empowering for me to finally understand how my brain worked, why I'd been feeling the way I had for so long, and what I needed to do to better support myself.
I felt like I could take a full breath for the first time in a long while.
But, despite feeling healthier than ever, I just couldn’t bring myself to tell people.
Because I’m a mother. Even though "I know better" than to let these things bother me, I feel like I have to have it all together - all the time. What would people think if they knew I didn’t? Could I live with that? I have already experienced harsh critics from the outside, and at the time I wasn't sure if I was ready to suit up again just to voice my vulnerability.
In my heart, I know this doesn't/shouldn't actually matter, but it is a weight that so many mothers feel despite being self-aware enough to rise above it.
The worst part? Knowing I should rise above, but still falling victim.
It’s sure disappointing to find out that becoming a mother doesn’t mean you know everything. I have innocent memories from my childhood that had lead me to believe motherhood meant we have all the answers - when in fact, it feels like the opposite. It feels like motherhood manifests all kinds of new questions. About raising a child. About myself. About life.
These early years in motherhood have steep learning curves. Even though it seems like we have so much helpful information available to us (say, in comparison to previous generations), social media and the amount of information that is right at our fingertips in this age of the Internet means there are thousands of opportunities a day to feel like you’re - just - not - getting - it - right.
I can’t get enough veggies in her.
I can't find matching socks.
I don’t know why she wakes up in the night still even though she’s two and a half.
That new study about TV conflicts with that other study about TV and my magical maternal instincts are not kicking in to tell me which is right.
Making the initial appointment with the psychologist felt strange. My own inner-voice reassured me it was something I had wanted and needed for a long time. But, the fabricated voices of other people that my brain likes to play for me, made me feel like I was failing by acknowledging some sort of weakness. Or, worse, failing Em, my daughter.
I know this isn't a weakness. And yet, my feelings are still there.
Shortly after getting my diagnosis, I met with my doctor to get his opinion on medication. He told me anxiety meds would likely worsen my ADD symptoms. But, meds to manage my ADD would be helpful for both my anxiety and my ADD.
The unsupported ADD is what caused the anxiety in the first place. However, medication for ADD isn’t something that’s proven to be safe to take if you’re pregnant or breastfeeding. This forced me to seriously consider something that my husband and I had only just started to talk about...
Do we want another kid?
I had to really look at the expectation I had placed on myself that, as a mother, I had to have it all together.
We realized we did want more. One more. Just one more child. So with this new information about my health, my husband and I spent lots of time thinking and talking about it to figure out what made sense for us, but also what made sense for me.
How would ADD and anxiety affect my experience with two kids instead of just one? The first few years with two would be the hardest for sure. The demands of the baby to toddler years are very difficult to manage for the way my brain operates and doubling that would surely induce a whole new level of chaos.
But that didn’t seem like enough of a reason to give up on myself…those years would be hard, sure, but they would also pass. Those years are really so so short in the bigger picture. I reminded myself that I would have support. We have a lot of family and friends that love our kids like their own. I wouldn’t be doing it alone (unless I let pride or shame stop me from asking for help). And, if I needed, I could take medication after breastfeeding.
Brett and I agreed that we were both scared. But we also agreed it was very possible for us to manage the chaos that two kids would bring. We planned to time it so our child would be born in the thick of winter when our donut shop was slow. I would actually take a maternity leave this time, unlike my previous experience with Em. I would design this pregnancy in a way that I could really adjust and figure out what works for me.
But once I made up my mind, that’s when the shame hit.
Once I knew I was bringing another baby into the world, I was overwhelmed by the fear that my mental health would be harmful to my children. Sure, I want another kid - but, should I have another kid?
I don’t have it all together.
Mothers have it all together.
Would I be burdening my kids somehow?
Was this decision actually incredibly selfish?
I started to compile a list of small transgressions that I was certain made me an unfit mother and I obsessed over it.
1. I buy bags of frozen veggies because keeping track of produce that’s going bad in the fridge is a detail my mind doesn’t have space to hold. Multi-tasking is very difficult for me, so cooking and being with Em is overwhelming. It’s easier to clean up a pot of frozen veggies that’s boiled over, than to scrape burnt food off a pan - or feel guilty about the rotten bag of carrots in the crisper.
2. I can never find matching socks for her. Never. The fact that I can't stay organized enough to keep track of her socks feels devastating.
3. We don’t have a set-in-stone bath time routine and I feel like that's something I should have mastered by the time the toddler years arrive.
4. I know sometimes we watch too much TV.
5. I need more alone time than most people, so to accommodate that, Brett takes her out on his own or family and friends babysit. When it's not me watching her, I feel guilty or worried that I'm being self-indulgent. I don't feel that way all the time, but sometimes I do.
When I start to list it like this, I realize how hard I'm being on myself. Is any of this detrimental to her? Are these things actually hurting her growth as a person, or scarring her future abilities?
Do I seriously feel so ashamed about my freezer full of frozen veggies that I’m going to disqualify myself from having another child?
I contemplated this fantasy of motherhood I was holding onto for a long while. I had to ask myself these questions, broken down and in their most extreme state in order to understand them - like the broccoli. This is also a part of managing my ADD and anxiety.
So I wonder: are mothers a special breed of person? Do we just check our humanity at the door when we become mothers?
You're pregnant: boom.
Now, you're only a mother and nothing else.
Please leave all your bags at the door. Mothers are perfect, superhumans. You don’t require sleep or bathroom breaks or alone time or even sexuality. You always serve perfect meals. GMO-free. You don’t make mistakes. You don’t have shortcomings. You always know where your children's socks are at all times.
When I make motherhood extreme like this, it's easy for me to say: that's ridiculous.
Despite the chaos my mind can create, I know deep down inside that I am a good mother.
I'm a really good mother.
My ability to disconnect from reality means that I can full immerse myself into my kid’s world. My brain doesn’t see the mess we make as we have sticker parties and build “London Bridges” just to knock it down. The sink can be full of dishes and I am content to lay on the playroom floor entertaining her with mermaid stories.
Because what really matters - those hysterical afternoons giggling on the floor... or last night's dirty dinner plates?
My sensitivity might leave me vulnerable sometimes, but it also makes me my daughter's safe place. Em has thick skin and a busy body, so it’s rare for her to feel vulnerable or sad. When she does, she rushes to me. It confuses her to feel those things. I don’t tell her she’s okay and I don’t distract her. I feel it with her, because I get it. We lay down together. I rub her back. We talk about why she’s sad. And we stay like that until she feels ready to move on.
And I know I will always be a soft place to land.
Yes, the way my scattered mind works is a guarantee that my kids will watch me struggle. But they will also see its strengths. Sometimes they will see me fail and sometimes they will see me overcome. I strongly believe that my vulnerability will teach them far more than my perfection ever could, and if anything, I think that obsessive perfection is what would really be detrimental.
Not my humanity.
Meghan Zahari is a published writer and creator of Willow Press, an indie publisher for creative projects that don’t fit within the traditional publishing route. On top of meeting her creative goals, she juggles her responsibilities as a mother and part-owner of a local donut shop. Her first book, Domestic, is available at McNally Robinson’s or online at www.willowpressco.com