Dear New Moms:
What is mother love? What is it supposed to feel like when you have one of those unbreakable bonds, when you love your mama so much that you'd call her name as a mortally-wounded soldier on the battlefield, or phone her once a week when you're a grownup just to make sure she's okay, or write in a ninth grade essay that she's the most important person in your life? How does that work? How does that feel?
I've got nothing.
When I was little, my mom was ill. It wasn't her fault. She's a good person. She just had postpartum depression and didn't know it was the cause of her misery. She wasn't treated, because who even knew what PPD was then?The only way she could figure out to get through her life at the time was to self-medicate. I'm not sure what she remembers or how she perceives my childhood, since we've never really talked about it, but I know it was a topsy turvy place. One hopes that one's mother will be a rock: dependable, stable, supportive, even, calm. A seriously self-medicated mom is none of those, at least not for any length of time. One never knew whether nice mommy or scary mommy was around the bend.
Eventually things got pretty bad and my parents divorced when I was in third grade. Less than two years later, my father remarried. A very wonderful woman, she is, who took it upon herself to raise another woman's two children, having none of her own at the time when she became my father's wife.
She wasn't perfect. NO ONE IS. But she was a great mom. She tried hard. She made things for us. She created special rituals, like pink pancakes on Valentine's Day and handmade bunnies at Easter. She taught my brother and I to play Yahtzee. She talked to me about sex, and periods and women's bodies with such ease and openness that I remember it to this day. She did her best. Still, it was hard for me to feel whatever children feel when they are closecloseclose to their mamas. I was too far gone. I didn't know it, but I had already shut down long ago to protect myself from feeling much of anything.
I went on to have a very nice life. I grew up, my dad and "new" mom had two more children, my lovely sisters, and I went to college, met a man, fell in love and got married. Eight years later it became time for me to have a baby myself, and once again …
I've got nothing.
"I can't do this." "How will my baby ever love me?" "I'm not sure I know what mother love is." I realized I have a hollow space inside where mother love is supposed to be. I have a hard time with intimacy, and there is not much that is as intimate (in the non-sexual sense of the word, of course!) than the relationship of mother and child. I had no sense of what to do or how to behave, and was completely convinced I'd be an abject failure. These feelings were a shock to me, as I was so excited and happy to become a mom during my pregnancy.
The feelings weren't concrete to me either, at least not in a way that I could have explained it to you then. I didn't recognize the origins of my postpartum OCD at the time. It took years of therapy for me to realize what was going on deep down in places inside me I'd prefer not to visit, and how that affected my perception of my ability to mother.
I don't like going back to ugly town.
The only thing that was obvious to me after my son was born was that I was crazy. I was a sobbing, scared, sleepless and seriously defective mother who had no business raising a beautiful child. I was potentially harmful, with thoughts running through my head that should never see the light of day. Or …
Or I was just sick. I came by my illness honestly, a combination of childhood trauma, family history of mental illness, anxious and perfectionistic personality, and whatever else mixed in the pot to bring about one of the worst experiences of my life. No one warned me that I had several risk factors for postpartum depression and anxiety, which sucks out loud and which I've come to believe is fairly inexcusable in this day and age. But once I sussed out the fact that it wasn't me that was crappy but was instead the illness, I could move forward toward a solution.
You can, too. However it is you came to have postpartum depression or anxiety or OCD or psychosis or PTSD or antenatal depression or anxiety or post-adoption depression, you came by it honestly as well. It's not your fault. You didn't cause it, and it's highly likely no one ever talked to you about whether you had the risk factors for it. I'm hoping we can change that so that mothers in the future will have greater awareness and a plan in place to get effective help as soon as possible.
I'm better, friends. I got treated and I recovered fully. Like 100000% fully. And I found the motherlode of mother love, maybe not in the traditional way or the easy way, but I found it and I have it now — in the form of my precious children, Jackson and Madden — and I refuse to ever let it go.
Never not ever.
I madly love mother love.
Katherine Stone is the founder and editor of Postpartum Progress the blog, and the founder and chief Warrior Mom of Postpartum Progress the non-profit. She also writes a weekly column on motherhood at ParentDish called If Mama Ain't Happy. Follow her on Twitter at @postpartumprogr.
Note: Thanks to both my moms for doing their best and helping to make me a pretty decent person after all. 😉
Donations to Postpartum Progress can be made here: http://postpartumprogress.org/donate-postpartum-depression-2/
"But once I sussed out the fact that it wasn't me that was crappy but was instead the illness, I could move forward toward a solution."
This…doing this…was such a huge, huge help for me in finding my way to healthy again. Knowing that this was the illness and NOT me and separating the two was so valuable to my health.
Thank you, Katherine, for being a warrior. For doing what you do.
I feel that – I know it's the illness and I've done as much as I can so far to try and get help. But I'm still stuck. I've got the mother love – that was never an issue. I just can't deal with my kid.
I love hearing your story about being better – just wish I could see how I'm going to get there.
I have that same mom-shaped hole in my soul. (((hugs))) to you. It's not as easy to mother when a lot of your own experiences fall into the what-not-to-do category.
this one made me cry. Took quite a few to get me there, but here i am a weepy mess.
I have never been able to articulate the whole "my real mom was a mess, but I had a great step-mom, still I didn't really get the whole being close to a mother-figure thing, so I had trouble bonding and being a mom" thing as well as you have here. SO grateful for you, this post, and for my health and the mother love that I learned (since it doesn't always "just happen").
Such an eloquent piece! I love that you go into how the past plays a role, as well as how you highlight the fact that its inexcusable that women aren't warned about PPD. I admire you so much for all the work you're doing to change that.
Every mother deserves to find what "mother love" means to them. I'm glad you found yours.
oh Katherine. Like Grace, I am all tears. I am so thankful for you and your mother love.
I am so thankful for your sharing your story.
I am SO thankful for this space you have created.
Thank you so much Katherine for sharing your experience. This will help so many moms, dads, and children. Bless you!