We are nearing the end of our Spring Break, and I say fakking-finally. Not only has the weather been terrible (minus-double-digits and friggin' snow!), but I am once again counting the hours until my children go back to school and I go back to work.
We tried to take a trip to the dollar store, and a $10 trip ended up being more than $30 as I found myself offering to buy them tons of stupid stuff just so they would STFU and stay still while I found my few items.
When we got home, I felt my anger rising as I noticed that they had spilled a whole freaking Gatorade bottle (of water, luckily) on the carpet. I yelled and clapped my hands at them. While I was losing it, I apologised for my rudeness, but I just felt out of control. I have spent dozens of hours organising and tidying our family room, and within minutes, the children had turned the entire room into a disaster area. I was pissed. The water spill was just the poo icing on the rancid cake.
Needless to say, I am no fun to be around. I am sick, menstruating, and grumpy, and I just want to be left alone to prepare for work tomorrow and to clean the kitchen. And to play the new computer game that I bought—I needed something to enjoy on this so-far terrible day. I am stuck with my kids all day until their dad gets home from work.
But guess what? It occured to me that while I am stuck with them, they are stuck with me. And that must be an awful lot of no-fun for them. I feel badly for the stressful and difficult day that they are experiencing, in addition to feeling pissed about the stressful and difficult day that I am experiencing. I'm sure that they are looking forward to being away from me, as I am looking forward to being away from them. And truthfully, they are handling it way better than I am.
It is unhealthy and unnatural for a parent to be cloistered with their kids—it's not functional for anyone. I'm not saying that there should be no such thing as a “stay-at-home parent”--I'm saying that our traditional narrative of a stay-at-home parent is messed up. We need community in order to be healthy. We all need to be around people that we enjoy being around, and we need to do meaningful work daily in order to be happy. These things can coincide with a “stay-at-home” life, but they don't for me, and I'm okay with that.
I need to have that moment in the morning when I give my kiddos a hug and kiss, then wave them goodbye and go to work. I sing loudly in the car on my way, and prepare for the day ahead. Time away from my children is essential for my happiness. What I usually fail to recognise is that, very likely, time away from me is essential for their happiness.
They don't deserve to be stuck in a house with a grumpy mommy. They don't deserve to feel that they are letting me down. They deserve to be around well-rested adults who want to be around them. I know it doesn't always work out that way, but at least we can give it a shot.
Ugh, my youngest is crying now. They were supposed to be resting, but instead they pulled out every.single.item of clothing they own and threw it onto their floor. I threatened to take away their new dollar store toys if they don't clean up right away. My oldest is pretending to be a wild cat, and my youngest is wailing. And I'm dreaming of when my kids are grown and they can be out of my hair. I'm sure they're dreaming of being out of my hair too.
Featured image is by saritarobinson via Flickr, available under a Creative Commons 2.0 license.
AJ is a writer and parent in Calgary. She is currently obsessed with caramel corn chocolate chip rice cakes with peanut butter on top.
Kids and their shit: terrible combination, amirite? Ya don't want to do all the work, and ya can't take away all their stuff. So what's a Post-Rebellion Parent (PRP) to do?
The bad news is that keeping our stuff tidy and organized is a fuckin' hard job, even for grownups. There are a lot of different skills that go into what we would consider even the most simple housekeeping tasks. And rarely do our tasks fit into convenient categories that we can somehow psychically transmit to our children. Borg parents have it so easy.
Now's the time when I put on my teacher hat, and divide the task into its essential components. If I were to try to teach one of my students to organize their shit, I would teach each skill separately. Most people don't do well learning a bunch of new things all at once, so if we want to set up our children (and ourselves!) for success, we need to learn things one at a time. Over years of practicing task analysis, I've gotten pretty good at it (although I have to admit that I'm always surprised when it ends up working!). This system isn't guaranteed to be perfect, and you'll have to tweak it a bit depending on your house, your children, and yourself.
Here's what I got:
1. Categorize Their Stuff
Think about the different categories of items that you will want to keep separate. How many categories are there? For example, in our family room, we really only have three categories of things: books, small toys, and big toys. Books go on the bookshelf, small toys go in the bin, and big toys go wherever (like I said, not a perfect system). The good news about this step I that there is no physical effort required—you can do it while you're home sick, or while you're on the crapper.
This also works for your stuff as well—how do you need to sort your stuff? Think about if you were trying to find an item: what other items would you need for it to be grouped with in order to help you find it quickly and easily? There is a trade-off here: fewer categories means that it will take less time to clean up (think about scooping piles of small toys into living room bins-- easy peasy!), but that there is more effort required to find an item that you are looking for (if I were looking for a stuffed duck toy, I would expect to find it in one of four bins, which means that potentially a-l-l of the bins would have to be searched. It would be easier to find if there were only one bin of soft toys, and hard toys were in a separate bin, for example.)
Think of it as a front-end load and a back-end load. The front-end load is the amount of time it takes to sort the stuff and put it away, and the back-end load is the amount of time it takes to find an item that you are looking for.
A complicating factor is, how likely are you to be looking for a specific item? To return to my toy example, we have had times where we have had to look for a specific toy, but more often, the kids just yank out a bin and go to town. When they want to play with toys, they usually are happy to play with any toy, not a specific toy.
If you have more than one child, will you be sorting their things by person, or by category, or both? For example, you could have Bobby's Toys and Suzie's Toys, or you could have soft toys and hard toys, or you could have Bobby's Soft Toys and Bobby's Hard Toys, Suzie's Soft Toys and Suzie's Hard Toys. A lot of this will depend on the parents' and the children's personalities.
So we're more than 500 words in, and we're only on the first step! See why it's so hard to figure out how to keep our shit tidy?
2. Think About Where You'll Put Each Category
If you have decided to group your children's clothes into five categories, do you have a five-drawer dresser? Will one of the categories be hung up in the closet? Can you repurpose a piece of furniture you already own to accommodate five categories? Do you need to invest in a new (or new-to-you) storage unit?
You don't need to literally have a physical compartment for every category, but it sure helps. Whenever you have more than one category sharing a space, it makes finding what you're looking for more challenging. You may as well lump the two categories together, or think about re-categorising so that you will have only as many categories as you have drawers or bins, etc.
I cheated this because my children share a room and a dresser. We have a six-drawer dresser in the room (two columns of three drawers each), and I could not be bothered to find another dresser for their room. Each child has three drawers: top drawer is socks and underwear, second drawer is shirts and pants, bottom drawer is pajamas and skirts.
We figured the books vs toys rule based on the fact that we had a bunch of bins, and wouldn't be able to accurately separate out each bin into its own category, so tada! We chuck the toys into the bins and call it macaroni.
You can also decide that one category should be in a different area. For example, instead of having toys and books in both the family and living rooms, have a reading nook in one, and a play place in another.
3. Sort Your Shit
Okay, so here we go. You'll need to get off the crapper for this one. You need to actually go through all the stuff in the area (and find all the stuff in the categories you have created elsewhere in the house). This is the first step that your children will really be able to help with (unless they're tweens or teens)-- I'd suggest you start sorting the stuff and then invite your kids to join you, clearly explaining your sorting rule.
4. Put It Away
Set up your beautiful categories and stick to 'em for a while. See how it feels. Does it feel natural to put away the stuff based on these categories, or do you find yourself forgetting your sorting rules? If your categories made sense in your brain when you were planning it all out, but find that your categories are not intuitive when you're actually putting stuff away, re-think it! Go back to step one and reconsider ways to categorize the stuff. Or do you need categories at all? Like in my toy example, can everything in one huge category be tossed all together easily?
Try it one way, reassess, then try it another way, then reassess. Keep going until you find one with a front-end and back-end load that you are happy with.
5. Label That Shit
If your kids can read, you can use words to label (environmental text! So good for kids!), and if your kiddos are not comfortable reading yet, use words and pictures. Make the categories completely explicit. If you are expecting your kiddos to do it independently (and that's the ideal!), make sure they can sort based on your sorting principles. (Do your children know the difference between “morning clothes” and “pajamas?” Or would it just be easier to separate it into “tops” and “bottoms” and decide to be okay if your kiddo wears a pair of train pj pants to the grocery store?)
I would really-really suggest that you allow for categories that your kids can sort into. Then always expect them to do the work. If they don't know how to sort their stuff into your categories, you will both keep getting frustrated. I remember when my mom tried to teach me to sort laundry. I was probably 13, but her categories were never clear to me. She'd have about seven laundry baskets: whites, lights, darks, reds, blues, blacks, and something called “cold wash.” WTF, right? Love ya mom, but WTF for real. I would throw a purple shirt in the “darks” bin, and she'd move it into “blues.” I'd toss a pink sock into “reds,” but its real home was “cold wash.” This went on for about ten minutes before I just gave up and offered to do the dishes instead. I never learned how to do the laundry—we literally never got past the sorting phase ever, and I had to learn how to do laundry for myself as an adult.
So don't do that. It would have been far easier if my mom would have just put up two exemplars-- “anything this colour or lighter goes in the warm wash,” and, “anything this colour or darker goes in cold.” And then list any exceptions (eg, underwear of any colour goes in warm cuz butt germs).
Every couple of months, check in with your kiddos as to how they look for their things. Does your child look for a specific shirt in the morning, or do they just grab any shirt and throw it on? For the former, the best option may be to hang all their clothes in a closet, whereas the latter can handle chucking stuff into drawers in a dresser.
(Another, bonus dimension that you can add to this plan is how thoroughly, exactly, you expect them to follow the system. We all don't put all our shit away all the time, and that's okay. If you are giving your expectations to your kids, take a photo of the room when it's tidied the way you want it as an exemplar for your kids. If you and your kids are building an expectation together, take a series of photos of various tidyness and discuss the pros and cons of each one. When you have agreed on one, post that thing on the wall, and gently but firmly hold them to it.)
This process is not sexy, and it is not clear-cut. It takes a lot of trial and error, and it's easy to feel discouraged when you walk into your child's room and see their stuff all over their floor like an hour after you explain the new system.
But you'll get there. Our relationship to our stuff is complex and multifaceted, and we won't see progress until we begin to acknowledge that dynamic relationship, and respond to it with a dynamic approach. The good news is that if your plan doesn't work out, you can always try again. What are some organizational breakthroughs that you've had? Let us know!
Featured image is by Caroline via Flickr, available under a Creative Commons 2.0 license.
AJ sort of keeps organized most of the time. Her favourite fish meal is tacos, and her favourite song to rock out to in the car is "Fat-Bottomed Girls." She has two kids, a spouse, a dog, a cat, and a jungle garden.
About eight months ago, I took off my wedding ring. I was going to have a bath, and I noticed that the ring was tight on my finger. I twisted it off and placed it in the medicine cabinet before hopping in the tub. When I got out, I didn't put it back on.
The next day, it sat in the cabinet, and the next, and the next. I kept expecting that the urge to put it back on my finger, but the urge never came.
After a while, I began to percolate on my experience sans wedding ring. I decided that I wanted to continue without it. Here's why:
1. It No Longer Symbolises Who We Are
When I first put on that ring, I had no children and was in my mid-twenties, beginning my career. Now, I've gained nearly a decade and fifty pounds, two children, and a life-threatening mental illness episode. I've lost myself and regained myself. I've re-created my whole life from the ashes and rubble of the death of the person I thought I was.
When I saw the ring on my finger, it was a reminder of the way my life was. It was a symbol of a deal that I made when I was a different person with a different life. That deal had been the basis of many wonderful things: two children, first and foremost. We have a house, two cars, a dog, a cat, relative financial stability. But I didn't feel that that original deal still held, and that it really shouldn't hold. Marriage should be a dynamic contract, not a static one made once. I didn't feel that the symbol of the ring represented our dynamic life together.
2. I Am Not My Marriage
Obviously, it's patriarchal AF for women to take their husband's last name, and to literally have their whole identity changed when they are married. (Although it's also patriarchal AF that women start out with their father's name, so, po-tay-to, po-tah-to.) Both honorifics “Miss” and “Mrs” are representational of the woman's marital status, which I find oppressive. I do not identify as either. I have always been a “Ms.” I'd prefer a gender-neutral honorific, or really, no honorifics at all. Can't we just be who we are?
Every time I see “Mrs” with my last name, I feel the warm dagger of breathless disappointment, of pretending to be someone I'm not, or disengenuousness.
To me, a wedding ring is a physical equivalent of that “Mrs” on the paper. It is a symbol that shows other people that I am married. This may not be a problem for some, but it is for me.
3. My Body, My Choice
In the past, whenever I had considered removing my wedding ring, I had stopped at the thought of how upsetting it would be for my husband. I literally was wearing something on my body that had more meaning to someone else than to me. Eff that! My body is mine, and I can adorn it however I want.
Removing my wedding ring was a powerful symbol to myself that my will is supreme in my body, even though I'm an old married broad. The number of years married doesn't dictate what I can and can't do with my own body. Period.
4. If My Marriage Relies On A Piece Of Metal, It Is Not Worth Anything
When I made the choice to keep my wedding ring off, I faced the very real possibility that my husband would be offended—so offended that he would want to separate. I realise now that I was not giving him enough credit.
If our marriage depends on a ring being worn on my finger, our marriage may as well end sooner rather than later. In a way, removing the ring was a litmus test to see if there was anything else in our marital wheelhouse than just being stuck to each other by a promise made a decade ago. People change in a decade; relationships change. And that's okay—it's normal and healthy. We can't expect that things will stay the same, or even that they should stay the same. The beauty of a marriage is when it can be in flux as its members are in flux.
5. My Marital Status Is Nobody's Business
A large part of the ethos of the wedding ring tends to run along the lines of, “This is how we show that we are taken.” Obviously, that is problematic AF.
Regardless of all that, the idea that a wedding ring can stop a person from cheating is laughable. If a married person wants to date or sleep with someone else, they will, with or without their ring. Yet we still associate wedding rings with marital fidelity.
If I want people to know that I am married, I will tell them. I refuse to continuously announce it with my body. If my husband feels that I need to stick some metal on my finger in order to remind myself not to cheat on him, we need to discuss item #4.
6. No Such Thing As 'Happily Ever After'
I don't believe that marriage is the end of the story. Marriage is the beginning of the story. My story goes on after I am married. To me, not wearing a wedding ring symbolises that I am not “on the shelf,” living out my days in Happily-Ever-After-land. I am an individual, I am a person in flux. Being married and being a parent doesn't negate who I am.
For many people, a wedding ring is a cherished possession, and a warm reminder of a loving relationship. That is fabulous, and I am not arguing that anyone should take off their wedding ring unless they want to. I know that, for me, this was a big step in redefining myself and my marriage.
I have talked with my husband about my wedding ring. He was clear that he would prefer for me to wear my ring, but that he understood that it was my choice. He still wears his original ring (well, actually, not his original ring—he lost his original ring on a desolate beach in Newfoundland; long story). For him, his wedding ring is a tremendously important symbol of our lives together. It's a little bit weird, I suppose, to have such vastly disparate views of our rings, but then again, we have such different, gendered experiences of life before and after marriage. I am under not illusions about his wedding ring as a deterrent to sexual attention—he is an attractive man, and he's experienced some brazen sexual advances. A wedding ring doesn't shield him from that.
So where do we go from here? We have discussed the possibility of renewing our vows, with a separate set of rings, or some other piece of jewelry. I'm not sold on that idea—I need to think about it more. Maybe I just need to wait a bit until our kids are older and our lives are more stable. Perhaps when we can think clearly about things, we'll be able to figure out what our partnership means to us. For now, we are just two well-intentioned people acting in good faith to try to make the best decisions we can. There is freedom in that. Not having the pressures of labels or of symbols frees us to create a life and a partnership that works for us.
Featured image is by Katsu Nojiri via Flickr, available under a Creative Commons 2.0 license.
AJ is a coffee-drinker and parent in Calgary, Canada. She works full-time and writes part-time, and is training to run a 10K this summer. She is excited that she has recently received her new jungle garden seeds. New this year: mini purple diakon and mustard greens.
This is my first post on the blog. Hi. It's nice to be here. I find writing, or mostly starting to write, terrifying. There’s this adorable viral video floating around featuring this miniature horse preparing to step out of a barn. It nervously stamps its hooves, inches closer to the step and then turns back. Finally, courage seems to overtake the wee pony, and it leaps into the air, landing with ease and grace. The proud little horse prances in the snow and then, in the absolute best part of the video in my opinion, it lets out a victorious kick of joy.
I am the wee horse. Writing is the barn.
Lots of other things are the barn too, if I’m going to be accurate in this metaphor. Over the course of my life, I have faced many barn steps, some I’ve gracefully leapt over, others loomed so terrifyingly I long refused to overcome them. We all encounter barn steps, and we all perceive the depth and distance differently. To make the leap, one must be of sound body and sound mind. Physical and mental health both play a necessary role in the ultimate barn step leaping success of an animal – humans included.
Physical health is relatively easy to talk about. A broken arm or a chronic illness is, while absolutely sucky and challenging in its own right, not typically considered a personal flaw or self-induced, what some people choose to believe about mental health. Mental wellness challenges, particularly what we deem mental illness, are still consistently stigmatized, despite attempts to understand causes (spoiler alert: it’s not our fault) and educate the general public about mental health and wellness. There’s a bit of a weirdness that comes with talking about mental health. A weirdness that we need to get over because it causes harm. Suicide, which could be framed as dying of mental illness, is still one of the main causes of death among young Canadians, second only to accidents.
It’s time to embrace the weirdness. It’s time to make mental health part of our everyday conversation with our loved ones, our children, our friends, our co-workers, our students. In a time when death due to untreated mental illness outweighs death by cancer in teens/young adults almost threefold, learning how to potentially avoid, manage, and thrive with a mental illness deserves a conversation or two.
So let’s do this. Let’s talk about mental health.
I’ll share you with my story, not because it’s particularly interesting or notable, simply because I find that hearing others’ stories makes it easier to share your own. And all of our stories deserve to be told and need to be heard.
I was born second in a family with four kids. My dad was cozy in his mother’s womb when his family emigrated from Germany to Canada. He would lose both of his parents before he became an adult. My mom was the middle daughter of an Evangelical Mennonite Conference missionary couple, who was born and spent her children in the West Indies where her parents erected churches and ministered.
I was a highly-sensitive middle child. Initially shy, anxious, easy to upset and prone to “explode”, I warmed up quickly around people I connected with. I excelled in school and made friends fairly easily. I demonstrated early signs of perfectionism. As a toddler, I would demand a clean shirt if my current one became soiled or smudged up in the least. In school, I expected my grades to be within the top two percent of the class. I did well in athletics, until a debilitating and misdiagnosed knee injury at age eleven ended my hopes of a future in able-bodied sports.
I was called a “high-achiever” by some, and I turned to this desire to achieve to overcome difficulties in my life; the grade-school injury that turned permanent disability, the constant societal pressure to conform to impossible body standards faced by nearly every adolescent girl, our family's move from a small town to a big city at fifteen - the fifth move of my life. It was this massive transition that first initiated the life-halting mental wellness challenges that have been with me for more of my life than they haven’t.
In my town school, I had been at the top of my class for all three years of junior high school. I won academic trophies. I even won athletic trophies despite my funky knee. My high school population was the same size of my entire former town, and the urban culture I found myself in was different and intimidating. I enrolled in the International Baccalaureate (advanced placement) program, and tried out for the volleyball team. When I failed to make the varsity team and the intensity and quantity of schoolwork and the internal and school-placed pressure to excel overwhelmed my brain and soul entirely, I broke. Being new to the city, I had few friends and my family was having their own challenges with transitioning to this new place and life so my support system was shaky. I decided that if only I could lose a bit of weight, I was heavy for my height after all, I could jump higher, run faster, feel better, have more energy, and generally be better all around. That’s how it works, right? Skinny = happy?
My brain turned on me and I spent the next four years actively battling an eating disorder that relentlessly persisted at a functional level until my mid twenties. Once in treatment I was also diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder with obsessive-compulsive traits. I was hospitalized on several occasions, in and out of outpatient hospital treatment programs frequently, and unable to continue institutionalized schooling. I dropped out of high school after one and a half semesters of grade 10.
Since the age of sixteen, I have been on and off many different types of psychiatric medication. My brain has convinced me at times that I’m not crazy enough to need drugs, I can treat myself naturally. Or my environment improves and I decide that my condition is environment-dependent (which is arguably true but environment is super hard to control). Each time I've gone off, I've found myself in need of medical treatment not far down the road. I currently take two daily pharmaceutical medications to manage my anxiety and chronic pain caused by that decades old knee injury.
I have seen a number of counselors, psychologists, psychiatrists, and doctors; how many in total I couldn’t tell you. I have done group therapy and marriage counselling, workbooks and self-therapy. My psychiatrist recently told me my anxiety disorder is “in remission,” which is both relieving and frightening. This is contingent on taking my meds, which I realize are necessary now and possibly for the rest of my life.
And there we are. My mental heath struggle story so far. It’s admittedly weird to write, but freeing too. I don’t feel like less of a person or unworthy of love or anything. It feels good sharing your truth.
We’ve chatted about challenges and illnesses, let’s move on to successes. Because as I’ve matured and learned more about my brain and the human brain in general and how we can keep our brains well, I’ve realized that I’ve had just as many successes in my mental health life as struggles.
I’ve practically mastered the art of self-care. My functionality goes out the window if my self-care is neglected. I am getting better and better at saying no and stepping back when my brain or body needs a break. I no longer feel guilt when I have a hot soak in the bathtub at 11pm, head home early from a night out with friends so I can have a full night’s sleep, or eat chocolate in my bed pretty much nightly. I am improving on meeting my own needs and feel more emotionally secure as a result.
My resilience is rising. With each scary leap I take, I feel stronger and braver. As I keep going and growing I become more flexible and adaptable. As I acknowledge my limitations I am empowered to push myself knowing that I will let up when I need to.
I am highly tuned in to my own mental state as well as those of others. I have learned to find the gifts in my sensitivity and am now at the age that I can turn inward without fear or hesitation and can look outward with compassion and love. Being receptive to humanity has its advantages.
This aptitude for understanding brains and minds and mental health and people along with my never-ceasing desire to learn, grow, and achieve has led me to seek re-admittance into the institutionalized education world, and I am now working towards a degree in psychology with the intention of pursuing grad school and ultimately a career as a practicing or research psychologist. Given my sketchy mental health background with academic pressure and over-achievement leading to mental crash, part of me is cautious to plan too far ahead in the future, while another part of me is yelling, you got this, girl!
Got this, I do. Sort of. Like the little horse, that step looms dauntingly. And it probably always will. I may never feel fully comfortable with taking those leaps, especially if it’s a new leap I’ve never encountered which is, unfortunately for people like me, what real life is almost entirely composed of. But I’m starting to get it, to appreciate it even. These days, I’m enjoying being alive.
Take heed, little horsies. We’re all in this barn together, and we’re going to take that step eventually. Knowing we’re not alone makes it at least a tiny bit easier.
And after we’ve garnered the courage to do that scary thing that may not actually be that big to the rest of the world but is monstrous to us and we’ve made that albeit overly-dramatic leap (which admittedly, I sometimes do too), remember what comes next.
The kick of joy.
The knowledge that you did it, you survived it, and are done it. And could do it again if you had. That feeling of pride is worth kicking about.
What role does mental health play in your life? How to you work towards your own mental wellness?
Featured image is by Ann_Sarkisyan via Flickr, available under a Creative Commons 2.0 license.
Mel is an avid tree watcher and bath taker. She enjoys coconut candy and listening to her daughters giggle. She is a writer, student, shepherd's pie making master, and happiest when she's outside.
We've all done it before: scrolling down your Facebook newsfeed, you see a sweet video of a mom and her cutie-pie baby. Before you can stop yourself, you click to play it. It's a montage of cute pictures and a description of how hard it is to be a new parent. Inevitably, it winds around to the conclusion: Enjoy Every Moment (TM), because your kids will be grown before you know it. Sometimes there is even a shot of an old lady who is yearning to be with her young children once again.
You ponder on it for a second; try to imagine yourself as an old lady with your kids grown. You feel a pang of loneliness as you imagine the silence of a house without teeny tiny children in it. You imagine the sound of the absence of their high-pitched voices; the sound of no teeny feet running down the hallway. It feels like an impossibility, and yet you know that this is where your life is going.
There is value to the idea of focusing on the present moment-- not being caught up in the past or the future. Mindfulness has been shown to reduce depression and anxiety, and is healthy for everyone to practise.
But that's not exactly what we have here. This is sort of an emotional hostage-taking, directed at a vulnerable group of people: new moms. There's sort of an implied threat that if a mom doesn't Enjoy Every Moment (TM), their kids will grow up and leave them and then they will become the lonely old lady at the end of the video.
Of course you can get enjoyment out of parts of early motherhood—even most of it. For some folks, it is one of the best times of their lives. They love having a teeny-weeny little bundle of love and poop to cuddle and swaddle and kiss and hug. That's wonderful. But for even the happiest new moms, there are struggles. Sleeplessness, body changes, hormone dips and swirls, and changes to the relationship are things that all post-partum moms experience.
Also, I would argue that despite what some moms claim, all moms experience ennui while caring for their children. Changing diapers fifteen times in a day is not an exciting prospect. Baby colds are the worst thing in the world. There are so many opportunities for things to go terribly wrong that even the most laid-back parent will have dozens of periods of debilitating worry.
The unspoken argument is that this is a new mom's lot—this is what moms should expect, and even enjoy. There is some latent misongyny in the gendered-ness of this sort of emotional hostage-taking. The idea that women should be so much more devastated than men to have their children grow up implies that women should be more defined by their role as mother than men.
(And, yes, I am being purposefully binary here. There is no room for non-binary parents in this heteronormaltive, cisnormaltive parenting model. There's a whole lotta erasure going on here.)
When I returned to work with a (gasp!) 7-month-old at home, I was asked multiple times a day whether I missed my children, and whether I felt like I was a bad mom for leaving them with someone else. My husband, who returned to work within the first month of each child's life, was asked maybe half a dozen times TOTAL whether he missed his kids. He was NEVER asked whether he felt like he was a bad dad for leaving his children to go to work.
These experiences are not unique, and they help to create an emotional landscape that informs each person's assumptions about their roles and duties. Although likely well-intentioned, they are microagressions, reinforcing the notion that moms should feel guilty about leaving their kids, and that they should miss their kids. This meme message does the same thing; implies that mothers should feel guilt for not enjoying their children when they're very young.
Even when I returned to work from returning to work (long story) when my kids were 3 and 6 years old, I was asked many times whether I missed my kids. “Hell, no!” I would respond. “Little kids are the worst.” I could tell that my answer was shocking. Perhaps I could have couched it in more caring terms, but you know what? I didn't feel like it. I figured that since they asked me, they wanted my answer. I don't feel like I should consider other people's feelings about my answer to a question that THEY ASKED ME.
These notions to Enjoy Every Moment (TM) serve to override a mother's own experiences and feelings with what she SHOULD be experiencing and feelings. Although again well-intentioned, it is a silencing mechanism. If I want to take the Facebook to complain about my children's terrible behaviour, I should be able to do so without someone telling me that I will miss these times, so enjoy them while I can. No thank you!
Sure, it's cute to see a little-teeny-tiny baby, and to remember when your babies were so teeny. And that's okay. It's okay to flip through your photo album, or your Instagram feed, and reminisce about those little bundles of poop and spit-up. It's okay to coo over a brand-new babester. But none of that means that you need to feel like you have to Enjoy Every Moment.
What do you think? Have you ever been pressured to be grateful for your motherhood experience?
Featured image is by Donnie Ray Jones via Flickr, available under a Creative Commons 2.0 license.
AJ writes and gardens, and tries to practise radical vulnerability from her duplex in Canada. She loves watching RuPaul's Drag Race and queer indie theatre productions. She has two kids, a Shiba Inu, and a coffee maker with a timer that brews it while she wakes up each morning. She does freelance writing and editing—check her out here.
Self-Loathing & Self-Forgiveness As A Mentally Ill Parent
I'm a bad mom today. Terrible, actually. I'm snapping at my children, pushing them away. I don't want to see them or hear them. I wish they would just go away.
I am ashamed of my attitudes and my behaviour, but I don't know how to change it. I can't see a positive way out of this. My self-loathing sinks me deeper into the depression that is consuming me and cutting me off from everyone else.
I am a failure. I am the worst mom ever. This self-talk fuels the cycle of helplessness and hopelessness. My instructions to my children sound hollow, like I don't even believe what I'm saying. “Play nicely!” “Stop saying that to your sister!” “Leave each other alone!” I sound like a terrible parent-- like I'm one of those parents that I used to roll my eyes at. I cringe and recoil when my children approach me. This is hell.
It is especially horrible since I have traveled this road before. I've been here; I've gotten out of it. Now I'm back here again, and I need to get out of here again. That thought makes me want to dunk my head into the deep frigid snow. I want to crawl out of my skin. I want to be anywhere but here. I want to rip my hair out.
I have increased my meds, and am doing everything that I can do to try to get out of this. Yet I am here. I am stuck. Has this all been for nothing? I have fought and climbed and scratched and worked so hard, and I feel like I have just fallen back into the sludge.
I am eating my feelings-- my fat belly is growing and jiggling. I am a slug. I want to be somewhere else. I want to be someone else.
How do I make sense of this? How do I weave a meaningful narrative out of these awful rags and desperate scraps of a life? More importantly, how do I move forward as a parent? Have a screwed up my kids beyond repair?
I can see it all happening, and I can see what needs to be done. I must take small steps to get healthier, and forgive myself for my shortcomings as a parent. I must move forward slowly and surely, and accept that I will backslide. My life isn't going to be one success on top of another. Obviously.
But what do I do with these rags and scraps of a life? My mind is a basket of unmatched socks, unraveling and tangling into each other. I am terrified that it will all fall apart.
I don't have any answers right now. All I have is me, right here, in this moment. This is the last place in the universe that I want to be, but I am here. I will stay here. I will keep going.
Featured image by Ashley Campbell via Flickr, available under a Creative Commons 2.0 license.
AJ is a working professional mom and mother in Calgary, Canada. She drinks a lot of water and eats a lot of grapes, and enjoys watching "Dragon's Den."
So guess what? I have depression. Sometimes I have anxiety too. I have faced a variety of diagnoses: dysthymia, depression, anxiety, ante/post-partum depression. Yup, a whole lot of this is fucking terrible. Very likely, my depressive tendencies were developed when I was young, growing up in a family where stress hung in the corners and anxiety punctuated our movements and interactions. No one in the family got out of there without at least one DSM diagnosis.
Fast forward to my adult life, married with two small children. I had seen other professional-moms struggle to make a work-life balance happen, and seen both sides of their lives suffer because of it. I thought I was making the right choice by staying home. I started a company. Company went bust. I started a writing career, writing primarily for an American political blog. The 2016 election was the ugliest in memory, and I felt like I was right in the thick of it. Feeling battered from both sides-- Bernie Bros with unacknowledged mysogyny issues and Trump supporters with open mysogyny issues.
(At this point, I acknowledge that I am white, and my experience reflects that. We are in a time when our bodies are the territory over which political battles are fought, and white bodies are immune from most of it. Many bodies of colour are seen as collateral damage, and are imprisoned and killed with political impunity. I acknowledge this discrepancy in lived experience, and how it has affected my life. As a white Canadian, I have access to free, high-quality mental health support, and I am grateful for this privilege.)
My first child is high-needs, runs away, and is emotionally dysregulated. But at least she slept nights. Then our #2 came along. She is a bright beam of sunshine-- happy and easygoing, but she woke up an average of six (SIX!) times a night throughout her first year of life. Her first 6-hour-straight night happened at 14 months, although even then the majority of nights even in her second year involved between two and six wakeups, for which I was primarily responsible. I sunk deeper and deeper into myself, into an endless cycle of attempting to sleep and being woken up by a crying child, then starting all over again.
By the winter when my second child turned 2, my sleep-wake cycle was so off-kilter that it would take hours for me to fall asleep, only to be awakened. By the summer, I wasn't sleeping at all. I hardly ate. I would head to bed (the couch downstairs, because I didn't want to keep my husband awake with my lack of sleep), shaking, with a pile of books, and read through them all before slumber took over, if at all. I spent periods of hours at a time crying and curled in a ball, shaking, in the darkened family room, attempting to read humour books to ease my diseased spirit. The thought of night or bedtime made me shake with terror. My fight-or-flight instinct was constant, and my body trembled constantly.
One night, at 2 in the morning, I fell into wordless, thoughtless panic. My body shaking and barely able to control my movements. Seeing no other option, I woke my husband up, then I called my mom to pick me up. I didn't know what to do, but I figured that being away from my family would help me be able to rest. I spent about five days at my parents' house, at which point I was really no better off. I decided to go back home and try to sort myself out from there.
So, phew! You still with me? If you're still with me, give yourself a pat on the back! This is heavy stuff. I suspect that, if you're still with me, you've either experienced something similar to this, or you love someone who has. If neither of these applies to you, a special kudos for engaging with mental illness when you don't have to.
As you can tell from the fact that I'm writing this now, I survived. As you can tell from the fact that I am cogent and able to write about my experiences, I am healthy(-ish). If you were to see me on any given day, you would have no idea that this is my story.
Here are 7 things that helped me out of a nearly-life-ending depressive episode:
1. A Caring Doctor
If you clicked on this article hoping for an “all natural” solution to depression, or some mantra or yoga move that would bring instant joy, sorry to disappoint. The first thing I did that made any difference to my mental status was to see my doctor, and to get a prescription for antidepressants. Sorry. I know that's not what you wanted to hear. We tried a few different combinations until we found one that worked. I take a low-dose antidepressant in the morning, and a medium dose of a different med at bedtime. The bedtime one gave me a ridonculous appetite at first, and I gained about 50 pounds (and my mental-health-body-love-fatness journey has been a rocky road, for sure-- that story is to come), but at least I could sleep.
Being a member of a socialist-godless-pinko-commie-frozen-north country with socialised medicine, I was also able to see a psychiatrist for free (although I had to wait about six months, so a caring GP was absolutely necessary as a first-response). The psychiatrist was lovely; a tall, elegant Indian woman with a slight lisp and a cheery smile. I had been on my meds for a few months by the time I saw her. She asked for a brief history, and we machine-gunned through my messed up childhood and history with depression, all the way up to my recent breakdown (I had alotted only an hour for what was supposed to be a 90 minute session, so we had to go fast!). At the end, she reviewed my doctor's referral including the meds and dosages. I asked when she thought I would be able to go off meds. She looked at me and said, “AJ, you have had four serious depressive episodes in your life so far. You are a bright young woman with a chronic medical condition. The world needs to hear what you have to say, and you need to be healthy enough to say it.”
I had never seen myself that way. I had always seen myself as a burden; a fuck-up; a weight for society to bear. I never thought of myself as capable, but hindered. And I had certainly never thought of meds as the thing that would be the difference between killing myself and living a productive life. I had figured it would be easier for everyone if I got myself out of the way. The psychiatrist's description of me as a bright young woman dimmed under a bushel challenged everything I thought about myself, and about my depression.
There is a lot of stigma around mental illness, mental health, and psychotropic meds. Most people with mental illness experience internalised stigma about their own illnesses and prognoses. This can often interfere with receiving caring and competent medical help.
I would not be as healthy as I am had it not been for my GP (a wonderful man who'd been my doc for almost a decade), and for the psychiatrist seeing me as a whole person, and treating me as competent, rather than diseased. I started to be able to see myself through their eyes. Clouds fell away from the sun, and I could see the light once again. I could begin to truly heal.
2. Loved Ones Who Held Space With Me
The term “holding space” is credited to Heather Plett, a relative of mine (second cousin, maybe?) in her wonderfully loving blog post. I am changing her usage slightly to “holding space with” rather than “holding space for,” to make it more active on my part.
My exhausted body and mind prevented me from engaging socially, but I liked having people around who wanted to be around me. It was nice to sit with someone. Even when my mind was circling in on itself, cannibalising itself, torturing itself, knowing that I was sitting with another person helped me get closer toward believing I was truly safe and could relax my mental vigilance.
Part of the process by which stigma is created around mental illness is the discomfort others experience with folks with mental illness. Should they talk to them? Not talk? Mention the mental illness? Should they pretend that it doesn't exist? Should they make a joke, or would that be taboo? How do they make the person feel better, without making things worse?
These are legitimate concerns, although they don't need to take up too much space. Don't know how to help? Ask. Be near. Listen. Tell the person how much they mean to you. Your presence means the world to them as they face an illness that, by its nature, precludes and prevents the person from getting the help they need.
I was so blessed to have people to hold space with me. Sometimes two people sitting together in silence can feel like an army of support.
Okay, so here's where it starts to get super-cheesy (we all love cheese, don't we? No lactose intolerance here!). When I was at rock-bottom at my parents' place, without any purpose or desire to continue living, I had to fill up my time with something. I found this cool show on Netflix that combines horror, reality TV, and a high-energy game show format. Each episode, contestants rode on the “hellevator” and performed a series of horror-tastic challenges in order to win money. As an actor, I loved the staged gore and terrifying props; as a person experiencing soul-crushing anxiety, it felt like a relief to have direction for my constant terror. It felt wonderful to experience fear as an approximation of how healthy people experience fear. The contestants' screams and horrified outbursts amused me and somehow made me hope that someday I, too, would only be afraid of leftover WWII mutant man-beasts, and tiny triplets disfigured by a fire.
I have watched the series several times since, and each time I see it, it reminds me that life is worth living. I can't exactly articulate why-- there is a vivaciousness in the horror genre that seems somehow... life-affirming. When the horror is over, and the folks onscreen regroup, there is a moment of joyful cathartic release. When Carey Elwes saws off his leg and stumbles out of the room, our spirits come alive. When the final bloody piece of the puzzle fits perfectly into place, it is a single moment of relief from constant dread. You feel like you can make it. Horror is, at its heart, about the triumph of hope through terrible misery.
4. Going Back To Work & Putting My Kids in Full-Time Care
There was really no two-ways around it. I needed time away from my children. I needed to miss them. I needed to be an autonomous human person without tiny people clinging to me at my every move. From there, I worked backward. The only way I could take a break from my kids was if I paid someone to care for them. The only way I could pay for someone to care for them was to return to work full-time. I am lucky enough to have a professional career waiting for me. I applied and started a full-time job in the new year.
I was terrified and exhausted. I had no idea how I would be able to function working full-time when I could barely keep myself going. I was still struggling to sleep, so I made a series of rules for myself. Less than four hours of sleep meant that I would call in sick, as I didn't feel comfortable driving across town (oh yeah, the school was like 50 minutes away from my house). More than four meant that I'd go in, but would try to be kind to myself and not expect a perfect performance.
I began sleeping more and more. My job began to feel more comfortable. I was never what you could call “happy” there, but what had felt like a death march each day was starting to feel more free. I came home and cried all evening some days, then fell asleep and started all over again. But I made it. Now I have a different job, closer to home. There are still days and weeks that are hella-stresful, but I am getting better at enjoying my life, and about being confident in myself.
I had to re-learn how to enjoy being with my kids, after my episode. Life with two small children is still hard, but I am starting to see how some parents talk about being so blessed to have their children. I'm not #blessed yet, but I can see my way towards genuinely enjoying my beautiful girls.
Not to mention that my kids deserve to be cared for by someone who wants to care for them. They didn't deserve to be left alone with me in my misery. They didn't ask for this.
I needed to seriously re-frame my thinking about what was best for my children. Mothers are force-fed the notion that they are the best thing for their children, from the first announcement of “Breast is Best,” to the scornful twist of the lips in response to a mother announcing that she will be returning to work. Women are still responsible for the lion's share of childcare, even when both spouses in a hetero marriage work the same number of hours. Sometimes what's best for your children is for their mother to take a fucking breather, and let someone else pick up the slack.
Double-duh, right? I get it, seems obvious. But for real, had I had a serious discussion with my husband about how I need to get a solid eight hours even once a week when our second was a wee mite, the situation may not have built up to the horror that it became.
I found a fabulous free white noise app that helped dampen the internal monologue that replayed endlessly. I started taking a nightly bath around 8p, taking my evening pills before I stepped into the warm water, allowing my body to relax (some nights, my body and mind would cooperate-- other nights, it didn't work despite my best efforts, and I was a wreck heading to bed). My doctor prescribed me some Z-drugs for very occasional use, when my body absolutely refused sleep and I needed to get my rest. Those pills were marvelous for a one- or two-night dry spell, to get me back on track. (I never experienced this effect, but they are considered to be SUPER-addictive and can fuck up your liver, not to mention that in time, you may not be able to sleep without them, and you may experience big withdrawal side effects. So don't rely on them for any longer than you absolutely need to, but they can fore sure help in a pinch.)
Once I was sleeping regularly, I started being able to see colour again; I started to be able to laugh and feel my body relaxing. I could look at a bed without feeling the cold clench of fear grip my heart.
Yup, I'm going there. Meditation was another way that I used up my time while I was non-functional. I found Chel Hamilton's Meditation Minis podcast on Spotify. She is a hypnotic meditation teacher, and I enjoyed her straight-talk and lack of mumbo-jumbo cultural appropriation bullshit that can sometimes accompany discussions of meditation and mindfulness. It was such an immense relief to sit in my mind and my body without feeling the creeping despair, even for a few minutes. Those few minutes at a time kept me going, gave me hope.
I read The Mindful Way Through Depression cover-to-cover, and tried to apply as many of the techniques as I could. I took the heart the warning that the techniques work best for folks who are already in a stable place mentally, so I just tried to do what I was able to do. The audio CD helped a ton as well.
Now, I tend not to do the guided meditations; I tend to just want to sit in silence for a period. I feel my body and let my mind fall into relaxation. I acknowledge thoughts as they come in, then let them go. If it doesn't work for me in the moment, I try for a while, then let it go and do something else. I would like to aim for 10 minutes a night, but I am not there yet.
7. Christmas Baking
While I was in the bath one evening, one of my friends dropped off a giant tin of fresh baking. My husband completely didn't recognise her, as she had recently dyed herself and, being her understated self, she didn't stay to chat-- she just dropped off the baking and disappeared back into the night. It is still one of my fondest memories-- my husband walking into the bathroom and said, “Um... Some person brought you these,” thrusting the huge tin into my hands. Eventually I figured it out and thanked her.
It was such a generous gesture, and I was so taken aback that a friend would take that much time and energy for me (and butter ain't cheap either!). It made my day to realise how much that friend cared.
I know that processed carbs and sugar are not ideal for mood stabilisation, but it sure helped to have a bowl-full of shortbread, snickerdoodles, and chocolate haystack cookies. Those small clusters of sugar and fat tasted like warmth, like caring, like hope. It helped to have something that I knew I would enjoy, and it was a way to start feeling pleasure in my body again. Obviously, this holiday season, I'm going to be scaling back on the holiday eats, but I know that they helped me get through a tough time.
There is some evidence that chewing is linked to an increase in mood, and an increase in brain function. It could be that oral activity is a primal act (that's what she said!), so it may not just be the powdered sugar and crunchy caramel that make life better-- it's the biting, chewing, and sucking that makes the brain happy. Think of how many self-soothing acts involve the mouth: biting your lip, sucking your thumb, chewing your nails-- some folks even chew the front of their shirt or their jacket sleeves. I know this was a major contributor to my weight gain, but it helped me get through.
Weird as it sounds, mouths are important when it comes to mental health. And sometimes eating those ooey gooey chocolates is the best thing you can do for yourself.
Putting It All Together
So here I am. I am here, right now. I am here, and my heart is open. My body is still-- I'm not shaking. I sleep at nighttime, and I am awake and energetic during the day. I have a job that I enjoy, and I am a present parent. I struggle daily, but not hourly. I can live a functional life and am not limited by my mental illness. It's not perfect, but I'll take it.
I am starting to see where I end, and where the depression begins. It is a part of me, but I am not defined by it. Unfortunately, the path back from the brink is a lonely one without a map. If you are struggling with depression, please know that this is a journey worth taking, and there is a space for you in the sunshine.
Image courtesy of julien haler via flickr, available under an Attribution 2.0 license.
AJ: coffee drinker, wordsmith, maker of homemade soup, and giver of "all better" kisses. Would-be runner of marathons; in love with Dan Savage and Freddie Mercury.
What Does It Mean To Have Dreams As A Parent?
I've been thinking a lot about dreams and goals: whether they are helpful or futile, whether it is better to just accept what comes, and be present in the moment. Or whether it is better to pursue your dreams with childlike clarity of vision, modeling for your child what it looks like to set your sights high, and to keep doing your very best until you (hopefully) achieve them.
For me, the (re-)realisation of my dreams happened by accident when my children were little. It happened at a time when I had mentally given over the rest of my life to parenting, and given up on myself. Through a deep period of undiagnosed depression, months of sleep deprivation, and being on call 24/7 for my children (one of which was a high-needs child), I learned to forget what I thought my life would be, and to accept my new reality. I lost a sense of who I was as a person, and slogged through my life, day in and day out. Seasons coming and going. Our world buried under feet of snow, then the snow melted and the flowers bloomed, the heat of the summer, then the frigid crispness of Canadian autumn, then the snow came again. It was all the same, and it had no meaning, other than to watch my children grow up. I had become the parent that I thought I would never be, and I had no idea how to get out.
My dreams came in the form of a Facebook advertisement for writers for a blog I followed. I applied within seconds and was accepted almost immediately. That was the rebirth of my dreams. I had always wanted to be a writer; as a kid I would sneak down into our crawlspace with a pencil, notebook, and flashlight, and write for hours. I gave myself challenges: for one story I would focus on character development; for one I would focus on dialogue. I dreamed of being a famous author like Judy Blume or Roald Dahl.
Soon after starting at the blog, I was promoted to editor. Then Trump got elected and I had a complete mental breakdown, but that's another story for another time. As I was working for the blog, I wrote a novel, which I submitted to a major publisher. They did not respond. After a year of waiting, I submitted my story again. Then they responded today that my story “does not meet their publishing needs at this time.”
My heart is broken, and I can't tell whether it's my mind or my body that feels shaky-- maybe both. I went to the gym and pounded at the elliptical so hard that my tears blended in with my sweat. I chastised myself: who the hell was I, a fat mom, to think that I had anything to say worth publishing? How embarrassed will my children be to hear that I tried and failed? How they must wish they had a successful mother, instead of a loser wannabe.
And yet in some indefinable way, I know that my children wouldn't be embarrassed of my failure. I know that it is better to try, better to open myself up to success or failure. To put myself out there, and be bold about who I am and what I dream of. It is important that my children see me try and fail, and then try again. I know these things, but I don't feel them. I'm sure I will feel them in time, and I'll be able to think of the email I just received without my heart constricting and my breath catching in my throat.
So after I finished my grueling workout, I went to pick up my daughter from daycare. My legs were shaky and my eyes felt like sandpaper. I slapped on a smile and walked into the room.
“Mommy!” She squealed and ran into my arms. I gave her a huge hug and held her close. I closed my eyes and breathed in the closeness of my delicious child. You don't know it, Baby Girl, I said to myself, but your mom did something important today.
AJ: oldest sibling, allergic to spare time, drinker of coffee. Loves Queen and the part of "I Can't Get No Satisfaction" where Mick Jagger complains that he can't get no girly action.