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Challenge: WHO Are You?

The Evolution of a Mother

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If this question would have been posed to me five years ago--"Who are you, really?"--I would have had the answer of a confident, smart, successful 31-year-old who was thriving. I would have said something like, teacher, wife, step-mom, great friend, wine aficionado, reader, traveler, writer. This woman I once was knew stuff. I look back at her and at once admire her bravado and also lament her naivete. She wanted for nothing...well maybe one be a mother.

And there, in the chrysalis stage of not-yet-mother changing into Mother, was where I was brought to my knees--where the earth moved out from under me and everything I thought I knew became gravely rife with errors and where hope began to feel dangerous.

After so many pregnancy tests, my wonderful husband and I sat in the office of a reproductive specialist while he explained how wonderfully fertile I was, but how my husband's vasectomy reversal hadn’t worked.Too much time had passed.

Nothing was going to be simple about this.
IVF was our only option.

That was when the tiny flame of anxiety first ignited deep in my belly. We signed on, wrote the first of many big checks, and began what would become one of the most difficult journeys of my life.

Needles. Hormones. Needles. Hormones. Drive three hours to the fertility clinic, drive home. Wait.

My husband was by my side, but I so often felt isolated and a little like a science project. He didn’t want to tell anyone because he was ashamed and sad and felt that the blame was his. His shame became my shame. I felt the blame was mine for even wanting kids.

Beating the odds, we got pregnant with Norah on our first try. I patted my extremely fertile self on the back as I grew plump and dreamy. Due to a blood condition, this was considered a "high risk" pregnancy, so I was induced. The moment she was in my arms I was transformed…for better and for worse.

It was after her birth that my little flame of anxiety grew into a sometimes all-consuming inferno, and that exhaustion and sleep deprivation fanned those flames into something that could utterly paralyze me. Her death seemed imminent, even if it was entirely irrational. Every time I closed my eyes I imagined a gruesome car accident where I couldn’t reach her, but only watch as the life drained from her eyes. If I were separated from her it was worse, so I held her constantly, all day, all night.

She made me delirious with happiness, yet, at the same time, there were moments I couldn’t stand the sound of her cry and had to give her to my husband so I could breathe.

In the wake of wanting this baby so desperately, all of these the fear, confusion and resentment, felt like a betrayal. The stakes of my joy at becoming a mom felt so much higher because of all we’d done to have her. I was horrified, embarrassed, and I was running on fumes.

I didn’t even know what post-partum anxiety was was. All I knew was that I could stay up all night sweating with panic and I could spend all day practically chewing through my own teeth. I over-exercised, over-organized, and over-analyzed, all to try to contain it. I’d been through trauma and crises in my life, but never before had something hijacked my entire brain and body like this. It turns out that post-partum mental health struggles can affect anyone…even mom’s who want to have babies really bad.

We made plans for me to transition from teaching to staying at home, which felt like another failure.

I knew something had to change, and sleep seemed like the most essential. I read every book, every academic article, every website. I talked to doctors, midwives, doulas, sleep experts, and other parents. I learned so much, especially about how sleep deprivation is the number one trigger for post-partum mental health crises, as well as a plethora of other health issues for both mother and developing child…but fi found nothing that showed me a path to help me teach my daughter how to sleep in a way that I felt respected her needs and also my tender emotions. So with the very last bit of energy and teacher-brain I had left, I wrote a plan myself, and implemented it. It worked.

The world got a little brighter, a little less scary. A counselor helped me understand anxiety, my triggers, and how I could navigate it in healthy ways. I began my journey to become a certified sleep consultant so I could help other parents who were feeling as desperate as I had felt. Joy seeped in where only fear once lived, and we began discovering balance and presence. I still felt very far away from the woman I'd once been, but I could catch glimpses of her every once in a while.

Our success with our first baby had given me a sense of security that trying for baby #2 would be easy, too. Wrong.

Two tries. Two failures. Two heartbreaks.

I took the failures personally. Trying to hold it together for a toddler and two step-kids, the anxiety returned and was made worse by the knowledge that anxiety can lower your chances of getting pregnant.

One last chance.


After Audrey was born, I expected another bout of paralyzing anxiety, but it has remained at a low hum, maybe because my knowledge, my village, and my coping skills are better, or because I have Xanax I can take as needed when all else fails. I give a whole lot of credit to the fact that sleep is now a priority, and sometimes an emergency, in our house. I still have waves of mostly irrational and at times all-consuming panic, but it is part of how my brain works, and likely always will.

In my worst moments though, I will question whether I am a real ‘mom’ in the truest sense of the word; so much of my daughters’ coming into this world was unnatural—sperm meeting egg under a microscope, 2500 injections of heparin to make sure my blood could safely go through my veins and theirs, petocin to start my contractions, epidural because I’m me, bags of blood in the birthing suite should I need a transfusion. So many doctors.

We went through so much to get these girls, and in their wake they’ve left me cracked wide open. They blew off the roof of who I thought I was and showed me a woman so vulnerable that in learning to know her I am humbled. And I see her in the faces of other women, too—women who have traversed much rockier terrain than I both pre and post partum—and my love for them runs deep.

I’ve discovered that becoming a mother is one thing, and not always the story we hoped we’d tell, but mothering is another…mothering is, after all, a verb in the present tense. I am not perfect at it every single day, but mothering is a practice, like yoga, that I try to go into with intention and there is something greatly forgiving about thinking of it that way. There is no final arrival at motherhood where I can say, "Yes! I did it! I am here at the summit!" I'm evolving as a mother every single day; we all are.

Part of this very unnatural road to motherhood was a rare gift. First of all, my four year old and one year old were conceived on the exact same day; who other than IVF mamas can say that? I have pictures of each of them when they were only five cells big. Secondly, I was able to watch each embryo transfer on an ultrasound. At the moment the embryo is released into the uterine wall, there is a little flash of light—it’s tiny and beautiful, and easy to miss. I remember seeing that little flash all four times and whispering something I still whisper to my babies every day, “Hello, little one. I’m your mom. Please, please stay.”

There is a before and an after for every single one of us. Before, I could have told you exactly where I wanted to be in five years, I could have listed my hopes and dreams, and I could have told you my plan for making them come true.

Now, in the After, I am more wise, more open, more tender with myself. I'm forgiving. My dreams and hopes are in terms of joy, now. When things don't go as planned I look at my two kids or my two wonderful step-kids who are almost adults, and I take a moment to be grateful for things that don't go "as planned". The woman I was five years ago was fabulous, free of so many things, but I wouldn't walk another day in her shoes for a moment. Because even now--with a brain that works differently and a body that needs a few more miles on the treadmill than it used to, and all the fears that can consume me at a moment's notice, this woman I am now is more honest and real and...yes...happier for the winding journey she's taken. I hope I continue to evolve as a mother and as a woman, because I owe that to my daughters.

I still love going to a great winery, writing, teaching, and being a good partner to my husband, but now it is my dream, my hope, and my passion to be a maternal mental health advocate and one of many resources for moms and dads to utilize as they find their way in their own parenting journeys; to help women mother their babies by providing them a whole lot of empathy and a little rest...and to do so amidst circumstances that aren't always ideal.

To help them dream in terms of joy.

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