Last week, I set aside some time to sit down and think about my goals for the year. I had some rather lofty ones — a dream trip to Hawaii to celebrate our 10-year anniversary, for one — and a few other career aspirations. But the majority of my goals centered around being a more content mother: Put the phone down, have more fun, enjoy my kids again.
What exactly is the problem? I’ve been a mom for almost nine years now. This ain’t my first rodeo. I have four kids, the youngest is now almost two and a half. Shouldn’t I have the hang of this thing by now?
The truth is, motherhood hasn’t been a smooth and joyous ride for me. It started with a surprise pregnancy and was followed by many years of struggle. I was working alone to support a growing family, skipping sleep to take on more night shifts as a nurse when we needed the money (which was, um, always), and walking through a dark fog of undiagnosed postpartum depression.
My story isn’t unlike a lot of mothers who find themselves trying to carve out a way to live in America’s culture of too many demands with very little support. But after sitting down to think about what kind of mother I wanted to be this year, I began to realize a pretty scary truth: For me, motherhood has meant living in fear.
For the first time, it dawned on me how much of my life as a mother has been spent in fear — fear of never being good enough, fear of failing, fear of slowing down my pace just long enough that the overwhelming needs and demands of my family would crush me. When I think of motherhood, I think of those early days. I would wake up and dread the long day stretching out ahead of me with no end in sight. I would cry under my covers because I wanted to give up before I even started. I knew I’d be staring down endless hours comforting a colicky baby and potty-training a toddler that would never, ever sleep.
It was then, stemming from somewhere deep down inside of me, I started running away from the motherhood experience — and I haven’t stopped since.
In a revelatory post on her website, writer Sarah Mae describes how motherhood, for her, has been traumatic. She focuses specifically on those early years, feeling crushed by the relentless cycle of parenting very young children all alone. She notes how a friend had asked her to babysit her young children and even though Mae agreed, now that her own own three children were older, being put in a situation that mirrored her early days as a mother triggered her to have a serious anxiety attack.
“… it’s interesting to me that just knowing I was going to be back with a toddler and a baby plus other kids, alone, overnight, triggered all my anxiety. I mean I physically felt it. Is there such thing as post-traumatic stress disorder for those who had babies and toddlers? I’m thinking yes, because I can’t explain the fear and stress one babysitting job gave me. I’ll tell you what I do know: mothering can be traumatic.”
She’s right: Motherhood can be traumatic. And I know she’s 100% serious in asking about PTSD, because it’s no joke.
Just thinking about my early days of motherhood leaves me feeling the same way. When people ask me to hold their babies, I really don’t want to. Not because I hate kids or babies, but because I have spent almost a decade of my life desperate for a (literal!) free hand. I hold the baby and take in their newborn baby scent, but then I start to panic. All of a sudden I have 10 million things to do that I’ll never get done … and, wait, one of my kids need something … and OMG is my milk letting down?!
All it takes is one reminder and the anxiety, pressure, loneliness, and exhaustion come flooding back, leaving me gasping for air with a racing heart.
I never want to go back to feeling that way, but there’s a part of me that worries if I loosen the reins just a little, I will wind up right back in that position. I start panicking that my life will amount to nothing more than being trapped in the basement, so sleep-deprived that I have to lay on the carpeted floor while I half-heartedly play Barbies with my toddler — mustering just enough strength to literally crawl to the diaper basket after the baby poops through her entire outfit (again!).
Motherhood marks us in many ways. The stretch marks that wrap around my belly are visible reminders of how motherhood has stretched and scarred me, but some scars are not visible. The scars of the early days — the endless days of feeling totally alone while babies and toddlers suck the life out of you — can still leave a mark.
And this mark may affect you more deeply than you even realize.