It wasn’t until I first became a mother–with a beautiful baby boy I dearly loved, yet still struggling through postpartum depression–that I realized how hard it was to practice self-care and let others help me. I thought I could—and should—do it all on my own. It was my downfall, making my depression worse. I didn’t realize how much sleep deprivation messed with my emotions. I didn’t yet understand how asking for and receiving help would be one of the most important components of self-care for me. I didn’t yet know it is one of the most important components of self-care for everyone.
My fourth postpartum depression (PPD) episode was unlike the first three. So much more intense. So much more complex. My sister and brother-in-law had recently died and we had inherited our two nephews only 4 weeks to the day that our fourth baby was born. We had three kids, and then we had six.
But, I had grown over the years as a mother. I had become a clinical psychologist specializing in maternal mental health and perinatal mood disorders. I had founded The Arizona Postpartum Wellness Coalition to help other mothers and families. I had taught courses and given speeches and written articles on PPD and the Baby Blues, and I knew, 100%, how badly I needed to take care of myself and let help in.
Because this fourth postpartum experience was such a complex and challenging time, I immediately set up all my resources. I scheduled counseling sessions—for me and my husband, for our nephews, then 6 and 10, and for our two other sons, then 8 and 11. I let people do laundry for me, take my 4 year-old daughter for play dates, bring in meals, and even help me paint the nursery and prepare my home for my two new sons.
After a few months though, when grief hit hard, I started to feel like I didn’t want to burden others. I didn’t want them to have to be around me because I felt so negative inside. I didn’t want to complain or whine or be crying all the time. And, if I’m being honest, I really felt like no one could understand what I was going through. How could they? It was so messy and raw and painful on so many levels. I felt weaker than ever before and isolated myself. I got quiet.
As I wrote, in my memoir, This is How We Grow, of that time, “I…know I haven’t invited anyone in. I take responsibility for that. I let myself seem ‘fine’ when I’m in public. I am ‘fine’ when I’m in public. That doesn’t mean I don’t have my hard times at home, or even that ‘fine’ is good enough. I wish others would notice the redness of my eyes, the dark circles around them, my sighing, the energy it takes to smile.” (p. 161)
Since my memoir came out last November, several close friends have said, after reading it, “I feel so badly, I never knew how much you were suffering.”
“I didn’t let people in,” I’ve replied. “There was no way you could have known.”
Luckily, I let my husband in. And I let my psychologist in. And I let my inner psychologist weigh in and remind me of the coping skills I’d already developed. Luckily, I at least did that much, and it was enough to get me out of the darkest days and into other help, like an antidepressant, friends, family, and writing my story.
We Mustn’t Get Quiet
But, one week ago yesterday, my dear friend lost her life as a result of mental illness. Her three children have been best friends with my children for ten years. She was their “second mom,” like I have been to her kids. It is an incomprehensible loss for her husband and children. It is a devastating loss for my children, for me, and for our entire community.
She had been trying to work on self-care, though I knew, like so many other mothers, it didn’t come naturally to her. She had been setting up and trying to utilize her support network. Outwardly, she had been doing those things that seemed right and good and helpful. But I can see now, despite all her efforts with self-care, she didn’t know how to do the one most important thing: let all that help in.
Self-Care is Crucial
How many other mothers, and children, and fathers, and families have to suffer, or even die, before we get it—that self-care isn’t about excess and dawdling and bon-bons on the couch watching soap operas. Self-care is a necessity. It’s about life, and health, and joy; it’s also about preventing despair, isolation, and death. At its core, self-care is about letting help in.
How can we help moms in need?
After a friend of mine heard of our tragic loss last week, she said to me, tears streaming down her face, “There have to be so many others out there who are suffering alone and won’t—or don’t know how—to let people in. What can we do?”
This question has been on my mind all week. What can we do? The following four things are, to me, the most important. If we can do these four things, we can stop the suffering, be there for each other, and keep our mothers safe, healthy, and strong so they can do what they do best—love and nurture their children.
1) Learn about and practice self-care. Learn to let help in. We must all learn how to take better care of ourselves. We must talk about, and teach, and encourage letting others help us, too. “In our darkest times it is easy to feel better off alone and isolate. Our suffering is personal, and no one shares it in the same way, so why even bother? But, I can tell you–we do need others, whether we feel like it or not…Making islands of ourselves only causes more pain.” (This Is How We Grow, p. 153)
This is especially important for pregnant and postpartum mothers, and for mothers going through stressful circumstances or dealing with mental health concerns. But it’s equally as important for all mothers and women—because we are the nurturers of families and communities. It’s also important that we educate our children and teens and young adults about self-care, that we model it for them so they may learn to see self-care as an essential part of a healthy life.
2) See others’ needs. It’s hard to see others’ needs if they don’t let you in, but one thing I know for sure is we must use our gut, not just our natural eyes. If you feel something’s not quite right, please say something or do something. Yes, it’s okay to ask a mother if she is struggling. Yes, it’s okay to tell her she seems sad and ask what you can do. We must ask and talk about it, for it sends the message that none of us is alone. It reminds us we have a friend, a hand held out in the dark. I often say, “I’d rather say something and be wrong than not say something and wish I would have.” (Read “3 Messages Every Mom Needs to Hear.”)
3) Offer support now. If you have the impression to send a text or post a quote on her Facebook page, do it. If you’re driving by and feel you should stop, please do. You might talk yourself out of it: “She’s busy.” “I don’t want to intrude.” But you’re not intruding, and even if she’s busy, she’ll at least know you care. As I write in This is How We Grow, “How do we connect? We listen. We hear. We respond. We feel. We reach out and ask, ‘How are you?’ and wait for the honest answer. Then, we reach out again. And again. We say, ‘I’m so sorry. My heart is breaking with you.’ We look past our discomfort, or we say it out loud, ‘I don’t know what to say or do. I just want to be here for you.’ We are willing to be in that space of our own discomfort or pain, because we know it’s not about us. It’s about loving the one we love…Strength and healing are in connection.” (p. 287)
4) Stick with her for the long haul. Pregnancy and postpartum depression/anxiety, and maternal mental illness, are not over in a week or a month. Neither are most of the great stresses of motherhood. Continue to ask how she’s doing. Check in regularly. Listen with your heart and not just your head. Keep doing it for as long as it takes to help her be well again.
“We need connection to survive. As poet Mark Nepo writes, ‘The question to put to our daily lives, then, is this: In love, in friendship, in seeking to learn and grow, in trying to understand ourselves…When pressed by life, do I bridge or isolate? Do I reconnect the web of life and listen to its wisdom? Or do I make an island of every confusion as I try to solve its pain?’” (This is How We Grow, p. 153)
May we form a great, strong web–a net of connection and support, so when one of our sisters, friends, mothers, tribe falls, we may catch her. One voice. One hug. One love-filled, supportive, mom-to-mom moment at a time. Together, we are strong.
~Written in loving memory of Jody McDaniel.
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**This is How We Grow Charity Fundraiser**
All proceeds from sales of This is How We Grow during the month of May 2014 will be donated to The McDaniel Family Fund, in honor of Maternal Mental Health Awareness Month and in memory of my dear friend, Jody, who lost her life last week.
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