Calah’s guest post this week really struck a chord with me and pulled on one string of this ball that I’ve been trying to untangle for a while. And an exchange in the comments tugged at another one. I’ve been trying to process exactly what it is about that exchange that has left me in tears. It pulls together a bunch of threads including a couple of other blog posts that I’ve been meaning to try to write about. I’m going to try to untangle it a bit here; but it’s probably going to be a bit messy and with this topic, I can guarantee you that I’m not going to clean it up. So consider this a first attempt at trying to write my way into some sort of clarity.
First, a disclaimer: I don’t have PPD. I don’t really think I’m all that depressed. Ok, maybe I’m a little depressed; but I think almost all of is really not a state of messed up internal chemistry so much as a perfectly healthy reaction to living day after day in what is what I’ve become convinced is an essentially unnatural situation, to wit: I don’t think mothers are meant to raise their children in suburban isolation.
Most days Dom goes off to work and unless I drag the kids to the library, the grocery store, to Target or on some other errand I won’t see another adult until he comes home just in time to begin the whirlwind of sitting down to dinner, getting the kids to bed, and then perhaps catching an hour or two of relaxation before going to bed. Once or twice a month we might actually meet up with other people for some activity or other; but no more than that. Arranging for playdates and other outings is exhausting and actually going to them while the socializing is wonderful int he moment and is absolutely necessary for both me and the kids because i’m an introvert it also leaves me drained and in need of recharging, and because I’m with the kids all day is finding time to recharge my depleted batteries is essentially impossible unless I spend the day trying to ignore them while losing myself in a book or I stay up far too late chasing that elusive quiet time.
Which brings us to
To be an introvert can mean any variety of solitude-seeking qualities, but in current pop-psychology (and perhaps real psychology) terms, it has most of all to do with your source of mental and emotional energy. An extrovert’s energy comes from being around and interacting with others. An introvert gets recharged by being alone. I put it this way, at least for myself: if I’m around other people all day, with no chance for solitude – even a few minutes – I don’t feel fully alive, fully myself. I don’t run from others, and I enjoy interaction with others, but it’s draining, and at the end of a day like that I can be left feeling almost as if I’m floating above myself, and I ache to touch the ground again. It’s part of the reason I’m a night owl, especially when the kids are out of school.[. . .]
When I write, I really have to be alone, which means without a lurking fear of distraction. That is to say, I can write better in the coffee shop at Barnes and Noble surrounded by 20 people than I can at home surrounded by 4. Why? Because I know, with certainty, that those 20 other customers at B & N or the Urban Standard or Trattoria Centrale aren’t going to hit me up for a snack, a band-aid nor are they going to start fighting over Legos. That suspicion, that waiting for the next explosion at home, keeps me on edge, prevents me from fully concentrating.
This also means – and this is the part that the extroverts are going to decide is really insane – is this: say I’m in the house and everyone is occupied. Everyone’s quiet. Let’s say that the little boys aren’t even around – they’re at school – and it’s just me and the other two, and the other two are in their rooms. No one’s talking to me, there’s no music, maybe just some laughter or a bathroom door closing every once in a while.
If both of them leave – I feel different. If I’ve got work I need to be focusing on, I feel relieved.
Now! I can finally concentrate.
What Amy says about that lurking fear of distraction, that’s what makes sleepless infants and toddlers so absolutely draining. There is never a time when you are assured that they won’t interrupt you mid thought with hours-long screamfests. And for the past six years I’ve lived on the edge almost constantly.
Adrift, Seeking an Anchor
No one I think identifies the dilemma of the modern mother quite so well as Jennifer Fulwiler. So many of her pieces on the topic resonate with me and have become lenses through which I can see this world more clearly. One of her more recent pieces, especially, spoke to my current situation: The Problem of Self-Discipline and the Modern Mom:
Especially when staying with a routine involves a great amount of effort (for example, getting multiple kids to transition from one activity to the next), it requires an almost inhuman amount of willpower for one person to make it happen over and over again, day after day, with no external pressure for her to do so. When the consequences for veering from the schedule are confined to your house and won’t impact anyone else, it’s all too easy to decide to forgo the pain of keeping it up with it all, and ride a wave of inertia for a while./p>
This realization has made me see the importance of anchoring our family schedule to a community schedule. I look out for opportunities to get involved with regularly recurring events at the parish or with other families, in ways that aren’t too stressful for us, but will have consequences if we veer from the plan (for example, next summer, when Mother’s Day Out is out of session, we might make standing plans with another family to meet for daily Mass on a certain day of the week).
However, it must be said that arranging this kind of thing is rarely easy, and sometimes it’s not even possible. We live in a highly disconnected society
where geographically-based communities have been shattered, and there are not often obvious opportunities to connect our daily lives with others’. Especially for families with multiple babies and toddlers, the seemingly simple prospect of getting everyone in the car and driving 10 minutes to the parish church can be an endeavor of epic proportions. In my own life, I’ve been through plenty of periods when it was too difficult to break out of our suburban isolation, and I’m sure those occasions will arise again. But the realization about the role of community connectedness in my quest for self-discipline has at least helped me go easy on myself during such times. Instead of beating myself up for my failures at sticking to a clear routine, I congratulate myself for whatever successes I have in that department, acknowledging that the battle I’m fighting is a difficult one, because it’s tremendously hard to achieve high levels of discipline when you’re doing it in isolation.
I’ve read this article so many times and every time I get to this last paragraph, and especially that sentence where she says, “sometimes it’s not even possible” I burst into tears. That is exactly where I am right now: isolated and finding it absolutely impossible to break out of it. So often when I pause to take my mental temperature these days the word that comes to mind to express my emotional state is “trapped”. I feel like I’m circling the same few square feet of a cage, going over the same ground over and over and over again, hoping to find some way out and feeling so helpless and yet the bars of my cage are invisible and when I try to express my sense of being trapped to someone else all I see is befuddlement as they wonder what cage I’m talking about. Just seeing someone else expressing it as a reality: the disconnectedness I feel isn’t just in my head, is so reassuring. At least I’m not the only one. At least I’m not completely crazy.
Recreation vs. “Me Time”
In the past few years I keep struggling with this desperation for quiet, solitude, time to read and think and just be. I find myself staying up far too late at night in a desperate attempt to grasp that elusive peace that comes when I know that I’m not likely to be interrupted. But I find I can spend my entire day trying to catch that phantom something.
Do you read Abigail’s Alcove? You should. She’s a secular Carmelite in training, a homeschooling mom to five, I always find her inspiring. Hers is the next piece of the puzzle. Abigail helps me to figure out a little bit of another reason why I can never quite capture that elusive thing that I’m always chasing when she distinguishes “me time” from “our need for holy recreation:
I figured out a clear difference between “Me Time” and “Recreation.”
Me Time is selfish. It was NOT working. Me Time was when I either threw the tense, crying baby at my husband the second he came into the door after work and announced “I’m off duty now!”—or when my husband found me sobbing after another failed breastfeeding session would say “Why don’t you go to the coffee shop for a break…”
That sounds great in theory, but it didn’t work out in practice. I’d go to our only local coffee shop—which does NOT sell good coffee (only burnt) and overpriced stale baked goods, and spend money we didn’t have, eat stuff that tastes worse than I could make at home, I’d read bad Nora Roberts romance books for an hour and then come home still a mess. I’d walk in, the baby would see me and start crying for milk, my insides would get into a ball of acid and I’d think “When can I get another break from my life again…”
In my head, Me Time is something I grab as my “right” when I’m feeling overwhelmed and ungrateful about my life.
Contrast that with “recreation.”
Recreation demands foresight. Recreation is intensely individual. Recreation is a gift of play given to us by God.
Recreation demands sacrifice from the whole family. It feels uncomfortable on the front end. For example, I often grab a $3 Nice Chocolate Bar while shopping at Target without thinking about it because “It’s been a hard day and I deserve a treat.” That was a totally different experience from my husband saying I think you should spend $125 (which is a week’s worth of groceries for my family) to go to fencing lessons.” It felt really hard and weird to quote “take” that money from my family for my lessons—and the only reason I could do it was because I’d urged my husband to buy a fishing license and new pole two weeks before. (Not to mention the fear I had getting into a car leaving a young baby who won’t take a bottle yet, while I spent an hour in a gym in another town).
Yet my individual fencing lessons blessed my family beyond measure. My husband and I now have plans to fence competitively when we’re 70! (Can you imagine a sport that starts out at age 9 and yet also has an over age 70 division?) Similarly, his early morning fishing trips make him so relaxed and happy. He’s taken our family out on picnics to beautiful local fishing spots and caught fish with our kids.
Recreation is holy. It is time alone that restores you. It blesses your family. It sets up a good role model to your children and your spouse. Recreation is a fancy name for “recess”. It makes you feel like a kid again.
When you feel like a kid, you can pray better. When you pray better, you love better.
What are your holy recreation choices?
This piece spoke to me and felt like a missing piece in a jigsaw puzzle that I’d been hunting for.
Unfortunately while I see the theoretical difference between “me time” and “holy recreation,” I haven’t yet figured out how to find what my version of “holy recreation” might be. I find Abigail’s post provocative and it feels like a personal challenge to me. Yet it also feels like a conundrum to which I can’t find the answer.
I had already come to the conclusion that my constant search for enough “me time” wasn’t working. There is this hunger in me for… something and when I read this post a bell chimed deep within me and I thought: yes, that’s that I want, what she has.
Yet despite that realization I still feel stuck because I still don’t know what could possibly fill the space for “holy recreation” that Abigail finds in fencing and her husband finds in fishing.
Ever since reading this I’ve been praying about it, asking God to help me find the answer. So far all I’m getting is silence. Maybe it is still the wrong question for me and I’ve got to keep looking for the right one. Or maybe I just keep asking and the answer will come in due time.
Cri de Coeur
When we came back from Texas I was hollowed out. While it was wonderful to visit my family and to see my brother get married—I won’t soon forget the look on his face when his beautiful wife walked down the aisle to him—it was also ten days of sleep deprivation as Anthony and Ben struggled with sleeping in an unfamiliar place. And it took a week after we got back home before they were back on schedule and sleeping (mostly) through the night. Also, the last weekend we were completely awhirl in wedding and activity with family and extended family. I thoroughly enjoyed seeing everyone but all the visiting and socializing stretched me well beyond my usual hectic life and drained my batteries beyond dry.
In the week after we got back in the midst of my exhausted, depleted, overwhelmed state, I sat and wrote the following, but never published it:
You know the pre-recorded spiel that you hear before your plane takes off, the one that instructs parents to secure their own oxygen masks first before taking care of their kids? It makes perfect sense, you can’t save your child’s life if you pass out before you get their mask on. Both of you die of smoke inhalation. But if you get your own mask on first then you can be sure of being able to secure your child’s mask. Having a parent who can judge risks and meet their own needs first is actually the child’s best hope of surviving a disaster.
I feel like I’m on that plane going down and my gas mask has just dropped and my children are scared and clawing at me, screaming desperately, looking at me to make it all better. And me, I’m struggling with my own mask and yet not quite able to get it secured. I’m in a panic because I know if I fail then we all lose. And yet I also know that if I stop focusing on my own mask and try to take care of theirs then I will also fail them.
And yet…. I’m not really on a plane that’s going down. I just feel like it. And I worry that the metaphor is the wrong one. There are these two little voices whispering in my ears like the cliched cartoon of the angel and the devil. One is whispering: “Take care of your own mask,” while the other is whispering, “But doesn’t Scripture say, Deny yourself, take up your cross and follow me?” The mask image is a red herring. You aren’t saving your own life, you’re being selfish and refusing the cross you’ve been given.
So if I’m not on an airplane what is the crisis? If I’m not struggling with an oxygen mask, why is it I feel like I’m suffocating? What is it that I feel like I will die if I can’t get it flowing properly?
The answer is the title of the book I finished reading on vacation, Quiet. The book didn’t create the problem, didn’t really help me see it in a new light for the problem was already there and I already saw it just as I did now. No the book just made me even more aware of the problem in the way a flashing light and loud siren make you even more aware of the flames in a burning building.
Quiet. That’s what I’m craving like a drowning man craves oxygen. Solitude.
It’s the same prickly pear bush I’ve been circling round and round and round and round. I’m an introvert. I crave solitude and quiet. I want time alone. Time to read and write and reflect. Time to pray and to get bored. Time to stare out the window and to wander down the street and to walk in the woods and just be me. Solitary me.
Before I was married I was lonely. There was a huge hole in my life. Then Dom came and suddenly that gap was plugged. And then Bella came and then Sophie and Ben and Anthony and I find my life more full that I could have ever dreamed. And oh they bring me such joy. And they give my life a shape and a purpose. I have a reason to get up and a reason to keep going. They need me and I enjoy being needed. They love me and I love them and it is very, very good indeed.
And yet… these images keep haunting me. The long walks I used to take by myself. The hours I used to spend holed up in my room hardly seeing or speaking to anyone for days at a time. Oh what bliss, what joy!
I find that the more I try to cling to little bits of precious quiet and solitude, the more cranky I become. I jealously hoard them like a dragon with a pile of gold. I resent the child who will not sleep at night, the cranky child who won’t go down at bedtime, because I see them as thieves of my precious, precious time. If there were only some guarantee that I could get some quiet somewhere else then I might be more patient. But as it is all I can see is that the one chance I have is being stolen from me. I want to generously cradle my cranky toddlers in my arms for as long as they need me but at some point I feel like I’m trying to give them water from a dry well. I just don’t have any more reserves to draw from. I’m empty and running on fumes.
And my poor husband. His love language is physical touch and I know this and I try and I try to generously respond to his need. And yet by the time he comes home I feel completely touched out. I want to scream at the kids: Don’t Touch Me! Go Away! Leave Me Alone! I know I’m neglecting his needs and that they should theoretically take precedence over the kids and myself. And yet…. I feel empty and dry as a bone. How can I give generously of myself to the ones I love, when I can’t get my own oxygen mask on first?
And so many well meaning people are so ready to give advice; but every solution so far seems to ask more of me in order to get there. I need to make friends, find someone in the neighborhood or at church or in the homeschooling group or somewhere who can help out. I need to ask for help. And yet those solutions ask of me the very things I am already too short on. How can I ask for help if I can’t breathe? I don’t have the breath to ask the question. Again, I’m an introvert. Being alone recharges me, dealing with people—especially strangers—exhausts me. I can’t find enough energy for my nearest and dearest inner circle of immediate family. Where on earth would I come up with the energy needed to call complete strangers? To make friends, to find contacts, to look for support would require So Much Energy.
So here I am caught in the loop. Anthony won’t sleep at night. I get him down and then a short time later he’s up again. The other kids wake up too. We’re all jet lagged and exhausted after a week in Texas. It was lovely and exhilarating at the time to be at my brother’s wedding, to see all the friends and family. I loved being with aunts and uncles, catching up with a cousin I haven’t seen since I was a kid and meeting his lovely wife and children. But now my batteries are even lower than before. It was nice having my parents come to visit this summer. It was lovely to have Dom on vacation and to visit the beach and the zoo and the museum and all the other things we did. But each of those takes energy and I have had nothing to replace that energy. Nowhere to refuel with the exception of that one glorious day Dom gave me for my birthday. But one day can’t fuel a month or two months. The charge I got from my birthday was spent in dealing with the needy kids the next day as they recovered from missing me while I was gone. As much as I enjoyed it, In some ways it felt like the net gain was still zero.
This time of life is hard. Very hard. I respect the fact that I won’t always have four children under seven. But I don’t think it should be quite so crushing. And I can’t help thinking that soon it’s going to be five kids. And newborns are very, very needy. They need to be held and nursed. Carried and snuggled. And of course I love that. But it’s still another person. Another person attached to me almost 24 hours a day and 7 days a week. Another drain on my resources. Where, oh where am I going to find the energy to deal with one more hungry mouth that needs to be fed when I am already starving?
I want to be generous, to give and give and give and not count the cost; but I feel like I’m reaching into my pockets and coming out empty handed. I beg God for help and all I hear is silence. I drove my sister away with my constant need for her to be more, to give more, to help more. And now even that small prop is gone and I am more lonely and bereft than ever. Where is my help? Where is my hope? I hear marvelous stories of God answering prayers and sending help but I can’t help feeling it is always someone else’s prayers. So far the only answer I seem to be getting is a firm: Not Now.
I am tired of being the adult, tired of trying to secure my own mask. I want to be the little child. I want to be able to turn to the adult next to me and to have them put on my mask and to adjust the straps. I keep looking for someone else to be the responsible one. I want to be the baby, to be cared for and cherished and fed. And now and then I do feel it; but not often enough. I don’t feel that it’s reliable. If God is a parent, then lately it seems he’s too much in my own image, inconsistent, unreliable, fickle and unfathomable.
And Then This Too
When my sister moved in with us four years ago it was such a blessing in so many ways. She’s my best friend and I love her so. It was wonderful to have another woman nearby, to have someone to talk with, long discussions about literature and theology and life, the universe, and everything. And yet she is chronically sick and, well, I think the position she was in here was massively unfair to her. All my need for structure and support and community I kept putting on her poor, sick shoulders and she couldn’t bear it. We had fights, mostly my fault, as time and time again I found myself still overwhelmed and disappointed and I tried to blame her for not being able to fill the role for which she was so profoundly miscast. Not for any lack in her but because I don’t think any single person could fill the multifarious needs I have that are going unfilled.
And so after she lost her job her own depression took over and her health got even worse and instead of tending her needs, I only got more frustrated at her dependency and lashed out. Finally, she got a great offer from a friend back in Texas and moved back there. For her own good and probably mine as well.
I can see that it was a good thing for her. And yet I miss her so terribly, terribly much. When she left the bottom fell out of my world. i was devastated and I continue to grieve for her going. I’ve been in a downward spiral ever since. And of course pregnancy hasn’t made things any easier. I am so lonely. I miss her dreadfully. My best friend. We never have time to talk any more and I feel like our relationship is in stasis, frozen on ice until some future date when I have the time and energy to invest in it. Phone calls are brief and chatty and we never have those long conversations about theology and literature and life any more. I just can’t do it over the phone. Not now. And there are no words for how much that hurts.
Depression or Simply Isolated and Overwhelmed and Lacking in Support Structures?
Now I want to come back to the original topic of depression. I said I wasn’t really depressed, that I think this black cloud is mainly situational and not chemical—though the brain being the complex organ that it is I’m aware that is a radical oversimplification. I suppose I should say that, yes, I am aware that depression can be rooted in hormonal fluctuations and chemical imbalances. But I wonder how many external influences exacerbate or compound those problems. I’ve often wondered how much of PPD is rooted in simple exhaustion—all mothers of infants suffer from sleep deprivation—and in not having enough support, enough companionship and enough help. We are all trying to do too much and trying to go it too much on our own and is it any wonder we feel like we’re failing?
We aren’t meant to raise our children alone. We are meant to have community. And far too many of us lack that. Mothers of young children need a lot of support. We need extended families and friends to help out and we are so scattered and so “busy” that even the best-intentioned friends and family fail to meet our basic needs.
In the comments on Calah’s guest post someone wrote: “somebody should be staying with you and helping you out,” and someone else chimed in, “Somebody should be coming in to relieve you at certain times.” While I know both of these commenters meant well and I recognized that they were in fact identifying a key component of the problem, both comments made me want to pull my hair out. How many times have I received some such well-meaning “advice”. I was so grateful when another commenter chimed in:
I also wanted to say a word of caution to the good-intentioned people who have suggested that she needs a break. I realize that these sentiments come from a caring place, but I remember that hearing people say that to me when I was struggling through postpartum made me nuts, especially and particularly if it didn’t come with a “…and I’ll be over to your house tomorrow morning,” which it unfortunately rarely did. I guarantee that Calah already knows that she needs a break, so telling her she does isn’t providing any information she doesn’t already know. In addition, hearing something like that when you are already severely depressed adds in the potential anxiety and feelings of total overwhelmingness that come with knowing you must take a break and then trying to make that happen yourself. Quite honestly, the thought of calling a babysitter, asking a friend to come over or even asking for help from your family or husband seems overwhelming. So, then you feel guilty for not being able to pull even that together, and the cycle gets worse and deeper.
Like I said, I know it comes from a caring place. But if you find that those words are about to pass your lips and travel into the post-partum ear of a mother, make sure you follow them up with a specific plan for how you yourself will help. Don’t suggest, don’t offer. Just say you’re coming over and tell her when and with what.
Exactly. What I want most right now is not sympathy and platitudes and advice about diet and exercise and prayer and spiritual practices. What I want, what I think I need, is for someone to just show up. I know it’s totally unrealistic to expect help when I don’t ask for it, but the commenter is right. I am so under the cloud that I can’t bring myself to make phone calls, send emails, coordinate schedules, and beg for help. I just want someone to tell me “this is what I will do for you” and I want them to do it. And I need it to be regular, reliable, dependable, not just one or two token gestures, but real relief.
Well, at least, that’s what I want and what I think I need. What I really need… I don’t know. I’ve gotten to the point where I’m admitting defeat. I don’t know what I really need, I don’t know what will drive away this cloud, what will be enough to close the gaps and relieve the trapped, overwhelmed feeing. I can’t ask for help because I don’t even know what to ask for. All I can do now is put it all in God’s hands—the whole messy mess of it—and wait. Try to wait patiently and slog through each day as best I can, trusting that it will get better someday, somehow.
I don’t have a tidy conclusion and I seriously doubt the wisdom of publishing this. I know there will be comments that will drive me crazy because they miss the point. Actually, I’m not sure what the point is. The pieces of this puzzle still don’t form a picture. There are gaps, holes. And I can’t even see where they are. And yet… I think I will anyway, come what may. Maybe there is a conversation to be had. Maybe.
I cried for hours as I wrote this last night, pounding away long after everyone else was in bed, and afterwards too in the shower, in bed. I cried until I was out of tears, dry and empty and feeling like a pile of bones. I stayed up far too late. And today my eyes hurt and I feel sick. But there is this evening maybe a little space of peace. Here’s whatI finally realized: maybe right now this loneliness and lack of support is my cross to carry. Maybe these tears and this feeling of desertion are the only thing I can offer to God. So offer them I will. For now I’m going to try to ignore all the voices that say this is unbearable and I’m just going to beg Him to let me bear it one day at a time. Yes, I’m overwhelmed and isolated and yes this is not ideal and maybe not the way it’s meant to be. But today, it is what it is. I have to find a way to make today work. And tomorrow I’ll figure out tomorrow. I’ve got to stop looking at the big picture because it’s overwhelming. Today I got a letter from my OB’s office setting a date for my c-section, which I guess I’ll confirm at my appointment on Monday. And Dom found a notice about my postponed jury duty being this Thursday, when he has to be at a press conference. So many things to worry about and never enough time. But nothing I can do about any of them tonight. I’m going to go read my book and then… sleep.