By Andrea Paterson
Mother’s Day is a complicated holiday. Meant to celebrate mothers it can sometimes injure through omission. Motherhood comes in so many guises–the transgendered mother, the mother who adopted a child, the single mother, the mother who endured years of fertility treatment, the mother who doesn’t look like a mother on the outside because she lost her child to miscarriage, the teen mother, the mother who gave birth at an “advanced maternal age.” Mother’s Day has a tendency to celebrate the ideal mother, the Good Mother, the mother that we are pressured to be by advertisers and social media. Mother’s Day comes with a host of expectations, norms, and ideals that can be challenging to face, especially when you’re suffering from postpartum depression and anxiety and you may not feel like the mother you assumed you would be. The gifts, the flowers, the brunch at a fancy restaurant–all of these things can be lovely, but sometimes they only serve to highlight the disparity between how things are supposed to be and how things feel for you. Mother’s Day can be downright triggering. In addition to being celebrated for their nurturing role, mothers are expected to sing the praises of motherhood on Mother’s Day; they’re supposed to be radiant and grateful and tell the world that motherhood is the greatest gift of all. In the midst of PPD/A this sort of celebratory attitude doesn’t always feel possible. It can even be painful.
So let me suggest that we dispense with what Mother’s Day is supposed to be and start thinking about what we would like it to be for ourselves. It’s quite possible that flowers just aren’t going to cut it. Brunch may not bring joy to the new mom who has been struggling to leave the house. A card, no matter how well meaning, may not feel like a comfort or an acknowledgement of the toil that has gone into transforming into a mother. Let’s open up the realm of what can count as celebration and what might feed each mother best. It’s going to be different for everyone. Maybe for you the greatest gift would be a break. We’re expected to spend Mother’s Day basking in the glow of our angelic children, but perhaps a day off to have tea alone, go to a concert, or visit with friends would serve you better. Don’t be afraid to state what you need plainly. What would make you feel celebrated? What would you consider a gift?
Know that it’s okay if Mother’s Day dredges up big, conflicted emotions. It’s a holiday that reminds us of our sacrifices, our pain, our struggles and, yes, our joy too, and our triumphs. If you’ve been working through PPD/A it can be an opportunity to celebrate how far you’ve come in your motherhood journey and it may be that acknowledging the deep challenge of your growth into Mom is part of the ritual of celebration. Mourning can be a part of the celebration. Tears can be a part of the celebration. It would be lovely if, collectively, women could let go of the socially prescribed Mother’s Day expectations and begin to craft celebrations that reflect their own experience and their own needs.
As a gift this Mother’s Day I offer you the Love Letter Project. The website solicits and posts Love Letters written by people who are reflecting on the greatest challenges of their lives and offering words of support to others going through their own dark nights. Today the Love Letter Project is featuring letters about the intense challenges of new motherhood. Perhaps you’ll find a voice that speaks to you there today. All posts related to the challenges of motherhood are being tagged #ToNewMomsWithLove on social media feeds.
I also wanted to write my own brief love letter–a letter to my slightly younger self, the self that was mired in the darkest places of PPD/A. I wanted to think about what I might say to that woman who is at the beginning of her motherhood journey and sinking in the quicksand of transformation. This is the letter I wish I could have written to myself, to offer the empathy and understanding that paves the road back to wellness.
Dear New Mother,
I know that you are suffering. I see that the joy and vibrancy that once emanated effortlessly from your soul has been muffled. Your days feel dim, monotonous, scary. You wake in the night to the cries of your newborn baby only to find that you imagined the sound, that it was part of a perpetual dark dream of being constantly needed, constantly on call. I see that you are exhausted. I know that you are experiencing a weariness that goes beyond the physical and seeps right into the brittle bones of your newborn Mother Self. In the blackest midnight hours you wonder what it would be like to simply close your eyes and never open them again. You don’t want to die exactly, it’s just that it would be so nice to sleep for years and wake up to a brighter reality. I know that you think you are failing. You worry that your depression will affect your child, harm him somehow. You try to overcompensate for this perceived deficiency by driving yourself to fit some version of motherhood that is beyond reach. You clean your house obsessively and in moments of frenzy bake brownies to show that you have it all together. You need to prove that you’re a good mom, a good wife, a good homemaker. But the brownies only act to sugar coat the desperation that underlies them. I know what it’s like to fall to the floor sobbing once the cookies are cooling on the counter.
And what I want to tell you is that your pain is real, it’s legitimate, and you will survive it. I won’t tell you that it goes away completely. It doesn’t. PPD/A might always linger as a piece of your motherhood, but it becomes a smaller and smaller piece as time goes by. The joy starts coming in through the cracks that depression opened up in your body. Your child will grow and one day he will look at you and say “Mommy, you’re my best friend.” And on that day you will experience love so profound that the whole universe will condense into that moment. Some days you will still feel like a failure, and some days you will still cry. The rawness of mothering remains present but you will begin to define a new normal and you will gain tools and community to help you get through the bad times and celebrate the good. You will gain a new sense of self and finely honed powers of empathy. Empathy, in fact, will become your greatest strength. It will help you connect to others who have suffered, and together with your new tribe you will venture out into the world feeling supported.
Right now there is only an agony that colours every moment of your day, but it won’t always be like this. The pain will give way to other things and you will be refashioned into something completely different, something you will begin to love. You won’t forget those early days. They won’t become a blur or a haze. They will become an essential part of who you are now and you will find acceptance in that reality. You will learn to face postpartum depression and stare it down. And while I wish that your introduction to motherhood had been different, easier, prettier, the journey is what it is and you will come through. I don’t believe that we are only given what we can handle in life. Sometimes we are saddled with far more than is bearable but even so you will come through and there is something to celebrate in that.
To all the mothers in all the diversity of motherhood, I wish you a Mother’s Day that feeds you, recognizes you, and allows you to celebrate the resilience you are developing. I wish you a Mother’s Day that gives you a chance to celebrate your own victories, no matter how small, and turn a loving gaze onto your own Mother Self. You’re doing a great job, and you are enough.