Animals do some extreme things to protect their babies. I read in a PBS story recently that sloths and certain birds are known to eat (!?)
or abandon their weaker young in order to provide for the healthier ones (it's written by Rebecca Jacobson and you can find it here
). Expert biologists say it's because parents have limited resources to give their offspring; it's nature's way of making sure only the strongest make it. But apparently, sometimes animal mamas also hurt their babies by mistake. When a perceived predator comes around, mothers hold their young too tight or carry them too long to protect them and it causes mortal damage.
Surprisingly, even in nature, mothering doesn't just come naturally.
I know what it's like to love my family so hard that I hurt them by mistake. When I was pregnant, the typical joyful response was not at all natural. I couldn't feel it because I was too afraid it would be taken away. It was a bad emotional habit that follows me still.
It's not supposed to be this hard, everyone said.
But, isn't it? I mean, isn't a natural part of loving your child also being afraid for him of all the terrible Wild? Protecting is primal. So there I was, pregnant in the Wild, and I saw a predators everywhere.
I counted calories and ounces of water, took cold showers, drank out of only glass cups and held my breath at the gas station or while painting my nails. I ran out of rooms when a cigarette was pulled out (so, about every 10 minutes in Los Angeles, where we lived at the time). I filled my life to the brim with the rules of pregnancy, and had no room for anything else. The normal anxiety of becoming a parent quickly turned into a crippling perinatal mood disorder.
That July, I delivered Otto three weeks early in agony, relief and adoration for my body and this tiny human. But with the clamped cord, I also knew I wasn't enough to protect him anymore. I lost the baby I held safe inside me in exchange for this breathing, unattached, individual boy on my chest. He was mine, but he was also his own.
"Having a baby is really scary. Now life has a thousand new ways to hurt you," my spouse said. It seemed there were so many more risks than rewards to existing, for both of us, and I felt selfish; I wanted him to be here so badly that I let him exist in a world that might hurt him.
And even worse, I KNEW it would. I knew that this perfect untouched body nursing at my breast was going to hurt someday and delaying it was all-consuming. I counted Otto’s breathing patterns, boiled and washed his things constantly, and made myself throw up when I ate something I thought would be bad for him. I recounted my mistakes at the end of each day and punished myself for them.
I didn't know how severe my maternal mental illness (anxiety, OCD and bipolar tendencies) was until after it was mostly over, but I knew it made me a different person and poisoned most of my relationships. I treated everyone like a predator, and in doing so isolated myself from any support.
I longed for offers of help or company, but turned them away every time they came. I didn't trust that anyone else's care for Otto would be enough to keep him safe, which made me unapproachable, quick-tempered and egalitarian. I was unrecognizable to my spouse and to myself. All the soft, patient parts of me were wrapped up in my sweet boy, and left there with him in his slumber as I closed the door each night, turning to the dark inevitable living room to find who I was without him in my arms.
Otto was almost one year old when I heard about Climb Out of the Darkness 2014, a national event supporting moms with mental illness. I studied videos and research and stories about it like an animal emerging from captivity to find blue sky. Other women experience motherhood the way I do,
I thought, and they found a way out.
I learned that, with help, loving Otto didn't have to be so scary. I moved back to Michigan and participated in the Climb event, where I heard the stories of so many brave "Warrior Mom" survivors. I got connected with Baby Cafe and Willow Tree Family Center where I was forever changed by the women who cleaned my wounds and rehabilitated my spirit. Who prayed positivity into my atmosphere and hope into my lungs. Who helped me see that my family had been doing that the whole time. I wasn't the same as before the Wild, but I was alive again.
Earlier intervention, information and community support would have changed motherhood for me. So if you're going through perinatal mental illness, or care about someone who is, these are some things to know:
1.) It doesn't always look the way you read about in the news.
I didn't think that I had a problem because I wasn’t harming myself or my baby. I didn’t feel violent and I didn't imagine driving off the road or jumping off a building, but the anxious and controlling thoughts consumed so much space in my head that I couldn't find myself. Postpartum psychosis and depression are commonly confused, and they are only a few of the mental health challenges new moms face. Anxiety, OCD, bipolar disorder and PTSD from traumatic pregnancy or birth are also very real. In fact, 1 in 7 women will have perinatal mood disorder and most go undiagnosed.
2.) Sometimes, it's circumstantial. But sometimes it's not.
Those first postpartum months are tough for everyone. The life changes can bring about a lot of soul-searching, sadness and insecurity, so people tell moms, "Wait a few months and it gets easier." But you might see life falling into place and your mood doesn't improve. You might find that the baby sleeps better, your partner helps more, and you get more "me" time or you go back to work, but it still hurts in all the same ways. There might not be a particular reason you're lost. Depression, anxiety and fear, when untreated, create patterns in your brain that last beyond the “baby blues.” Sometimes it goes away with time, but sometimes your brain is just sick. You're not alone, and there are tools to heal it.
3.) Life is better in a tribe
By reaching out to those local support groups, I was given advice, acceptance and tools to cope with my anxiety. They reminded me that even if something bad happens, it's still good to exist and the joy that comes with loving a child is worth the pain of potentially losing him. They were the living evidence, to me, that my Creator hadn't forgotten me in the Wild.
Like the animals who live there, we're wired to protect our loved ones, and sometimes that hurts. But unlike most species, in which only the fittest survive, I believe we can have more: we have help when the Predators come. We get loving, supportive, educated communities that fight for us when we can't and elevate our souls past just surviving and into thriving. The truth is, a lot of us aren't fit to survive. Not alone. We have sisters, brothers, fathers and mothers who holler a big ole' battle cry at the beasts on our behalf. When you find your tribe (or stop building walls up against the one you already have) you just might find your way out of the Wild and into the wonderful parts of being a Warrior mom.