Learning to Stay

It’s been a little while, friends. Since my last post, I’ve managed to pull myself out of my tailspin. It’s taken time, and I would say I’m still in the early days of really feeling 100% in control of myself again. Things are in constant flux; there’s no guarantee that this stability will last. In fact, the only sure thing is that it won’t. Things will change again. There’s comfort in that, I suppose. The highs don’t last, but neither do the lows, not forever.

We’re in Ontario visiting family right now, trying to tie up some loose ends since our move in the spring. Having extra hands to help has certainly contributed to my most recent recovery. I’ve been seeing my therapist weekly since we got here, and that little “top up” has been so important for me to sort through my shit and reaffirm some things.  I know I’ve got this; I know what needs to be done. It’s the doing it that’s hard. I’m working on not numbing out: no more wine, trying not to overeat, not to check out mentally with my phone. I’ve been running, or meditating, or reading, whenever I find a spare moment in the day. I’m trying to let go of the absolutes: the “I have to do this thing at this time every day or else I do nothing.” I’m trying to embrace the fact that, with three kids ages five and under, I’m never going to have that kind of regularity. I’m embracing the chaos of it, embracing the flux. The writing has been missing, and so here I am. And here I will try to come more often. If I can’t have my therapist in Dawson, maybe this can stand in to help me stay accountable to myself.

Something I’ve realized in the past two weeks is my intense discomfort with myself, with the present moment, with being still and staying with whatever is happening. More and more, I notice myself constantly looking for an exit. Yesterday, I took the kids to the beach. We had some fries and Orangeade; the sun was shining, it was windy but warm. A gorgeous day. As the kids ran across the sand towards the lake, shorebirds taking flight in their wake, it started: that nagging voice in my mind asking “so when do we leave? What’s next?”

What the hell?

The kids are happy. They’re not fighting, they’re not throwing toys around my parents house or nagging me for a snack. We’re fed, we’re rested, we’re outside and there is so much to see and smell and feel. Why can’t I just enjoy this? So, I brought myself back to the moment I was in. Acknowledged that restlessness, and sat through it, there in the sand and sun. It passed, and we played for another hour or so.

It’s this restlessness that drives so many of my habits. Bored? Pick up the smartphone: exit. Frustrated? Start yelling at everybody: exit. Overwhelmed? Open that bottle of wine: exit. Sad? Eat another huge helping of dinner: exit. Whether it’s physical pain or emotional pain, I’ve got an exit strategy. And I’m finally starting to see them play out, time and again. And I’m ready to stop and stick around with my shit, because I’m beginning to learn that it always passes, eventually. That the discomfort doesn’t kill me. But the exit strategies are.

Last week I got a new tattoo. It was about three and a half hours of tattooing, and of course it hurts. I breathed through much of it, chatting off and on with the artist, looking around the room, listening to the music, but at times I was overwhelmed with this creeping-up-my-spine feeling of “get me the fuck outta here!” But of course that’s not an option. I can’t leave with a half finished tattoo. I don’t want to do that. I chose this, and at the end, I’ll have this beautiful piece of art on my body. So I came back to my breath. I got through it. And it occurred to me that choosing to be present through whatever is going on isn’t a choice you make one time and then you’re set. It’s a choice you have to make over and over again, a million times a day if necessary.

That creeping feeling shows up in meditation, it shows up when I’m conciously trying not to pick up my smartphone: basically any time I’m trying to keep myself from running for the exit. It is so uncomfortable to just be present with myself. To be present in my life, this life that I’ve got. These three kids who exhaust and overwhelm me daily. But if I’m not there for the overwhelm, chances are I won’t be there for the (often rare and fleeting) bits of beauty.

In her book ““Taking the Leap”, Pema Chodron says we only have to do three things when we feel ourselves about to run for the exit:

1. Acknowledge it (with kindness, if possible)

2. Take three concious breaths. Be curious about how you’re feeling (have a sense of humour about it, if you’re able)

3. Relax. Get on with your life.

I love that she doesn’t specify what “getting on with it” might be. She leaves the possibility that we’ll still run for the exit. But the more frequently we practice creating this space around our exit strategies, the easier it will become, over time, to choose to stay present.

I’m going to practise this today and every day. I’m going to be kind with myself even when I do run for the door. My hope is to eventually stay, like a faithful dog, through all of it.

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Two Poems in Mused Literary Review

I am so thrilled to have two of my poems appearing in the Spring Equinox issue of Mused Literary Review! It’s available in three formats: an HTML version, a downloadable PDF file and a full colour, glossy print magazine.

Though I’ve been out of the darkness for months now, much of my poetry seems to be processing some of the saddest, darkest times in my postpartum experience. These two poems take me right back there, both emotionally and geographically. I’m grateful to be in lighter place now; however, I think it’s so important to share these experiences, so we know we’re not alone.

Thanks for reading, friends.

Learning to Live with Anger

It’s late morning. I sit on the couch in the sunroom, nursing my baby and watching the boys play. This particular day started too early, and my attempt to sneak in some writing before the demands started was interrupted when Aedan curled up beside me, clinging to my arm and resting his head against my shoulder. Now, the boys are playing a noisy game of “you be the lizard and I’ll be the dragon chasing you”: they roar, hiss, screech with delight. To say I am overstimulated would be an understatement. And I’m tired, and hungry. I decide to do something about that last one. I sling the baby up onto my shoulder, and walk to the kitchen to find something to eat. And the second I am out of the room, Colm’s squeals of joy turn to cries of distress. I tense up (if it’s even possible for me to be more tense), my jaw clenching, and storm back into the room. Aedan has his brother pinned face-down, and he’s gripping Colm’s chubby little cheeks, pulling his head back. And I lose it.

With my baby still in my arms I start yelling. I forcefully pull Aedan off of his little brother, pushing him away from Colm. I scream “What are you doing? What is your problem? It’s not okay to hurt people!” And as I utter those words, a voice somewhere in my head whispers: You are such a hypocrite. It’s not okay to hurt people but you’re trying to hurt him.

And then the guilt and the shame set in. I feel like shit, like an awful person. All three of us are crying. I promise to do better but the truth is, now that I’ve lost it once today I’m more likely to lose it again. This path is so worn I swear I walk it in my sleep.

Anger is absolutely the last emotion I expected to encounter on my parenting journey. So when it began to bubble up, hot and intense and unstoppable, just after Colm was born, I had no idea how to handle it. I had never experienced anything like the kind of anger I’ve just described. My biggest triggers are Aedan getting too rough with his little brother, and my own over-stimulation: both of these are unavoidable parts of parenting young kids. I hate this aspect of myself. I think it’s ugly, out of control, and scary. Over the last two years, I have promised myself and my kids repeatedly that I will not yell. I will not lose it. I will do better, be better. And, inevitably, I break my promises, over and over again.

With the guidance of a wondeful therapist, I’ve come to realize some key issues with my approach. First of all, framing it as “doing better, being better” implies that what I’m doing now is wrong, and that there is something wrong with who I am today. And saying “I’m going to be better” sets me up for a big let down when I lose it the next time. Because, let’s face it, just saying those words doesn’t magically make it so. Learning a new way of dealing with explosive anger isn’t going to happen overnight. So if I’ve promised to be better, and then I’m not, the feelings of shame and guilt are even greater. It’s a pattern that leads to more anger, more shame, more depression. Instead of saying “I’m going to do better”, I now think of it as doing differently. I’m learning new techniques. I am still me: ever evolving me.

The biggest issue I face, though, is that I am trying to live without anger, trying to deny the feeling exists, trying to squash it down. But anger is a very real, albeit a very uncomfortable, feeling. It is physically uncomfortable: we often feel anger in our bodies, the tension and the jaw-clenching I mentioned. Maybe you ball your hands into fists or grind your teeth. Maybe you feel it in your gut. We often feel an intense need to relieve that anger, by yelling or by lashing out: shoving, hitting, kicking. And that may feel like relief, briefly. And then we feel awful for what we’ve  done. We might feel even angrier then, at the person who “made” us lose it in the first place, and at ourselves, for losing it.  The feeling of discomfort lingers, intensifies.

So what if we just sit with our intense feelings? What if we just give those feelings space to be? Over the past month or so I’ve been trying this. Noticing when my anger is being triggered. Acknowledging it by saying, either in my head or outloud: “I’m really angry right now!”  I feel it in my whole body, I feel that urge to strike out, and it is so uncomfortable. I feel my anger peak, and then, gradually, simmer down and finally pass. I’ve noticed that when I do this, I’m actually angry for less time. There are fewer tears shed. My relationship to my kids is unscathed.

The hardest part about sitting with my anger is still dealing with the situation at hand.  Since my anger is usually triggered by Aedan getting too rough with his brother, I still have to act. Real life prevails: I can’t just retreat to a quiet room and deep breathe until it passes. For now, I tell Aedan firmly that we don’t push, hit, kick, bite etc. And then I go to Colm, if he needs me, and I hug him and kiss him and make sure he’s okay. I hold his sweet little self until the anger begins to dissipate and then I might address Aedan more fully. For now, it works to get me through the day.

This trick of giving space to uncomfortable feelings works with more than just anger, of course. When I’m feeling depressed or anxious, I’ve begun to just notice these feelings, acknowledge them, and patiently watch for them to pass. And in the same vein, when I am feeling happy, joyful even, I honour those feelings by attending to them, letting them swell and crest and then gently lap at my toes as I wait for the next wave, whatever it might bring.

Were you surprised by unexpected emotions in parenthood? How do you deal with things like anger or deep sadness in your everyday life? I’d love to hear what works for you.

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Healing from Post-Partum Depression

It is late morning in October 2013. I’m lying in a darkened bedroom in a house that is not my own, in Whitehorse, Yukon. My breasts are engorged and while my newborn boy nurses on one side, the opposite breast leaks, dampening my shirt. My eyes leak tears. My mom comes into the room, holding back tears herself.  She kisses me, tells me she loves me, and then she is gone, off to catch her flight back to Ontario. I wail into the empty house while my baby sleeps at my breast.

I am standing at the kitchen counter in our cabin, the baby wrapped tight on my chest while my first born watches Nemo for the second time that day. My fingers fly over the keyboard as I vent to my sister online. I’m crying again; it seems like I haven’t really stopped since my mom left a few weeks ago. My husband has escaped into town to work, and my closest neighbour is several kilometers away; they keep mostly to themselves. I keep mostly to myself, with only babies and dogs and whiskey jacks for company.

I am stumbling in the dark of post-partum depression and I can’t admit it to anyone.  I try to be strong. I never ask for help.  I yell at my two year old with his baby brother in my arms and then we all cry together.

It goes on like this for more than a year, into a third pregnancy. I’ll believe I’ve turned a corner and then something drags me back down again.

We move back to Ontario. We move in boxes sent through the mail, in suitcases on the plane. We move in uncertainty and desperation. We hope things will be better.

It is late morning at the end of May 2015.  I’m lying in a bedroom full of light, in my own home.  My baby girl nurses, my breasts leak.  My mom comes into the room, smiling.  She kisses the baby’s soft dark hair and then she packs up a change of clothes for the boys, taking them to her house for the day, a 5 minute drive away.  When she brings them home that evening, she cooks us all dinner and helps get my boys into bed.

I’m sitting on the squishy blue couch across from my therapist. The baby is asleep at my breast. Through tears I tell her I’m having a shitty day, that I want to run away.  We talk it out while the pile of crumpled tissues grows at my side. On this day I’m sad, but I’m getting stronger. I’m learning to be gentle with myself, with my kids.  I’m learning to ask for help and to accept it when it’s offered.

I take my three children to the park.  I wave hello to my neighbours, chat with other mothers at the park while the boys play.  It feels simple, and easy.  I smile at the sun and am thankful.

When we hear about a “healing birth”, we imagine a previous birth marred by some kind of trauma, followed by a birth that empowers, smooths over, satisfies.  We don’t usually think of it in the context of what comes after the birth. But for me, this third post-partum period in my life has been incredibly healing.  Finally, I am experiencing what it’s like to take care of myself and to be supported and cared for from all sides. I am able to drink in these newborn days without overwhelming sadness, grief and anger haunting my every moment. They are there, spectres lurking in the shadows of my mind, but I hold them at bay.

I Am Enough

As I sit on the toilet, the ring around the tub glares at me and I think: I should give it a quick scrub right now.

I am not quite three weeks post-partum. And the baby is starting to fuss.  And it’s 2 o’clock in the morning.

When the sun is up I watch P tidy up behind me in the kitchen, fold the laundry, put the groceries away in the fridge. I watch him with the words “I’m sorry” ready to leap from my lips a thousand times; with a feeling of guilt churning in my stomach.  I imagine he is irritated, resentful, tired. I bumble along in his wake, trying to step in and do it all one handed, the baby balanced with the other hand against my shoulder.

“Sit down, sweetie,” he tells me.  “You just had a baby. Relax.”  I apologize, again, but I can’t sit down.

Later, I stand at the bottom of the stairs, Charlotte in my arms, while Colm stands at the top of the stairs, looking down at me, forlorn.  He lifts his arms up: “Carry you?” he calls down to me, over and over.

“No, baby,” I say, tears in my eyes.  “Mama can’t carry you down now. You can do it. Mama can hold your hand.”

“No!” he cries. My heart is already broken; I imagine I’ve broken his now, too, that he feels abandoned. I’ve pushed him to fledge before his feathers are grown.

In one day I take the baby to Costco, then, with my sister, walk to the park and chase the kids around.  It’s been two weeks, I figure.  It’s time for life to get back to normal.  That night, sore and exhausted, I cook dinner, too.  The next day, my feet crotch hips back ache.

An adequate amount of sleep is something I chase: it is impossible, like a dog trying to catch its own clipped tail, but I wake up early and refuse to nap. Instead I get up with the boys and dole out bowls of cereal and almond milk; I read the news; I write; I stare out at the garden overgrown with weeds and fret that I’m not out there on my knees in the dirt. What must the neighbours think of me?

I feel like I’m doing nothing, being lazy and burdensome, when really what I’m doing is recovering from 10 months of sharing my body in what is essentially a parasitic relationship. At the end of those 10 months, I pushed a 9 pound baby out of my vagina. And now I feed her from my breasts. Quietly, pretending like it’s no big deal, I’m sustaining another person’s life. Why can’t that be enough? Why do I undervalue this work? It is enough for my kids; why can’t it be enough for me?

It is so hard for me to sit, and feed the baby and let my body heal without enormous amounts of guilt and anxiety weighing on me.  I have to try, though.

So I turn my back on the dirt-ringed tub, and hurry back to bed, curling around my baby, gently shushing her with my breast. We drift off to sleep together, and that is enough.