My Year of Fear
I don’t think many would disagree with me that parenthood is hard. We learn how to be a parent basically by doing. I read all the “What to Expect” books, and they didn’t really help me at all. I don’t remember reading that I would get nearly no sleep the first few months, I may have some ridiculous expectations of post-pregnancy life, and the learning curve seems as steep as climbing the Matterhorn. It’s a hands-on, unique experience that can’t really be summed up into neat little timelines like the 40 weeks of pregnancy.
Pregnancy for me was a dream. I was 44 when I gave birth, but I somehow coasted through the nine months with relatively few problems. Somehow, I avoided a lot of the aches, pains and swelling (and other more unpleasant problems) that many expectant mothers have. I had experienced a few miscarriages before, but this time I was confident that things would work out. My husband approached the entire process with extreme caution. We had both had our hearts broken. Luckily, I was right.
At this point, my husband and I had lived in Germany for seven years and enjoyed our “European” lifestyle. We could pick up at a moment’s notice and fly to Reykjavik. Ask any of our friends. We did that trip nearly 10 times in 2010. When it was cheap…and when it was a little less touristy; when we didn’t have a baby. I didn’t really like my job, but I had one that gave me a decent salary, plenty of paid vacation and security that I may never see again…because we didn’t have a baby.
Once our daughter was in my arms, I was instantly intimidated. She seemed to look at me in a way that said, “You have no idea what you’re doing, do you?”, and “Are you sure having a baby at 44 was a good idea?”. These questions haunted me my first year as a parent.
There was such turmoil going on inside of me. I would go from loving mother to resentful in a flash. I would pray for sleep, and yet turn down any help that was offered by capable and loving friends so that I could take a nap. The bar that I had set for myself was so high, it was ridiculously unattainable. While my husband was at work, I felt like the laundry and the dishes couldn’t wait. Sleep was a priority at night, but you wouldn’t catch ME taking a nap with my baby. Never. There was stuff that had to be DONE, don’t you know? Only lazy people take naps. I careened from extreme depression to overwhelming anger and then back for a while to doing alright. I scared myself. I felt possessed.
Looking back, I can see what happened. After my daughter was born, I felt like I lost control. My life went from 98% predictable to 98% unpredictable overnight. I was sleep deprived. I was hormonal. The relaxed and happy girl I once was seemed to have been replaced by a wired, tired and desperate looking woman. Someone that had just been caught in a bear trap. Someone that couldn’t escape a truly breathtakingly scary dream.
Then, since we had tried to have a baby for so many years, I felt I couldn’t be unhappy. Why was I unhappy? I couldn’t talk to anyone about how I was feeling or what I was thinking because I had so many reasons to be grateful. I was holding a baby in my arms. Isn’t that what I had wished for?
As I write this, I can feel the anxiety that once had me in such a grip. I yelled a lot. I cried a lot. I was scared almost every minute. I didn’t have the support network that I have now. My amazing husband was there, but he didn’t understand. I’m not sure he ever will, and that’s okay. He was there for me. He helped me as much as he could. He told me it would be okay. He was right. I’m so lucky that he was right.
I know there are PLENTY of women who have lived that experience. Maybe there are women reading this that are living that experience right now. When you are there it feels as if this stage will never end. It’s hard. It’s the hardest year I ever lived through. Knock on wood, I hope it stays my hardest.
Luckily, I found a way out of that crazy place, and it’s accessible to everyone.
Do you realize that most of the world’s population is running on auto pilot half of their day? That means you, too. You are thinking about a discussion you had with your neighbor (or one you want to have with them) while you’re doing the dishes; you’re making a grocery list while you’re in the shower; you’re replaying an argument you had with your spouse over and over while you drive. Obviously, those are only a few examples, but it happens all the time.
Half the time you are thinking about anything other than what you’re actually doing.
Science magazine published a study done by Matthew A. Killingsworth and Daniel T. Gilbert in 2010 called, “A Wandering Mind is an Unhappy Mind”. They found two things in this study:
1) People are thinking about what is NOT happening almost as often as they are thinking about what is, and 2) When people are thinking about what is not happening now, it typically makes them unhappy.
So back to my terrifying experience the first year of motherhood. I actually DID have wonderful moments with my daughter in spite of the fact that I was generally miserable. Looking back, I know when those times were. They were when I just sat with her and stared into her eyes; when I pushed her in her baby carriage and sang to her; when we laughed and smiled together and my mind was in that moment with her. It was when I was being ‘mindful’ (before I even had much of a clue what that word meant). I was happiest when I was focused on the present moment. In other words, I wasn’t stuck in my head. I wasn’t analyzing anything, planning or thinking about an event over and over (also called rumination).
The terrifying experience was caused by me. I ruminated about every action that I took. I analyzed everything that I thought. I ran off with my emotions; berated myself for not knowing what I was doing, and was wrestled to the ground by panic. I wasn’t living in the moment.
This is where we are when we are overwhelmed. When life seems too messy or too unmanageable. When things go very, very wrong and you wonder if living is even a good idea.
It’s no secret that I had post-partum depression. You can read about it on my website, and it’s also the way that I found mindfulness and meditation. I find it hard sometimes to not be an evangelist. I want everyone to know about mindfulness and meditation as a source of strength in themselves. I want children to learn about mindfulness so that they don’t get caught up in depression’s net. The one that makes you miserable but is sometimes a comfortable friend that you can’t show the door.
Some of the things that mindfulness taught me have truly changed the way I live. It has changed my priorities, my attitude towards stress, and my relationship with myself.
Is my life perfect? Um…no. Sorry, I am still human and still mortal. But I have found a way to focus more on what is in front of me instead of dreaming of the future or reliving the past. Not all the time, but more than 50% of the time. Life doesn’t seem so hard anymore. It doesn’t seem like a heavy load that I carry around with me every day. I can see that a lot of people carry that load. Not just of depression, but of being generally unhappy and sort of 'stuck'.
My experience has turned me into a bit of an evangelist, I must admit. I recommend books to people that they will probably never read, and small practices that they can do to make their lives easier. I just want to help. I’ve been in a deep dark hole. I want to make sure no one else falls into that hole.
Mindfulness isn’t only used to help people through depression. It can help anyone find a greater sense of peace and wellness in their lives. I feel joys now that I wouldn’t have before because I wouldn’t have allowed myself to take the time to relish in the joy of that moment. I would have rushed on to the next thing.
I also want people to know that mindfulness and meditation aren’t just for hippies or waif-like vegans that only shop at organic grocery stores and listen to public radio. Not that there’s anything wrong with them…but there are a multitude of people that are benefiting from mindfulness that are just normal everyday people…like me.
That discovery for me started a fire to learn more. I learned a lot more, and then I spent a year training to become a teacher of mindfulness. So not only did it change me, but it changed my career path too.
I’m a better version of myself. I am not scared or angry or sad all the time. Not that I don’t feel those emotions anymore, I just don’t stay on that train as long. I find a way to let things go that would have consumed me before.
To learn more about me or what I’m doing in my new role as a teacher of mindfulness, you can visit my website. Write me an email if you want to talk more about it. I’m always happy to. It’s an inspiring topic for me and I’m now working to inspire others.
Wishing you all the best in parenthood and in every other area of life,
Kim Douglass Founder / Instructor Common Humanity, Center for Mindfulness Berlin, Germany