"C'mon baby, let's go."
I hear myself and cringe. My foot presses the lock on the stroller and I double back toward my toddler, who lags about 20 feet behind me.
"What did you find?" I ask, watching as she sifts through layers of damp leaves. In the distance, the dog sprints from tree to tree, determined to cover more ground than we will.
Of course, the pace of life changes when you have a baby. But even a few months ago we would cover miles in this park, my daughter tied contently to my back and my legs carrying us through the thick woods.
Now things have changed. We're on toddler time. We've been walking for 20 minutes and have not even made it out of the parking lot.
"Buddy, bring me a stick," I say to the dog, accepting that he won't be tired out by our walk alone. As I toss it to him, I praise each leaf, rock and stick that my daughter picks up. We never make it out of the parking lot.
On the way home, I begin making a plan. We'll eat lunch, and then its naptime. Time to compress a day's work into two hours, if I'm lucky. I eat and pee before the baby falls asleep so that I don't need to waste any of that precious time. Forty minutes for an edit test for a new website. Another forty if I would like to write for them as well. I'm swift and focused, moving through each task with clipped precision. With seven minutes left on the timer, a cry breaks my focus. I quickly wrap up the test, submit it and walk to the nursery.
Being a mom - especially a working mom, and even more so one that works from home - is all about balancing. Sometimes that balance looks more like juggling. I'm learning that the key to keeping everyone happy is knowing when to speed through the to-do's, and when to just take it slow.
In the afternoon we go for another walk. We make it half a block before my daughter spots a sewer drain.
"Wow," she says.
I smile to myself, finding joy in her wonder. I sit down on the side of the road and find rocks for her to toss into the abyss. I don't know whether we are there for 20 minutes or 45. I just wait until the novelty has worn out, and that little voice says, "All done."
Last year I spent my Mother’s day waiting.
I was just fifteen days away from meeting my daughter – although at the time I didn’t know that – and the end-of-pregnancy expanse stretched infinitely before me. I was waiting to kiss ten little toes, and to inhale that special scent that only newborns have. Most of all I was waiting to assume the identity I had been looking forward to taking on for my whole life – mother.
Now that baby bump is toddling around the house, causing a remarkable amount of chaos for an 18-pound being. My daughter has been constantly transforming over the last year – from a docile infant into cooing baby, and now into a headstrong toddler who knows just what she wants.
Mother is such a strong role in our culture; moms are praised for being giving and selfless, the backbones of our families. Last year, I couldn’t wait to become enmeshed in that role, learning from my mom and my grandmothers. I was waiting for a magical change to wash over me, and yet when I finally emerged from the sleepless nights and relentless nursing sessions I was surprised to realize I was still myself.
“Oh my god, you’re somebody’s mom,” a friend said when we met for drinks recently. “That’s so weird.”
Weird indeed. This past year has been at once strange and completely natural. I love my daughter, and am amazed how easily she has fit into my life. But at the same time, I’ve realized that I don’t define myself by my relationship to her. I am a mother, yes, but also a writer and a wife, and all the things I was before giving birth. I’ve added a passion, but I haven’t replaced any.
More importantly, I’ve realized that nurturing those passions is just as important as nurturing my little one. In order to be a woman that my daughter is proud of, I devote time to the things that make me feel strong, smart and healthy in mind and body.
This year, I’ve learned that just like any other humans, moms are multifaceted. They have likes and dislikes, hobbies and shortcomings. My new perspective has prompted me to ask the mothers in my life questions that don’t pertain to raising little ones (although they get plenty of those questions, too). I’ve had wonderful conversations, talking to my aunt about death and to my mom about relationships and identity. If anything, being a member of the mom “club” has let me humanize the mothers in my life, and connect with them on an even deeper level because of that.
Last year on Mother’s Day, I was heavily pregnant, suspended between two worlds – things as they were, and things as they would be. Not knowing what to expect, I focused on my hopes for myself:
I hope that I'll have taken time to be present, I wrote at the time. If life does fly by as quickly as they say, then there is no sense wishing any of it away… I hope that I will have been kind to myself… Most of all, I hope that in 25 years I will be surrounded by a loving family, just as I am today.
Looking back on my first year of motherhood, I realize this message was one I got right. During the first year you have little choice but to be present for the good and the bad, because it turns out the infant phase is as tough as they say. But it is also true that one smile from a troublesome baby can leave you feeling overcome with love, and muttering, “You are just too darn cute.” As for kindness – well, without the kindness of others, and the kindness to forgive myself for my shortcomings, the first year would have been impossible.
Today I’ll be celebrating Mother’s Day with my little family of three, and with my extended family, acknowledging aunts, sister and grandmothers. As we celebrate the contributions these moms have made to our family, I’ll also take a moment to appreciate them for their whole selves – real, beautiful, flawed individuals – just like me.
Ed Note: This article first appeared in Foster's Daily Democrat on Mother's Day.
My statement started with a question.
"Why, if you have cancer - or another physical disease - do people reach out and embrace you, but mental illness is something to be shunned and not spoken about?"
I heard that question often growing up, from both my parents. I knew that my father had bipolar disorder, and I knew what the perceptions of that were. Even though he was healthy for my whole childhood, my parents began a conversation that they knew would likely be a lifelong one for our family.
Recently, someone reacted negatively to my writing about my father. Writers - especially in today's easily-searchable blog culture - spend plenty of time fretting over which stories are theirs to tell, and which rely too heavily on the supporting cast in their lives.
There have been many things that I have not shared about my family's experience, because they are not my story. That said, there is a reason my parents began a conversation about stigma years before my father got sick. They realized how powerful and damaging a force stigma is.
I refuse to be embarrassed by mental illness. I refuse to let denial and shame hold back information that could help someone. I refuse to not speak about something that is so important in my life, and in the lives of millions of people.
Nearly 20 percent of Americans will have a diagnosable mental illness this year. A quarter of those people will have an episode that seriously impairs their life. If one in five people suffer from mental illness, that means nearly every family in this country can relate to my story on some level. And yet, despite this, patients and their families feel ashamed and alone because these invisible diseases are talked about in hushed whispers.
A mother who chooses to speak out from the unimaginable hell of losing a daughter, or a family discussing addiction in an obituary are taking the brave step of telling other people "you are not alone; yes, these are 'real' diseases; please, seek help."
In my own tiny way I can contribute to that conversation. It isn't about garnering clicks or grabbing attention - it's about being able to make a small difference. The father I grew up with has all but disappeared, but I can honor that man, and the question he planted. I can share his words directly when he asks. And if one person chooses to ask for help, or a family is able to shed the weight of secrecy, then we have made something positive come out of a horrible illness.
That's why I speak.
He slides open the screen, and walks into the breezeway, breathing heavily. After four weeks in rehab, Dad is home. He glances to the left, into the bedroom that is no longer strewn with dirty clothes and dishes. It’s unrecognizable. Discarded jeans have been replaced with fresh flowers, and a the smell of paint lingers in the air.
He doesn’t step in; doesn’t take a moment to consider the hours spent lovingly reconstructing his world that was in disarray. Instead, he yells a hello to his mother, sitting in front of the t.v., and walks out the door into the backyard.
Lighting a cigarette is a brave move for a man who has just spent four weeks in a rehabilitation hospital for a stroke. A warning sign, the doctor’s said. A wake-up call. Even when I listened to those words, handed like a gift beneath the fluorescent hospital lights, I knew they were false. Don’t hope, I told myself. Don’t build it up.
In the eight years since my father’s mental breakdown, I have run the gamut in terms of the effort I put in to his illness. Sometimes I am the dedicated daughter, stopping by daily to invite him to get out of bed and come on a walk. Just once, he shocked me by saying yes. That day we trudged through the spring mud, and jumped when a snake crawled across our path.
Other times, I try to let go; release my expectations; have none. How are you, may be a question, but I ask it without expecting a response. I become adept at holding conversations with myself, and try not to be offended when I walk in and my dad waves half-heartedly from the bed, before rolling over.
Depression doesn’t only crush it’s victims; it can crush their family and friends as well. Because if ever a disease lent itself to resentment, it is depression. It is watching a loved one slowly kill themselves. It is wanting nothing more than to scream, wake up, but knowing that that is far from that simple. It is watching Dad light that first cigarette, then another.
Once upon a time, my writing was my baby. I loved it, and lavished it with attention, and in my free time I couldn't wait to spend some quality time with it.
Then, I had a baby, and my writing was displaced. It wasn't just a matter of finding the time. More alarmingly, for the first time ever, I just didn't want or need to write. I wasn't writing online, or in my journals. The only writing I've been doing it the kind that pays my bills, because a job is a job.
I've always loved the Joan Didion quote, "I write entirely to find out what I'm thinking." For as long as I remember that's been true. Through my dad's mental health struggles, I wrote, and it was therapeutic. I wrote through my travels, and through my pregnancy. But then the desire was gone.
The last eight months have been a jolt, tougher than I could have imagined. With so much intensity day to day - the good, and the bad - it seemed impossible to write about what I was experiencing too. I just had to ride the wave, and live it here and now. And boy was I relieved to realize that other writers feel the same way. Sometimes, you just have to experience things, without worrying about finding the words to describe them.
Luckily, like most love affairs, the flame that has died down can spring back up with a little care and attention. And with all those month stored up, I should have plenty to say...
I had it all figured out.
I had nannied. Twins. Overnights. Special needs. I knew babies.
I'd read the books and the blogs, from the humorous to the medical. Talked to parents. Formed opinions. I knew exactly what I wanted to do.
Then, I had a child, and it all went to hell.
I should have known I was in trouble during labor. After three days of a hospital induction the baby still wasn't coming, so we were sent home. We got there, and my water promptly broke, thick with meconium. With that, my med-free water birth went out the window as I was hooked to monitors and planted in a bed. This baby was literally shitting on my plans before I had even seen her face.
In the coming days and weeks other dominoes fell. My vows against co-sleeping lost out to my desire for two hours of uninterrupted rest. Exclusively breastfeeding wasn't as important as supplementing formula to get my skinny girl to grow.
All of this in the midst of accommodating the overwhelming needs of the tiny dictator.
"How is the.... adjustment going?" one mom friend asked, with a knowing look on her face. "I remember thinking it was hell on earth," the dad of a two-year-old told me. "Welcome to the secret society," my aunt said, "You can't understand it until you've done it."
I may not have understood, but I would have liked a warning. Because while babies are adorable, the stress of having a newborn is unlike anything I could have possibly imagined. The mundane - like tackling the next feeding - meets the massive - like wondering how to protect this perfect being in this imperfect world. The result is a perfect storm of exhaustion and emotion.
Recently NPR asked "Why are new parents depressed?" The segment focused on men and women, and asked if as a society we were even willing to talk about the unpleasant sides of bringing home a new baby, or if it is still too taboo. Maybe it's silly to mention, because perhaps those who haven't experienced it won't understand, and those who have been there will just smile knowingly. But with all mental illness, it seems important to at least start the conversation.
As I end this post, I'm temped to write, "but one smile from the baby makes it worth it," or to clarify that while the last six weeks have been intense as can be, I'm definitely not depressed, just reeling from the new experience. And while both of those are true, those disclaimers play into the stigma, as I attempt to distance myself from people with the "real" problems.
Instead, I'll ask, what were your expectations of bringing home a baby, and what was the reality? Whether you've reproduced or not, do you think this is something that is discussed openly?
And now, I'll quit while I'm ahead, and follow that often-quoted and impossible to follow advice that makes it all sound so simple: "Just sleep when the baby sleeps." Ha!
Twenty-five years ago on Mother's Day my mom brought me home from the hospital.
I was her first and she had little idea what to expect from the baby wrapped in a green blanket, but that day began her journey toward becoming an extraordinary mother.
Today, the story has come full circle, as I celebrate Mother's Day with a swollen belly, just weeks away from meeting my own firstborn daughter.
Before today, this holiday has been about looking back. Acknowledging the amazing job that my mother has done raising four children. Thinking about my grandmother, who had 12 children in 15 years and worked in the family business throughout it all. Recognizing all the strong women in my life and thanking them for the lessons they have taught me.
This year, however, I find myself looking more toward the future than the past.
There are the immediate questions: When will the baby finally arrive? Will she have my freckles, or my husband's red hair? Is the infant phase really as bad as everyone says? Then, there are the bigger questions, the ones that I will not know the answers to for years or even decades. What will my journey through motherhood look like? Twenty-five years from now, will my own daughter be proud of her mom not just on Mother's Day, but on the other 364 days of the year?
Recently, my mom and I were traveling, stuck next to each other for hours on a turbulent flight where we were unable to get up. Just after I finally drifted off to sleep a hand on my belly woke me up.
“Was she moving?” I asked.
My mom ignored my question, keeping her gaze on my bump.
“It goes by so fast, Kelly,” she said. “So fast.”
A cliché, but spoken with such conviction that it was impossible to ignore.
This year, Mother's Day for me is about the hopes that I have. When I'm the one looking back and thinking about how fast time has passed, what do I want to see?
I hope that I'll have taken time to be present. If life does fly by as quickly as they say, then there is no sense wishing any of it away. I'll try to remember that in the last few weeks of pregnancy, when I'm sure that I cannot take even one more minute of carrying this baby inside. I will take the time to revel in the smiles amid the sleep deprivation of the infant stage, admire my daughter's persistence during the toddler tantrums, and appreciate her growing independence during the trials of raising a teen.
I hope that I will have been kind to myself. In a world that regularly reports on the “Mommy Wars” over parenting styles, I hope that I have the confidence to make the decisions that are right for me and my family. I hope that I won't judge another parent for choosing to feed by breast or bottle, or for establishing a curfew that I don't agree with. I hope that as I make my way through motherhood, I can build up friendships and bonds with other moms, rather than tearing them down.
Most of all, I hope that in 25 years I will be surrounded by a loving family, just as I am today.
Some people write Mother's Day off as a “Hallmark Holiday” — just another reason to spend money on goods. For me, Mother's Day has always been about spending time.
Today my siblings and I will have breakfast with our mom and give her what she wants most — an hour of yard work to kick off the summer season.
It's not perfect — if I know my siblings we'll be racing each other to pick the best bagels, and dodging to get out of working the roughest spots in the yard. There will probably be some cursing, and grumbles are guaranteed. At the end of the day though, we'll all come together, probably over ice cream, to acknowledge our mother, and the strong, connected family that she has nurtured.
As I look forward today, I hope that one day I will count my daughter among my best friends, just as I do my mom. As I stand on the brink of motherhood, I'm not nervous, because I know that I have one of the best examples around. And I can't wait for this baby to meet her.
Note: This piece originally appeared in Foster's Daily Democrat
Some of my best childhood memories are nestled in the orchards and fields of Smolak's Farm in North Andover. Three of my dad's six books are set there, and when the weekend crowds came out to pick fresh fruit and gorge on apple cider donuts, my dad and I would load up his van, set out our tables and sell his stories. At the time, the days at Smolak's were so special because they were my one-on-one time with dad - our special routine. Sure, my siblings would come run around for a few hours at the end of the day, but I was there start to finish, a full partner in the family business.
I have always known that my dad has Bipolar disorder, but it never affected my day-to-day life. He was eccentric, but that just made him more fun. Then, nearly seven years ago, I was sitting in my freshman dorm room at Boston University when I got the call that dad was hospitalized after having a manic episode. That was tough enough. But, as often happens, after the manic high my dad crashed into the lowest of lows, entering a depression that still grips him today.
Anyone who has experience with it knows just how painful it is to see a loved one fight mental illness. When we began to discuss editing his books, which have sat neglected for nearly a decade, I thought that it would be a good way to spend time with dad, harking back to the days at Smolak's. When he mentioned that he wanted my siblings involved I was jealous for a minute, before realizing what a good opportunity this was. My dad, whose books brought joy to so many, could use those works as a tool to bring joy and healing to himself and his family.
We've been meeting weekly, which is no small feat with four adult siblings who have full schedules. We've edited two of the books and put a blog on our project's website. So far, it has been going better than we could have anticipated. Just like when we used to pull up at Smolak's on a warm weekend day, I am excited to see what the project brings.
Have you found a way to bring healing to a family struggling with mental illness? What worked for you?
Happy New Year everyone! This past year was a great one, especially career-wise. I loved watching the readership numbers for this blog tick steadily upward every single month. Thank you for making that possible!
I woke up to a beach this morning, but it wasn't the warm and sunny one pictured above. That was New Years Day 2011, when Mark and I woke up on a desert island in the South Pacific. The New Hampshire seacoast is great and all, but if you're like me and need to escape the cold and impending snow for a minute, click over to my travel blog and take a trip to Fraser Island.
And after your mini mental vacation, sit back and enjoy the beauty around you, even if your start to the New Year looks more like this:
I've written a few times about my dad and his struggle - as well as the family's subsequent struggle - with mental illness. What I've never written about is that there truly is a silver lining to every cloud. Oftentimes people find that mental illness and creativity go hand-in-hand. It's as if having a different way of thinking gives the chance to see the world through a whole new lens. This is certainly true with my dad - he has always been one of the most creative people I know. He really has the gift.
What he hasn't always had is the follow-through. My dad has published six childrens' books, which are fantastic (I swear I'm not that biased). They're unique, the teach lessons and they have the most beautiful illustrations, a testament to my father's amazing ability to network with fellow artists. Although the books were fairly successful locally, I dreamed of the day that I could help make them into something more. I've scratched my head and schemed and pondered how to make this happen. I'll never forget a friend saying to me in college "It's always how it happens - the parent thinks of the great idea, and the child makes it successful." I've longed to do that for my dad.
So, we're starting. Albeit in a very small way, but it's a start. The best part is that my dad is on board with me. We're working together to edit his books and to get them "out there" as much as we can. I'm thrilled. If nothing else this will be a fantastic chance for me and my dad to work together as equals, something I've always wanted to do.
Now, this is where you come in. We've put the first book, "Taylor Rabbit and the Seeds of Wisdom," up online, and I would love for reach of you to take a minute to read it. Give us your feedback (there's a survey at the end) and share it with your friends. The illustrations are up, so my hope is that the whole family can sit and enjoy the story. We both appreciate each and every click.
Let's see where this story takes us!
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