The Journey on Empty
I commonly hear mothers say, “I am so exhausted. I have nothing left to give.” I promise you these women mean every word. There is nothing left to give. It’s all being poured into the abyss of Getting Through.
By “Getting Through,” I mean that sometimes we become so overwhelmed, we gaze only at our feet safely hitting ground. We may tune-out, both internally and externally. We’re afraid to look at the world around us because if we look up, we may fall. Thank goodness we have these capacities; they are life-saving. But they’re designed to help us survive an acute threat, not to help us adapt to a significant and ongoing life challenge, like becoming a mother. It is very understandable and common for mums to get stuck with the dial turned up on their fight-or-flight response for several reasons.
Giving birth is one of the most physically challenging events our bodies engage in. The natural hormonal cocktail released through the process is quite activating, keeping mum’s energy up to make it through the marathon of birth and initiation of lactation. Now our baby is born and our milk has come in. And suddenly, we have a tiny, helpless, dependent human we are responsible for keeping safe. The mind and body naturally increase the mother’s vigilance as a measure of protection for that baby. These processes alone can be positive. But add that your family might be far away. Add that you maybe had a birth experience during which you feared for your life or your baby’s. Or that you can’t seem to get all those SIDS warnings out of your head. Any number of things can nudge us from vigilance to hyper-vigilance. And hyper-vigilance is a taxing modus operandi. It drains our physical and emotional energy and interrupts the neurochemicals that help us relax, sleep and connect with our babies.
Another place mums can get psychologically stuck is in trying to fix a problem like a baby that requires a high degree of nighttime parenting. Once you have ruled out underlying medical conditions with your healthcare provider, you may feel very much alone with the problem. It may not be fixable in the way you are trying to fix it. Of course your instinct would be to reduce those wakings in order to increase your sleep, and thereby sanity. This may become a preoccupation. Your focus may narrow to solving this one problem that seems to impact everything else in your life. Yet in these instances, trying to direct or control your baby’s behavior may only seem to create more tension and disease. Continuing this cycle demands significant reserves of precious energy. Finding places where you can relax into your baby’s needs is an important step to improving your quality of life with baby.
Anytime you have a concern regarding the health or behavior of yourself or your baby, it is vital to consult a medical provider to rule-out any conditions that may need professional monitoring or treatment. At Possums, our health professionals offer a sleep program that addresses those factors that can unnecessarily interrupt your baby’s night-time sleep, at the same time as we share strategies for managing the difficult thoughts and feelings that will naturally come up during such a difficult time.
Once you know that both you and the baby are well, you may want to experiment with the following strategies for improving your present quality of life:
Identify your parenting values. It can help to gently pull the focus from the current problem you are facing to the larger picture; What type of parent do you want to be? Down the track, how to you want your child to have experienced you as a parent? Try living this now.
Fake it ‘til you make it. The problem with waiting to do things that make you feel better until you feel better is…well, you see? In order to commit to wellness, we need to engage in activities that bring us joy and peace as best we can, regardless of our energy or mood.
Face and let pass. Instead of trying to shutdown or run from uncomfortable thoughts or feelings, experiment with turning to face them. Often the more we avoid things, the more power they gain over us. Looking something in the eye, even a monster, is usually not as frightening as the process of running from it. Maybe all that feeling wants from you is to be felt and it will move along.
Have compassion. Look down at your baby. Or close your eyes and picture yourself as a little girl. Would you feel comfortable saying the things you are saying to yourself now to your bub or to yourself as a small child? If not, then they’re not nice enough to say to yourself. All parents, with very few exceptions, are doing the best they can. If you want your best to better- great! - but while you’re learning how to live that out, be soft and gentle with yourself. Learning and growing takes vulnerability and flexibility. If you are hardened by fear of your own inner critic, rigid with unwillingness to let go of anger toward yourself, learning to think and respond in new ways will feel like walking in led boots. When your inner voice is harsh and unforgiving, think of what you would say to your three-year-old self.
We cannot change that caring for a baby takes a lot of hard work. We cannot change the fact that our baby is unwell, or needs less sleep, or more cuddles than the next. We may not be able to change how we feel, but we can change how we respond to our feelings. We can learn to use our mind as an ally and as a tool. There is grace in the truth that our minds can help us as much as they can hurt us.
The Possums approach is a gentle, evidence-based invitation on how to walk this tricky path of early motherhood. Our guiding light is toward empowered, happy, and healthy families. Your guiding light is yourself; your values, your intuition, your innate ability to respond to and love your baby in way that feels right to you. Tune in to and trust yourself and your baby. You’ll find tapping into your own intuition and values is like discovering a reserve of energy you didn’t know existed. And learning the art of making room for those difficult thoughts and feelings is like plugging a leak in your tank.