…when I am tired, stressed and overwhelmed, and don’t give myself the time to acknowledge that I am tired, stressed and overwhelmed. In other words, when I “keep on truckin,’” I find myself crashing into the guardrail, and the “I’m not a good mom” guilt-rants begin to play in my head. Then I’m stressed and overwhelmed by all the other things to be stressed and overwhelmed about plus adding “I’m a bad mom” thoughts to the mix.
Now I have to confess, as a type-A overachiever, I’m also overly hard on myself. When I use the term “bad mom,” what I’m referring to is something completely different than that of a truly terrible parent. Some examples of the things rolling around in my head are:
- I feel like a “bad mom” when the TV has been on educational children’s programming all day so I can clean the house and catch up on paying bills…
- If I lay down at night and I realize my kids haven’t had any vegetables that day, “I’m a bad mom…”
- If we haven’t left the house all week groceries to be delivered to my house, “what a terrible mom I am…“
The list could go on and on and on, beating myself up for the non-organic hotdogs I fed them to the fact my body just didn’t want to deal with nursing after my babies were 6 months and I had to give them formula (gasp!) Our culture’s assumed view on what motherhood should look like in the 21st century gives us moms a hell of a lot to feel bad about; we should be able do it all, be all for and give all to our children with a smile putting caring for ourselves on the back-burner. Before I jump on the carousel of guilt with all the reasons I’m failing my kids bobbing up and down in my head, I have to remind myself that there are kids out there who probably have never even seen a vegetable and don’t know where their next meal is coming from, kids who don’t have a safe place to sleep at night, are abandoned, abused, etc.…and saying “I’m a bad mom” is totally delusional when, in reality, there are some kids out there who truly do have terrible parents.
When I was in the early months of “grief + postpartum + sleep deprivation fog,” I don’t really even remember the details of many days—how I got my kids and I from point A to point B— but I was forced into allowing myself to be a “bad mom” because it was survival. We watched tons of TV, ordered out a lot, stayed in our pajamas some days, didn’t ever pick up toys or clean the toilet, and I put my boys in daycare because they got better attention there than at home. My then-idea of a “good mom” was shattered, along with any future I had hoped we would have as an intact family: that my kids would have a strong mom who could do it all, cook everything from scratch, home school them, bake my own bread AND have a garden… AND I would be a master at Pinterest crafts on the side… and they’d have a dad who wasn’t dead, but fully alive and playful teaching them all the things only dads can teach them. So you can imagine the head games that ensued as I was forced to be, and have, none of the above.
Adding to my stress, I had to face a reality that was hard to swallow during that time—not only had my children lost their dad, but, in a way, they lost their mom too—the ideal mom I wanted to be for them. They were stuck with a semi-crazy, sick, tired and overwhelmed mom who loved them fiercely. I fought minute-by-minute to be even a minimal mom for them: I could feed, clean and shelter them, and take every ounce of energy I had to squish playdough with them…but most of the time I truly just wanted to be the sit-in-the-shower-and-cry mom. I guess the biggest blessing in disguise in all of this is that my children were/are so young, too young to hold these things against me. My daughter was only months old, so if she had milk, a soft place to lay her head and plenty of holding and cuddle time, I was the best mom for her. My boys were two years old, so in their world, if they had cartoons all day and take-out and didn’t have to pick up toys, I was the best mom for them.
One terrible, awful day, after I had just moved into my parent’s home after realizing that this “bad mom” really needed help, a blow to my mommy ego crushed me even further. The boys were potty-training—sort of—and while they were playing, one of my sons yelled, “I have to pee now!” In a hurry to help him get to the potty, I was holding his hand and holding my baby girl in the crook of my arm. She began slipping down, and what seemed slow motion, she fell onto to the hardwood floor. She screamed—my heart dropped and I felt like I was going to throw up. I immediately scooped her up and I checked her head and eyes for all the signs I knew to check for—I learned all about that when, as a first- time mom, I rushed my son into the urgent care after he had fallen a foot off the couch onto a plush, squishy carpet—but this was a real concern and a real reason to panic. She screamed and screamed and then threw up and I put her, shaking, into the car seat and we rushed to the emergency room. I kept thinking over and over, “How could you let this happen? You’re so stupid…what a stupid mistake!” Adrenaline took over and I didn’t have time to cry. After CT scans revealed she had a skull fracture, an ambulance came to pick us up and we rode for an overnight at Children’s Hospital for observation. She proved to be a tough little baby, and neurologists told me the fracture would heal up fine, but advised to watch for signs of a concussion when we got home. I was so relieved she was OK, but I still felt like the worst mom in the world.
The next couple days I was careful with my baby girl, always checking on her at night, checking her pupils for any sign of change. One night she was sleeping unusually long in her swing and I went to check on her. Her eyes rolled back and she got really pale and she started to vomit profusely. I called 9-1-1 and I just held her, while she was limp in my arms, crying on the phone to the operator to send help quickly. Paramedics arrived within five or ten minutes and calmly took over.
Only a few months before, I was watching paramedics load my husband into an ambulance, strapped to a stretcher and oxygen after a severe breathing attack and was now watching them take my two-month old baby. I rode with her and stroked her hair, sobbing to the paramedic the whole way, “I’m such a bad mom, this is all my fault, I can’t believe it, I can’t have anything happen to her, this is all my fault, I’m such a bad mom…I hate myself, I can never forgive myself…” The paramedic gently took my hand and said something I’ll never forget, “You are a good mom because you are here. You are a good mom because you’re crying and concerned. You’re a good mom because you called 911 right away…I’ve seen bad moms and bad moms don’t call 9-1-1, bad moms don’t cry, and bad moms don’t blame themselves. You are NOT a bad mom…” He went on to tell me a similar situation that he, as a new dad, as a went through. He told me he was carrying his newborn son in the garage and dropped him on the concrete, and here he was, a paramedic having to airlift his newborn to the hospital because he dropped him. His story made me feel slightly better.
We ended up at a hospital that didn’t have an adequate pediatrics unit for overnight observation, so we had to wait for another ambulance ride to Children’s Hospital. I felt awful having to explain the situation over and over to doctors coming in and out from the emergency room. I felt judged by everyone, but more deeply felt the judgment I was placing on myself. When I was alone with her in the emergency room, with her there lying on the bed with oxygen, all I could do was hold her hand. I found myself sobbing alone in the room; catapulted to the many other times I held my husband’s hand, helplessly watching as he lay in bed, all I could do was hold his hand. The chaplain came in to keep me company while we waited for the ambulance. His calm demeanor was so comforting. He too, shared with me words that made me start to slowly recognize the difference between a “bad mom” and an exhausted, brokenhearted mom who was maxed out.
“The senses in our bodies work together, they rely on one another,” he said gently. “If vision is suddenly lost, then hearing works overtime to make up for the sensory loss of sight. Hearing works so hard to try to compensate for all that vision did, hearing is not used to doing all that, and it gets overwhelmed. You would expect sensory overload if one of the other senses go out—you are hearing, Nicole. You worked together with your husband, vision, and now he’s not here. You’re overloaded and you need permission to rest…”
Tears rolled down my face as I told him, “I don’t know how…” I’d been responsible and perpetually “on” for too long. Twin babies shortly after marrying, the unpredictability of my husband’s cancer looming over our entire marriage and then a third pregnancy during chemo and hospice. When the baby was born I was caring for my dying husband which meant keeping track of meds and nurse notes, checking oxygen levels, changing bedsheets, sweat-soaked clothes and sick pails, and trying to manage the terrible-twos stage times two, and care for a newborn and post-partum body. The ceiling of my little ideal world came crashing down on me. It ended, but only began, with the death of my husband. That was a lot to happen in four years. In my day-to-day survival, I didn’t see the need for rest, but seeing my baby in the hospital drove it home for me. Rest wasn’t an option, it was a necessity.
When we got to Children’s Hospital, I heard again and again from nurses and doctors: “Please don’t beat yourself up, we see these things every single day, babies being accidentally dropped. It was an accident…” But guilt is a hard thing to shake when you keep piling it upon yourself.
They did another CT scan on my daughter and let us stay overnight so she could be observed. I hail the nurses at the Children’s Hospital Colorado Emergency Department, as they recognized my need for rest even if I couldn’t verbalize it myself. How could I ask to sleep when my baby was hurt? I didn’t have to ask—they set up a private room for me and let me sleep all night with no interruptions, except once for me to nurse the baby. The nurses took care of the baby the entire night. They let me sleep most of the next day too.
Miraculously, her scans came back and the fracture was healing up wonderfully. There was no sign of concussion regardless of the symptoms the night before. She was having a great time playing with the nurses and she was such a joy—the nurses took turns holding her on their lunch breaks—but it was me who needed the TLC, and the nurses tapped into that. It was me who ended up needing the hospital stay more than my daughter, which seemed totally ironic since I had spent time in more hospitals than in my own bed at home the previous four months. I’d recoil at the thought of spending time in a hospital if I didn’t absolutely have to. Interestingly enough, I did a dictionary.com search and thesaurus.com search for the word “hospital,” which is synonymous with “hospice.” In the midst of medical definitions, I found words like “shelter” and “rest home.”’ The word “hospice” is not only defined as a medical ward for the terminally ill—it is also described as “a house of shelter or rest for pilgrims, strangers, etc., especially one kept by a religious order” (dictionary.com). And that’s what I was, a pilgrim from a terrible shipwreck, a stranger to myself…and I desperately needed rest.
After my daughter was cleared to come home, and I had more sleep in two days than I had in months. It was a small break in a terrible storm and I wish the circumstances were different in what allowed a break for me. I wish I could say that this was a turning point, that things got better, but it seems like the waves got stronger and more powerful and knocked me to my knees over and over in the months to come. All of these moments of pushing myself and forcing myself to “keep going, suck it up, just be strong” until I hit wall after wall led me to finally surrender “trying to be strong.” Through new awareness and acknowledgement of my weakness I sought rest and shelter. It now brings me great comfort instead of guilt to know that through the act of seeking healthy, restoring rest for myself—even though it means a little more TV time for my kids or hiring the babysitter so I can take a nap or a walk or a long drive or sit in the shower and cry for this season— makes me a good mom, a strong mom, now and for the future.
“…Come away by yourselves to a secluded place and rest a while”