On a sunny morning, my young son sat at our kitchen table, legs swinging in his chair and happily spooning Cheerios into his mouth. While I stood at the sink, washing dishes and absentmindedly responding “Mmhmm” to his incessant little boy chatter, I noticed it had become quiet in the kitchen. I looked over at my son, who had suddenly stopped talking, and realized he was studying me with a puzzled expression on his face.
As my eyes met his, he simply looked back and said, “Mommy, you smile all the time now. And you seem to like me more lately.” With that, he went back to eating his cereal, the moment already forgotten by him.
His words brought immediate tears to my eyes, literal chills down my spine, and not because he’d hurt my feelings but because it was in that moment that I knew my new anxiety medications were beginning to work. He was right.
The stress and trauma of motherhood had taken its toll on my emotional health. My son had been born under emergent life-threatening circumstances and nothing had gone to plan after we’d brought him home from the hospital. A protracted illness related to breastfeeding and a bout with postpartum depression had left me feeling let down about what I expected motherhood to be.
I was unprepared for the sleepless nights and the mental load that came with caring for a tiny human 24 hours a day. As a stay-at-home mother, I felt isolated and lonely, but I always pushed those feelings away, angry at myself for not being overjoyed that I had been afforded the opportunity to watch my son grow and thrive.
Over the years, unbeknownst to me, anxiety insidiously grew and took root deep in my bones. Restlessness, an inability to fall asleep at night, and self-doubt clouded my days. I felt nervous on the good days and rage-filled and panicked on the bad ones. I clung to a daily routine in order to keep myself from feeling panicked and scared. If I could control what happened next in the form of a schedule, it meant I wasn’t failing as a mother. I drove myself to the point of exhaustion, trying to maintain the appearance that I wasn’t falling apart because I wouldn’t dare let the world know that I was struggling.
The litany of self doubt was a continuous loop in my head:
Good mothers don’t hate their lives.
Good mothers don’t feel panic at the thought of spending the day with toddlers.
Good mothers don’t complain about motherhood.
When my daughter arrived shortly after, my symptoms worsened, and yet I kept quiet.
I had a beautiful life, but I cried most days in my laundry room when no one was looking because the pain of anxiety hurt worse than any physical pain I’d ever experienced. I felt like there was an elephant sitting on my chest at all times.
I looked at my home, my husband, and my kids and couldn’t feel joy. But who was I to complain? There were others worse off than me, I convinced myself. I pushed the feelings of despair and anxiousness away and slapped on my happy face.
No one knew how desperately scared I was because I didn’t have the words, or the strength, to tell anyone.
But the crying became worse.
And the sleeping became harder.
And the arguments with my husband became louder.
And my children had a mother who lacked the ability to get off the couch and play with them.
All because I didn’t know how to admit that I was falling apart.
I didn’t know how to admit that I didn’t like motherhood.
I didn’t know how to admit that maybe I’d made a mistake.
I didn’t want to be the woman who eventually wound up sobbing in her doctor’s office, begging him to run lab tests to explain her irritability, insomnia, and other symptoms.
When my doctor gently suggested that anxiety might be behind my symptoms, I was defiant. It was my thyroid, I insisted. Or my hormones. Or anything other than a disease that came with crushing social stigma.
To me, an anxiety diagnosis meant that I was failing. Anxiety was a cop-out. I just needed a good night’s sleep and a moment’s peace after four long years of dealing with two creatures under 4 feet tall. I was sure my doctor was wrong.
And I told him as much.
My doctor reminded me that if he’d told me I had diabetes, I’d take insulin. If my thyroid was malfunctioning, I’d take thyroid medications. And if I had any other host of physical ailments, I’d think nothing of treating my symptoms with a pill or antibiotic.
“Anxiety is a real disease,” he said. He looked me in the eye and told me that my symptoms were legitimate and that medications would help. And when he asked me how ignoring my symptoms had been going for me so far, I grudgingly agreed to let go of my fears and walk toward a solution that might lesson the pain of anxiety.
I started medication to treat my anxiety that afternoon. I was skeptical. I was ashamed.
Six weeks later, though, on that sunny morning as I washed the dishes and my son innocently observed that his mother was finding her way back to the light, I knew I’d made the right choice.
And when I pulled him into my arms, I kissed his soft brown curls, and whispered, “Mommy loves you,” I felt true, uninhibited joy for the first time since becoming a mother.
Some journeys to experiencing joy as a mother take longer than others.
My journey included medication to get there. Medication that has saved my life.
And I’m grateful every day.