What to Expect When You’re Expecting by Heidi Murkoff, Arlene Eisenberg & Sandee Hathaway
THROUGHOUT YOUR PREGNANCY
You want to talk about fear? You want to talk about facing your inadequacies head on? Nothing makes you examine the true nature of the self quite like being faced with the knowledge that you will soon be a parent. As the news of the pregnancy sunk in, I began to analyze and unravel all of my flaws. What kept coming up over and over was the idea of selfishness. If the child decided to scream at seven AM would I be able to get out of bed and change diapers and do feedings without feeling resentful or angry? If it threw a tantrum at the grocery store, would I be able to calmly reassure the child that I loved it? Or would I yank it by the arm to the restroom to give it a good yelling followed by a sharp slap as my parents did to me so often in my childhood? Would I always have control of my emotions, and be able to set them aside for another?
I didn’t think I could.
I deeply understand some of the mistakes my parents made with my siblings and me in the past. I could easily put myself in my parents’ shoes time and again without judgment and see how and why they would behave the way they did. I have forgiven and continue to forgive their neglect and abuse. Of course, no one ever wants to do those things to children; looking back I can tell my parents carry immense amounts of guilt. I asked my mother once, how come she insisted on keeping us in her care when she was obviously incapable of raising children. Call it selfishness. Call it having mixed up priorities. Call it whatever. Her answer?
She just didn’t know that about herself. And in her own way loved us.
I never asked my father the same question, but I think he thought at times he was doing the best he could. I think he thought he was raising us right. And the times he realized he was doing it all wrong were so filled with anxiety and guilt he coped by substance abuse. So it was a cycle.
Add in a stepmother who makes Lady Tremaine seem sweet. The type of woman, who if she read this, would instantly bring libel charges against me. Complicated, huh?
My parents divorced while my mother was still pregnant with me. In the years following, my siblings and I were the unfortunate pawns in a Game of Thrones like feud between our families. My mother’s side blaming my father’s. My father’s side blaming my mother’s. By the age of five, I was familiar with the court system and social workers and DCFS. And the mess, it was terrible. Kids should never be exposed to that. The family built cases against one another and pumped us children for information. We had to listen to them talk about each other in front of us, and that was confusing. Being asked at age seven to pick sides. Being told that the people you love were awful.
People get viscous when children are involved. Get righteous. Get pious.
As an adult, I know it all comes from love and justice. But the child part of me, the one that needs all this therapy, emotionally she’s still not healed. I go through regression, and disassociate, and turn to flight mode when I’m triggered. Sometimes the terminology is post-traumatic stress. Most times? I look like a spoiled brat when I don’t get my way or an adult who can’t just let things go.
And for a long time I wanted to change that about me. I was going to start standing up straighter, stop dragging my feet when I walked, go to the gym more, be a positive role model, handle arguments reasonably in the moment by setting aside my emotions and probing deeper into the emotions of the other I argued with. I was going to do things I did not like doing—like watching a dumb movie or going to the zoo—with friends if they asked, and I wouldn’t complain about it or pout when it sucked because that is what a good friend would do.
I was going to be a better person. Now.
But that now part is really unrealistic. I had to figure out the hard way that first I had to accept who I am. And not just accept it, embrace it, and love it. For someone with low self-esteem, that feels like hiking the Grand Canyon without water. I recognized my inadequacies. I embraced them. I made a vow that this year I would be a villain. This year I would say nasty things and not feel guilty. I would cut people off in traffic because I think turn signals are optional. I would allow myself to gossip about friends that hurt my feelings. I would scowl as much as I pleased. I would huff in long grocery store lines. And you’re damn right I’m going to pout if you drag my ass to the circus and force me to watch clowns make balloon animals or go to a movie with more explosions than love scenes.
I’m not the type of person who can go to the circus and focus on the cotton candy, if you get what I’m saying. Life is too damn short, and my time in reality too precious to waste getting freaked out by metaphorical clowns. Haven’t you people ever read It?
I wouldn’t abuse anyone, not if I could help it. But I wouldn’t stop being a bitch. And best of all, I wouldn’t feel bad about my sense of sarcasm. Maybe I’d try to curb it in front of people who I knew it could offend…maybe. Like, maybe, you know, showing my religious mother-in-law my “SHUT YOUR WHORE MOUTH” needle sitch was going a tad too far. (I just have the kit. My hands can’t be bothered with actually using a needle.)
Embracing the villain in me, knowing my inadequacies, being unsure of the pregnancy, and having first hand knowledge of the court system had me asking myself: what is best for this child?
Even the happiest of marriages fail. If my marriage failed, what would it look like? I surely would want to return to Chicago, and Husband to South Dakota. What would split custody look like? If I became attached to this child, and had to give it up—even for weekends—would I get vicious? Selfish? Would I drag it through the court system fighting to keep it under my care? Would my sense of abandonment resurface to cloud my vision to do what was genuinely right for the child? Would I ask it at six, or seven, or eight to choose a side?
Would I be able to change in nine months?
Would I, would Husband and I, be able to get our marriage and child rearing views on the same page, making compromises for both of us that seemed fair? And not little compromises like bedtime or whether to feed the baby carrots or peas with dinner. Big stuff like religion, schools, where ultimately to settle down. Would we become strong parents but awful partners, awful lovers? If that happened, could I live in that life?
Could I live in it happily?
I didn’t know if I could.
Raising a healthy child would be hard enough, but could I raise a child that had serious mental or physical retardation? I grew weak and overwhelmed with the thought. Minivans and wheelchairs. More psychiatrists. I had a hard enough time going to doctors’ office visits of my own. I have a friend who has a son with Downs Syndrome. This woman is a total tank. She is busy with speech therapists, special doctors’ visits, physical therapists, constantly worried at feeding times he my choke because of the low muscle tone in his throat. She researched the best preschool. He is undoubtedly the love of her life. For her, there was no other option but to become a tank because she is a single mother raising him alone. I couldn’t imagine the world without him in it, and yet…
I knew I was no tank.
So when the scare came in after a random blood test that the baby may have Spina biffida—chances going from 1 in 1000 to 1 in 15. I got scared. Real scared. After the call, I stayed in bed to let the news sink in. I couldn’t even cry. The sadness that came over me was so deep and full I thought I would break apart. If the test came back positive, I would terminate the pregnancy. There was no question about it. Even though Husband is pro-life to the max, ultimately it was my body.
And then, for the first time, I felt the smallest of flutter in my stomach. The baby moved.
And I thought awe shit you stupid fetus. You really want to live that bad?
And then I spent a good part of the afternoon crying before I could get out of bed and write.
About this time the depression came back, and it got real. Remember the long string of silent months from this blog? Then one popping up about suicide? That was the thick of it. It got dangerous. Looking back, I should have been hospitalized and had my medications changed. But asking for help is hard; especially when I was afraid to change my medications mid-pregnancy, even though I knew the benefits would outweigh the risks.
A text message from a friend who suffers from depression:
TM: You can’t keep doing this to yourself.
That message came on a night when I set out all my medications and seriously contemplated taking them. I cried in my tub, going through the list of friends I had, one by one, texting. I knew I had to fight, and start fighting harder, but the only thing that kept me from taking those pills was that I literally didn’t have the strength to move. I could not get out of the tub even when I wanted to. There were a lot of other messages that came after which kept me sane enough to get through the night. Just as I need constant reassurances that delusions are not true at times (No, Charlie, the Dalai Lama is not talking to you mentally), there are times when I need similar reassurances that challenge depressive thoughts (No, Charlie there is a point to life, and although you may not see it now, you will in time).
For those who don’t understand depression, it’s like getting the worst phone call of your life: your mother died, your spouse was in an accident, you have cancer. That moment when your stomach drops, your heart stops, the shock, the fear—that is depression. That moment on repeat for every second, every minute, of every day for weeks or months. It’s like having the flu, those aches, the sullenness, and the tiredness. All day. Every day.
In a past DBT session, I broke down, and explained it as thus:
ME: I feel like those blank pages in Twilight where Edward left Bella, except I don’t even get to pine away for someone.
Joking aside, even the fighters sometimes lose. Not to be dramatic, but it’s fatal. It’s dangerous to make it seem like that is inevitable. But it’s also dangerous for someone to think that your mind is in a right frame when the thoughts come. People are very accepting and understanding of mania. If you tell someone you think you are the Queen of England, they may scoff, but ultimately they’d recognize something is not right, and if you were in a better condition you may not think that. It’s not so easy to recognize suicidal thoughts as delusions and have the same understanding or to take a place of no judgment. Those thoughts seem like a choice from the outside. Just like it may have seemed that I had a choice to believe I was pregnant sooner.
It takes an awful lot of work to recognize what is real and what is not. Because if you could, trust me, you’d never choose to be manic. You’d never choose to be depressed. Insanity is not knowing the difference between my reality and yours.
Well, at least the baby and I had one thing in common. We both were familiar with the fetal position.
And here we go again. No matter how hard I fought against the depression it was here. And in the midst of recognizing negative thought patterns or cognitive distortions I was dealing with post traumatic stress once again, this time reliving my childhood experiences with my mother and her struggle with bipolar.
Why is mommy in bed? Why won’t she get up?
For years I was pissed at her. Why couldn’t she just suck it up, become that tank? She looked so much like a quitter. It was like she wasn’t fighting and she chose to stay in bed. But now, I understood why she stayed in bed, and found myself sleeping in later, and later.
Was I equipped to have this child? Again. Was I equipped to have this child? Again. Was I equipped to have this child? Again. Again. Again. Again. Again.
Husband and I had to have those hard, hard talks. Just because you have a mental illness does not mean you shouldn’t have children. You can be the best mother in the world who just happens to have a mental illness, because they are treatable and manageable.
There had to be plans in place. What if? What if I got suicidal again? What if I got horribly manic? Those things weren’t explained to me right when I was little. Mommy was just ‘sad’ or ‘sick’.
H: How do you wish it were explained to you when you were little?
ME: For mania? I wish, I wish, someone would have said, “mommy was just dreaming, while she was awake. Just the way you dream when you go to sleep. And do you know where dreams come from? Some scientists think it’s a way for us to figure out the events of our day. Mommy’s funny brain is just trying to figure out her days in a different way than ours, right now…And depression? Same. Mommy is still dreaming, only this time it’s a bit more like a nightmare, and her body? It’s so tired it thinks it has the flu! Can you imagine? Isn’t the body interesting? Let’s go to the library and look up stuff about our bodies…did you know your skin is your largest organ?”
H: So why can’t we just say that?
Yeah, why can’t we just say that?
The next trip to the doctors’ office revealed that the baby did not have Spina biffida.
MATERNAL FETAL SPECIALIST (MFS): It’s not Spina biffida…the egg sack broke off and never dissipated properly. It attached itself to the placenta and turned into a mass. This accounts for the high level of AFP.
ME: And that means?
MSF: It’s like a tumor.
ME: Well, I’ve had a tumor growing inside me for four months so I’m fine with that.
MSF: Nothing to worry about now. It’s not cancerous.
MSF: The potential risks are that the placenta may not be able to accommodate the size of the fetus. It can affect its growth, resulting in an early delivery. Nothing to worry about now. We’ll do ultrasounds every three weeks for the rest of the pregnancy to keep track of it. After delivery, the placenta will have to be sent off for testing.
ME: Can it still be used for stem cell research?
MSF: I’m not sure. We can check into that.
I took the news of the tumor in stride because it wasn’t Spina biffida, and I told myself I wasn’t going to worry about it anymore until it became necessary to worry. But because nothing was guaranteed, I still fought my attachment to the fetus.
I still questioned myself. What were all my options? Husband and I had another hard talk. If I genuinely could not take care of this child, would he take full custody?
H: You’re going to abandon your child? How does that make you any better than your parents? Why can’t you just accept your responsibility and change? It’s not like any of this wasn’t our choice. We didn’t exactly do anything to prevent the pregnancy in the first place. How could you even consider this? How is this even an option?
ME: (Silence) (How was death even an option for me? Not a few days ago…) (Processing his shock. Processing his anger.) (Recognizing those thoughts, the same thoughts I had that led me to the depression. He is the voice of my depression now. What do I tell my depression? How do I make my depression understand…what can I say? He doesn’t understand where I am coming from…)
H: You can have a good life if you choose it. Why can’t you just put your past behind you?
ME: (This is anxiety. This is fear.)
ME: I don’t know.
H: I will take care of it. If you make an honest attempt, your very best attempt at this, and you just can’t do it. I’ll understand.
ME: Thank you.
My stomach started to protrude further by this time, and while I still wasn’t ready to announce the pregnancy, I was right around the five-month mark. I was going to physically have the child, even if I couldn’t or wouldn’t keep it. People blindsided me three or four times by touching my stomach without asking and making those friendly inquiries. Those celebratory remarks. And when I couldn’t match their enthusiasm, their faces would crumple in pity. Sometimes confusion. Judgment.
I needed to visit home. I needed to remember I had a place where, if everything fell apart, I’d be welcomed, loved and understood, but I couldn’t take another blind side moment. Friends and family would have to know. And since I thought the news of a pregnancy could possibly be hard for anyone, I sent out baby announcements. The thought of writing personalized E-mails or making all those phone calls and explaining it all over and over seemed too exhausting.
In therapy, I was working on boundaries, what they were and how to set them. What ones were healthy and reasonable. In DBT they had this worksheet where you marked what was most important when setting boundaries: your health or your relationship with the person you were setting the boundary with. When it came to the topic of the child, it was important to me to set clear, healthy boundaries without compromising relationships that mattered.
I was still vulnerable and fragile. My head was a total mess. The topic started me instantly crying, and I knew I could get set way, way back by talking about it before I was ready. I wanted a break for a week or two. The depression was clearing enough for me to start to analyze this, and I felt like, if I could just get happy again, really happy like in October, I’d find the strength to do this. However I chose to do it.
So after I sent out the announcements, I asked my friends not to talk about it or bring it up.
JUST ABOUT EVERY FRIEND WHO KNEW: Why can’t you talk about it?
ME: I’m not ready.
And that was the end of the conversation because that was the boundary I had set. It sounds silly, but just as I didn’t have the strength to get out of the tub that day, I didn’t have the strength to add to that, ‘I haven’t processed this yet. I need some more time, but since you would see me and it could no longer be hidden, I felt everyone had to be informed of the situation.’
I ignored the flood of texts, and E-mails, and Facebook well wishes. I would deal with them when I was ready. When I felt like I knew more. When I was genuinely ready, not just because I had a fat stomach and people were gossiping, asking…
(I will post the next installment tomorrow.)