A Lilac

I cannot see a lilac without catching out of the corner of my eye
the diaphanous flow of sheer sheeting of the same color.

The folds and waterfall of fabric enveloping my body like the ring of a bell,
smooth against the pop of buds bursting
into three-dimensional triads and quartets of color.

Green hearts gilded with the white patina of many moistured mornings,
a specimen grown gangly and sparse,
cut to the quick before flourishing in fullness once again.

Overtaking its age,
shooting up sprouts all around it,
expanding its perimeter.

It is the harbinger of spring,
of warmer days promised in the perfumed chill.

It is the talisman of youth,
of adventures in grandmother’s garden,
the boundary of Mr. Thompson’s yard,
the backdrop of moments frozen in time.

I cannot smell a lilac without being at once wistful and hopeful.

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image from Getty

The Mother of All Potatoes

I woke up Mother’s Day morning to an empty house.

I’d sent my kids away.  I’d made myself childless on the day meant to celebrate my being their mother (setting aside the original intent of Mother’s Day, of course).

I didn’t realize until it was too late that I’d robbed myself of the dry toast and tepid tea in bed.  I worried that I’d ruined my mother-in-law’s morning by inserting four raucous children.  I thought I’d gained a morning of sleeping in after a fun night out with friends – which was my top priority when babysitting became a possible overnight – but my eyes popped open inexplicably at 6:30 and I was up.

My husband and I had time to uninterruptedly discuss irritating things we’d been avoiding and got agitated. I worked uninterruptedly in the kitchen for almost five hours prepping the brunch to which I’d invited both our mothers, the muscles in my legs that didn’t get enough sleep twitching at me to sit down.

Still, I thought to myself, look at all you’re accomplishing without the children in the house.  This is taking a while without them here; imagine how much it would take with interruptions.  It actually boggled my mind that what I’d thought was a modest menu was taking so long to prep.  Another recent window into what realistic expectations actually are.  But I was doing it.  I wasn’t losing my mind.

And then, as I entered the final stretch, my husband asked about the potatoes.  The potatoes that needed to be scrubbed and chopped and roasted for a decent amount of time on which we were starting to run low.

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Jennifer Butler Basile

As I cleaved into the dense sweet potatoes, feeling the solid thunk of the blade on the board below, the irony did not escape me.  My quintessential metaphor for the struggle of motherhood, right there in front of me on Mother’s Day.  Why the hell was I chopping potatoes on the day already fraught with unrealistic and unfulfilled expectations, sorrow and disappointment, fete tinged with personal feelings of failure?  I just wanted a nice brunch for everyone and be done with it.  Not think – of the magnitude of motherhood and its struggle.

I didn’t let my husband prep the potatoes like I should have – from either a need to control the size of the dice or to see things through whole since I’d prepped every other dish.  But he’d taken over scrubbing the dishes for me – seeing firsthand what a PIA the caked-on pizza crust from two nights earlier was.

I didn’t go all out escapist as I cubed the potatoes as I may have one day.  But I acknowledged that I was stressed by a full morning without kids.  Which meant that I wasn’t just horrible at handling them and life; I needed to start expecting both less and more of myself.

The visceral memory of chopping potatoes may never go away, but this time it was a gentler reminder of checking my tension, setting (actually) realistic goals, asking for help; of actually voicing my needs and accepting the resultant offers of help.

We need to be as gentle with ourselves as we strive to be as mothers.

It’s Been A Week

I had a week.

Procrastinating.  Avoiding.  Yelling.  Screaming.  Swearing.  Crying.  In the kitchen.  On the bathroom floor.

I don’t know if it’s better or worse to be so self-aware that you can head into a trigger-happy event knowing that’s what it’s going to be.  Having been through similar high-stress events and knowing their effect on you, knowing this will be the same, what outcome to expect.

A few things happened differently this time, though.  There were moments imbued with a strange peace.   It was if I was able to step back and take those five minutes of stillness for what they were because I knew it was all I was going to get.  I also may have actually written realistic to-do lists.  Usually I have crumpled lists that guiltily glare at me for months following events I’ve hosted.  This time I think there was one item I didn’t check off.  One.  That’s a freaking miracle.

I still freaked out on the crazy-all-out-clean-like-a-chicken-with-its-head-cut-off day before.  I totally turtled the day before that when the sheer enormity of what I had to accomplish overwhelmed me.  I still scrubbed the toilets the morning of.  I still showered approximately 15 minutes before go-time.  I still lost my shit because I had lost control of my universe and was unable to do it all and certainly not perfectly.

But . . . but there is that glimmer of hope for high-stress events to come.  Perhaps I am finally learning to set realistic goals for what I can accomplish in a day.  Again, miracle.  Maybe I’m finally learning that scheduling something on the calendar – even something as simple as sewing a button on a shirt – ensures I’ll do it before it sits in a bag of projects to be done someday . . . that I then feel needs to be done before someone sees it in a corner on the day of the party.  And, wonder of all wonders, maybe I’m finally allowing myself to sit in a moment, outside of what was before or to be.

I mean, it was still a week.  This is no immediate or complete transfiguration.  If you saw me sniveling on the bathroom floor Saturday, you’d not see any indication of this change at all.  But there is hope.

There is always hope.

 

 

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And now after all that talk about crying – in the kitchen, on the floor . . . I have the Peg+Cat splashing in the bathroom song in my head.

Blackish Cloud of Depression

In October 2017, the maternal mental health world was atwitter with news that the TV sitcom, Blackish, was going to tackle postpartum depression in its storyline.  I, just like everyone else, was curious to see how it would be treated; however, I had not been watching the series.  Like the anal-retentive reader that I am, I knew I wouldn’t be able to watch except from the beginning, to get a full sense of the story, the setting, the characters.

I started binge-watching this winter during one of the multi-week stretches of snowstorms and flu-like symptoms.  I loved getting to know the Johnsons, seeing their story unfold.  As soon as Rainbow told Dre she was pregnant, though, I waited anxiously for the signs.  They didn’t come until the last episode of season three: Sprinkles.  A headache brought Bow into the doctor’s office and the train of preeclampsia rushed from the station.

As she lay on the operating table waiting for the anesthesia to kick in, Rainbow delivered the opening address of postpartum depression.  She may not have known it at the time, but she outlined many of the contributing factors of postpartum depression.

“This wasn’t supposed to happen like this.”

Unrealistic or unmet expectations

 

“I’m really good at this stuff. I’m a baby maker.”

High standards.  Betrayal or failure of body.

“This is not normal.

Doesn’t meet the ideal.

“I’m really scared.

Fear.  Anxiety.

What if something goes wrong?”

Ruminating.  Irrational fears or worries.

While her blood pressure began to decrease immediately following the baby’s delivery, Rainbow couldn’t hold her baby.  He’s whisked away to NICU while she’s anchored to the operating table.  Go with him, she pleaded with Dre; someone needs to be with our baby.

Dre had his own emotional trauma surrounding the birth.  The doctor intimated that their first priority in cases such as Bow’s is to save the mother, introducing the concept of maternal or fetal mortality.  Trying to anchor his wife in this unexpected development was complicated tenfold by the possibility of losing one or both of his loved ones.  Even when the baby was successfully delivered, he confessed to his father that he’s afraid to love him in the event that something horrible happens to him.

Sprinkles isn’t even the postpartum episode.  But even if I didn’t have the spoilers I did, the writers did a phenomenal job foreshadowing the struggles to come.  As was my own experience with postpartum depression, a perfect storm of conditions converged and they’re laid out in a nuanced and real, respectful manner.

I’d had a long day yesterday and needed to decompress at the end of it.  I knew I was staying up far too late for my level of exhaustion, but needed to unwind.  As I sat there, solitary, sobbing, as the rest of my family slept, I thought, well that didn’t work.  But then, I remembered the date:  May 2, World Maternal Mental Health Day.  How very fitting that I finally happened upon the postpartum part of the Blackish story on this of all days.  This story stirred the very raw emotions of my own experience because it was so eloquently treated – and the story is just beginning.

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IMDb

Maternal Mental Health Week 2018

Starting yesterday, April 30, and running through Friday, May 4, the maternal mental health community celebrates and spreads awareness of the illnesses affecting women and mothers.

Did you know?

Created by Jennifer Butler Basile with info from thebluedotproject.org

1 in 5. That means we all know someone whose mental health has or is suffering – and yet we may not know it.

#AskHer

Ask a mom you know – each and every mom you know – how she is doing: the pregnant mom, the grieving mom, the new mom, the fourth trimester and beyond mom.

Your question may be the first in a line of interventions needed to get her back to herself. Other points on the line may be her child’s pediatrician, her primary care physician or ob/gyn, a therapist, and/or organizations like Postpartum Support International and The Blue Dot Project.

You can help her start her journey. You can help her see she’s not alone.

The push is on this week. The hashtags are on fire these five days. But the struggle is real everyday.

What Tully is Really About

When I saw the first trailer for Tully a few months ago, I was excited.  A full-length feature film that portrayed the real story of new motherhood?  The heartache, the frustration, the despair?  I was ready to book my mom’s night out right then.

 

What Tully is not about – or only part of the picture

 

But something stayed my hand from hitting the share button.  Even in a thirty second promo, her night nurse seemed too good to be true.  How could she possibly say the right thing at the exact right time every single time?  And do it all with the Zen voice of a life coach?  Or not even.  Like a lover trying to woo Charlize Theron’s character, Marlo.  I wasn’t sure what, but something was off.

A few days later, a fellow maternal mental health advocate sounded the alarm.  Read Graeme Seabrook’s take here.  More problems arose as the days went on, though.  Apparently, Tully is not just a flawed character; she does not exist at all.  She is entirely a creation of Marlo’s mind.  No wonder she was too good to be true.

In the film, Marlo apparently does receive a diagnosis of postpartum depression.  The plot does admit that her behavior and experience are not ‘normal’.  She does suffer from a condition of mental illness – except postpartum depression is not what it is.  Marlo suffers from postpartum psychosis.

As explained in a recent HuffPost article on the subject:

Postpartum depression is characterized by feelings of anger, irritability, guilt, shame, hopelessness, and sadness, but delusions, strange beliefs and hallucinations are symptoms more in line with a diagnosis of postpartum psychosis, as are cases of infanticide, according to Postpartum Support International (PSI).

The fact that the extreme separate reality Marlo has created is attributed to postpartum depression is dangerous.  If we take this film at face value, which many viewers will if they have no experience with maternal mental health, two things may happen.  One, women who do not have hallucinations will not seek help because they don’t feel they’re that bad.  Two, women who do not have hallucinations but suffer from debilitating depression (or anxiety or OCD) will be seen as mothers who will harm their children.  Women are already afraid to seek out the help they so desperately need when suffering from maternal mental health issues.  If they also have to fear being deemed unfit to care for their children, they will even less likely to obtain and benefit from treatment.

Society already sees every mother with postpartum depression as one with those who desperately drown their children.  As recently as this January, police were called to a California emergency room when a mother requested help for postpartum mental health concerns.  There is enough stigma to fight without movies like Tully perpetuating myths and muddying the water advocates fight daily to clear.

A star-powered film in mainstream cinema has tremendous potential to slay such myths and spread awareness.  What a squandered opportunity.  Many mental health advocates are asking, why didn’t they ask us?  If only Jason Reitman or Diablo Cody had consulted professionals and organizations for the full picture.  But honestly, I don’t think the Hollywood players working on this film are concerned with the women who will come to this movie looking for a funny cathartic look at their real life, but instead get sneak-attack triggered by the surprise turn of events.  They are more concerned with plot; with a compelling, unexpected story.  They are dealing with fictional characters, after all.  Except that they have failed to take into account the devastating effect their largest imaginary character will have on their very real viewers.

Even writers of fiction must research their topic, their time period.  Even in fiction, world-building must be believable.  Egregious errors ruin the integrity of the world, the characters, the entire experience.  Not only did those responsible for Tully fail sufferers and survivors of maternal mental illness, but the standards of good writing as well.

From the moment this film was named, it took power away from mothers – the very first being Marlo.  It’s not her story.  It becomes the story of her illness.  Maternal mental illness does overshadow the mother in its darkest depths.  But it does not define the woman.  The most compelling part of the story should be the journey out of those depths.  A mother’s eventual triumph, not her despair.  Tully totally misses that.

 


Another great discussion of the film from Motherly here

Shock and Awe

I’ve saved every blank book I ever filled – from the first hardbound, mottled watercolor cover to the psychedelic smiley faces.  All but the most recent sit high upon a shelf, my own little archive of embarrassing moments.

Every so often – when I have to move my collection from point a to point b, when I’m feeling nostalgic, or looking for a particular passage – I’ll skim the pages and revisit my words, my state of being at that point in time.  Sometimes the words are merely confessional, the quintessential catharsis for which we all count on ‘dear diary’.  Sometimes the paragraphs give way to great insight.  Sometimes, I read a passage that takes my breath away, that makes me flush with the way the words are crafted, the beauty and power of their make-up.  I crafted such quality?  My God, I really can write.  And then I find the author’s attribute, my little indent and dash noting the actual author’s name.  Drat.  Foiled again.

Though even in that moment just before I discover the author’s name, as I still unbelievingly read ‘my words’, it’s not a self-congratulatory moment.  There’s always a shock and awe involved.  A pinch-myself moment where I get a glimpse of the holy grail of writing.  Is it really possible?  For me?  By me?

But then, a few months ago, out of the blue, my aunt asked me what were some of the favorite things I’d written on this blog.  A few irreverent attempts at humor came to mind; the inaugural post explaining what all these potatoes are, of course.  When I actually dove into the blog to review, I realized just how much writing I’ve done on here.  Lots to sift through!  And lots to reorganize, I realized (so I – and hopefully you – can find it all).

A day or so later, I received an email from that same aunt with a link to a video.  A marketing and public relations professional by trade, she’d been working with a new platform and wanted to share it with me.  I clicked, eager to see what she’d created.  Striking images flowed across the screen, dovetailing each other seamlessly.  Sentences strung together over them told a story.

It wasn’t until nearly halfway through the video that I realized they were my words.

The same shock and awe that usually came over me as I read evocative passages in my journals occurred – only this time, it was I who had penned the words.  The shock and awe were accompanied by gratification.  And a little disbelief.  My journal dreams may yet come true.

 

The video that started it all . . .

 

Thanks to Janet Crook for helping me visualize in more ways than one.

Sleep Training for the Old and Infirm

Is it possible to simultaneously feel as if your heart has been ripped out and you’re being played?

By a lover – yes, I suppose.

By a baby?  Definitely.

The baby is question is baby number four.  This is not our first rodeo, people.  We’ve fed, bathed, and put babies to sleep countless times.  But this one?  This number four of four has broken the good sleeper trend.

There are a number of circumstances that fuel this insomniac insanity.  She sleeps in our room; as in, crib in corner of our room because we’ve yet to blow the roof out over our garage so we can reconfigure sleeping arrangements.  Then, she sleeps in our room; as in, she wakes and can sense our presence and won’t let us lay until she’s with us.  Again, she sleeps in our room; as in, she cries in the middle of the night and my husband and I – who are not as young and energetic as we were with baby number one – grab her and bring her into bed so we can collapse back into sleep as soon as possible because neither one of us has the will to walk her or soothe her to sleep in her own crib.

And, apparently, the kid just doesn’t like sleep.

Well, she does when she is glommed onto my or my husband’s physical self.

Yes, we created the monster.  Well, sort of.  She’s a tactile kid.  She could not be soothed as an infant unless she was close – tightly swaddled, firmly held, bounced.  She couldn’t put herself to sleep in the vast wide-open of her crib.  I got that early on.  But that paired with my exhaustion-thin resolve did not help me help her.

Bringing her to bed was fine when she quieted right down and settled into the crook of one of our bodies.  But recently, she’s begun thrashing, rolling, sleeping horizontally.  Ask my husband about skull-on-skull contact around 4 AM the other day.  We all obviously need our own bed.

Which led me to attempting to sleep train an almost two-year-old last night.

Which is awesome when they’re that much more stubborn.  And set in their ways.  And can scream your name.

I remember the heartbreak when my first wailed from her crib as an infant.  I remember standing in the downstairs hallway staring at the calendar where I marked down the minutes.  Now, there was only a comforter over my head separating me from the wails – and they carried my name.  She could voice the cause of her heartbreak.  It was Momma, Mommy, Mommmmmmmmmmm.

My husband had abandoned ship, opting for the couch and somewhat muffled screams, maybe sleep.  I didn’t have to go to work in the morning and I’d had a late-in-the-day mocha so I rode the train.  I prayed a manic mental rosary, pleading with God and the Virgin Mother to just let her sleep.  I heard William Sears and every other attachment expert tell me I was breaking her spirit, crushing her soul.  I heard Ferber telling me I was buckling and needed to stay strong.

I tried the initial cuddle, which sent her to sleep almost instantaneously.  Popped awake as soon as her head hit the crib.  I let her cry for ten minutes, then comforted.  More screams.  I let her cry for twenty minutes, then comforted.  More screams.  I let her cry for thirty minutes.  More.  Screams.  There were two instances of a minute or two where I thought perhaps she’d stopped, when the silence was so deafening in its abject oppositeness; where my breathing began to slow, my body able to unclench – and then it began again.

I gave up after an hour and a half.

I know I’ve probably created a worse situation than if I’d not tried at all.  I’ve probably taught her that she just needs to keep up the crying – for longer and longer intervals if necessary – to bring Mom to her.

As much as I dreaded I was breaking her little heart, her almost instant silence when I lifted her made me feel the rube.

She was sprawled across my bed surrounded by pillows when I snuck away this morning to write this.  She sweetly said, “Hi Momma” when her sister brought her to me a little later.  Instead of being glad she didn’t harbor any resentment against me for last night, I couldn’t help but think she was turning on the charm and rubbing it in that she’d won.

How many more Café Mocha nights will it take?

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So Much Blah

For such a bland, nonspecific word, blah actually does a lot.

At the end of last month, I started a mood tracker to get a closer look at and more specific language for my moods.  I’d been using blah too much and too widely.

Now that I’ve been pinning my days and moods to – what I thought were – more specific descriptors, I realize just how evocative blah is for me.

Blah is not wanting to get off the couch – either from physical exhaustion or lack of motivation – or both.  Blah is not knowing where to start when faced with a day’s plan or duties.  Blah is not knowing how to structure a day with no plan or duties.  Blah is feeling off.  Blah is not wanting to get dressed because you haven’t had the time to shower or because nothing would feel as comfortable against your skin as pjs.  Blah is worrying about an unnamed idea.  Blah is not wanting to interface with people.  Blah is not eating because nothing seems appealing.  Blah is eating candy or snacks that will bring on more blah for sure – but perhaps will be a happy treat.  Blah answers the question, ‘How are you?’ with a shrug because blah really isn’t sure – even if things aren’t that bad.

Blah is a lot of ‘not wanting to’.  Blah must be a toddler.  Or a moody teenager.

Blah comes to visit me a lot – and not because I have all of those in my house.

I wanted to get away from using blah to describe my state of mind because I wanted something more specific.  I don’t know that I realized how many versions of blah there were.

In my mood tracker, I opted for descriptors like ‘not focused’, ‘not productive’, ‘unsettled’.  According to those little squares of color on my chart, there’s been a lot of unsettled lately.  I think I just switched blah for unsettled.  I need to unpack the feelings in that paragraph above and figure out the different shades of blah or unsettled or whatever I want to call it.

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from sillyoldsod.com

 

The Push and Pull of Motherhood

It all starts with a push.  It is through a woman’s labor, a forceful push, that a baby – and her mother – is birthed.

From that point on, it is all about pulling.  A woman, now a mother, pulled in eight thousand different directions a day.  Literally, she is – calls for food, cries for comfort – but that’s not even of what I speak.  I’m speaking of expectation vs. reality; perfection vs. attainability; manic striving vs. sanity.

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From that first push, and from that first pull forward, the unwitting conditioning of our ideas and carrying out of motherhood shape our every decision, every day, our very psyches.

The other day, I kicked my kids out of the kitchen while I made the cupcakes they requested for Easter.  My second oldest had requested red velvet, which we’d never made before.  Why, suddenly, did she want this new and different flavor?  Could we not keep it simple, especially surrounding a busy holiday?  But then, I could’ve kept it simple by redirecting her to a different flavor or even buying a ready-made mix.  Instead, I half-kiddingly offered the metaphor of red for Christ’s blood.  She was sold.  And I began research on homemade recipes with less artificial ingredients than the mixes.  Again, could’ve kept this simple, but looked for the simplest one I could find that was sort of in line with the husband’s and my new trying-to-be-healthy-ish regimen.

 

That morning, the second oldest and I participated in an impromptu Girl Scout cookie booth.  I came home to prep appetizers for a dinner party at a friends’ that night.  Then I set in on the cupcakes.  The cupcake-requester was nowhere to be found, most likely buried eyeball-deep in her iPad after a morning of social interaction.  Her next youngest sister saw me gathering supplies and asked to help.  At this point, I was up to my eyeballs in a messy kitchen and bad humor.

“NO,” I replied far too emphatically.

When I saw her sad little face, I almost reconsidered, but held my ground, knowing that with limited time and remaining fuse I’d do far more damage than that to her poor little soul.

By way of a conciliatory carrot, I said, “You can help decorate them when they’ve cooled.”

As I prepped the rest of the recipe, I felt guilty.  These were cupcakes for a family celebration of Easter, requested by the kids most excited about the holiday.  Yet, the kid who’d started this whole evolution was MIA and I’d sequestered the rest.  Was I not sucking the joy out of this?  Was it about having a finished batch of red velvet cupcakes or letting my daughters participate in a fun activity?

When describing the frenetic events of the weekend to my therapist today, but before I got the part about my guilt, she congratulated me for sensing my limit and taking steps to keep from flying right over it.  When I told her how I perceived it, she said that I had been well within my rights for self-preservation by prepping the cupcakes myself.  She pointed out that I welcomed them in decorating the cupcakes, which is all kids really want to do anyway.

It did occur to me that, had I removed that fail-safe for myself that day, it wouldn’t have been a June Cleaver moment even if mother and child had made cupcakes together.  It almost certainly would’ve ended badly.  Just the night before, I’d dropped the f-bomb as we all made Resurrection cookies together.  Jesus would’ve been proud.

Looking back, I can see how it would’ve ended.  I would’ve needed multiple ‘come to Jesus’ moments afterwards to recoup.  And yet, the guilt still came in the moment.

And that is the pull modern mothers have.  We have been conditioned to do all manner of June Cleaver, Martha Stewart, Mother Earth type of things for our children, our families – even to the exclusion of our sanity.

Motherhood, parenthood, by its very essence, is sacrifice.  But there is no sense giving all of ourselves if everyone involved is miserable.  Even cupcakes are bitter to the taste buds when made with resentment and frustration.

The journey of motherhood started with a push.  That doesn’t mean we have to be pulled apart from that point forward.  For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.  And no, I’m not saying we should push our kids around.  We mustn’t remain static in the face of our conditioning.   There has to be movement both towards our children and our own self care.

After all, my homemade version of red velvet cupcakes were vegan – with store bought cream cheese frosting.

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