I’m not sure when I first realized that something was different.
It may have been when I started reading articles about other women’s experiences of motherhood: how they felt about their children, things they sacrificed for their children’s well being, how they enjoyed their children above all else.
It was probably in my third pregnancy, when I started to feel weighed down by everything—when I found myself having difficulty performing basic tasks for my boisterous toddlers. It was then that I found myself lying on the couch feeling worthless and asking myself those questions:
Why am I so useless?
Why is everything so hard for me?
Why did my husband have the bad sense to marry a woman like me who has no energy for anything?
Why can’t I enjoy my children like all these other mothers can?
Do I not love them enough?
I have struggled with depression and anxiety, on and off, since childhood, and by that point I had learned to recognize what those questions meant. I found a good therapist, and it was one of the best things I’ve ever done for myself.
It took me a while to realize that my battles as a mother with high sensitivity and a tendency for depression are on an entirely different level than those of moms without those traits.
Let’s take sleep deprivation, for instance. I know it sucks for everyone. For me, however, it can completely pull the rug out from under my mental health. It makes me a completely different person—a person who is irritable, sad, hopeless, and unfocused. In other words, when I am sleep deprived, I suffer from the symptoms of a major depressive episode.
To top it off, I often suffer from primary insomnia. So you can imagine what my life was like in the first couple years when my children weren’t sleeping through the night.
When I was a teenager, my friends gently teased me about my 10 p.m. bedtime and my insistence on trying to get some sleep during overnight parties. Neither they nor I understood then that my experience of sleep deprivation was so much more intense and difficult than what they experienced.
While other mothers are scolding each other for checking their iPhones at the playground, I am trying to decide whether taking my kids to the park across the street will be worth the cost in energy levels. Taking them outside can be so draining for me—when I get home, every other task I must do for them may feel insurmountable. And we all pay when I am tired.
Some days, while other moms are arguing about GMOs and organic pesticides, I’m lying on the couch trying to figure out how to muster the willpower to get up, walk across the room, and pour my child a glass of water.
It’s a whole different universe.
So I can’t help but feel estranged and isolated on “mommy groups.” Especially since I have learned that overreaching my limits to give my children what I think I should be giving them (because that’s “what other moms do”) is detrimental for all parties. I need to care for myself first. The oxygen mask metaphor, and all.
I have a friend, a father of four, who suffers from Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. He put it most succinctly: “It’s so frustrating. You just can’t be the parent you want to be.”
A big part of my journey in the last few years has been the process of letting go of the mother I think I should be, and then of the mother I want to be… and learning to embrace the mother I am.
I think this is true for all parents to some degree. We all want to be the best parents in the universe and provide for our children’s every need, and the truth is that we just can’t. This is not bad news: if we could provide for our children’s every need, they would never learn to struggle. All we can do, is do the best we can.
For parents who struggle with depression, chronic fatigue, or other “invisible illnesses” that add significant challenge to everyday tasks, it can be a constant battle to figure out what “the best we can” is. Our “best” may be significantly less, at least in certain areas, than that of parents who do not struggle with these limitations. Accepting that can be very difficult.
But as a woman of faith, I believe that our children were given specifically to us for a reason. That our shortcomings and weaknesses are precisely what they need to encounter in order to become who they are meant to be.
And there is a flip side. Being highly sensitive may limit me in some ways as a mother, but it also gives me gifts of incredible value: profound empathy, creativity, and an ability to deeply experience the beauty of the world around us, to name a few. And I know that when I embrace who I am and care for my own needs, I am teaching my children to do the same.