I know a thing or two about the myth of the “good mother.” In fact, you could say I wrote the book on it… As someone who is actively invested in tearing down the dangerous idealization of motherhood, you would think I would have cut myself a little slack when I was diagnosed with anxiety. Only, it doesn’t really work that way. No amount of logical thinking and self-affirmation was able to cut through the fog at the start of all of this. And now, months later and closer to status quo, I still find doubt not only in myself in general, but as a mother in particular.
Once I had my official diagnosis, but before my medicine kicked in (aka The Dark Period), there were many days when I doubted my ability to get through the next few hours, let alone be a decent parent. There was the one weekend where I just couldn’t get out of bed, a mixture of nausea, apathy, and heartache–as in literal chest pains–cementing me to the comfort and familiarity of my jersey sheets. I accomplished nothing those two days besides sweating through three pairs of pajamas and watching the entire first season of “Transparent.” Being able to watch a show where almost every character was steeped in their own misery allowed me to forget about mine, if only for a few hours.
While I spent almost two months waiting for my medicine to truly be effective, I tried to figure out how to parent with this new normal. I would wake up daily, completely drenched in anxiety-produced sweat, my heart hammering in my chest, and stomach twisted in knots. I would try to breathe through it all, and at some point around noon, I’d be mostly functional. But mornings were really rough. My son seemed to sense this and was less jumpy and loud, which is his usual setting, even at 6:30 a.m. He was understanding when I explained why I couldn’t read him a bedtime story, as my eyes couldn’t focus and the nausea would just not allow me to sit still, even for five minutes. He was kind and gracious and understanding, when he had every right to feel angry or sad or scared. And, he occasionally would leave me little notes scribbled in crayon wishing that I would feel better, which only caused more guilt and anxiety to bubble up inside.
As I waded through The Dark Period, flailing–and sometimes failing–as a mother, I kept holding on to the words of dear friends who had been there before me: “It will get better.”
But, I started wondering just when that would be. Patience has never been my strong suit, and I had my own timeline of sorts. My son had his big siddur ceremony scheduled for mid-February. Every year, every second grader is presented with his or her own siddur (prayer book). During the ceremony they each sing a prayer and give a little speech on why they chose it. It’s a big milestone within his Jewish day school.
The date of the ceremony loomed on the horizon, and I made it my goal to be there. Every day I would check in with myself, praying to notice an improvement from the day before. Yet every morning I would wake up soaked in sweat, heart pounding, and stomach in knots. The ceremony was at 8:30 in the morning, and I had no idea how I would make it, let alone stand to publicly give my son the blessing each set of parents was tasked with creating.
And so, I made a game plan. I asked myself, what did I fear happening at the ceremony? I was concerned I might have a panic attack. So, I looked at my options. If that happened I could go into the bathroom and take an Ativan. I could go to the car and breathe through it. I could even go home. I had options. But to not even go because of the “what if’s” wasn’t one of them. The pride my son had in his voice each time he spoke of his upcoming ceremony made it clear that I could not miss this, especially as I had recently been missing too many meals, bedtime stories, and fun with him.
Not surprisingly, I slept pretty terribly the night before the big day. When I woke up in my usual panicky sweat, I just pushed through, wearing a was-once-small-but-now-was-a-smidge-big dress from the back of my closet and some tights. I made a large mug of Tension Tamer tea and popped my bottle of Ativan in my pocket. I ended up taking one before we even made it to the school parking lot.
But then? I did it. And he did it. My son was phenomenal, making the audience laugh with his clever speech and beautifully singing his prayer. And then I made my way up to the pulpit and together with my husband, we blessed our son, with me squeezing him just a touch more than was probably comfortable, but we did it.
The next day, when I was dipping down low, my son got to watch three or four episodes of his favorite TV show and had boxed mac and cheese for dinner, because that’s how parenting with anxiety goes. Some days you surprise yourself, and other days you cut yourself some slack. Thankfully, as friends and my health care team have promised, it’s gotten better. Not 100%, but better. I still have days where I feel like I’m stumbling backwards, but mostly I’m moving ahead and learning that my motherhood narrative is constantly changing from the one I imagined, and that’s OK.