It Is What It Is

Here’s a thought that attacks me all the time: I’m not doing enough. I should be spending more time with my mother; I should spend more one-on-one time with the kids; I should be praying better, and more often; I should be able to handle a long day without losing it; I should be able to manage without having my husband step in and rescue me all the time.

At first, I tried to counter this thought by arguing against it. I would tell myself that I really was doing enough; or I would say that yes, it wasn’t enough, but I had good excuses, and I would do better later. Neither of these worked; I couldn’t convince myself that I was giving my all, but I couldn’t realistically see myself doing more, either. I used to torture myself with the thought that I was not actually trying my best, because there were some moments–a lot or a few, it didn’t matter–when I was not trying as hard as I could have. This led to a vicious cycle of self-pity and self-accusation: I knew I could theoretically try harder, but even with my current minimum of effort I was a mess; so what was I supposed to do?

Here’s the answer: it is what it is. The fact is, you are not doing all you could possibly do. It could always be better. But here’s an equally important fact: just because you should, ideally, be doing something, doesn’t mean that it’s possible. Yes, I should be spending more time with my mother; but the fact is, I just can’t. For so many reasons, I can’t. This means that, given the situation, thinking about what I should or could be doing is irrelevant. It is what it is. Give yourself a break: this isn’t an excuse, it’s just reality. There are enough things to worry about without wasting your energy on things you can’t change.

(I had this insight while I was in therapy, not so much from my therapists, but from the thought processes they helped me start. I’ve found that this is the best thing about a good therapist; she doesn’t give you the answers so much as ask the right questions, and guide you to answer them yourself. I know, this sounds like a cop-out; but if you’ve ever tried sitting down by yourself and thinking about why you do a certain thing, or what part of your life needs to change, I bet you didn’t get very far. Having to do it out loud, in front of someone, really helps you kickstart the process!)

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Linkup! How to Tell if You’re Depressed

Hope for the future.2

The last time I wrote about postpartum depression, I shared the fact that my struggle was made worse by guilt: motherhood was what I had always wanted, so why wasn’t I thriving? Another mother wrote in to say that she had the opposite problem: she felt guilty because being a stay-at-home mother was not something she had always wanted, and so she blamed her depression on her unpreparedness. My first thought was “oh, my post must not have helped her very much, because she couldn’t relate.” But instead, she found it helpful, because it showed that the fault was not hers; if both of us could be depressed for opposite reasons, the depression must have some origin besides our failings. So true! Your mind can find a reason to make you feel guilty no matter what. Depression can be connected to objective situations, of course; but in the end, it comes on its own and you can never be completely sure why.

I often find comfort in something my mother used to say: If you’re feeling guilty about not being a good enough mother, that means you are a good mother. A bad mother wouldn’t be worrying about it!

I’ve written several times about depression, therapy, and medication (links at the bottom–Wordpress is quirky today), so today I’d just like to focus on how to tell if you’re depressed or just sad, stressed, or have the “baby blues.” These are a few things I’ve noticed through the last few years as indicators of depression; but before all, check with your husband or someone who knows you well! When you’re in the thick of a pregnant, postpartum, breastfeeding, or sleep-deprived state, it can be hard to think straight and realize that you’re not normal. An objective viewpoint is critical.

  • Do you still have a sense of humor? If you’re just having a bad day, you can laugh at things going wrong–maybe not that minute, but at least later on. When you’re depressed, nothing seems funny. Your life is awful and there’s nothing funny about it. Humor doesn’t ease the situation at all.
  • Likewise, when you’re depressed, nothing is cute, not even your kids. Even when they’re acting normally, you’re constantly aggravated and upset by them. You can’t enjoy them at all because you’re sick of them, they’re just things that make your life harder.
  • When you’re having a bad day, you can stop and say to yourself “okay, this day just stinks. Tomorrow will be better. It won’t be like this forever.” When you’re depressed, you don’t have that perspective. You can’t remember things being good before, and you can’t imagine them getting better in the future.
  • When it’s just a bad day, simple pick-me-ups can really help: a change of scenery, a snack, exercise, 5 minutes alone, getting distracted with a project, calling a friend, and so on. When you’re depressed, nothing works. You can do all the right things and still feel lousy. Again, that’s because depression doesn’t necessarily come from external circumstances. Sometimes it just comes. That means that you can’t always chase it away without external help.

My computer is freezing up when I try to insert links, so bear with me:

  • My original maternal depression post, which includes some helpful guidelines for considering therapy, medication, and self-help books:  https://checkoutthatsunset.wordpress.com/2015/05/27/bloghop-good-catholic-moms-and-maternal-depression/
  • My post about making peace with medication, which I was very reluctant to try: https://checkoutthatsunset.wordpress.com/2015/03/09/i-dont-want-to-be-on-a-pill-for-the-rest-of-my-life/
  • My post about some things that helped during rough periods postpartum, mostly suggested by various therapists:  https://checkoutthatsunset.wordpress.com/2016/04/22/7qt-things-that-help/
  • My post about why prayer or spiritual counselling may not be enough to cure mental problems, and how God wants you to take advantage of any help you can get, spiritual, secular, or medical:  https://checkoutthatsunset.wordpress.com/2016/05/13/why-schools-need-real-counselors/

Please click over to Flourish in Hope (http://www.flourishinhope.com/2016/05/30/my-ppd-story/), a wonderful site I’m just discovering, for other moms’ stories, and thank you so much to them and to Katherine at Half Kindled (http://halfkindled.com/) for organizing this! Let’s all keep each other in our prayers.

 

Making Peace with the Minimum

Barbie, Pregnancy, Doll, Education, Child, Childbirth

Remember the “Best Odds Diet” in What to Expect When You’re Expecting? As I recall from my anxious first-pregnancy reading, the idea was that you could eat junk food or you could eat healthy food, but if you really wanted to do everything you could for your baby, you would eat as healthily as possible. If you had a choice between a piece of whole-wheat bread and a piece of organic, whole-wheat, whole-grain, homemade, all-natural bread, why would you choose something with less nutritional benefit for your baby? Why eat something good when you could be eating something perfect? Didn’t you want to give your baby the best chance at perfection that you could?

I think I threw the book out when it suggested that it was okay to treat yourself once a month or so, but you should really try to make your indulgence something like homemade, fruit-sweetened carrot cake or a bran muffin. Sometimes this mindset is so obviously ridiculous that it’s easy to dismiss. But sometimes, it’s so subtle and logical-sounding that it can really get a hold on you. Do any of these sound familiar?

I just checked her diaper and it’s only a tiny bit wet, so I really don’t want to change it now. But now that I know, it would be wrong to wait–I’d be knowingly letting her tender skin come in contact with pee, and maybe she’ll get a rash! I better change it right now.

Maybe he has this inexplicable diarrhea because he drank water from that mud puddle! I could have stopped him but I didn’t. I figured “usually I stop him, but one time won’t be a big deal.” But what if this happens to be the one time that really mattered?

I’m sure I buckled her into her carseat correctly. But what if I didn’t, and she dies in a crash? I should go double-check, or triple-check. That would be the best thing for my baby. After all, I want to give her the best odds at survival.

Maybe you’re a normal person, and this doesn’t sound familiar. Or maybe you’re someone prone to worry, scruples, or obsession, and this is your life. But here’s a third option–maybe you’re normally pretty balanced, but right now you’re pregnant, or postpartum, or breastfeeding, and you’re not thinking logically. This is no way to live your life. It only ends in despair and self-loathing.

I recently saw a meme that rejected the mantra “fed is best.” Fed with formula is minimum, it argued, but breast is still best. Why would you want to give your baby the minimum when you could give her the maximum? Now, how you feed your baby is a lot more important that the little things I mentioned above, and breastfeeding is certainly best in itself; but even so, things get bent out of proportion when you elevate the feeding decision above everything else. If you look at it simply as a choice between what’s okay (formula) and what’s best (breastmilk), the choice is obvious. But that keeps you from weighing other considerations, like whether your mental health is up to the challenge, or whether your physical health is up to the loss of sleep. It’s very unlikely that you’ll be able to make a choice that’s optimal for every single aspect! Life just doesn’t work like that. Don’t let your mind bully you into thinking you have to make the best possible choice, every time. Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

7QT–Why Formula Feeding Was the Best Choice for Me

Calf, Hand Rear, Bottle, Milk, Teat, Baby, Orphan

Happy Friday! Here are seven reasons I chose to formula-feed my third baby after breastfeeding the first two, and why it turned out to be a real life-saver. This obviously isn’t the right choice for everyone, and I have extreme admiration for people who stick with breastfeeding when the going gets tough. I do hope that this might be helpful for women who are on the fence or feeling bad about their decision to bottle-feed.

  1. More sleep. This wasn’t a luxury for me–it was a necessity. My baby really did sleep longer on formula, and I was able to let my husband give the baby a bottle in the middle of the night or while I was napping or cooking supper.
  2. Painless and easy! Again, many women are happy to make the sacrifice to breastfeed their children even when it’s difficult, but when life is already difficult enough for other reasons, there’s nothing wrong with making it easier on yourself. I had horrible pain and trouble breastfeeding my first. The second was better but still uncomfortable.
  3. Breastfeeding totally kills my libido, so bottle-feeding was a big boost for my marriage.
  4. Lots of women pick breastfeeding, in part, because it provides them with a few years of infertility to space their children. For me, though, that wasn’t worth it; sure, I’d probably be infertile for two years, but I couldn’t be sure, and meanwhile my fertility signs were so confusing that there was a ridiculous amount of abstinence and anxiety. Bottle-feeding made my cycle come back quickly, but then it was regular, so NFP was a lot easier.
  5. Bottle-feeding also made it easier to get out of the house and leave the baby with a babysitter, or just to get the baby out of my arms for a couple of minutes and with her Daddy or big brother or a comfy bouncy seat instead. At that particular time in my life, this was a Godsend.
  6. Bottle-feeding was not as hard as people made it sound. (I do know that I was lucky in this regard, because my baby didn’t need any special allergenic formulas or fancy bottles.) I thought I’d have to worry about the exact amount I mixed, and the exact time I fed the baby, and all sorts of expiration dates and holding times. In reality, it was as simple as breastfeeding. I took the advice of my midwife and never heated up the bottles, so the baby never expected them to be warm.
  7. As I write this, I realize that a lot of these sound like excuses. I can imagine myself, four years ago, saying “sure bottle-feeding is easier, and less painful, and gives you more sleep and freedom, but isn’t your baby’s health worth making sacrifices for?” That’s true, of course; but what I didn’t realize was that these principles are not absolute. My baby would be plenty healthy on formula, and there were times in my life when the extra benefits of breastfeeding were NOT worth the sacrifices. When you’re already weepy and depressed, bottle-feeding to get all the sleep you can is good for you and your family. By my third baby, I was confident and realistic enough to tune out the guilt and pressure and happily feed my baby the way that worked best for me. Here’s a nice little photo series that shows moms bonding with their babies over a bottle.  Head over to Kelly’s for the rest of the Seven Quick Takes!

First World Problems?

Jeans, Denim, Torn, Ripped, Worn, Fashion, Casual

Have you ever tried to stop feeling sorry for yourself by thinking about how much worse other people have it?  Does it work for you?  When I use it to remind myself to have a sense of humor, sometimes it works; my family’s motto is “it could always be worse,” usually followed by a darkly funny memory of a time when things got really chaotic.  But if I try to pull myself out of self-pity by thinking about starving children in Africa or homeless people in the city, it usually doesn’t work.  All it does is make me feel guilty on top of everything else, and start me off on a train of thought about how crummy the WHOLE WORLD is, anyhow.

The problem with this way of thinking is that it assigns each human pain a ranking.  Upset that you live in a tiny apartment?  It’s better than a clay hut in Africa!  Upset that you live in a clay hut?  It’s better than being homeless!  Upset that you’re homeless?  Be grateful–you could be dead!  If you keep going this way, there’s probably only one person in the world who has a right to feel bad, because everyone else has at least some advantage over him to be grateful for.

I don’t think that’s how God sees it.  I think he cares about your “first world problems,” even if they’re small or silly, because He knows what it’s like.  I recently came across this encouraging quote from St. Philip Neri:

A man should not ask tribulations of God, presuming on his being able to bear them: there should be the greatest possible caution in this matter, for he who bears what God sends him daily does not do a small thing.  [emphasis mine]

This doesn’t mean it’s okay to sit there and dwell on your problems, but there’s no point in forcing yourself to feel guilty, either.  Your problems are legitimate, and God cares about them; and that in itself is encouragement to not let them swallow you up.

Bloghop! Good Catholic Moms and Maternal Depression

Hope for the Future 2 (1)

“This is what I’ve always wanted!  So why am I unhappy?”

This was my dominant thought when I was postpartum with my first child.  My husband and I both came from large families, and we had joyfully planned for a life like our parents’: lots of kids, starting right away, and a stay-at-home mom.  I felt shocked, angry, guilty, and disillusioned when my first year at home with my baby was horrible.

To begin with, I was bored.  I didn’t really know what to do with a newborn besides nurse him, and I didn’t know how to keep busy while I was holding him, and I felt guilty whenever I put him down.  And I do mean every time.  He would be sitting there happily, staring at the pictures on the wall, and I would look at him and think, “I’m a bad mother.”  Looking back, these were two tell-tale signs of depression: irrational guilt, and uncontrollable negative thoughts flooding my mind.  And always in the background there was the meta-guilt of my inability to enjoy motherhood the way I had pictured.

Two years later, my dread of another postpartum like that one outweighed my fear of pills, and I agreed to try antidepressants a few days after I gave birth to my second baby.  I clearly remember my ten-day checkup at the midwives’, when they asked me about my depression and I realized that I hadn’t cried AT ALL since giving birth.  Even for someone not prone to depression, that’s practically a miracle!  (I’m not trying to recommend antidepressants as a cure-all for everyone, but I do hope that anyone in this situation will consider them as a real option.)  The second step, in my case, was therapy.  The greatest gift my therapist gave me was to help sort out an identity for myself, separate from that of a wife or mother.  This allowed me to invest some energy into finding fulfillment outside of the sphere of motherhood, which is crucial.  If you’re at all prone to depression, anxiety, guilt, self-comparison, or low self-esteem (that covers just about everyone, right?), investing your self-worth entirely into some ideal of motherhood is guaranteed to invite depression.

Not everyone’s experience will be like mine, and therapy and antidepressants may not be the right course for everyone; but the important thing is to realize that something external must be done about your depression.  You can not pray or will your depression away, because its origin is not in your failings.  Maternal depression can feel like it’s your fault, because motherhood seems like something that should come naturally and easily; but this is a fallen world, and what’s natural is not always easy.  Even if motherhood is what you’ve always wanted, there is nothing wrong with needing help.

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Thank you so much to Katherine at Half Kindled for hosting this much-needed conversation!  I’m really thrilled to be a part of this.  Please read what my fellow bloggers have contributed at A Knotted Life, Call Her Happy, Half Kindled, This Felicitous Life, and Mama Needs Coffee.

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A few resources I have found helpful:

  • therapy: ask your midwife or OB/GYN for a recommendation.  They may be able to give you the name of a therapist who’s been recommended by other patients in their practice.
  • self-help books: I really appreciated Gregory Popcak’s book, God Help Me! This Stress Is Driving Me Crazy!, which is an extremely helpful and practical mix of tried-and-true psychotherapy techniques and spiritual advice and encouragement.  (I have a few reviews of Popcak’s books in the works.)  I haven’t read Aaron Kheriaty’s Catholic Guide to Depression yet, but it’s been recommended to me by so many trusted friends that I feel comfortable passing it on to you.  I hope to tackle it soon and review it for you.  I find this blurb extremely encouraging: “…the confessional can’t cure neuroses, nor can the couch forgive sins.  Healing comes only when we integrate the legitimate discoveries of modern psychology and pharmacology with spiritual direction and the sacraments….”
  • NaPro technology.  I know many people who have been helped by NaPro, which specializes in helping women overcome infertility, postpartum depression, and other reproductive problems through natural and morally permissible means, specifically through the Creighton method of natural family planning.  I know a few people whose postpartum depression was linked to low progesterone, and NaPro doctors were able to prescribe progesterone supplements that changed their lives. Here is a website for locating NaPro doctors in your area.
  • For those of you who are nervous about antidepressants during pregnancy or breastfeeding, I found these studies from Mass. General Hospital, which were given to me by my midwife, extremely comforting.

“I Could Never Do Something Like That:” Dehumanizing Terrorists

Everyone is talking about whether Dzhokhar Tsarnaev deserves to die.  Yes, of course he deserves to.  But so does almost everyone else in the world.  Most of us have committed sins–in action or in our hearts–which are, if not as serious as Tsarnaev’s, certainly serious enough to merit Hell.  I think it’s a mistake to base any decision about punishment on what a criminal deserves, rather than what will serve as a deterrent, a protection to the public, or an opportunity for reform.  What’s really on my mind, though, is the way that people are treating Tsarnaev as if he is not even human, and as if they could never have done what he did.  Let’s face it: a lot of us could have done something just as horrible.  I’m not trying to diminish his guilt in any way; I’m just trying to respond to the outrage that takes away our common humanity with him.

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, writing about his terrible treatment by the Soviet government and prison guards, refuses to dehumanize them by treating them as something completely other from him: “If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.”  Now, Tsarnaev is about as close as you can get to this hypothetical evil man commiting evil deeds.  There’s not much you can say to mitigate what he did.  But that doesn’t put us on a different plane from him.

In one episode of Star Trek, the crew encounters an alien whose mental powers are so strong that he can simply will something and it will happen.  His planet and his wife were destroyed by a hostile race.  At the end, he reveals that he is in self-imposed exile because of the revenge he took in a moment of impulsive grief: not only did he kill his wife’s murderers, but in a single act of will, he annihilated their entire race.  Captain Picard condemns the genocide, but there is a strong note of sympathy for the alien, who succumbed to the terrible temptation that his powers constantly presented to him.  The episode leaves you wondering–if I were able to make my darkest thoughts come true in the blink of an eye, what would I do?

Let’s pray for Tsarnaev, who acted on the anger and the impulse that all of us are susceptible to, and let’s imagine what we are capable of.

Tsarnaev immediately after planting the bomb next to a little boy.

(photo credit: The Telegraph)