Dear Me:

  1. Dear 14-year-old me: spending every lunch period sitting in the chapel and crying is not normal. Tell someone, for heaven’s sake. This is called “depression.”
  2. Dear 18-year-old me: why would you even date a guy who’s mean to people, inconsiderate to you, and doesn’t really care much about you or anything else? I don’t get it.
  3. Dear 20-year-old me: learn NFP before you get married, you dummy. Don’t just say “oh, we’ll learn it when we need it.” Trust me, you’ll need it.
  4. Dear 21-year-old me: just give the baby a bottle. You will never regret it.
  5. Dear 22-year-old me: anti-depressants are wonderful. It’s about time.
  6. Dear 23-year-old me: I know you don’t really believe it when people say this, but it really will get easier as your kids get older. Really!
  7. Dear me for the last five years: just go to bed. There are very, very few things you could be doing that will make you happier than more sleep.

Come see the rest of the 7 Quick Takes at Kelly’s!

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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!

Self-Help Books that Really Help: Sex and Marriage

“Tobias and Sarah Awake” by Julius Schnorr von Carolsfelt

Well!  Let’s start with the most embarrassing one first.

The Good Girl’s Guide to Great Sex by Sheila Wray Gregoire.  This book is for you if:

  • You’re a nervous virgin
  • You never really got any sex ed, except for “wait for marriage”
  • You got plenty of information on the mechanics, but you don’t understand why sex is sacred
  • You got plenty of information on why sex is sacred, but you don’t understand the mechanics
  • You have bad associations with sex, from past abuse, bad relationships, physical problems, or being brought up with the mindset that sex is necessary, but it’s kind of dirty, and we don’t talk about it
  • You’re a reasonably well-adjusted person who needs some help with any of the above, but you realllllly don’t want to have to wade through all the secular offerings at the library.

The wonderful thing about this book is that it manages to be tasteful while still being practical and explicit (where it needs to be).  Gregoire covers everything–the biology, the sacred symbolism, the basic mechanics, and the trouble-shooting–in a concise, friendly, and unembarrassing way.  Please note–Gregoire is Christian, but not Catholic, so there are a couple of ideas in here that are not quite kosher.  But for the most part, she does a wonderful job of explaining that God intended sex to be beautiful, meaningful, and fun.  This would be a good gift for a mature engaged woman.  Don’t be like Edith: (“the talk” starts at about 15:00)

Also check out Gregoire’s wonderful website and other resources at To Love, Honor and Vacuum.

Holy Sex! by Dr. Gregory Popcak.  This is a dense, thorough book.  Popcak’s style can be pretty annoying, but it’s worth pushing through.  He is that wonderful and rare thing, an orthodox and well-read Catholic who is also a respected psychotherapist.  Holy Sex is the best of both worlds: explicit without being offensive, practical but also theologically rich.  The woman’s perspective of Gregoire’s Good Girl’s Guide is irreplaceable, but this book covers a much wider range of topics, from NFP and marriage-building exercises, to solutions for specific problems and discussions about what’s acceptable in married sex, and why.  I found Popcak’s “Four Pleasure Principles” especially helpful: along with the “One Rule” that a married couple can do whatever they want, as long as both are loved and respected, and the man climaxes inside the woman, he poses four correlative requirements: that there should be continuity between your daily relationship and your sex life; that spouses should be respected as persons and not used as mere producers of pleasure; that any technique, lingerie, position, etc. should be used as a means to the end of a loving union, rather than being the focus of the whole thing; and that each spouse’s comfort zone should be respected.  Popcak gives specific case studies of many couples which illustrate these principles in detail, and give the reader useful prompts to figure out what is wrong or missing in their relationship.

The Sinner’s Guide to Natural Family Planning by the amazing Simcha Fisher.  This book covers so much, it’s hard to do it justice.  There’s a lovely depiction of how NFP can really mature and deepen your relationship, not in the advertised, immediate “honeymoon effect” way, but in a more profound and gradual way.  This is extremely encouraging for someone like me, who’s just starting out.  There’s some excellent theology in here, with candid anecdotes and original, spot-on analogies that really hit home more than most discussions of theology of the body.  There are practical and specific tips for having difficult conversations about sex and marriage, because “silence is where problems grow.”  There are sympathetic and straightforward discussions of topics that are really important, but that no one else is willing to talk about, like how to deal with the frustration that builds up when a woman’s libido is only high during off-limits times, or when a woman can’t climax.  There is help to escape the anxiety, fear, and scruples that often surround family planning decisions.  There is sympathy for good Catholics who secretly wish they could just have care-free, spontaneous, happy sex like the secular world, and a reminder that, in reality, “there is no such thing.”  There are ways to deal with periods of abstinence, and prompts to use NFP as a way to grow closer, “learning to let go of struggles for fairness and equality, and learning to look instead for unity and harmony,” by “work[ing] towards a place where the woman’s problem is her husband’s problem” and vice-versa.  And when you reach the end of the encouragement and advice, when you’re ready to hear it, there’s the reminder that

love…sometimes looks like a Cross.  There you hang, trying with all your might to remember why you’re doing this, and not knowing how much longer it’s going to go on.

For Fisher, the very real cross of NFP is not something to suck up, or something to be bitter about, but an opportunity: an opportunity to turn the confusion of sex in a fallen world into a path to deeper union with your spouse.  Take your time reading this book!  There’s a lot to take in.

The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, by John Gottman.  This is set up like more of a typical self-help, popular psychology book, but don’t let that fool you; Gottman’s work is based on extensive research, observation, and counseling of real couples, and his advice is extremely practical and relevant.  He teaches you how to identify key problems that are wounding your communication, which can often turn into unconscious habits, including his “four horsemen” (criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling) and the aggressive “harsh start-up” to a sensitive conversation.  This book is a wonderful guide for people who are trying hard to communicate better, but not being very effective; if you can swallow your pride and teach yourself how to use the “scripts” he recommends, you can teach yourself new habits of communicating.  Gottman has specific guidelines for expressing simple “complaints” to your spouse without turning them into blaming “criticisms;” listening to a stressed-out spouse without giving hurtful advice or implied criticism; and “nurturing fondness and admiration” by doing specific exercises to build up a habit of appreciating and respecting your spouse.  I especially liked his discussion of “repair attempts” during arguments, which involve using specific scripts to structure your argument and keep it from getting out of control: “I feel blamed–can you rephrase that?…I need your support here…I’m sorry.  Let me start over again…That’s a good point…I’m getting overwhelmed, I need a break.”  Gottman makes an important point here:

Many, if not all, of these phrases probably sound phony and unnatural to you right now…But their phoniness is not a reason to reject them.  If you learned a better and more effective way to hold your tennis racket, it would feel ‘wrong’ and ‘unnatural’ initially, simply because you weren’t used to it yet.

This book taught me that you have to grit your teeth and do uncomfortable things like using scripts if you want to really improve your communication.  It taught me that self-help books in general should not be written off just because they sound cliche or cheesy, because the truth often does.  Guides like this can really improve your marriage, especially if you grew up in a family that did not have a good way of dealing with conflict.  If you learned a faulty way of communicating–and most of us did, to a greater or lesser extent–you are going to need to unlearn a lot of things and teach yourself a new way to think and talk, from the bottom up.

What are some of your favorite self-help books?  Are you reluctant to read this kind of book?  What can I do to change your mind?  More book reviews to come!  My husband pointed out that Christopher West is conspicuous by his absence.  That wasn’t intentional–I just haven’t read his stuff recently enough to review it.

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image via Wikimedia Commons

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.

Making Decisions out of Fear and Guilt

Here’s a wonderful article, from the blog A Knotted Life, about how to be at peace with your decision to not homeschool.  My husband and I were both homeschooled for many years, and we’re very grateful for it; but we’ve decided to send our oldest child to kindergarten this fall.  I had always assumed that I’d homeschool, but the closer it got, the more I panicked.  I love teaching my son, and I had happily anticipated all the fun homeschooling we’d do–the field trips, the nature walks, the crafts, the science projects–but I had to reconcile myself to the fact that I am just not up for it right now.  With a small, crowded apartment, a busy schedule, and a toddler and a newborn, I knew that our homeschooling days would be filled with tears and yelling; and more importantly, I knew myself well enough to know that I was prime bait for homeschooling guilt.  I also knew that, if my son turned out anything like his parents, he would need a lot of help overcoming social awkwardness, and he wasn’t going to get it being homeschooled by us.  (I’m not trying to perpetuate the “homeschoolers don’t do socialization” myth here, but it’s important to note that, while most homeschoolers are socialized just fine, some really aren’t–and that includes me and my husband.)

Even after realizing all these things, I still felt compelled to homeschool.  Most of my friends are homeschoolers, and of course I’ve heard all the public school horror stories; so I felt horribly defensive any time it came out in conversation that I was considering public school.  I escaped this mindset mostly through the example of my sister, who wrote about her decision to stop homeschooling here, and chronicled some of her kids’ positive experiences with public school here; but it was only recently that I made a final and peaceful decision about it.  I realized that I had been feeling forced to choose homeschooling out of fear and guilt.  Instead of thinking of homeschool and public school as two neutral options to choose from, depending on my family’s situation, my son’s personality, and the quality of our local schools, I was thinking of homeschool as the default thing, the really good and wonderful thing, and public school as the not-so-great option I could choose only if I had reallyreallyreally good reasons.  Once I removed fear from the equation, I realized that my reasons for choosing public school were more than valid.

I have recently realized that many other parenting decisions I’ve made have been made out of fear.  I had always heard so much about how modern society fears the sacrifice and lack of independence that comes with having children, and how many people contracept because they are afraid of what parenthood will do to their lives; but I also realized that the opposite problem is possible too: I was afraid to even entertain the idea of having a small family, because I was so afraid that I would be judged, or I would not be living up to my faith.

Now obviously, fear can be a healthy thing, when we’re talking about fear of something intrinsically evil: fear of sin, fear of Hell, fear of offending God.  But when we’re talking about a decision that is morally neutral in itself, such as the decision to have another child, it is not okay to be motivated by fear.  Fear of falling short of the ideal picture of motherhood in my head led me to choose breastfeeding over formula, even when breastfeeding was becoming a problem for my health and my family dynamic; it led me to resist painkillers during childbirth, even when they wouldn’t have hurt the baby, and they probably would have helped me calm down; and it led me to feel horrible guilt over my inability to even imagine having a large family.  Only recently have I realized that I should not let guilt be the deciding factor in the way I live my life.  (And I’m not saying that I don’t feel guilty anymore!  Just that now, usually, I recognize it for the seductive falsehood that it is.)

These realizations probably have less to do with my spiritual state than with the fact that, 3 kids into this, I don’t really have the energy left for any unnecessary guilt.  The hell with it.  And let me tell you, nothing feels so good as stepping out of the box that you have guilted yourself into and finding out that you–not the internet, or the tricks your mind plays on you, or the perceived judgement of your peers–know what is best for you.

P.S.–when I was re-reading my sister’s articles, I discovered one more that pretty much says what I’m saying here, except probably better. Here it is.

 

Is “Natural” Always Better?

There’s a great scene in the British show Doc Martin where the doctor finds out that some of his patients have been visiting an amateur natural medicine practitioner on the sly.  One of them is nearly killed by an herbal remedy which the natural doctor recommended to him without doing any research into his medical history, which would have shown that this particular herb is contraindicated for people with his condition.  When one of the villagers protests that he doesn’t see what could be wrong with taking something natural, Doc Martin snaps, “poison ivy’s natural, too!  You wouldn’t take that, would you?”

I’m not here to dismiss natural remedies, but I want to talk a little bit about the danger of assuming that natural necessarily means better.  When it comes to women’s health, especially, I am so tired of hearing that your body knows what it is supposed to do.  Yes, most of the time, it does.  But sometimes it screws up.  This isn’t necessarily because nature is bad, or God created us with flaws; it’s because our nature isn’t what it used to be.

Most of the time, pregnancy and childbirth go smoothly, because a woman’s body was made for that. But sometimes, your body doesn’t know how to take care of the baby, or when it’s time for him to come out.  If you sit around for 43 weeks waiting for that baby to come out naturally, he may not make it out alive.  Time for an intervention.

Most of the time, breastfeeding goes smoothly.  They tell you, “if it hurts, something is wrong.  It shouldn’t hurt.”  But sometimes, you’re doing everything right, and it just hurts anyway.  Time for…well, there’s not much you can do, but time to stop thinking it’s your fault for not doing it the way nature intended!

Sometimes, depression can be cured with changes in diet, exercise, and mental routine.  Sometimes, all you need to do is take care of your body, and it will function normally.  But sometimes, if you don’t interfere with your body, it will kill you.

Now, our bodies are still wonderful things.  It makes sense to look for natural remedies first, and to try to be in tune with the way our bodies were intended to work.  But to act as if the “natural” course is always the right course is to ignore the fact that our nature is no longer what God intended it to be.  It’s fallen.  The woman in the NFP forum, who thought that antidepressants were just as bad as artificial birth control, was mixing up “natural” with “moral.”  For her, birth control was not evil because it does violence to God’s original design for our sexuality; it was evil because it was artificial.  In reality, though, the Church doesn’t reject any artificial or technological remedies unless they interfere with the integrity of the person.  As one of my sisters pointed out, if the Church were against artificial medical remedies, she would not approve of any fertility treatments, either.

To be continued when I manage to sort out my thoughts a little more, hopefully without getting a little heretical!  I’m still trying to figure this out.  Thanks for listening!