“When Did I Get Like This?”

When I was pregnant, too exhausted to read anything of substance, and desperately in need of comic relief, I searched around on my husband’s kindle and grabbed the first mommy humor book I found: When Did I Get Like This?, by Amy Wilson.  It wasn’t the self-deprecating, witty stand-up routine I was expecting: instead it was the vulnerable, candid memoir of a modern professional New Yorker, learning everything about motherhood the hard way.  This poor lady got sucked into all the popular pregnancy and motherhood myths, and had to figure everything out by herself.  Take her experience with her first pregnancy:

Today, everything from pacifiers to preschools seems to be marketed to mothers in one overarching way: this product, the ads say in one way or another, is chosen by mothers who want what is best for their children.  Well, who doesn’t want that?….But…should you ignore this new and helpful parenting suggestion, you are in effect saying that no, you do not want what is best for your children….With every step we mothers take these days, we are aware that there is only one right and true path that we should follow, a ‘better’ way to feed our baby, a ‘best birth’….

Her guilt-wracked pregnancy, complete with detailed birth plan and the infamous “Best-Odds” diet from What to Expect When You’re Expecting, ended with a revelation: doctors are not the enemy.  Her doctor, on hearing her desire to avoid fetal monitoring and stay mobile, had a gentle suggestion: “‘You may find, though, as many of my patients do, that once you are admitted to the hospital, you will be happy to lie down.'”  She comments, wonderingly: “Dr. Merman did not seem dismissive when he said this, neither rigid nor patriarchal.  He seemed, merely, kind.”  Sure enough, lying down with an epidural 11 hours into labor feels awfully good.  But when the baby is finally born, she confesses:

[Before the birth] I thought…I would become another victim of a needlessly meddling medical establishment.  But in the end,…I had an episiotomy, which the books warned me would happen to any mother who didn’t stand up for herself,….I had also had an epidural, which the books warned were foisted on all laboring mothers…[T]here was a tiny part of me thinking not of how I had made it through a twenty-hour labor to deliver a perfect baby boy, but of how I had fallen short.  I was a quitter….But lying there holding my son, I could also see that it was screwed up to regard my caregivers’ attempts to alleviate the pain and inertia of…a first labor, as the machinations of the enemy.  They had only been trying to make me feel more comfortable, trying to deliver my baby to me as soon as possible, as safely as possible.  And they had.  That could not have been wrong.

In the hands of a perfectionist like me, the birth plan was the snake in the garden, dangling the apple of an idea that there could be a ‘better’ or a ‘best’ birth, one that could in any way exceed the happy ending of a healthy baby, safe in its mother’s arms, both of them whole.

There’s a lot of other great bits in this book–I plan to write a bit more of a review later–but for now I’m going to leave it here.  I think this is such an important insight.  Sure, you have to look out for yourself, and there are ignorant or mean doctors out there; but what a horrible burden to put on a new mother, to convince her that she is the only one capable of making sure everything goes perfectly, and she had better live in suspicion and guilt for 9 months to make sure she doesn’t mess it up.

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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!

“I don’t want to be on a pill for the rest of my life!”

Recently someone on my NFP forum asked us how we could ever consider taking antidepressants–after all, as people who are opposed to artificial birth control, why would we want to pollute our systems with anything else?  Why not just used natural methods to combat depression?

I used to understand this attitude.  I had no problem with taking medicine for physical problems, but taking a pill that would “mess with your mind” scared me.  And of course, I’d heard stories of people who felt like “zombies” when they were on antidepressants, or who experienced horrible side effects like suicidal tendencies.  I changed my mind when I reached a point of depression, immediately after the birth of my second child, when I was trying everything else and it wasn’t working.  I tried eating well.  I tried (and failed) getting more sleep.  I tried vitamins.  I tried exercising.  I tried prayer.  I tried meditation.  (Well, “tried” is a bit of an exaggeration.  I started!  A couple of times!)  But here’s the thing: when you’re depressed, you’re not really in the best state to undertake a brand new self-improvement plan.  You may know that getting up and exercising will make you feel better, but you can barely get up and get a drink of water when you’re thirsty.  Going to Zumba three times a week just isn’t going to happen.

Even if you do have the will to make the lifestyle changes happen, you may not have the time or the energy.  That was the final deciding point for me–I couldn’t imagine dealing with depression while I was up all night nursing a newborn and up all day caring for a 2-year-old.  At some point, you have to do whatever is going to make you better, so you can take care of your family as well as yourself.  In the months before making my decision to get on medication, I wrote to my family, telling them that I was worried about the long-term side effects of anti-depressants on my body.  My clear-headed brother-in-law wrote back: “the long-term side effects of depression on your family are a lot worse than the long-term side effects of anti-depressants.”  I’m so grateful he said that.  I know I have been a much better wife and mother since taking anti-depressants.

That last sentence sounded pretty weird.  Isn’t there something wrong with relying on a pill to make you a better person?  Shouldn’t your spiritual condition be controlled by you, not by your doctor?  The original commenter on the NFP forum put it this way: “agreeing to take a daily pill to make me more ME again just didn’t make sense to me.”  I know how that feels, too.  But you know what?  If you were a diabetic, you wouldn’t feel bad about taking insulin every day.  If you have something wrong with your brain that’s keeping you from being the person you could be, it’s okay to take medicine for that.  And the reason it’s okay is exactly the reason the commenter had a problem with it: because it’s making you YOU again.  It’s not a cheat, or an easy fix, or something that makes you a different person.  It just takes away the handicap you had that was holding you back.   My brain absorbs seritonin too fast; my pills stop it from doing that, so it acts like a healthy brain again.

I’m not going to lie: a small part of me still feels bad that I can’t handle life without taking my pill every night.  I’m mad at myself for not being able to “handle life” (whatever that means!  Who can really handle life?), and at the same time I’m mad at everyone else for not needing anti-depressants to be normal.  And I’m mad at God for making it so hard for me to just be normal.  But mostly, I’m grateful that I’m not a slave to my obsessive thoughts anymore; I’m grateful that when I slip into a funk, I can assure myself that it’s just a bad day, instead of sinking down into a week of despair; and I’m grateful that God created scientists who help make me whole again.

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In the next few days I’d like to explore the ideal of doing everything naturally, and what becomes of that when you add original sin to the equation.  I certainly don’t mean to disparage anyone who suggests natural remedies for depression!  More power to you.  I’d just like to offer my story as an example of a situation where anti-depressants were the right choice.

I’m so very grateful to my brother Joey for blazing the trail for me.  His post Mechanical Legs expresses so well how different “normal” feels, and how silly it is to let guilt and anxiety and scruples get in the way of fixing what’s wrong with you.  His blog is unfortunately not active anymore, but there’s so much good stuff in the archives.