Its not easy to remove the mask and stand before you in my virtual bra and undies, but I’ve decided to open up a little, in the hopes of promoting positive mental health.
I’ve been reflecting on the year so far, and its been quite the journey. Looking back, I can see that I started feeling depressed while pregnant with my third son, Nate, in mid-2015. You see, I had planned to go back to work (I’m an early childhood teacher) but the news of a third pregnancy threw that idea out the window.
I had been a stay-at-home mum for two years already by that stage. I was missing my profession and probably more than anything I was missing regular adult company. Most stay-at-home mums will know that feeling of desperation for adult contact and conversation that can come after being stuck with a three-year old child and an 18-month old toddler for days on end.
When Nate was born, household dynamics changed. My husband and I were now outnumbered. Until the birth of the third child, I had continued to push myself to uphold a ‘standard’ – self imposed of course. This ‘standard’ would cover everything from how I spent time with my kids, to how I shopped for groceries and cooked dinner, to how I kept a clean house – nothing was off limits; I had high expectations of myself across the board. In particular, being an early childhood teacher, I felt like I should have dealing with children nailed, to an art form. With only two kids, I’d convinced myself that 80% of the time I was meeting the standard and the other 20% of the time I was just slack. Lots of self talk like ‘They should be watching less TV,’ or ‘You should be cooking better meals than this,’ or ‘You haven’t done enough with the kids this week.’
When baby No.3 came along, it felt like the 20% of negative self-talk became the 80% majority and I started to believe the talk. I tried desperately to convince myself and others that I still had my piece together, but like quicksand, I was sinking deeper the more I tried to fight it.
My oldest started at kindergarten about six weeks after my youngest was born. I was really stressed about the morning kindergarten drop off. I was worried, scared that I would not look like a perfect mum with three beautiful kids. I needed them to look immaculate, I needed them to behave, I needed them to dress well and speak well. It was so exhausting. There were nights where I cried and just felt physically and emotionally exhausted.
I started to realise that my emotions were controlling me, I was no longer in control of my emotions. I was feeling these things, whether they were true or not. When it felt like I had hit bottom, I took a long weekend away with my sister. This was the beginning of my turn around. I had accepted defeat and I realised that I needed more help than I had been willing to admit. What’s more, after that weekend I actually started to accept help and to reach out to those who had the capacity to help me push through the feelings of depression and the overwhelming anxiety I was feeling.
Through the process of reaching out and seeking help I was inspired to write Mamma Has a Black Dog. I wanted to explain to my older boys why mummy had been crying a lot, why she had to go away for a few days. The thought of writing something that might also help others really ignited in me what I had not felt in a long time: creativity, individuality, and passionate expression. I spent a few months working on the manuscript, writing drafts, playing with ideas. I wanted it to be a really powerful resource, something to be proud of. The first time I saw it in book format with illustrations, there were tears; my ideas were coming to life.
There are three lessons I learned during this time that I wanted to share:
Failure is an option
In fact, allowing yourself to be vulnerable to some things not working out as planned, or vulnerable to the potential judgement of others, means that you don’t have to constantly feel exhausted because you are working so damn hard trying to keep up the facade of unrealistic expectations.
Here is a link to an awesome video, about feelings of shame and vulnerability, that I recommend everyone watches. If you don’t have 20 minutes, skip to around 4:15 and listen from there.
It is not weakness to accept help
It’s actually a sign of mental strength, to realise you need the support and to go and seek it. Particularly for mothers after the birth of a child. Leverage your support networks. Don’t place yourself under unrealistic pressures and feel like you have to do absolutely everything yourself. After all they say it takes a village to raise a child.
Negative emotions are just feelings
There is a space between what I feel and how I act, and in that space I have a choice.
Example: I’m walking into kindergarten with a baby in a pram, and a two-year old and a four-year old in tow. I feel anxious because my two-year old has been misbehaving in the car and looks like he may continue the trend in front of an audience. I can let that feeling push me towards behaviours like rushing, panicking, forgetfulness and inattention, or I can tell myself that all two-year olds play up at times, that it’s not a sign of me being a bad parent, and I can refocus myself on what I need to do: the two or three basic tasks required to get the eldest into kindergarten for the day.
It’s a long journey for a lot of us to unwind many years of just allowing emotions to dictate actions. But I’m learning that its possible. My journey towards a low-anxiety life is far from over, but I’m less fearful now and I feel supported. If you are struggling with mental illness, I can honestly say the hardest part is hiding it away. You take its power away when you acknowledge it.
Shannon Viertel is an early childhood teacher and mother of three young boys.