This piece is a part of a series about support systems and how important they are for the postpartum mother.
A year and a half ago, we sat at a tiny Belgian cafe, eating waffles, fruit and eggs. As we sipped our coffee, we told my parents in our own special way that we were expecting a baby. My mom’s eyes welled up and overcome by emotion, she started sobbing. Startled, the family seated next to us looked over to see what the commotion was. My husband and I were humbled by my mom’s deep range of emotion as she learned that she was going to become a grandmother for the first time.
My mom has always been an icon for unselfish love. They say that you don’t fully appreciate your parents until you have children. But even when I was young, I had a strong sense of the selflessness of my mother. In my twenties, the idea of having children seemed like an impossible dream because I couldn’t fathom ever being the magnanimous, generous and loving mother that my mom was to us. To this day, I can tell that I will be a very different mother than she is and was – but that’s OK.
Mom’s total care of us didn’t stop at feeding us, taking care of us when we were sick or helping enable our goals. Her total care was emotional and mental as well. That care continued on and deepened as we got older and faced more difficult demons. So it was no surprise that when we started on this journey of having a child, my mom became a critical resource for us.
When our baby arrived, my mom set up shop at our house. Like a ship navigating a rocky shore, she figured out all the cracks and crevices where we needed her and retreated where we didn’t. She cleaned the house, cooked us dinner and did laundry. When the baby wouldn’t go to sleep but we were in desperate need of some Zzzzs, she would take Little Buddy to the basement and rock him for hours while we snoozed. Gingerly she’d creep up the stairs and knock on our bedroom door when Little Buddy was ready for another feeding, waking us from four glorious hours of straight sleep.
And yet, that was such a small piece of what my mom did for us when we were pushing through the hurricane of having a newborn. She was there with advice when we wanted it and quiet when we didn’t. She eagerly picked up the phone to hear about each weekly development as it happened. Mom listened and validated as I talked about my motherhood experience, even when it was different than hers.
But her most vital support was when I started to fall apart.
During that dark time, the depth of my mother’s love was palpable.
When I stood in the kitchen and told her how I felt nothing for my child, she listened. Always an advocate of mental health, she quietly told me that I might want to consider medication in addition to the therapy that I was undergoing. She knew something was wrong. She didn’t try to tell me to exercise or to push through it. Mom wanted me to take care of myself. Mom didn’t think I was weak for having a mental illness. Mom didn’t think I was a bad mother because I didn’t love my son. She couldn’t relate, but she was unabashedly supportive through it all.
She would listen to me speak the unspeakable, without judgment. She hadn’t experienced postpartum depression but she was my number one champion as I fought to get well. One evening, when I tearfully begged her to stay until my husband got home because I didn’t feel safe alone with my baby, without question, she sat down and waited until he got home.
Mom was an outlet. As I spoke and wrote during my treatment and recovery, she listened. She shared the joy I felt as I finally started to bond with my son. She shared the heartbreak and anger that I felt as I processed the emotions of being robbed of that maternal bond.
My mom has always been an advocate for breastfeeding. I remember hearing about the wonderful benefits of breastfeeding from a very young age. My cousins are all about 15 – 20 years older, so naturally breastfeeding was a topic of discussion from the time that I was about 10 or so when we would go visit family members (since everyone was having babies). Among my friends, my mom is legendary for her advocacy for breastfeeding.
Yet my mom is a ruthless advocate of accepting the choices and decisions that others make for the good of their family. My parents and I have always been very like minded, so at times it can be jarring when we disagree on things. But mom has always pointed out that disagreements and doing things differently is a fact of life. Her own mother didn’t breastfeed and was a working mom. Mom had more in common with her grandmother in that regard, since her grandmother had stayed home and breastfed all of the babies.
So when my mom saw how breastfeeding was affecting me, she was the first person to tell me to stop. Mom saw, when I didn’t, how I was becoming consumed with producing enough. She worried when I would work from home so that I could cluster pump and feed the little guy in between spreadsheets while she watched him. She saw the depression getting worse. Mom was the one to tell me to start supplementing with formula. Mom was the one to suggest that I stop. Mom was the one who saw firsthand how as soon as the prolactin was out of my system, that the depression had evaporated…almost overnight.
Never have I felt more love and support than when my mom, who has talked about how great breastfeeding is for all of my life, told me to stop and that she was happy that I did so.
My therapist asked me if quitting breastfeeding was hard because of my mom’s strong advocacy of it. I told her honestly: no, it wasn’t. Because I know that that’s not the most important thing to my mom – I am.
As I talk with other mothers about the help that their families provided, I’ve become keenly aware of how all-encompassing my mom’s support has been. My mom’s chief priority is creating a judgment-free environment for us to adjust to this new chapter in our lives. She’s taken on a support role to supplement our lives to make them comfortable while we navigate the workings of a family of three. She works to do nice things for us to take care of our needs, versus taking care of her needs, as a first time grandmother.
Thanks Mom, for being a beacon of light in the darkness. I love you.