Wednesday, August 23, 2017

This Side of Bearing Children

As you know, I have 7 children. Adding it up, I've been pregnant for over 5 years and then I nursed for just over 7 years. This means that out of our 18 1/2 year marriage, I've been pregnant/nursing for almost 13 years of it. This is a lot of hormonal change, dear reader. A lot of change. Back and forth, over and under, upward and get the idea.

It's a good change, in my opinion. It's the kind of change that refines a woman --if she lets it. I'm not just talking about physical changes (holy cow, those are unavoidable if you're gonna give birth), but the emotional, mental, spiritual, philosophical, geographical, etc. changes. All the changes! So much change! And they truly create a new person. I'm not the same person I was 17 years ago (when I conceived our first born). I'm just not. And you know what?

Thank goodness!

I don't want to be who I was before children (heck, I don't want to be who I was before marriage. Or college...). I'm glad I am who I am and I'm grateful for the forced change I had to face by becoming a mother. I've earned the growth.

But it's come with great, great sacrifice.

To make this a lot shorter, I'll just get to my point: I'm finished having children. This means my body is really, truly regulating for the very first time in 17 years. My hormones are settling, my cycle is regulating, my brain is rewiring. Essentially, my body is healing itself from bearing and nursing my kids.

And so is my brain.

My depression and anxiety? I believe, absolutely, that a lot of my mental health was influenced and affected by my great sacrifice. How could it not be? How could those kinds of changes not wreak some type of havoc on my mind and body? I mean, as women, we are used to a cyclical change every month, and it does a number on us, that's for sure! It affects us in every way, and we go through it over and over again.

I was explaining this to my psychiatrist several months ago. I was telling him about how my PMS has always been hard, but lately, it's not so bad because I finally decided to acknowledge it. I decided to track my cycle and then when PMS feelings hit, I would say to myself, "Oh, hey! It's PMS week! That makes sense! I'm not crazy, or hateful --I'm just hormonally out of balance right now." He was interested in learning about how a woman's menstrual cycle could affect her mental health. He said he was dealing with a woman who had PMDD (like, crazy psychotic PMS) and it was fascinating to him to see a normal, healthy woman become, essentially, bi-polar while dealing with her menstrual cycle every month. And although I couldn't exactly relate to her situation (extremes are always needing consideration and care), I essentially told him this:

Women have been having periods for all of time. They just exist. Our bodies prep for pregnancy, and then when there is no fertilized egg, the preparation leaks out of us. Then it starts all over again. That's it. It's quite simple, really. But our society --for thousands of years --have tried to shame women for having a cycle. They tell us to hide it. They shame us for talking about it. And then now, in our society, where these things are practical and talked about more, we simply make fun of it. We mock it, and then we hate it. We are taught --from our mothers and grandmothers and great-grandmothers --to hate the very thing that made it possible for us to exist.

So, basically, when it comes to menstruation we are told to:
1. Hide it
2. Make fun of it
3. Hate it

And so we repress what it represents and we give the negative aspects a lot of power.

I told my psychiatrist that when I just owned the fact that I'm a woman and I menstruate, I suddenly had a lot of power to control how I felt about it all. By simply acknowledging that menstruation is what it is --that it simply exists, that PMS is real, and that there are valid reasons for my fluctuating emotions and reactions -- it started to lose its power over me. And so I think, as women, if we could stop passing along this toxic idea that we are somehow flawed for having menstrual cycles, if we could convince the men in our lives to recognize that it's literally the power to create within us it what it is, well, then, maybe we could stop being so afraid of our monthly mood swings and how they affect our emotions and decisions.

My psychiatrist found all of this fascinating, and I was sad that a mental health professional didn't already understand this. But how could he? If women refuse to see it this way, why in the world would a man?

Okay, so back to my point --changes in my body chemistry are going to affect the way I think and interact with my world. And so, it has not come as a big surprise that now being removed from childbearing, I'm beginning to realize how much of my depression was a result of constant fluctuating physical and emotional changes.

And it's not just the depression. It's the energy. The motivation. The ability to string together a coherent thought! Removed from baby years means I get more sleep (sleep is probably the number one issue facing mothers). I also have more time for myself because my kids are older.

So, energy + motivation + mood regulation + mental clarity + more time for self-care + sleep = Hey, wow! I feel like me! I can do stuff! I can do hard things! I can make goals! And actually keep them! 

I'm sure women who've already been through this are nodding their heads and kind of laughing at my discovery. But this is new for me, you know? I'm starting to see that life outside the child-bearing years (obviously, I will be in the raising-children years for a very long time) is kind of nice. I am loving it, honestly.

Pregnant with my 6th

Pregnant with my 5th

I will always miss being pregnant. Not the hard parts, but feeling the child inside of me, moving, feeling such a close connection to God through creation... I will always miss giving birth. Not the agony of labor, but the rush of delivery, of seeing my baby for the very first time. I will always miss newborns. Not the fatigue or crying, but the tiny bodies, the sweet smell of their heads, the way they tuck right up into my neck, and sleep on my chest. I will always miss nursing. Not the constant need or pain (luckily, only my first and last were really difficult to nurse at first), but the bonding, the connection, the truth that I was nourishing my child so easily... I will miss those times and years. I will remember them fondly and with great joy.

My firstborn

My lastborn

But I'm also content to be finished, and if I'm being completely honest, I'm relieved. I'm grateful my sacrifice was accepted by God and that our family is complete. I am so happy to be finished with that part of my life.

And this is the part where I don't want people to misunderstand. 

I do not regret having my children for one millisecond. I wouldn't change a thing! I would take the mental health challenges, the fatigue, the pain, the frustration, the despair, the anger, the mood swings, the crazy, crazy, crazy times all over again in a heartbeat. Not only because I'm happy to have been even partially responsible for bringing such incredible souls to this Earth, not only because I've only become who I am because of those experiences --but because for every awful moment, there were twice as many glorious ones.

What I have discovered is that there is so much joy and beauty in every stage of our lives. I was afraid to embrace this new stage --I knew I couldn't be having babies forever, but I wasn't sure who I would be if I wasn't constantly in "creating life" mode, you know? I was scared I wouldn't be the kind of mother I wanted to be. I was afraid of having to own up to other responsibilities because having babies was kind of an excuse of sorts --I had a reason to be moody or tired.

But wow! What an amazing lie those fears turned out to be! This side of having babies is wonderful, dear reader! I'm constantly amazed by the goodness of God and how well He leads our lives, if we let Him. He knows us best, and this experience of shifting from child-bearing to just-raising has shown me that faith is so much better than fear.

I had the faith to have the kids --I now need the faith to raise them. 

To all new mothers, mothers still having children, mothers who aren't sure whether or not to have more children --it's worth the sacrifice. I promise you, it's worth it.

It's hard, I know! The sleepless nights are brutal. You are, as I've said before many times, in the trenches. You're fighting a war against the world and against Satan as you co-create with your husband and God. You are defending your little ones against evil and against those who would harm their minds and spirits. You are doing the greatest work of all time!

Take courage. Time passes --it always passes. And when you get to the other side of child-bearing, and when you find yourself feeling a little more settled, and when you have some time to focus a little more on yourself (just a little, because let's be real, selfish motherhood is not good motherhood --now self-care? Whole different story!) --you will find that all your efforts, tears, fatigue, faith, and hope were worth it.

So, give yourself a hug, pat yourself on the back, and keep going. You are amazing!


JennaK said...

This is great. I can understand a lot of where you're coming from. But I admit that I miss my old self, my pre-children self. I haven't yet learned how to manage the stress of it all and miss when I was happy and nice and felt peace. I haven't felt that way in a very long time.

Cheryl said...

Maybe you should shift what happy, nice, and peace look like?

Someone once said that depression is living in the past, not being able to let it go enough to embrace the present. They said anxiety is living in the future, constantly worried and anticipating what is to come, and not being able to embrace the present.

You cannot be who you were, because that's impossible. But you can decide who you will become. Choice is powerful and I believe it's the first thing satan tries to take away from us. He's been attempting to limit our agency from the very beginning --it's his focus. When we decide that we can't be happy because of "this" or "this" (all mental illness aside, trust me, I'm an expert on experiencing mental illness!), that is letting satan take away our agency. Making small choices, every day, can create a magnificent life! Even amidst chaos and noise.

I like what someone said to me once, about playing the game, "Can I just?" It goes like this... "Can I just smile at my kids this morning instead of being grumpy?" "Can I just unload the dishwasher?" "Can I just make that phone call?" "Can I just take a shower?" And before you know it, you get the ball rolling, and you're doing everything you always wanted to do.

P.S. This only works if you have a huge, healthy dose of "life isn't meant to be perfect right now. It's okay to make mistakes. It's a guarantee that I will mess up, forget, sin, and hurt others. The goal is to lean on Christ, do my best, and love myself through all of it."

((((HUGS)))) Jenna! I know it's not easy. <3

Diane said...

Whenever I have my period, I think how nice the Israelite women had it to be sent away to be purified. Maybe I am wrong, maybe they did not like their week of purification. But, I find it hard to continue to everything I am supposed to always do when I feel like I am bleeding to death and only want chocolate.