written by Amanda Grant
We always see things more clearly when we look back on them...right? My son recently turned 4. I can see now how raw and depleted I was for the first two years or so after he was born. I wish I could go back in time and wrap my arms around myself. Whisper in that new mother’s ear that it is ok, and that it’s going to be ok. I wish I could tell her to give herself a break. To be gentler with herself. To rest more. To take better care of herself.
The reasons why I might have felt the way I did don’t feel important now, but honouring those experiences and looking at them from a new, more compassionate perspective, does.
My son and I spent the first 10 days in the NICU. My baby had a bit of a traumatic entry into the world and needed to rest. He needed to be fed through a g-tube to gain enough strength to learn to nurse. My husband was allowed to be with us for the first few days, but then we were transferred to a unit that had no spaces for fathers overnight. I was on a strict schedule of nurse, pump, clean and prep the pump for the next feed, then sleep - every 3 hours. And then there was trying to eat and actually care for my sweet baby boy. I was told to continue with this 3 hour schedule, 24/7, when we were able to bring him home. And I did - faithfully. Until I Just. Couldn’t. Do. It. Anymore.
My son slept in a bassinet beside the bed, often waking and needing to be nursed, held, rocked, or have skin-to-skin contact to fall back asleep. And he wanted nothing to do with my husband during his wake-ups. I had never been so exhausted in my life.
We were lucky to receive early intervention services to check on his development because he was on the small side when he was born. I said “yes” to everyone and everything offered because I couldn’t bear my anxious thoughts of possibly missing out on something my baby needed. This meant there was an almost never-ending stream of professionals in and out of our home. I so desperately wanted to be the best mother I could be. To give my child everything. And these women were wonderful and well-intentioned and gave me some much needed adult company during the day. But one of the problems was that I ended up essentially outsourcing my parenting instincts to these professionals. The longer it went on, the more I found myself looking for their direction and reassurance.
Then my son was diagnosed with neutropenia. This meant we had “fever rules” that told us when we had to take him to the ER at the children’s hospital, 45 min away. They had to determine if the source of the fever was a bacterial infection, because if it was, his body didn’t have the capacity to fight it. At the hospital, our baby would need to be poked for blood work and an IV for possible antibiotics. I was asked to help hold him still and comfort him the best I could as he wailed. I had never known the feeling before of wanting to put myself into someone else’s shoes to literally take their pain away. Even now, as I write this, I can see and hear him crying. Tears well up and I can feel it in my body.
I’ve always been a little prone to anxiety. I was exhausted. Now there was a medical reason for me to be on high alert. And, indeed, on high alert I was. I was wound up so tightly and checking my son’s temperature for a possible fever far more often than was necessary. I started to have trouble regulating my emotions. Feelings of anger sometimes rose up in me that I didn’t understand or know what to do with. And I felt like I couldn’t take any time “off”, even though my husband often encouraged me to.
I couldn’t see clearly how worn out and unsure of myself I was. But I was also blissfully happy to be with this beautiful creature whom I had waited so long for. I had never felt such intense love, nor had I even imagined it was possible. Putting these feelings into words now, it almost seems like a strange combination -being so anxious and worn out, yet so full of love. Yet I am willing to bet it’s a combination that many other mothers have experienced.
The beginning of a turning point for me came one day as I sat talking with an amazing counselor. She told me I had to lower my expectations. I had heard the term “good enough mother” several times before. And it made the perfectionist in me cringe every time. My inner voice said defiantly, “My baby deserves the best! Not just ‘good enough’!” Which of course translated into, “I need to be the perfect mother.” Which of course was, and is, impossible. And it left me feeling like I was failing him and myself.
Then, during another session, my counselor said something I may never forget. She said, “If you treated your son the way you treat yourself, I would have him taken away from you.”
Her words made everything in me come to a stop. There was no clearer way she could have shown me that how I was behaving toward myself was completely unacceptable.
I won’t pretend I had an overnight transformation into always being kind and compassionate with myself. But her words have come back to me time and time again. I would NEVER treat my child this way - or anyone for that matter. So what on earth was I doing treating myself this way?
I have learned a lot about self-compassion since then. I think it may always be a work in progress, as can be the way with anything truly worthwhile. I have learned that I feel better when I am kinder to myself. When I take better care of myself. When I speak up about how I feel, or what I need, instead of pushing it down because it might be inconvenient for someone else.
And science fully supports this. There seems to exist a societal notion that having self-compassion means we are letting ourselves off the hook or that it will make us lazy. We somehow feel that berating ourselves will motivate us to do better, to be better. But that couldn’t be further from the truth. Stress, guilt, and shame actually shut down the learning centers of the brain. They turn off our ability to see a situation clearly, to think creatively, to problem solve, and to learn from our missteps.
Here’s another wise tidbit from my wonderful counselor - she told me it was actually selfish to allow myself to spin around in a cycle of shame and self-critical thoughts whenever I felt I had been less-than-perfect. Why? Because being in that state robbed me of the ability to actually be present in the next moment to meet the needs of my child. And she was right. Nothing good ever came from allowing myself to spin a whirlwind of self-judgement. But if I’m being honest, stopping that whirlwind was not an easy feat. Patterns of thinking and behaviour that are long standing are etched into our brains; it takes time and repeated practice to carve new pathways.
We can’t change what we aren’t aware of. The first step to transforming anything that is unhealthy or undesirable is to notice it. Then we need to accept it. This can be challenging because people don’t want to accept something they don’t like. But we need to accept, with kindness, what actually is, here and now. Maybe you would like to deny that you speak harshly to yourself, but that’s going to make changing it impossible.
Kindness and curiosity activate the learning centres of the brain. And that doesn’t mean there aren’t circumstances when we could have done better or that we are letting ourselves off the hook. It means we offer kindness and compassion to ourselves and gently remind ourselves to make a plan to do better next time. This route is actually the way our brain is most receptive to learning and changing our behaviour in the future.
Is harsh and judgmental self-talk the predominant language of your inner voice? Self-critical thoughts are perceived by the brain as a threat and our fight-or-flight system is then activated. There is enough stress in our world - surely we don’t want to add to that for ourselves? Conversely, when we are kind to ourselves, we can positively affect both our minds and bodies.
I am not a problem to be “fixed” - and neither are you. We are whole and worthy of love, based solely on being human and being alive. We need to be gentle with ourselves. What would change for you if you could offer yourself some care and compassion instead of criticism or judgement? Try giving yourself a warm hug - mentally or physically - and see how that warmth can spread.