Once upon a time, I had an infant who screamed bloody murder all day and all night.
My husband was often gone for 12 hours at a time, working and commuting two hours back and forth from his job while I was at home, quietly losing my mind. I had been prepped that this would be hard work, that babies don’t care if you haven’t slept in weeks or had a conversation with a grown up in longer. But what I wasn’t prepared for was how ill-equipped I was to deal with the relentlessness of life with a baby- a beautiful, yet nonstop crying one, at that.
Mom arguments aside, when you make the choice to stay home all day with your baby, you really take one for the team. You’re the one who changes every diaper, gives every bath, does every feeding and internalizes every cry. You rarely have the opportunity to eat and if you have a fussy infant, you are pretty used to the mom shower: Pits. Crotch. Done.
Taking a pee (or, let’s be real, a poop) without a baby on your lap is pretty much the greatest luxury you can imagine. Even though you’re the one that’s home all day, you’ve got the boobs so you’re probably going to be the one that’s up all night, too. You can read about sleep techniques, swaddle til you drop, nurse on-demand and do everything “right.” But none of that helps the one person who really needs help- you.
About eight weeks into stay-at-home motherhood and my heartbeat was erratic. A trip to the ER with no answer resulted in several trips to the doctor. A diagnosis of stress and a prescription for Xanax was not the answer I was looking for and I spent the next several months convinced I was not anxious, but just had some rare heart defect and was dying. Then my daughter got sick with a rare infectious disease and we spent two weeks in the PICU while she regained her strength. Anxiety- 2. Me- 0.
When we got home from the hospital, I started taking the Xanax. Just a low dose at night so I could sleep but pretty soon, I was taking them every night. The day ahead was too daunting to do it alone and to do it on no sleep just seemed insane.
I realized that I could be a miserable, anxiety-ridden woman from now until infinity, refilling my prescription every month just to function, or not. To me, it sounded like an awful existence. But I knew that letting go of this new fear that had taken hold of me would be work and I had absolutely no idea how to do it.
When I got the go-ahead, I got back to working out. Having a short jog or weight lifting session at the end of the day helped me to have more energy, which I desperately needed. My daughter needed to nurse several times a night which left me seriously groggy each morning, Xanax or not. Though I was back to my post-baby body, and then some, very quickly (a result of never having time to eat and walking miles around the farm where we lived out of pure boredom), I wasn’t emotionally where I needed to be.
It was time to find the missing piece.
I was a few months postpartum when my husband bought me a month of unlimited yoga. It sounded great, but my initial thought was “how can I possibly leave my baby to go do this?” But I knew I had to.
I had been to yoga a few times before and nothing about it really stuck. I was more accustomed to running off my problems. Sitting with them was never something that seemed desirable. But I thought it might be time to try sometime new given that nothing else was working. I made it my mission to go to as many classes as I could for that month. I didn’t really believe it would do much for my anxiety. I just needed something that was my own.
Driving away was painful. I had to tell myself to breathe and just keep driving. Maybe, I would get a good workout, maybe I would leave with a clear mind, maybe it would just be a much needed break. But walking into the room, I instantly felt like I had a huge purpose in being there. Maybe the biggest purpose I’d ever had in doing anything. I was fighting for my life, to get it back, in some form.
In the first month, I went to 10 classes. That might not seem like much, but at that time, it was a huge accomplishment. I was so incredibly focused while I was there, so connected to my breath because I needed to be so badly. The realization that I could be present; that I was not my mind was hugely gratifying. There was something to focusing on my breath, a few minutes of meditation and a powerful asana practice that was starting to take hold.
My mantra became “let go” and though it usually meant, let go of the fear that something might happen to my baby, or that I might be completely fucking up everything -- my daughter, my life -- the mantra started to translate to other elements of my life. Let go of what the person next to me thinks, let go of consuming thoughts or relationships. Just be here, in the moment, right now. Perfect for parenting, really.
I started to advance in my practice, venturing into more challenging classes and each time I tried to bring my practice home with me. I often discovered things on the mat and so I tried to implement those things off the mat. Slowly, I was learning how to breathe again, how to be thankful for my body, for my life, and how to let my thoughts rest.
I’d love to say that a few months of yoga and I was cured, no intrusive thoughts, no heart palpitations, no monumental stress to cope with ever, but that’s not true. About a year in, the heart palps did come less frequently, and then desist. But it wasn’t a sign of lack of anxiety. It was a sign of a better ability to cope.
In truth, I don’t think parenting doesn’t get any easier. I’m really sorry, new moms, I wish I could tell you it does but I think I’d be lying.
You have to be on your game, throwing down the discipline when it’s needed and ready to handle a tantrum even when it comes out of nowhere. You have to answer really hard questions and watch your kid get hurt and that will nearly kill you. I’m telling you, this shit is not for the weak. You have to keep on, keep on, keep on stepping up because motherhood doesn’t stop for your panic attack or your breakdown. Believe me, I’ve asked it to.
Learning to breathe through the bad, the scary, the frustrating saved me. But learning to be in my life, living it, instead of watching it go by, gave me purpose.
Now, it’s three and a half years since I started to take my yoga practice seriously and I’ve found such mental release and clarity in my own practice that I’m on my way to becoming a teacher. I enrolled in a six month certification program which is proving to be one of the most enlightening experiences I’ve ever had.
But I’d never be doing it if it wasn’t for the challenges motherhood brought me.
(photo: C. Salmon / Shutterstock)