Photo: Courtesy of Kelly McQuillan
My son’s arrival did not go quite as planned. After an unscheduled “belly birth,” my whole body shook from the anesthetic, and I couldn’t cradle my baby in my arms like I’d yearned to do for 41 long weeks. Instead, my husband had to hold him on my chest so he didn’t slip off. This was the first time I felt I wasn’t enough as a mom.
Whether it was because of the C-section or just Mother Nature’s lot, breastfeeding was an agonizing challenge. No amount of squeezing, pumping, water drinking, visiting the breastfeeding clinic or taking herbs and medication could help me produce enough milk to sustain my child. Watching him ravenously gulp down his first bottle of formula, I realized he had been starving, and it shook me to my core. As his hunger was sated, my panic morphed into heartbreak, then became intense guilt and self-directed anger for being incapable of providing what was supposed to be so "natural." I once again wasn’t enough for my son.
Anxiety—an insidious creature that pecks away at my confidence, peppering it with worst-case scenarios and what-ifs—has been a lifelong acquaintance of mine. Becoming a first-time mom at the age of 38 raised my hypervigilance to new heights, and the shame of my early maternal shortcomings led me to think being an attentive mother meant being my son’s “everything.”
“I’ll put him to bed tonight,” offered my husband. Nope, he needed ME, night after night, lying on the floor beside the crib.
“Rest, and I’ll get his lunch ready,” urged my mom. No, he needed ME to make sure all the food groups were covered and the morsels were small enough so he wouldn’t choke.
In school, I always cringed at the mention of a group project because it meant trusting others to have equal investment and responsibility. Doing more work was preferable to surrendering control.
Raising my son is the biggest and most important “project” of my life, and I tried to hold on to all the responsibility. But this isn’t academia—it’s real life, and it was breaking me. I became exhausted and depressed because I wasn’t living up to my impossible expectation of being everything for him. My husband became increasingly frustrated with my need for control and started to feel like I didn’t trust him as a parent—no surprise, given my constant hovering and questioning of his parenting choices. He had, after all, done this twice before with his first kids. The constant conflict began to erode our relationship.
I finally acknowledged my behaviour was a problem when my own mother commented, half-joking (but dead-on) that I was being a “helicopter parent.” That made me stop, think and reassess. You see, I was haunted by intrusive thoughts—nightmare scenarios in which somehow my attention would be diverted or I wouldn’t have considered the risks of an activity and my son would be grievously injured—or worse. And, of course, it would be all my fault because I had fallen short. I wasn’t a good enough mother; I wasn’t enough.
Hypervigilance and micromanagement were my coping mechanisms—keeping tight control over everything, trying to be his everything, that would keep him safe so I wouldn’t have to worry so much. Except the worrying continued. Anxiety is an exhausting and infinite cycle.
Even though I knew I had a problem, I felt like asking for help was a sign of weakness and failure. And I was not the only one having a hard time—my 17-year-old stepson was going through some very serious health issues, and my husband was emotionally exhausted from dealing with that. Our relationship became stressed to the point that we enlisted the services of a couples counsellor.
She observed that although I was trying to be stoic, I needed to know that it was OK (and necessary) to “fall apart” once in a while, and that my husband was there to shoulder some of the responsibility. Gradually, I was able to surrender some control (even though the first night my husband put our son to sleep I didn’t enjoy any sense of freedom—I sat in my room and cried). Giving my husband more space to build his relationship with our son definitely improved our dynamic, but for me to truly let go (and feel at peace with it) required more than talk therapy.
When I dissolved into shameful tears in front of my doctor, she made me feel (almost) instantly better by pointing out that way more people seek treatment for anxiety than I had realized, and if I had broken my leg, I probably wouldn’t think twice about asking for pain medication. She said that had we been living in prehistoric times, my vigilance is what would have kept my family alive. My nervous system was simply stuck in overdrive, and was out of sync with the present time. It’s not my fault, and it’s not necessarily something I will always need medication for. Her words helped to lift the stigma I felt around using medication for anxiety and encouraged me to see myself through kinder eyes.
I’m so grateful that I finally worked up the courage to ask for help. The antidepressants have cleared my mind to the point that I can now (usually) differentiate between valid concerns and anxiety-fuelled worry. Terrible things can happen, but that doesn’t mean they will happen. Day by day, I try to loosen my mama bear grip and allow others to take the reins once in a while. I have to have faith that, despite the many cuts, scrapes and bruises that come with a childhood fully and gloriously lived, my son will be fine.
It helps to acknowledge that other people—my husband, family, friends and neighbours—also care deeply for my son and will go out of their way to protect him. This reassures me that he’s going to be as safe as possible, even when I’m not physically present. It's still hard to see my husband taking our son out for a hike in the woods—bears and cougars, oh my! But I’m getting better at biting my tongue, and instead of cautioning, “Be careful,” I manage a cheerful “Have fun” as they leave.
My son is now an energetic, inquisitive three-year-old. I have been trying to step back and watch how he engages with neighbours, family and community members. I see his curiosity and desire to push boundaries, explore and make friends. Although there is much I can teach him, I also see how much he can learn from others.
One of my best friends recently read with my son. They discussed all the pictures first—something I don’t do—and he was absolutely rapt. His swimming teacher coaxes increasing levels of courage from him each week, like when he leapt into her arms from the side of the deep end and didn’t cry when he went under. Every hour he spends with my mom leaves him with several impressive new words, and my heart swells when I see the pride glowing on his face after pushing a new physical limit with his dad, or helping Grandpa in the garden.
Going off to preschool is the next rite of passage in my son’s growing independence. It’s a fresh world of opportunity, and one that he doesn’t need me for. I am alternately excited for him and heartbroken at the thought of my baby taking these first, fledgling steps from the nest (yes, I will be the mom who ugly-cries as soon as she gets back to the car). Slowly but surely, I am learning that raising a child is a group project, and some of the most important lessons of motherhood are learning to trust and let go.
I am not enough for my son, and that’s OK. It’s the way it should be.
Kelly McQuillan is a freelance writer living in Comox on Vancouver Island. Along with writing, she juggles teaching music and parenting a preschooler and a teenager. She runs on caffeine and chocolate. You can find her on Twitter @1KellyMcQuillan
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