I’m twenty-six years old and I find myself sitting in a small room across from Dr. Sherry, both of us seated in large, comfortable leather chairs. I’ve got my feet curled up under me, and my cold hands wrapped around a mug of decaf coffee. The clock on the wall reads 11:06am, which means I’ve got exactly one hour and fifty-four minutes before the second lunch bell rings sending my class of grade two’s back into the building for our math lesson. My one-year-old is at home with his nanny; I’ve told her I have “errands” to run.
I’m here, in therapy, because I am not myself. Motherhood is what I’ve always wanted and yet happiness seems impossibly out of reach. I wake up exhausted, constantly feeling like I am not doing enough, being enough, that I’m not enough. I’m trapped inside my mind, overthinking and overanalyzing every little thing. Is my son gassy because of allergies to my breastmilk? I take an ax to my diet. No dairy, no sugar, no gluten…no coffee! What if he forever relies on nursing to help him fall asleep? I let him wail into the night even though it’s torturing me. What if he doesn’t nap enough and develops ADD? I say no to playdates, to sunny days outside. I become a prisoner inside my own house to ensure the crib is near when he shows signs of tiredness. I yell at my husband for walking too loudly down the hallway. You’re going to wake him up and he’s not finished a full sleep cycle yet!
I am so deeply afraid of making a mistake. I keep returning to the same dog-eared parenting book wondering if I’m following all of the rules, doubting every decision I make, hoping I’m not completely messing things up. My husband and I have had too many fights to count; my best friend sees how uptight and rigid and unhappy I’ve become. She says, “It will be so good for you to talk to someone!” He says, “You better see someone or else…”
Hi, my name is Andrea, and I am a perfectionist. I’m really a kaleidoscope of issues but this is the only problem I’m able to put a finger on at the moment. I Google “perfectionism + psychologists” and this is how I find Dr. Sherry. His bio tells me that he is an “internationally recognized expert in perfectionism.” Sold. With trembling fingers I book my first appointment.
His office is located in an old house downtown with beautiful maple trees towering over. The sign is barely visible from the road. I have to squint to even recognize it’s there. I’m shy and guarded and hoping no one I know sees me as I step through the frosted glass front door.
Dr. Sherry greets me with a smile and I follow him up the creaking staircase to the second floor. His brown eyes are kind and warm and immediately put me at ease, in spite of the yellow legal pad that balances on his knee. He’s laid back and soft-spoken and I sink back into the chair in a state of calm that I haven’t felt in months. It’s almost like I’ve been trudging up a mountain carrying a bag of bricks and he has just invited me to sit down and rest.
Perhaps, and quite likely, I am teeter-tottering between postpartum anxiety and depression, but I don’t have a name for this at the time. I am also a good fifteen pounds underweight and Dr. Sherry is the only one brave enough to point this out. Breastfeeding and a restrictive diet don’t help, and a lifetime of poor body image has me convinced that I shouldn’t gain a pound more. While I watch my husband devour slices of pizza for supper, I nibble on a rice cake with peanut butter, thinking I’m doing the right thing for my health and for my son when really my body is crying out for calories.
There is also the reality that my heart is torn. I returned to work as an elementary school teacher but all I wanted was to be home with my son. I judge myself for this, of course. Tell myself this is a selfish dream and that I’m just looking for an easier path.
Dr. Sherry is the wise, compassionate voice I need. He teaches me about unhelpful thinking habits and I realize how many of my thoughts fall into this category—catastrophizing, overgeneralizing, mind-reading, self-criticizing. I’d worry when my son didn’t sleep enough instead of noticing the new teeth he was sprouting. Or if he had a distracted nursing session I’d be frantic that my milk supply was diminishing rather than enjoying the curiosity he was developing.
I’m given a handout to take home that I sticky-tack to my bedroom mirror. There are prompts to help me find more balanced thoughts, things like: Am I only noticing the bad stuff? Yes. What would be more realistic? And: Am I putting more pressure on myself, setting up expectations of myself that are almost impossible? Yes and yes. And one that particularly rings true: Am I exaggerating the risk of danger? Yes.
I start to become aware of two simple but powerful truths. The first one is, just because I think something doesn’t make it true. The second being, the way I think isn’t the only option. I can retrain my brain.
Dr. Sherry is a behavioural psychologist which means we don’t spend hours digging into my childhood issues but work on very practical actions I can take right now. He assigns me small exercises to complete before each meeting. First up: Invite friends over and don’t clean beforehand, notice how this feels. I try to obey but at the last minute I find myself mopping the floors, telling myself I’m not doing deep cleaning, just a little tidying up. I also make individual vegan cheesecakes in three separate flavours for everyone. I am a work in progress.
What I do enjoy is the act of making a plan and sticking to it. I start tackling things that I’ve avoided forever—the spare bedroom overflowing with stuff, bills that need to be filed, baby gear waiting to be returned to friends, birthday cards that need to be mailed. Each task completed gives me a little shot of dopamine, I can almost feel it trickling into my weary system. I’m not completely stuck and helpless, I can take action in my world and create the life I want.
The next task: Go through the McDonald’s drive-thru and order a Big Mac. I do it but each bite feels like a marathon as I try to ignore the fears of what this will do to my stomach and my perfect eating plan. I’m also giddy. It feels so darn good to break the rules for once! I look around at the line-up of cars behind us, dozens of people doing the same thing. Hmm, so this is what normal people do sometimes?
During one of our sessions I say to Dr. Sherry, “I just can’t figure out what to do with my mornings! My son is awake before 7 and I can’t seem to get anything done.” He doesn’t miss a beat before he responds, “Why don’t you join your son and just play for a while?” Hmm, I hadn’t thought of that. I start to spend more time where I am not trying to accomplish something. And suddenly these moments become some of my happiest. They still are.
Dr. Sherry teaches me about mindfulness, and during one of our sessions he leads me through a guided meditation. I close my eyes while the afternoon sun slants through the window blinds and the next ten minutes are pure bliss. Afterwards I slowly peel my eyes open and he asks me how it went. “I don’t think I’ve felt this peaceful my entire life,” I answer. He nods, and we both recognize that this is very much a problem. He wants me to try and meditate for five or ten minutes every day. I give it a shot; I’m inconsistent but what sticks with me are the mindfulness cues he tells me to schedule on my phone. They say things like, step back and observe and just notice. And so I plop myself down on the floor and watch my son build towers with his blocks then knock them down. I notice the way my mind wants to distract me with every little thought, the way my body wants to keep moving and doing, and yet I stay and keep bringing my attention back to the present moment. I find myself smiling, laughing even, and enjoying this whole just being thing.
At the end of seven months, I graduate. Dr. Sherry tells me how much change he sees in me, and there doesn’t seem to be a need to continue our sessions. I swell with pride. But I leave his office with the same timidity I felt leaving the hospital for the first time with my newborn. Was I really ready to do this on my own?
I continue spending my mornings with my son. I continue to eat the two slices of peanut butter toast he has prescribed me every other morning which helps my weight climb up to a healthier place. And I continue trying to “just be.” Soon I am pregnant again.
I go through our baby items, finding things that can be reused and others that need to be replaced. There’s the Peter Rabbit onesie that my firstborn wore home from the hospital and the handsome blue cardigan that a friend had knit for him. There’s the soft swaddling blankets speckled with tiny yellow stars and the Sophie La Girafe teether. And then there are the parenting books. I flip through the one that I had clung to like a Bible the first time around, with its creased page corners and dozens of paragraphs highlighted with fluorescent yellow ink. I gather up the books and toss them into the donation bag that I will drop off later that afternoon.
Motherhood is easier the second time around, but there are still moments I want to refer to a book. Instead, I send a text. My mom friends become my comrades, the ones I reach out to when I don’t know what to do. What’s the best remedy for cradle cap? I think he has conjunctivitis, what do you do for that again? Did you find it harder to lose the baby weight after your second? The kids are wild…park date?
I make time for things that I had lost along the way. I devour novels and begin a book club with some other moms. I fall in love with writing. I take myself on dates to coffee shops and to dinner and for long walks in the woods.
Because I am making more space for myself, I am able to hold more space for others. My husband and I fight a lot less. I can better appreciate all the ways we are different, and what used to cause tension now brings colour and nuance to our marriage. I’ve gotten intentional about enjoying the beauty and uniqueness of the women in my life without giving in to the lie that I am inferior in some way. More than anything I just try to be kind to myself. When I look in the mirror, I smile. I like the person I see, not because she is perfect but because she is alive.
Most importantly, I start to listen to my own intuition. If I feel like nursing my youngest when he cries in the middle of the night, that’s what I do. If he won’t nap, we go outside instead. If I want the burger instead of the salad, that’s what I order. I notice myself spending less time wondering what the right decision is and trust myself with whatever choice I make.
I listen to my heart and leave my job to stay home. I take a day to purge my closet, packing up bags of blouses and dress pants and skirts—all too small for me now. The empty hangers signify a new beginning, a question posed. Who is it that you want to be?
Dr. Sherry helped me to feel human. I learned that I wasn’t hopelessly flawed, no more than anyone else that is. If my therapist seemed to like me for who I was, why couldn’t I?
My boys are now six and eight and I love to wake up and join them on the couch where they’re trying to solve the daily Wordle. I look them in the eyes and ask them how they slept and if they had any dreams. I sip my coffee and secretly try to beat them to solve the five-letter word. I’m learning to live life more slowly instead of in a rushed, blurry daze and it feels so right.
Hi, my name is Andrea, and I have never been happier.
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