Dealing with the Fallout of Becoming a Parent
In times of trial, people can rise to new heights. It’s why we read books and watch movies — to see people overcome great challenges. It’s entertaining to watch people get through nail-biting situations in heroic ways and, once the mission is accomplished or the challenge conquered, the story usually ends.
We don’t see Jason Bourne going through months of therapy, working on his trust issues.
We don’t read about Bilbo’s relentless nightmares long after the ring has been destroyed.
We don’t see Dorothy’s bedroom cluttered with haunting charcoal sketches of the Wicked Witch of the West.
Rarely do we follow the repercussions of life-changing events. We see the hero triumph, then we move on. Everything is supposed to be better now.
But when the storyline is too short, we fail to appreciate the significance of the fallout of these events.
Challenge Accepted: Motherhood
I thought I was ready to become a mother once I found the person I wanted to have a family with. I knew it would be a challenge and I was excited.
I encouraged my husband into becoming a father. Well, I say “encouraged.” He says, “pushed.”
We had agreed we wanted to have children, but he wanted to enjoy marriage first. I felt that my age (I was 37) meant we didn’t have that luxury. On our honeymoon, I launched my campaign. Finally, after several months of discussion, my pee stick showed a cheerful little plus sign.`
Cue the Zombie Years
Yeah, yeah, we all laugh at a new parent’s exhaustion. I don’t know how it became something funny because there’s nothing funny about extreme fatigue. It literally kills people.
My son was born with a relatively minor but undiagnosed medical condition. He couldn’t breastfeed properly so I was frantic and desperate to feed him, especially in the early months when his weight was steadily dropping.
Once I started bottle feeding (and got over the crippling guilt associated with all that), our problems were focused on his inability to breathe properly while lying down. He woke up dozens of times every night, unable to sleep, and I tended to him, living in a crazy, hazy stupor of exhaustion.
My husband didn’t have to wake up at night like I did — in fact, I tried hard to protect him from all the nighttime activity — but he was in no way immune. I needed him more than ever.
While I was on maternity leave he would rush home from work to take our baby so I could collapse in the next room and grab whatever amount of sleep I could. Every spare moment, I slept. I am ashamed to say that we too often played hot potato with our son, passing him off while we dealt with work demands and fatigue.
I was an emotional, needy mess. I loved my son deeply but I couldn’t see my way through to sanity. Worst of all, I believed that I was doing something terribly wrong to have created such a horrible situation around sleep.
My husband’s job was stressful, but life at home even more so. Within two years he changed jobs three times in hopes of finding something that would allow him more flexibility to support the family. He was watching his career splinter, and I was unavailable to support him through it due to my own struggles and frustrations.
My son’s condition was finally diagnosed, and he had his tonsils and adenoids removed. After the surgery, things temporarily got worse before they got better, but they did get better — a lot better. So much so that my son now sleeps through the night like a champ. I put him to bed with a kiss and a hug, leave the room, and I don’t usually see him again until morning. We all start the day rested and alert. It feels like a miracle.
So everything should be better now, right?
Enter: The Fallout
The first five years after the birth of my son led to all kinds of decisions and sacrifices and changes that my husband and I could never have anticipated, and that we’re still dealing with today.
We spent thousands of dollars on sleep support that we will never recover. For years I set aside my own personal goals and ambitions to simply survive. My husband felt he sacrificed his career progression. Both of us watched our physical health deteriorate.
The shockwaves weren’t contained to within our home. Not all of our extended family supported us; some even turned on us. Employers lost patience. Friends gave up.
And the relationship between my husband and I—the one I depended on most of all—became sharp and strained.
For the first five years of my son’s life, we pulled together, doing whatever it took to get by, but once things at home calmed down, once we were rested and settled, the giant chasm that had formed between us could be assessed.
I hadn’t even realized it was there.
Charting a Path Forward
The strength of my marriage has always been our ability to talk to one another. And right now, that involves sharing a whole lot of hurt, resentment, and bitterness. It also involves anger.
But we need to hear each other’s hurts as much as we need to express our own.
I have to let my husband express that he felt pressured into having a child before he was ready and then suffered deep personal consequences because of it.
I have to share that I felt he didn’t understand the pressure I was under to have a child and to be some kind of breastfeeding, sleep-enabling Super Mom while feeling lost and ashamed.
We have to go forward with as much compassion for each other that we can muster.
Don’t Underestimate the Longer-Term Consequences
Others have been through much worse situations and greater struggles than I have. Getting through difficult times is a huge accomplishment, but we need to remember that it may take longer than you’d think for things to actually feel better. There are often deeper, unexpected consequences that too often go unnoticed and are underappreciated.
I’m working on finding time to accomplish my goals. My husband is straightening out his career path. We have relationships with friends and loved ones that need mending. A great deal of healing still needs to take place in our marriage.
But we are a family that loves each other, a family that continues to pull for each other.
We made it through the struggle as new parents, and we’ll make it through the fallout, too.