Combatting a postpartum existential crisis

(This essay, a longer read than most of my previous writing, is a two-part series — part 2 of which explores navigating through and recovering from my postpartum existential crisis. Read part 1 here.)

In elaborating on how I navigated through and recovered from my postpartum existential crisis, it is important to factor in the general environment of my married life — without the benefit of which, I may have had to resign myself to a more passive approach. Hence, using ‘combat’ in the title to define this aspect of my postpartum journey is not mere wordplay, but a conscious, calculated choice. 

I never intended to continue working after having children, and had expressed the desire to focus exclusively on their upbringing the very first time my husband and I met. He was fully on board, and has not once given me reason to worry about any such expectation or financial pressure in our years together, ever since. 

My in-laws, including all of my husband’s siblings and their families, are located overseas — each member is an absolute delight in their own right, and while I miss them dearly, everything from our goals as a family, parenting decisions both big and small, working out household chores and business related tasks, how we choose to allocate our spare time either together or alone, and everything else in between is relatively easy to configure in the absence of input that we would have to pay more attention to otherwise. As far as his in-laws are concerned, my husband is welcome to write his own essay on the matter.

photo by mona hamid
It also helped immensely that we are not an on-the-go family. Except for last-minute diaper changes when leaving for an important appointment and the like, our day-to-day pace is conscious and self-aware — and while I continue to unlearn my high-strung tendencies, it is largely the easy-going nature of my husband that is the reason behind this. As a result of which, I have been able to sufficiently reflect upon and deduce the following.

My own individual capacity

I tire easily. I always have. But what I have not always had, is the good sense to know when to stop taking on too much. Motherhood helped me catalogue the crucial, the semi-essential, and the frivolous into neat little compartments. I (try my best to) conscientiously overlook anything that takes away from being able to be there and to care for my child — basically, anything that has nothing to do with him will need to wait for as long as he needs me. 

Of course, nothing is as black and white as people make it seem, and I am no exception. My husband is one hearty trunk of a support system, and gladly takes on whatever needs to be taken care of — it is hard work actively keeping our communication open and flaring emotions in check, but most definitely necessary for any marriage to flourish in the long run. 

It has also gotten easier to make exceptions as our son grows older, and as I learn how to better balance all compartments in a way that adds holistic value to our family life. 

Sleep and rest are fundamental

This, I have concluded upon by intensely observing how my functionality and emotional response are affected by both the tangible and intangible components of staying at home to care for my child and our family. 

While a good night’s sleep is the given rule of thumb for mankind in general, any number of restful hours straight through the night are never a guarantee for a new mother. I remember being in a terrible state of mind (and speech) even after my son had started sleeping through the night (giving me about five hours straight) if I had not used the entire time to rest and catch up on sleep. 

In the beginning, those five hours (his naptime I utilized for chores and other work) used to feel like the entire world was my oyster — I would often spend too long just deciding what exciting task I should take on first, only to have the exhaustion kick in right as I was about to actually start. My excitement-laden indecision got to a point where it combusted entirely, and I was rendered incapable of doing anything productive outside of caring for my son, and ensuring that we always had at least the next meal prepared. 

Once I figured out that not only was my temperament and general capacity on a whole other (almost monumental) level when I was well-rested, but also that it helped my qualitative productivity soar in all the other wonderful and exciting things I wanted to do, I wasted no time in getting right to bed the minute my son was asleep. 

More recently, I have concluded that five (non-pregnant) hours of sleep is the absolute minimum I need in order to get through the day in a stable, productive and relatively pleasant state of mind — and that even a short power nap works wonders in between, so I take one as soon as I am able to. 

Mindless scrolling on the phone is futile

Most mothers I have spoken to have (at some point in their maternal careers) reached for a smartphone the minute the baby is asleep, sometimes even before water or food. It is only natural to want to connect, communicate, or even just remain up-to-date on what is going on outside the postpartum cocoon that can be spending hours on end caring for a little one (or many little ones), paired with limited adult interaction. 

It only works though, if it works for you. In my case, it did not. It did not help alleviate my feelings of isolation and drudgery, it did not ease my exhaustion even a little bit, and it certainly did not take away from my postpartum crisis — in essence, it gave me nothing. 

And while my housekeeping skills hardly vouch for this, I am quite methodical, discipline-oriented, and purpose-driven in nature. So, spending all those hours scrolling on the phone without a goal in mind only served to further enhance my struggles as a new mother. 

As soon as I realized this, I decided to allocate myself a set amount of mindless scrolling time (because going cold turkey only works in the case of opioid withdrawal), and as soon that time was up, I put my phone away. Any calls, messages, emails, or appointments that needed a timely response could wait until after I had eaten, rested, and attended to chores. 

I also decided that instead of using my phone as the primary source of entertainment viewing, I would sit down in front of a computer, and consciously watch an episode, film, lecture, or whatever else, in my spare time — the experience turned out to be a lot more pleasurable, and I ended up finding unexpected tangible value in an otherwise intangible activity.

Curated ‘mom’ content on social media

One particular hashtag that sent my postpartum crisis reeling was #screenfreekids, but when I went through said mother’s Instagram page, all images were either selfies or posed shots of herself and her children with long, glorious captions of an idealistic parenting environment — there was nothing screen-free about her lived experiences in that role. 

And as nice as it was learning about food ideas, responding to changes in behaviour, etc., there were many elements of our belief system and values as a family that were missing from the secular upbringing that most of these (however well-intentioned) niche blogs offered. 

For us, a balanced life extends beyond the physics of nutrition, play, learning, and an emotionally nurturing environment — each of these must encompass an essential awareness of the spiritual as well. 

So, while my son may consume way more than the recommended number of packaged snacks and sugary foods per week, expunging all that content from my day-to-day immensely helped my mental health in not comparing myself to the curated, social media version of a mother who had everything figured out.

I also did not appreciate them (even those spiritually inclined) eventually trying to sell me a self-published e-book, or their free lures of giveaways that usually involved liking and sharing any number of posts and collaborative blogs, and my inviting other mothers to follow their space. 

Marketing and advertising were my entire professional life, and one of the main reasons I decided to change gears was this exact persuasive behaviour that permeated every aspect of our lives, uninvited.

What else is of value to me

Because there is so much subconscious social pressure on a new mother to get back into the workforce, my first reaction to the semblance of peace and (relative) free time that I had found after having somewhat figured out this motherhood thing was to get back into the workforce. 

My previous employer had a remote role — one that would work with both my schedule and my interests — available, and I was more than happy to take it on. Having put almost no thought into whether doing so would fulfil any part of whatever it was that I did not even know was missing inside me, paired with the natural way in which the daily affairs of a one-year-old can take a one-eighty degree turn, it is a wonder I was even able to pull off six months in that role. 

The absence of creative stimulation and inspiration, as I have come to learn, played a major part in skewing my perspective, and had consequently led to my not being able to see the value in what I had always dreamed of and decided upon as my life’s work. 

Reading, sitting under the sun (the earth in between my nylon-socked toes), self-reflecting, introspecting equal parts the physical and metaphysical, walking in the grass, speaking to a loved one over the phone, enjoying all of these seemingly simple things by myself, and perhaps most importantly, writing, and documenting my subsequent emotional and literary response to each one, had always been essential to the wholesome functioning of my heart — upon recognizing which, I immediately began carving a place for them in my life, postpartum. 

Reconnecting with old friends, even the ones I no longer had a lot in common with, but who had been there for me through thick and thin, also helped tremendously in remembering who I was, and what else was of value to me outside of my lifelong dream.

The importance of making time

I randomly selected a thick book from my shelf one day, and began reading the brilliant Tillie Olsen short story, I Stand Here Ironing, while my son lined up his bath animals on what was once a coffee table, and now held all his books and toys. One short story was all it took. And I began reading any chance I got. In between, before, during, and after naps, feeds, meals, diaper changes, chores, business deliverables, and so on and so forth.

The reading eventually lead to the writing. One poem was all it took. And even if it was only once every few days that I was able to have the kind of uninterrupted time that writing requires, I began writing any chance I got. In between, before, during, and after naps, feeds, meals, diaper changes, chores, business deliverables, and so on and so forth.

As it turns out, reading and writing played a fundamental role in activating all the other elements that are of value to me, and helped breathe life into my most qualitative functionality as an individual. 

A family business is still professional work

One other thing, which took up the bulk of my spare time, and which I did not (at the time) consider a part of this creative stimulation and inspiration, was my remote role in our family business — besides dealing with vendors, handling any administrative communication, and enhanced market research, the scope of my responsibilities also included its entire rebranding. 

I designed and developed a branding and content strategy, laid the creative foundation for our website and online shop, and in no particular order, continue to work (as needed) extensively with a hand-lettering artist, an illustrator, a professional photographer, a photography intern, a production artist, a web designer, a web developer, an ecommerce professional, a social media analyst, a print producer, and a packaging professional to ensure a precise and well-crafted execution. 

Taking into account two high school years of yearbook production, four undergraduate years in print and digital production, and almost a decade of working in the marketing and advertising industry, as I now realize, did not just add certified value to my role in the family business, but also, entirely redefined my understanding that I — even now, as a pregnant mother of a two-year-old — actively possess the concrete skills I had previously brushed aside as dormant.

Accepting (and asking for) help

I have always been terrible at reaching out, determined to tackle any task or responsibility assigned to me entirely and all by myself, and without any help. This is an unhealthy coping mechanism, and based on years of self-reflection, has proven entirely unnecessary within the context of my family, my marriage, and most certainly, my parenting. 

My family (including some extended relatives) has always been there for me, has always been happy to help, and has never refrained from reaching out, even when I was not being my best self. My husband is all this, and a whole lot more. In retrospect, I was unaware that it was not serving me well, and did not know how to ask for help, continuing to shut everyone out that entire first year. 

I understand now that becoming reclusive, however unhealthy, is a common occurrence in early motherhood. Everyone has their own reasons, but for me, the main culprits were: feeling incompetent as a mother, managing poorly both marriage and home, feeling unfulfilled in the absence of creative stimulation and inspiration, and being unable to communicate without getting upset or angry with just about anyone as a result of the previous three.

Overcoming this roadblock was very difficult in the beginning, but when I noticed how happy most people are to help, and how much my close relationships improved because of which, I started asking for help wherever I thought I needed it, and where it had not already been offered. This substantially included connecting with, learning from, and hanging out with other young as well as experienced mothers — a topic which deserves an entire essay on its own. 

Healing effects of the Noble Qur’an

During my first pregnancy, I had taken to reciting the Noble Qur’an every day — a habit fulfilling beyond words, and which only came back into my life shortly before I learned about my second pregnancy. I cannot explain why I did not resort to this simple, most effective answer sooner, but I really, really wish that I had. 

Peace and quiet began flowing through my veins the moment I laid eyes on those divine verses, and the fluidity of my own subpar recitation surprised me. It was as if I had never closed the holy book from the last time I held it open, and that it had been waiting for me all along. 

One chapter was all it took. And I began reciting any chance I got. In between, before, during, and after naps, feeds, meals, diaper changes, chores, business deliverables, and so on and so forth. The consequences were metaphysical.

All the efforts in combatting my postpartum crisis transformed into a seamless course of combined action, and the day-to-day results were a hundredfold — analogically, if each subsection listed above was one rein, and I had been haphazardly trying to gather them all, reading the Noble Qur’an every day tautened the fairly loose hold into a firm and well-organized grip on life. 

Never before had I felt this natural about my existence, this clear in my understanding of purpose, and this secure of God’s omnipresent care and attention — never before had I experienced this particular sense of contentment as a direct outcome of feeling complete, and such freedom from existential angst.

The calm before the calm

A few weeks ago, my son and I decided to take a walk in the early afternoon, instead of our usual evening routine. It was a beautiful day — the sun had his brightest face on — however, there was barely a breeze, and I was dressed in black. The walking got sweaty and uncomfortable fairly quickly, but (as any parent who has ever told a child they were going to the park can verify) there was no turning back. 

We found a shady tree facing the field, and sat down to enjoy our snacks on the grass. As if on cue, a cool breeze started blowing, the leaves began rustling, and the birds were delighted at this welcome addition to their song. 

The sweat and discomfort began to fade, and I thought to myself: how wonderfully the entire exercise had changed, and how motherhood (marriage, life) was a lot like that — continuously having to learn and unlearn our capacity as a human being, and how important it is to maintain a holistic perspective on the whirlwind that is building a shared life together, especially within the context of raising children. 

My family is and always will be my life’s most beautiful, most cherished work. And each day, I am a better mother, because every following day, I try to be even better. Each day, I can speak to the experience of having survived and having added to my book of lifelong learning, one more day, in this invaluable role. 

I am confident now that the temporary ugliness of any, one wobbly moment in no way speaks for my purity of intention, and the hard work that I put into each day, irrespective of whatever creative stimulation and expression I may routinely need in order to do and feel my best. 

For every one wobbly moment, there are a hundred beautiful and precious moments that help sustain the rest of that day — and in finding the harmony in which, lies the key to combatting any future existential crises that are bound to come my way.

As it turns out, every storm is essentially a prerequisite (and not an inescapability) of the calm, if I am secure in my knowledge of being in God’s constant care, and because my faith provides the steadfastness that I need in order to survive, to overcome, and to thrive in spite of the storm. 

Although sometimes a little reminding is in order, so that I remember to savour those beautiful and precious moments before the long parenting hours have turned into short childhood years that flew by faster than I could ever have imagined.

1 comment :

  1. Beautifully written my friend ❤️.. Loved reading this piece..truly inspirational.. You, my dear, are amazing :)