My mother-in-law put her hand on my shoulder and looked me in the eyes as I sobbed on the couch. She gestured to my 4-month-old son in my arms and said kindly, but sternly, "This baby is an addition to your life. He is not your whole life."
I nodded as if I understood, but the truth was I had no idea what she was talking about. Nothing in my life was for me anymore; it all revolved around my baby. I spent my days breastfeeding him and letting him nap on me. Most of the time, I hardly left the couch, much less the house. If I did venture out, I felt trapped by his unreliable napping schedule and his screams from the car seat, which he hated for the first six months of his life.
She promised that I could get my life back, without neglecting him and his needs.
Her words came at a critical time for me, as I had reached my lowest point with postpartum depression. Over the previous four months, I had given all of myself to my infant, slowly eradicating everything that made me who I was until I no longer had an identity beyond motherhood. I was struggling with overwhelming anxiety and suicidal thoughts, unable to eat and sleep.
I noticed the way other mums seemed to talk about fatigue and stress as though they were badges of honour, and so I thought this was what I was supposed to do. I created the picture of an ideal mother in my head: She held her babies constantly so they wouldn’t cry, all night if that’s what it took; she sacrificed time with her friends and her partner, because her baby was only little for so long and needed her; she only showered when it was convenient, and she slept even less often. And she was happy about it. Doing and feeling anything less was selfish — the epitome of a "bad mother".
Years of social conditioning taught me that I’m only worth as much as I give.
The pressure to meet my baby’s needs before my own was part of the socially constructed formula that sent my health into a downward spiral. Not only did I fall into a deep depression, but my physical health suffered, too, and I had perpetual headaches and stomach pains.
Being alone with my baby was very difficult for me. My husband had already stayed home from work for a couple of days in a row, and with no other immediate family in town, my mother-in-law had made the three-hour drive from Wichita to Kansas City to be with me.
It didn’t all become better in the three days she spent with us, but she did help me start to build a more sustainable life. We went on walks, out to dinner, even socialised a little. I got out of the house more in those few days with her than I had in the first four months of my son’s life. The notion that I could regain a semblance of my old routine and embrace the parts of my life that I enjoyed before becoming a mum was new to me.
After my mother-in-law left, I realised I had to change my mindset if I wanted to get to a healthy place. I started going to therapy and taking antidepressants, which helped me reevaluate the picture of motherhood I had been trying so hard to embody. I began to separate myself from my baby, putting him down more and encouraging his independence. I stopped hovering over him as he slept and tending to every peep he made. I relaxed into my own parenting style, and as I picked up the pieces of that shattered image of motherhood, I found myself again.
I’ve always heard people say things like "You can’t pour from an empty cup" and "You have to put your own oxygen mask on before helping someone else," but putting this into practice was difficult for me, especially when the foundation of femininity seems to be rooted in caring, and accusations of selfishness are often weaponised against mothers. I was in a constant mental battle, fighting off feelings of guilt and worrying if I was being too selfish.
Slowly, as my my headaches and stomach pains became less frequent, I learned that running myself ragged was no way to live. I realised that there’s nothing to gain from depleting myself to nothingness, and doing so harmed my mental and physical health, in addition to my family’s wellbeing. And then, as I recovered and the colour came back into my world, I noticed my son light up in ways he hadn’t before. My colicky baby who seemed to fuss constantly became adaptive, curious and content.
Prioritising myself may have been difficult, but it was also crucial for reasons beyond my physical health. Years of social conditioning taught me that I’m only worth as much as I give. It took my experience with postpartum depression for me to realise that my dignity is in my humanity, not my selflessness, and that a "good mother" doesn’t have to put herself last.
Today, I’m much better at recognising what I need and taking it without guilt or shame. I found a job I love, and going back to work enabled me to regain my professional identity — something I didn’t realise I craved so deeply until it was gone. I take time to do the things I love, like reading, running and writing, and I lean on friends or family to help with my son when I know I’ve reached my limit.
I’ve never been called a selfish mum, although I wouldn’t be surprised if anyone thought that of me. And frankly, I’m proud to be a bit selfish. I put myself first, not only because I’ve seen how it benefits my son, but because I deserve happiness and health. Motherhood is a part of me, but it doesn’t define me. My beautiful son is a wonderful addition to my life, but he is not my whole life. I am my whole life.