I heard about it last year. Listen To Your Mother. Writers reading their stories about motherhood to a live audience. I was intrigued. As I learned more about this show, I became more and more certain that this show was perfect for me. I like to write. I like to read my writing and I love a stage! Then, reality hit me as I realized that my strong desire to be part of this show didn’t mean I would be in the show. I would need to audition. I would need to be selected.
As it turns out, I was not selected to be part of Listen To Your Mother. On a cold day in early February, I drove three hours to audition for LTYM Boston. I thought the reading went well, but my piece was not chosen. I had a good cry and a long talk with my mom, the president of my fan club, and I felt a bit better. Later that night, I saw that the auditions in northern New Jersey were in the coming weekend. That Saturday, I drove four and half hours to an area in Jersey I know well because I attended college in an adjacent town. I knew that my chances were very slim, but I remained hopeful. A few days later, I received a friendly and polite email. My piece was not selected. I wasn’t as sad this time. I knew a few other women through blogging and Twitter who hadn’t been selected either, yet I thought they were great writers and bloggers; I realized it was truly a competitive venture. My husband joked, “So what’s next? Are you flying out to Seattle for another shot at it?” I laughed and with a big sigh, I accepted the double rejection. I congratulated myself for my effort and chose to move on.
Nonetheless, I think I wrote a decent essay with an important message. What do you think?
Mom: The President of My Fan Club
My mom is the president of my fan club. No dream of mine has ever been too big for her to support. When I had dreams of Broadway, she (and my dad) sent me to private voice lessons, acting classes and a theatre camp. When I told her I was writing a memoir, she started talking about the movie version it would inevitably inspire. If life were a play, she sat in the front row, clapping louder and cheering longer than all other audience members. In fact, whenever I was in a play, she could barely contain her immense excitement, keeping her eyes on me the whole time, swaying, bopping and mouthing the words of all the songs. At the end of each production, she’d stare at me with a knowing glint in her eyes, as if we were about to engage in some secret interaction, and she’d do this thing. (In a live reading, I perform the cluck here. The cluck involves making the ok symbol with your fingers, looking out of the corner of your eye and making a clicking noise with your tongue). I called it clucking. And it wasn’t secret at all. In fact, the people sitting around her might have thought something was stuck in her throat.
Given all the faith my mother had in me, I couldn’t imagine another person being with me during my motherhood debut. So my husband and I asked her to stay at our house during our son’s first week home from the hospital. When we walked into our house, holding our seven pound bundle of joy, my mother greeted us with her classic boundless enthusiasm. But something was wrong. I was sad, nervous, worried and irritable. On top of that, I felt guilty for having such negative emotions. Instead of feeling gratitude and bliss, I was drowning in self-doubt and shame.
I’ve had a history of anxiety and I knew something was not quite right, so I reached out to my health care providers and began taking an antidepressant. But things grew worse before they became better. Relief couldn’t come quickly enough for me. Every worry I had turned into a graphic and articulated image of my son in life threatening situations. If I worried he could drown in the bathtub, I would imagine him submerged in the water. If I worried he might fall off the changing table, I suddenly envisioned him on the hard floor, shrieking. At the time I didn’t know there was a name for the intrusive thoughts related to postpartum obsessive-compulsive disorder that I was experiencing. This often misunderstood and misdiagnosed illness wasn’t about ritual hand washing for me; for me, it was a terrifying mental prison complete with relentless self-criticism and haunting obsessions. To make matters worse, the professionals from whom I sought help provided conflicting messages.
“You have an extreme case of postpartum psychosis.”
“You don’t have any type of postpartum illness. You’re just having new mom jitters.”
The truth was somewhere between the two extremes, but I didn’t know that at the time. I was more than confused and distraught. I was a wreck. My mother was too. She desperately wanted to fix me and dispel all my worries, yet her intense concern for me only contributed to my escalating anxiety. She tried to mask her own fear with encouraging words and bolstering embraces, but her reassurance didn’t ring true. Her supreme love for me manifested in supreme worry, much like the dynamics I was experiencing with my newborn son. We were three strands of knotted yarn clinging to each other, tense, tangled and terrified.
I needed to untangle. I needed my mother to go home.
Fortunately, and despite my acute encounter with postpartum anxiety, I did get better. Shortly after my mother left, my mood imbalance began to improve. My body responded well to the antidepressants and I began sleeping better. Slowly and with the help of journaling, therapy and gentle exercise, the fog of depression began to lift, the anxiety became manageable and the scary intrusive thoughts vanished. Best of all, I gained confidence in my ability to care for a newborn and began developing a special relationship with my son, a relationship that has only grown stronger and deeper in the past three years.
My mom is still the president of my fan club. She sits in the front row of my life, clapping louder, cheering longer. But motherhood isn’t a show. And even my most loyal fan, my unwavering supporter couldn’t save me from the clutches of postpartum anxiety. I needed to find my own path out of the darkness.