My son turns 4-years-old this month. So far, he mostly seems concerned about his cake, unsure whether it should be firetruck or dinosaur themed. All that’s certain at this point is that, in true military-kid fashion, we will be clearing out of housing on his birthday and beginning the long trek to our next duty station.
And while life is a busy blur of work, activities, and moving preparations, this time of year never fails to remind me of how far we’ve come—how far my son has come.
Born full-term and with no visible health problems, I could not have foreseen the year of trials that lay ahead. For months, we struggled through a case of never-ending colic, severe reflux, and scary levels of sleep deprivation. He seemingly lived in doctor’s offices, forever poked and prodded by needles that his dehydrated veins could not withstand.
There were the professionals we saw on a consistent basis — his pediatrician, his gastroenterologist, and his speech pathologist (having to teach your baby how to eat comes as a major shock, believe me!) — in addition to the slew of random specialists and care teams who tended to him while hospitalized.
Eventually, he was diagnosed as “failure to thrive,” a label that would follow his medical records and haunt my thoughts. I was labeled that day, as well. And while the darkness had crept in long before that moment, it was then that it swallowed me up.
Life was hard. Every single day was painful, and it’s no exaggeration to say that those were the darkest days of my life. So regardless of your struggle — whether it resembles my own or follows a completely different path — know that you are not alone.
I see you. Your undiscovered tribe of silently-suffering mamas understand you.
Our entire lives, we are led to believe that motherhood will be a joyous time; that we will want to scoop up every delicious memory and milestone, savoring each for the pure happiness contained within.
There are constant reminders from well-meaning strangers that “it goes so fast” and to “enjoy every moment.”
But when the baby days are dark, that’s an impossibility. When the baby days are dark, you wish this precious time away. You beg to whatever higher power that seems to have forsaken you to let you wake up two years into the future, well rested and over the largest hurdles. You find little enjoyment in motherhood because motherhood has not dealt you an easy hand.
Struggling mama, that’s OK.
It’s OK to feel angry and resentful. It’s OK to wonder why me? Scream and cry and shout and collapse into a sloppy mess because your pain is valid. It needn’t be justified.
When you are struggling as a new mom, life feels cruel and unfair. It doesn’t care that your hormones are raging or that you ate organic your whole pregnancy. It ignores your perfectly-laid plans, the crushing weight of endless responsibilities, and the fact that you have followed your pediatricians recommendations to a tee. None of it matters.
Because when the baby days are dark, everything changes.
And when it does, it’s OK to slip into survival mode. Put on your comfiest pajamas and set your phone to silent. Take a break from the fast-paced world outside that threatens to steal the last of your energy reserves, and watch your favorite movie. Throw on high-quality headphones to cancel out the incessant cries if you must. And when you do, don’t you dare feel guilty about it.
… OK, well, you probably will. You are a mom, after all! But self-care is important. Stepping away from emotionally intense situations is even more so. And when the naysayers try to steal that sliver of joy, remind yourself that they haven’t seen the darkness and have no clue how to navigate it. You don’t owe anything to anybody outside your home, anyway.
Still, no matter how hard you fight, the guilt will follow. It attaches itself, like Peter Pan’s shadow, stitched piece by painful piece to the soles of your feet — a constant reminder of the heavy weight of adulthood, that the childlike happiness you once exuded has faded.
Take heart. It will return.
Until then, until you wake up one ordinary day to find that you have survived, it’s OK to simply put one foot in front of the other —nothing more, nothing less. Over time, you will find that shadow less of a burden. Eventually, you may not notice it at all.
But when you’re in the thick of it, the darkness can feel overwhelming and terribly lonely. You try to be honest with friends and family; and, in those moments, feel a surge of pride for having the courage to acknowledge your struggle. But you might find that they don’t understand. Or worse, that they think they do.
You’ll want to both explain everything and hold it in because expressing your reality is both necessary and impossible. In the midst of motherhood, something so universal, you expect a common bond but find that, sometimes, it just can’t be found.
Your friends’ babies aren’t quite like yours. You neighbor can’t help but gush over her wonderful sleeper. Your sister divulges tried-and-true remedies that she insists will work if only you try. But try harder. Try differently. No, not quite like that.
Soon you find yourself questioning everything: your competence, your character, your very sanity.
When the baby days are dark, sometimes it’s all you can do to keep moving forward. You grasp for straws, feeling your way through uncertainty and pain. Every shadow makes you wonder. It’s as if the little girl deep within wakes from decades of slumber, questioning every sound, every subtle movement, unable to isolate the obvious causes for her distress because of a pervasive and all-consuming fear.
Motherhood can be terrifying, mama, especially when it doesn’t go as expected. That’s OK, too.
Struggling mama, I see you. I’ve been you. And while I can’t erase the darkness, I can try to be a light—just a tiny glimmer of hope, of solidarity, in a seemingly endless night. Though it may seem like the world is closing in and nobody understands, know that you are not alone. The dawn will break, eventually.
It won’t be long before that once screaming, puking, sleepless baby of mine will be four. FOUR. There was a time when I could not have imagined that many days into the future, let alone years. And yet, here we are. We made it.
The baby days can certainly be dark but the struggle is worth it, mama.
Your heart will heal and one beautiful day you, too, will be able to reach across the distance and call out into someone else’s darkness, “you are not alone.”