I’ve always been a bit of a self-conscious, anxious person. Well actually I think always is wrong. Once I hit puberty, I became a self-conscious, anxious person. There have been phases of my life where the anxiety faded into the background and would rarely rear its ugly head. Pregnancy is not one of those phases.
My anxiety as I moved from middle school to high school became triggered by planning for college, so I became a planner. I became obsessed with thinking of all the different options I had, making charts and lists and going over and over all the different combinations until I found the one I felt would be best. In college, my anxiety trigger became focused on what would come next. I graduated with my bachelor’s in 2.5 years, but those short years were packed to the brim not with late nights with friends and “finding myself” but with cramming in as many classes as possible, honors program requirements, internships, part-time jobs and more. Oh and maintaining a long-distance relationship, getting engaged and planning a wedding.
While I look back at those 2.5 years as successful, I think they reinforced a really dangerous tendency I have to take on too much, not know how to ask for help, and focus my life around what comes next.
Fast forward to today, nearly six years later, this tendency has bloomed into what I have recently begun calling my dragon. One of Husband’s favorite things to do is to listen to smart people talk, so we spend long drives and many “date nights” (aka when I’m not too exhausted to get out of bed after V falls asleep) listening to talks and podcasts. We’ve recently been binging on professor and psychologist Jordan Peterson and he has one talk on “Slaying the dragon within us” (you can watch it on YouTube or listen to the audio) and I think it is a really useful visual when dealing with some of the problems life presents, and I’ve found it especially helpful when examining the parts of my life (and personality) that trigger my anxiety and suck the joy of motherhood from me.
The thing that Peterson mentions throughout his talk is that a dragon is something that you keep pushing aside, keep “sweeping under the rug”. It’s that long talk with your spouse about something that really bothers you that you’ve been avoiding. It’s the basement full of chaos and clutter you’ve been putting off taking care of; that phone call you haven’t returned; that bill you haven’t opened.
Our dragons are the things we need to handle but instead choose to pretend don’t exist, often under the guise of maintaining our sanity or trying to focus on “being happy”.
But life isn’t about being happy. Motherhood, being a wife, being an employee, all those things aren’t about being happy. And , in my experience and clearly in Peterson’s opinion, avoiding dealing with our dragons does in fact the exact opposite of making us happy.
So what does all this have to do with handling anxiety during our mothering years, and especially during the extreme highs and lows of pregnancy and postpartum?
First, as a disclaimer, I am not a psychologist, doctor or a therapist of any kind. There are times when taking some form of anti-depressant or anti-anxiety medication is the best option for your health and your family. This post isn’t going to focus on those times, but for instances when anxiety and depression are caused by things in our life we can actually change and improve. If you feel like your situation is beyond your control or you have thoughts of self-harm or suicide please seek the help of a professional immediately and know that you are not alone and it isn’t all in your head.
What are typical mom-dragons?
Oftentimes, money is my #1 dragon. In our current season of life, I work full-time outside of the home while Husband finishes his last year of nursing school. Because of our individual personalities, things like paying bills, budgeting, future planning, taking care of necessities, etc. along with duties like meal planning, grocery shopping, etc. have fallen to me. As I’m sure is the case for millions of people, therein lie several of my dragons. Money has always been tight for us. While I have always had a pretty good handle on paying the bills and budgeting for them, the extra expenses and impulse purchases always seem to sneak up on me and throw my budget into a tailspin. I dread going to the mailbox for fear of the bill I forgot about or hadn’t anticipated. I put off checking the bank accounts for fear of numbers much lower than I was expecting.
Because I do desire to be a homemaker, our home life is another dragon I struggle with. The chaos of a home, especially one with young children, mixed with my natural tendency toward clutter cause a lot of foul moods and anger. I’m anxious about how clean my home is, how tidy it looks, whether it is ready for guests should anyone drop by, whether it is safe and well-organized for my toddler to thrive in, what Husband thinks, and because I’m pregnant, where in the world that bizarre smell is coming from.
Marriage is a tough dragon because it is so closely tied to one’s identity. I love being a wife. I’ve always wanted to be a wife. But the reality of marriage is much different than in the movies and I often find myself struggling with personal expectations, communication and devoting the time necessary to building a life with another human being with different needs and expectations from my own.
Because I work outside the home, I would be remiss if I didn’t include my workload as a dragon. I’m sure everyone has those tasks or duties at work that they just dread and put off until they can’t any longer. Sometimes just the act of going to work all day and having the stress of constant tasks, then coming home to the stress of home life is enough to become a dragon and trigger day-long anxiety.
And Motherhood. I’ve left motherhood for last because I believe it is the most trying and because I believe when the other dragons get too big or are ignored for too long, they spill over and trigger my motherhood dragon more than normal. All mothers worry about the health and development of their children. I believe that’s an anthropological (and physiological) norm and healthy. Some women just worry more than others and that’s where it can become a dragon. When my motherhood dragon is getting too big, it’s usually because I haven’t taken care of the other aspects of adult life, including the previous dragons but also including self-care like taking time for myself, instilling little things throughout the day that bring me joy or help me refocus and unwind, etc. These are extremely important tools in helping keep our dragons at bay.
Why do they get worse during pregnancy and postpartum?
Throughout pregnancy and for several months (even years) postpartum, a woman’s hormones are going through huge shifts. For me, I notice a definite increase in anxiety during pregnancy. I think there are important conversations about post-partum depression and post-partum anxiety that need to (and are starting to) happen. PPD and PPA can have a huge impact on a woman’s first months with a new child and letting them become a dragon, ignoring them instead of seeking help in whatever form works best for that woman, can have really negative and even dangerous ramifications.
How do they affect my marriage and motherhood?
When my dragons get out of control, my mood spikes. I get angry, annoyed and impatient with everything and everyone. I can’t handle the nightly wake-ups or the long bedtime routines. I can’t handle the sock on the floor or the dinner time complaints. I can’t even handle little things like toys being out or V asking for TV or Husband asking for a break. I can’t handle anything. I’m a shouty, angry, moody mom and wife and it isn’t good for anyone.
So how do you defeat your dragons and reclaim your motherhood?
5 Steps to Reclaiming your Motherhood
Talk to someone about it
Ideally at least one of the people you decide to talk to about whatever anxieties or dragons you are dealing with would be your spouse. These are issues that affect you both, and your children, and should really not be kept secret from your partner in life. If talking it out with your spouse isn’t enough to help you feel you have a plan in place to handle your dragons, find a trusted friend who you feel may lend some valuable insight. Don’t be afraid or feel ashamed if you decide to seek professional help. You wouldn’t feel bad if you saw a doctor for a recurring malady, remember your mental health is something to be guarded and looked after as well.
Write it down
I’m a writer by nature and I always prefer writing things on paper vs. using an online tool or spreadsheet or other digital tool. I like to have a physical planner that I hand-write tasks and appointments in. I like to write out a to-do list to get organized. I think writing things down is a way to get things off our brain, so maybe journaling will help. With my first pregnancy I was dealing with some issues with marital expectations and I found writing them down helped me be much more concise and clear-headed when discussing them with Husband, instead of just getting angry, yelling and getting nowhere. There is a lot of power in writing things down physically and not just typing.
Find your fun
What we like to do with our “free time” differs vastly from person to person but it is especially important for our mothering that we have some sort of outlet where there are no stresses, expectations or pressures and the focus is simply to enjoy ourselves. Maybe you love getting a pedicure with your girlfriends but money is tight. Try doing an at-home spa or cut back to going once a month instead of weekly. Maybe you love sitting down with a cup of tea and a good book and just existing for a little while without the nag of household chores or a toddler asking for a snack. Tell your husband you need that time or find a babysitter for a few hours each week. Maybe you need to have a creative outlet so you play in a band or sing in your church choir or start a blog. Take some time, in silence, to remember who you were before kids and identify what you used to do to find joy, and then find a way to start doing that again.
Check your diet
I’ve found when my diet has gotten out of whack and we’re eating too much refined sugar/flour/grease, my dragons get out of control faster. It can be hard to stick with a healthier eating lifestyle when you are crazy busy and take-out is so convenient, but it can really make a difference in your anxiety. Try to keep healthier grab-and-go alternatives around the house (my go-to snacks are these, these and these) and try to power up your leftovers so you aren’t having to make three meals every single day. Find a healthy and quick breakfast that your family loves so you aren’t relying on artificial ingredient-laden cereals. (We like this toast topped with nut butter and bananas or cream cheese and strawberries, sometimes even with honey and cinnamon on top if we’re feeling fancy. We also do full-fat pastured yogurt or kefir with low-sugar granola, or oatmeal with coconut oil and blueberries. Baked oatmeal is also fantastic but often calls for a lot of sugar.) Dr. Kelly Brogan offers some good diet/supplementation tips for dealing with PPD/PPA.
Set your schedule
A big trigger for some women is that they don’t regularly schedule recharging or planning time. I believe moms need both. When you are carrying the mental load of a family, you need time to get all of that out of your head. Regularly schedule a planning block of time. I find this easiest to do on Sundays or first thing Monday morning, mostly because a large part of my planning dragon revolves around our weekly meal plan/grocery run/budgets and two of the three stores we regularly frequent start their sales on Sundays. Sometimes they release their preview ads early and I’ll try to do this Saturday morning instead. And while scheduling a block of time for you to plan is so important, don’t count that as your recharging time. Even if you can’t manage more than an hour every week, try to set aside some time to be by yourself. Take a hot bath, listen to a podcast, go to Adoration, do something beyond something fun, do something that helps you relax and recharge for the week. Once a month try to schedule a block of several hours for a deep-cleaning-level reboot.
Whatever method you choose to start tackling your dragons, remember that these are things that bring you stress so you won’t want to do them. It will take discipline and retraining yourself to focus on how much better you feel when you’ve dealt with your dragons and also given yourself time to find joy again.
What dragons are you dealing with? How do you handle them and what do you do to reclaim a joyful life? Comment below or join the conversation over on Facebook.