This is one of those probably not so popular topics in the infertility community – even among those who have had IVF babies. It’s a taboo subject, even among the fertile. And personally, I believe that it’s an even harder topic for women to discuss when they’ve gone through infertility treatment. What am I so cryptically alluding to? Well, it’s the dark side of motherhood. The thoughts and feeling we keep hidden to ourselves, for fear of looking like a “bad mom”. It’s postpartum depression, anxiety, fear, self-doubt, and sheer exhaustion.
I came across a series of comics that get surprisingly real about the darker side of the experiences of motherhood. It’s the things so many women experience, but sadly think it must be unique to them. In an age of staged social media posts where everything is all clean and made up to appear perfectly put together, with sunshine and rainbows endlessly glittering, it’s easy to think that we are the only ones feeling so overwhelmed by the changes that a new baby brings.
So, I’m going to talk about this in the context of pregnancy and parenthood after IVF because I think the situation is a bit different for us. When you go through infertility treatments you are trying so hard for that baby. You become desperate to conceive and the process begins to consume your world. We want it so badly, we are willing to do just about anything in our power to get the baby. The stakes are high. We are in debt. We have put our bodies through extreme measures, and when it works, we are the lucky ones. After all, we know that treatments don’t’ work for everyone.
And that right there changes things.
How can you go through all that IVF, end up being one of the lucky few that actually gets a positive beta and a healthy take home baby, and then have anything but good things to say afterward? But before I go any further, I want to acknowledge that this is where I worry I might get some slack. Because I know there are countless women who would gladly trade in the unbearable pains of one failed cycle after the next for the challenges that motherhood brings. And I get that. I’ve been there. But that’s not the dynamic I’m trying to set up here. This isn’t a competition of who has it worse. It’s not any kind of comparison at all.
Simply because we’ve gone through infertility does not mean that we are exempt from postpartum depression, anxiety, or any of the rest of the hard emotions that so often accompany new motherhood. But it feels like we should be. And that’s what can get us into trouble.
After I had my daughter (my first IVF miracle), I thought something must be wrong with me. I didn’t bond immediately. Honestly, I felt kind of numb. Where was that rush of oxytocin that everyone raves about? Why didn’t I feel overwhelmed by love? What was wrong with me?
Like any good psychologist, I analyzed my situation. I hypothesized that left over trauma from infertility, plus some significant birth trauma, along with a difficult temperament baby that didn’t quite mesh with my personality, bolstered by the usual sleep exhaustion and hormone crash all combined to rationally explain my experience. And I was probably on to something with all that, but it didn’t change it. I was left feeling like a bad mom, and the guilt over not being happier was overwhelming. I felt alone. Who would feel this way? Who would feel this way after being so blessed to have a successful IVF?! I was ashamed of myself. I knew a few other IVF mom’s and no one ever spoke the things that were in my mind. I thought no one else felt this way. In fact, when struggling with secondary infertility, other moms who had one IVF child and were trying for another often commented on how close they felt to their child and how happy they were with that one despite how badly they wanted another. I felt differently. Don’t get me wrong, I love my daughter fiercely. I’m a lioness mom who would protect my child at all costs. But that doesn’t mean that I didn’t continue to struggle.
My daughter was still nursing about every 1.5-2 hours at night at age two. Yes, I said age two. I was sleep deprived for so long that I’m not really sure how I functioned. Add to that the fact that my daughter is a fiery child. She is so self-determined, head strong, persistent, and intense. These are characteristics that, when she learns how to channel them, will take her far in life. I have no doubt she will grow up to be an amazing woman. But these characteristics make for one hell of a toddler. I didn’t think I would survive the third year of her life – or at least my sanity wouldn’t. I still thought it must just be me – I’m a bad mom.
But then I had a few real conversations with other moms that I respected. Moms that I thought had their shit together. Moms who had raised some pretty well adjusted girls and have great relationships with them. And out of their mouths came some of the things I never said out loud. I literally cried when one mom, who’s daughter is now an amazing teenager, said that the worst year of her entire life was when her daughter was three-years-old. She didn’t think she’d make it. Another mom told me that she sometimes can’t stand to be around her kids – she is all touched out and just wants some alone time. Another described her daughter as “spirited” and reminisced about how she struggled to emotionally connect with her. I realized then that I wasn’t a bad mom after all – I was a normal mom. And some of the guilt and self-doubt started to lift. I finally started to feel like I was doing a pretty decent job of parenting. And, best of all, I started to feel the bond growing with my daughter. There are still bad days, of course. But I know that those are just bad days – I’m not a bad mom because of it.
These are the things that mothers need to talk about. We need to know that it’s okay to talk about these things. Sometimes we may need help with postpartum feelings, especially when depression and anxiety become suffocating. Sometimes simply finding out that motherhood struggles are shared can go a long way to normalize our experiences, give us a sense of support, and help us through the particularly rough days. Having conceived through IVF or other infertility treatments does not make you immune to these postpartum experiences and emotions. In fact, it may even heighten the guilt, shame, and secrecy associated with these emotions. Sometimes these feelings can last years, especially when you keep them bottled and hidden. Mothers need support – from family, friends, other moms, and sometimes mental health professionals. All of that is normal.
There is no one size fits all to the experience of motherhood. Maybe for some it really is all flowers and kittens. Maybe. But I know from personal experience, kittens have some pretty sharp claws.
Note: The author (Karen Kleiman) and illustrator (Molly McIntyre) of the comic series are publishing a book based on the comics, along with some guidance for new moms. The book is called Good Moms Have Scary Thoughts. I’m looking forward to checking this out.