Learning to Mother Myself

I started therapy two and half years ago because I was having panic attacks on top of panic attacks.

I was at the dentist for a regular cleaning. I have never before in my life been nervous about the dentist. I’ve had root canals, my wisdom teeth pulled, and cavities filled. It’s always been fine. So there I was, getting a simple, painless cleaning, when I felt it. That wave. Like someone was pouring dread into my very being. I tried to ignore it but it was impossible.

I held up a finger and the dentist stopped. I laughed nervously and said, “I’m so sorry, but I really need to pee.”

I didn’t need to pee.

I just couldn’t bear to continue lying there in stillness.

I knew it was a panic attack. I tried to understand why. Where was it coming from?

I booked an acupuncture appointment for a few days later. Maybe I just needed to balance my energy.

I got a panic attack at acupuncture.

Maybe I needed even more energy balancing. I went back for another acupuncture session.

I got another panic attack.

I racked my brain to try to make sense of it all. I realized a commonality between being at the dentist and at acupuncture: in both situations, I had been lying down and not completely free to move. My memory instantly took me back to lying on the operating table at R’s birth, being prepped for the emergency c-section. I suddenly couldn’t feel or move anything other than my head. I’ll never forget how violently my teeth were chattering and how no amount of deep breathing was helping. I was terrified but too terrified to show it.

At my first therapy session, I exclusively talked about the emergency surgery. I was sure that I had figured out why I was having panic attacks. I hadn’t processed the trauma of the surgery. I hadn’t emotionally healed. I hadn’t completely physically healed, either; to this day, the area around my scar feels funny.

It wasn’t until my third therapy session that I casually dropped into our conversation that my mother had attempted suicide. I may have even dismissively waved my hand as I had become accustomed to doing when talking about my mother.

The look on my therapist’s face made me stop and actually consider the words I had just said.

“Oh. Right. Have I not mentioned that?”

Until that moment, I had genuinely believed that I had “dealt with” the fact that my mother was mentally unwell. I had such deeply rooted mental blocks and trauma from my childhood that I could not even begin to consider otherwise. It felt much better and safer to tell myself that I was strong and well-adjusted.

I realize now that it actually makes perfect sense that the pain of my childhood was resurrected with the birth of my own child.

I would be looking at my baby, wanting to protect him, wanting to make him feel happy and at ease, wanting to get to know the person he would become, and I would have these follow up thoughts at the back of mind: When did Mom’s illness get so bad that she stopped thinking about me like this? Did she ever feel this way about me? How could she hurt herself? She’s a mother. She’s MY mother.

I did not allow myself to linger with these thoughts. It was too much, too confusing, too painful. I was always quick to shoo them away: “She was not of her right mind. I do not blame her. I am not angry with her.”

I have always forced myself to be the bigger person.

But feelings that get squashed and shushed do not evaporate. They fester. Their roots grow bigger and reach further. They will insist that they be expressed in one way or another.

My therapist asked me what I might want to say to myself as a child. I was instantly overcome with heartbreak. I saw my younger self through the eyes of a mother. I saw a scared little girl who had always tried to be brave. I saw how so much of what I did and set out to achieve was in the hopes of making my mom better. I saw how I blamed myself and how I had nobody looking out for me to assure me that it wasn’t my fault.

So I wrote this letter to a younger, child me. From the older, present-day, mom me.

Dear Younger Me,

How is your heart today? I know it is heavy. You have been through so much and you make it that much harder by spending so much energy minimizing and compartmentalizing your suffering. I know it’s what you feel you have to do to survive.

Can I tell you a story?

R and I were coming home from a birthday party in a taxi. He was two and half years old. He told me he had “so much fun!” which is cute because it shows me he is listening to and remembering what I say to him. As I was fumbling out of the taxi (I later noticed one of my pigtails resembled a bird’s nest) in the typical traffic of 6th Avenue — carrying R, his blankie, his goody bag, and my purse — his shoe fell off. I dipped down to pick it up without dropping anything else but as soon as I waddled over to the curb and set R down on my knee to put his shoe back on, one of his balloons, the pink balloon, flew away. I had a choice in that moment. He hadn’t noticed it yet so I could have just distracted him and diverted his attention. But something from within told me to talk to him about it.

I said, “Hey look! There goes our pink balloon!!” He turned and looked up, unsure how he should feel about it. I added, “I think it’s going to try to find the moon! Wow it’s flying so high!” He continued to look up at it, and we waved, “Bye balloon! Please tell the moon we said good night!”

I didn’t want him to at a later moment realize that his pink balloon had just disappeared. I didn’t want to then pretend that I didn’t know what had happened or try to tell him it wasn’t a big deal. I didn’t know how he was going to react. We still had a green balloon, maybe he wouldn’t care. At the same time, I know how much two year olds love balloons.

I notice myself continually choosing to be conscientiously and compasstionately honest with him. Then listening to him. And being there with open arms if that’s what he needs. “Mommy’s here, I got you,” I regularly remind him.

When we got inside, he looked at his one green balloon. And he told me, “I miss my pink balloon.” I repeated what I thought had happened: “Aww. Yeah, that was a bit sad to see it fly off. I think it wanted to give the moon a cuddle.” His bottom lip quivered and he scrunched up his face and I gestured for a hug. He fell into my arms with a bit of a whimper, and in a few seconds was off again. This happened four times. And every time, I looked him in his innocent eyes, agreed that it was sad that the balloon was gone, shared in the moment, and reminded him that Mommy is here with him. On the final iteration, he said, “Pink balloon went to give the moon a cuddle…and a big kiss!” Our imaginations created a sweet story together that recognized and held space for our disappointment while also letting that disappointment fly away.

All this might seem like overkill to the average person, but, here’s what I think: none of us are average people. I think we are all Awakening Souls and even seemingly small things matter on our soul level.

I’ve been a mom for almost three years now. For the majority of these last three years, I have felt like I know absolutely nothing. I have doubted and second-guessed most of my choices. I have been overwhelmed with anxiety, insecurity, and uncertainty. I have thought myself in circles and driven my husband mad. How long did it take me to run a bath in order to get the exact temperature that the bath thermometer recommended? How many bottles of formula did I end up throwing away because I was so anxious while mixing in scoops that I lost count? I was so afraid of something terrible happening if I didn’t have the perfect formula:water ratio.

To an extent, all this is normal new-mom stuff. But for us, Younger Self, it goes deeper. It wasn’t just that my mom wasn’t there to help me as I became a mother. But that — she had never been there.

For as long as I can remember, she’s been lost to depression, or bipolar disorder. I’m not entirely sure what was diagnosed when, or if they’re kind of the same or mutually exclusive. Throughout the years, I’ve come across paperwork and pill bottles naming both. Or rather, you have, Younger Self. You found all those pamphlets on Mom and Dad’s desk. I still see that moment; like many having to do with Mom, it’s seared into my memory. You must have been looking for something, for answers. You wouldn’t have just randomly come across papers on their desk. Mom had been “sick” for awhile, and nobody told you or your brother anything beyond, “Mom is sick.” Which was not even needed to be said as it was very apparent. You found those papers, and then you tried to understand more about depression. You looked in through the Encyclopedia for answers. What exactly did you find? I can’t remember.

You partly felt relieved to know that there was a name for it and that there were pamphlets about it. Surely that meant there was a cure. But mostly you felt terrified. I’m so sorry you felt so scared and there was nobody to let you feel heard and supported, to look at your quivering lips, and to let you fall into their arms.

Being a big sister, and so concerned with everyone else’s feelings, before you could even begin to process how YOU were feeling, you translated your discovery into your younger brother’s protection. How will you protect him? How will you make it okay for him? He’s only little. But oh, Younger Self, you are only little, too. You should not have been left to try to figure that out on your own. You are so strong for trying.

It is not okay that you never had a mommy to talk to. It is not fair. It broke your heart. You didn’t deserve that. And you don’t have to pretend that it’s okay.

Love, Older Me

All children deserve to feel loved and safe. It goes against the natural order of existence when this does not happen. It is trauma at a foundational, core level.

Of course I cannot change my past. But I am working on finding peace with it. Trauma must be examined in order to be healed. So I am allowing my pain to come up and out of hiding. I am no longer remaining silent, first and foremost with myself. I am expanding my narrative so that I am not just someone who grew up with a mentally ill mother in a family that never spoke about it. I am learning to love and care for myself where it had been missing. I am learning to mother myself.

I am a mama, writer, yoga teacher, and mental health advocate.
More posts by Leah Kim.

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