Telling Her Story: Winnie, Mom to Kobi (almost 8) and Myla (5.5)
Winnie and I were in the newborn trenches together. We were both expats living in London with our English husbands, pregnant at the same time and blissfully ignorant to what was waiting for us as we oh-so-boldly stepped into motherhood. I was a few months ahead of her but soon her son Kobi arrived and we became each others’ life rafts as we attempted to stay afloat through the madness that is becoming a first-time mother.
We both continue to be so grateful that we had the other to commiserate with. We would text each other at all hours of the day and night, trying not to lose our minds with issues around sleep (or rather, lack thereof), feeding, and incessant crying.
“Babies are just a**holes,” I once texted her, repeating what another mom friend had said to me.
Winnie still finds hilarious comfort in this thought. The first time I said it to her, it was like the release of a pressure valve just before the point of explosion and it became somewhat of a mantra to keep her sane through difficult moments.
Like me, Winnie had wildly underestimated the difficulty of bringing home your first baby. All the classes that she had taken while pregnant were focused on preparing for labor. She had not thought beyond the birth and once she got home with her new baby, she realized she was completely unequipped. She knew nothing about routines, how to change a diaper, how to bathe the baby, or even where to put the baby. She felt overwhelmed with the feeling that there was so much she could mess up.
Hiring a maternity nurse 8 weeks in saved her life. “When your car breaks down, you don’t know how to fix it. You take it to a professional. You get help. Parenting is no different - I had never been a parent before! Of course I didn’t know anything!”
With the guidance of her beloved maternity nurse, Winnie got to a place of feeling in control again. She had a routine that worked. But she became obsessed with sticking to the routine, worried that any deviation - even putting her son to bed 5 minutes late - would cause everything to come crashing down. Mothering felt mechanical as she found herself always anticipating the next nap time or wishing she could just hand the baby to someone else. She wondered if something was wrong with her that she was not gushing about how much she loved her baby like the moms in her mom group. She viewed motherhood as a list of endless, exhausting tasks she had to complete whereas other moms talked about the closeness - the bond - that they felt.
In hindsight, and after having a completely different experience when her daughter was born, Winnie wonders if she had been suffering from postpartum anxiety, a variation of postpartum depression that she feels is not really being talked about.
When her second, her daughter Myla, was born, she did feel an instant connection. She finally understood that this was the feeling that those other mothers had been talking about. Everything felt enjoyable. She felt the love straightaway. She felt so much better.
Kobi's and Myla’s births were completely different, as are their personalities and even their health. When Kobi was born, both he and Winnie were unwell and prescribed courses of antibiotics. Kobi had a low white blood cell count and jaundice and had to stay in the NICU while Winnie was discharged. She had to return home without her baby. As Kobi got older, he had more issues such as febrile seizures and rashes. Meanwhile, Myla has had no health problems and she was born via a wonderful water birth with Winnie exclaiming, “This is amazing!” as opposed to screaming in agony.
Winnie can't help but think that how they respectively came into the world impacted how bonded she felt with each child. She reflects on not having followed the Chinese myths when she was pregnant with Kobi, mostly around what she shouldn’t eat such as lamb (to avoid mental issues) or prawns (to avoid skin issues). Kobi would go on to have various health challenges and although her rational side knows that she probably did not cause anything by what she ate while pregnant, she carries guilt and she ended up avoiding these foods when she was pregnant with Myla.
As many mothers end up experiencing, Winnie was much less stressed with her second. She knew how to establish a base routine and she was much more flexible about everything. She saw that it did not matter if bedtime was a bit late; her kids were able to bounce back. It also helped that Myla was such a happy and easygoing baby - smiling so much that her nickname became Smyla!
Just as Winnie was feeling like she had found a rhythm of motherhood, she and her husband decided to move from London to California. Life felt incredibly stressful again being in a new country with young children, trying to understand how things worked and balancing her full time job with parenting. On top of just trying to get settled into their new life, Kobi’s health issues became more complicated than ever as he was diagnosed with epilepsy and then ADHD.
On one hand, Winnie felt relief in having a medical explanation for Kobi’s tantrums, which could be triggered by the most unavoidable things such as his younger sister’s very breathing. On the other hand, it has been overwhelmingly stressful going through the process of figuring out the best treatment, with Kobi initially being misdiagnosed and put on the wrong medication and now trying to figure out the best dosage of medication to get his health under control. With the constant barrage of phone calls, meetings, and forms coming at her from work, school, and doctors, Winnie hit her breaking point. She found herself panicked, unable to talk, and crying endlessly. She was completely overwhelmed by the thought that something terrible was going to happen.
Winnie started researching and learning as much as possible about Kobi’s diagnoses. She wanted to understand how she could be his best advocate. Just as she had done through her postpartum anxiety, she grounded herself by focusing on the tasks she needed to do for her child. She figured out what action steps she could take. She reached out to doctors and specialists and worked with his school to get him on an IEP - an Individualized Education Plan.
She read about other families’ experiences and was able to see that she had much to be thankful for. She realized she was not alone. She refused to wallow in how difficult life was while allowing herself to mourn the loss of what she always thought she would have, what she found herself feeling envious of - a family with only neurotypical kids. Eventually, with the support of a therapist and anti-anxiety medication, she turned a corner.
I have always admired Winnie’s enduring cheerful attitude. I don’t know if it’s because she is a Kiwi (it really seems like everyone I know from New Zealand is superhuman in their optimism and relaxed nature) or if she was just born happy, like her daughter. She takes ownership of her mindset where she can and she is committed to taking care of herself, which means staying connected to her identity outside of being a mother.
“It was important to my husband and me to make sure our lives did not revolve around our kids, otherwise you can lose connection with yourself and with your partner. This means we invest in childcare so that we can have our life outside of being parents. We also try to take a lighthearted approach to parenting. As we know, kids can be, well, a**holes! We can’t make everything in life be about them.”
Along with therapy and medication, Winnie makes sure to exercise regularly, get massages, and put the kids to bed on time. She and her husband also socialize with friends and play golf together. With this intentional structure of self care, she is better able to manage the difficulties around having a neurodivergent child. She also knows that she has a support system in place that she can lean on, from Kobi’s doctors and school to her husband and her close friends.
I feel honored to be walking this motherhood journey with such a warrior woman. When we mamas support each other, hold space for each other, and root each other on, I believe that that unconditional love ripples through and into our respective families so that even if we live far away from each other, we can still be a part of each others’ virtual villages.