In the leadup to giving birth, six years ago, I did all kinds of research on managing through an unmedicated birth, cloth vs disposable diapers, and how to survive breastfeeding. I queued up pregnancy meditations, diligently did prenatal yoga, took vitamins, stayed away from caffeine, washed all the newborn clothes and put them away dreaming of how precious being a mom would be. I wasn’t all starry-eyed, I did have a vague understanding that even with all my research, I would be mostly clueless and sleep would be in short supply, but mostly I was excited to get going with what I felt was my purpose in life. And then reality hit.
Parenting is hard. Like really, really hard.
Sleepless days and sleepless nights, painful nipples, googling the color of baby poop at 2am, feeling trapped under a sleeping baby just a few inches short of the tv remote, my phone, water bottle, and really anything that would relieve some of the boredom. Snapping at my partner in exhausted resentment. Parenting can be the loneliest, most isolating time, while simultaneously feeling like you never get alone time. Don’t get me wrong, it’s also filled with moments that fill your heart so fully it almost feels like it could burst. That tiny fist curled tightly around your finger, the first smile, that first stretch of four vs two hours of sleep, ahhh, glorious!
Throughout it all, postpartum hormones waxed and waned while worries and anxieties popped up out of nowhere. While I was pregnant, I was incredibly fortunate to meet a group of women living in my neighborhood who were all pregnant at basically the same time. For the most part, none of us knew one another, we just had two commonalities – we lived in the same three block radius and were giving birth in 2013. One woman had the presence of mind and sense of community to suggest we form a “Mom’s Group.” We met once a month or so, daring to get to know one another and sharing in our hopes and fears. One by one, each of us gave birth, meal trains were formed, “playdates” were scheduled, and our formal once a month meetings became less formal but more frequent (often meeting at the local dive bar, ha!). In the years since, we all got pregnant at least one more time and playdates have become actual playdates with the kids becoming fast friends. Our whole group meetings have migrated to a constantly running whatsapp group (the dads have their own whatsapp thread) and our families share in many holidays, Friday pizza nights, and backyard biking.
As I sit here typing, anticipating with excitement and anxiety the birth of my third child, I find myself reflecting on just how essential this little neighborhood village has been for my mental and emotional health. Every other Thursday, I co-lead a support group for pregnant and postpartum mamas and have the honor and privilege to witness the power of community. The women I’ve met in group, often different from week to week, are incredibly brave in their honesty as they open up about their deep sadness and anxiety, often bringing to light thoughts and feelings that have been hidden in fear of judgment from their loved ones. That perception of judgment pales in comparison to the self-criticism, self-blame, and shame so many women experience as they admit to themselves and others their complicated and conflicting emotions around pregnancy, motherhood, and parenting. Despite everyone’s unique stories, there are always elements that someone in the group resonates with and often vocalizes in support. The sense of relief that each woman feels, both in verbalizing their vulnerability and feeling held by the group, can be palpably felt in a sigh, a relaxation of the shoulders, a gush of tears, or a firmer voice. While yes, sometimes, the group can problem solve and suggest strategies, most times the magic of the group is in the dawning knowledge that you’re not alone. I recently attended a psychotherapy training that suggested one of the key elements that turns a difficult experience into a trauma is feeling alone through the pain and fear. Whether through a neighborhood mom’s group, a formal support group, or in individual or couple therapy, I’m convinced at least 50% of the healing comes from sharing and feeling a connection with a person or people who truly “get it” and who can normalize, validate, and support the heck out of you. Sometimes these people are your friends and family, sometimes they’re not, sometimes they’re strangers you won’t ever meet again. Wherever you are in your pregnancy or parenting journey, whether this is your first child or your third, don’t underestimate the importance of connecting with others. Join or create your village. Find an easily accessible support group. Hit send on that draft email to a therapist. Research public library storytimes. Tape the pre/postnatal yoga schedule on your fridge. And preferably, try to do most of this while you’re pregnant when you may still have the time or if you don’t, task your partner or your best friend with creating a resource list and then use it when it’s given to you. (Check out the local chapter of Postpartum Support International, it’s often a good starting place for accessing care.)
For those of you in the area, you’re all welcome to attend the free, drop-in and baby friendly support group I co-lead every other Thursday from 130-230pm at The Breastfeeding Center for Greater Washington. And just to be absolutely clear, we welcome all women regardless of how you feed your child. If you think you may need a bit more specialized care, I run a private psychotherapy practice in downtown Washington, DC that can help. Check out my website for more information on both my practice and the support group, www.cindykimtherapy.com.
I’ll close with two reminders.
- You are not alone.
- You are enough, just as you are.
Take good and gentle care of yourselves.
Cindy Kim, MSW, LICSW is a psychotherapist working in private practice in downtown Washington, DC providing individual and couples therapy. While she’s been in practice for over ten years, she started to specialize in maternal mental health shortly after having her first child. Two children later (and one on the way), Cindy can attest to just how tough it all can be – getting pregnant, staying pregnant, being pregnant, giving birth, and then having to keep a baby healthy, much less making sure he or she grows up to become a decent human being! It’s tough to access good emotional healthcare when you’re preoccupied with your baby’s needs. And yet, you know that the health and well-being of your child depends on the health and well-being of his or her mama. Cindy has a passion for bridging that divide – supporting moms, couples, babies, and families. For more information and to make an appointment, check out www.cindykimtherapy.com.