Three years ago, my marriage was suffering. Intimacy felt like it was gone forever. We were comfortably numb. After we put our daughters to sleep we would each assume our positions on separate couches with our cell phones in hand as we binge watched the latest series. I was scared. I could not imagine the rest of my life like this. I craved deeper connection. I wanted to go back to the days when we could laugh about anything or when we couldn't keep our hands off each other. I complained to my husband about all the things he wasn't doing for me and for our marriage. This only pushed him away. My own history with divorced parents set off all my inner panic. Fear motivated me to give our marriage all I had. I found articles and ideas online to increase emotional intimacy and spice up marriage. I started scheduling date nights and giving us more attention. We were trying to connect but it just wasn’t working. There was so much left unsaid and so much unhealed between us. You would never know from looking at us though. I made sure of it.
When my husband married me, he didn’t realize he was marrying my anxiety-for better or worse, in sickness and in health. His vows did not acknowledge this though I wish they had. I wish he had pledged then to be there for me not in spite of my anxiety but wholeheartedly with my anxiety. Would things have looked differently? He knew my history and the challenges I’d overcome. My resilience was one of the things he loved about me. He was the first person I could share everything with. With every painful truth I shared, he loved me more not less.
We had been living together for a few months when I found out I was pregnant. Pregnancy triggered anxiety. I did everything I could to be best prepared for our daughter’s arrival including a quick getaway wedding. When she was born, I felt a surge of adrenaline. I expected to feel tired, but I felt wired. I knew that it was a combination of postpartum hormones, the processing of my labor and delivery, and the huge responsibility for another human life. That first week I jumped into action. I vividly remember running up and down our basement stairs doing laundry while I let family hold my daughter. It had not dawned on me to ask them to do the heavy lifting so I could peacefully rest with my baby in my arms. I brought trays of muffins and juice out to our pool area to greet guests and we hosted our first barbecue just one week after I’d given birth. I was going to do everything and make it look easy.
I breastfed, I co-slept, I did my best to be available and respond to my daughter’s emotional cues but I forgot my own. Her birth had changed me instantly. Without my conscious awareness, I started holding onto my emotions and trying to hold it all together. My tears seemed to dry up and in their place was burning anger. I suppressed all of it. Amelia nursed every two hours for the first year of her life. On top of hormones, I was sleep deprived. I went back to school when she was three months old on nights and weekends. People told me how lucky I was to be a stay-at-home mom and I absolutely recognize the privilege in my situation. And this statement also made me so angry because I wasn't really a stay-at-home mom. I was a full time graduate student trying to juggle everything. I didn't fully connect with stay-at-home moms and I didn't connect with working moms. I was overwhelmed which triggered anxiety. I worried I wasn't doing enough. I worried I was doing too much. I worried I was a bad mother. I worried I was a bad wife. I worried people would judge me. I worried I'd fail and my child would suffer.
My anxiety showed up as control and criticism. I criticized my husband so much that I drove him away. He is the kindest, sweetest and most involved father and I communicated to him that he was not enough over and over and over again until he started to believe me. I had systems for everything and my way was the only way. I pushed him away at a time when I needed him more than ever. I resented his freedom to go to work and to travel for work as if he was going on vacation. He resented my control, criticism and lack of gratitude. That first year we struggled. We fought loudly. I was afraid we wouldn’t survive. And this made me feel so sad. I was a child of divorce and it has left scars on my heart. I did not want this for my child and at the same time I did not want her to be raised by parents who could not get along. I felt trapped. I felt ashamed. I told no one because I believed my value was sourced from being able to do everything. Perfectionism kept me from showing my humanity.
I felt like a failure at marriage. We had been married only three months when we became parents together. We were propelled right from the honeymoon phase of our relationship to MAJOR RESPONSIBILITY. We had conflicts before the birth of our daughter but we also had all the time in the world for repair. We had time and space to separate and individually tend to ourselves. We had space to make up. We could go out whenever we wanted or hold each other in bed all morning to reconnect. Before motherhood I had all the time in the world for self-care. After a stressful work week, I could shut out the world and wrap myself in a bubble of quiet and calm. I could spontaneously decide to go out and do whatever I wanted. Those days were over.
My anxiety flared in part from hormones and lack of sleep but more so because I was terrified to be seen in my vulnerability. I was carrying so much shame. In addition to triggering anxiety, control and criticism, motherhood also triggered deep wounds in me that I should have seen coming. The wounded child in me came flooding to the surface after I gave birth. I couldn't see this then. I was trying to mother from a place of consciousness without having had a blueprint. I was trying to give my daughter a different life than the one I had. I was parenting from a place of fear. I was parenting from a place of “not enough”.
In hindsight I could have hired a babysitter to support us. I could have shared with others how I was feeling. I could have joined a new mom’s group. I could have given myself permission to rest. I could have done so many things to nurture myself but at my core I did not know how to receive support. I did not know how to delegate. I did not know how to put my needs first. I thought I had to do everything on my own.
I was disconnected from my anxiety. I refused to call it that. My husband tried to talk to me about it and I'd get so angry. I could admit I had control issues. I could admit I needed to learn to go with the flow. In those next few years I would finish graduate school and have a second daughter. We moved back to my hometown per my request. My husband would have done anything to make me happy, to bring back the fun loving, passionate woman he had fallen in love with. But this move meant he had to give up a job he really wanted and leave behind his community. This grew his resentment especially since our move did not instantly transform things.
Anxiety manifested as control through perfectionism and pleasing. I wanted to be seen as a good mother and wife so I put everyone’s needs ahead of my own. We bought a big house, a status symbol for my ego which I soon would discover meant even more for me to take care of. My time was consumed taking care of my our house and kids, bringing them to playgroups, music, gymnastics, dance, hosting play dates, searching Pinterest for fun activities and wholesome recipes. I’ve always been successful in my jobs and being a stay at home mom would be no different. In all of the energy I spent trying to be Mom enough, I lost myself.
I felt unfulfilled. I felt drained. I felt guilty admitting this. I wanted to be there for my kids in the ways my parents had not been for me. But it turns out I did not love being a stay-at-home mom. Writing this brings me to tears. People told me how lucky I was to be home with them and to savor these days, but I wanted something more. I held onto all of this. I held onto to everything so tightly. My marriage was suffering. I’d become this person I didn’t like very much. As I disconnected from myself, my connection to my husband faded. The more disconnected I felt within, the more I poured my energy into my home, my kids and my marriage. I was so consumed with who I should be that I forgot who I was.
We started couple's counseling and after a few sessions I blurted out, “I FEEL LIKE I’M LIVING A LIE”. Both my husband and the therapist fell silent. You could hear a pin drop in the room. I couldn’t understand their shock. I felt relief. I'd finally said what was burning inside me. I think they both confused my words with divorce which I was not saying. My lie was that I projected to the world one version of me all the while feeling like I was hiding in plain sight. Inside of me were truths and feelings I felt afraid to express. Inside me were dreams and visions that I put on hold to be a good mother. Inside me were stories of resilience from my past that I desperately wanted to share. Within my wounds I knew there was tremendous wisdom. I felt as though there were two of me. The self that I projected into the world that was ruled by perfectionism and pleasing and my authentic self which is wildly dynamic.
Desperate for relief, I set out to heal this divide and to merge my authentic self with my projected self. I decided to drop the masks I was wearing and show up as ME which felt vulnerable as hell. I invested in a coach to support this opening. I started sharing my writing online. I started taking up space and allowing myself to be seen. I started taking time for me-NOT to do the things that needed to get done like cleaning, grocery shopping or Target runs. I started to take dance classes. I went horseback riding. I laid in my bed and watched a movie during the day without my kids. I took long baths. I made art. I started connecting with women who show up authentically in the world. I started investing in my wellness which meant spending money on me and my pleasure. I started writing again and releasing all that I had held onto. I climbed trees, jumped rope and brought a hula hoop. I decided to care for my inner child as if she was my third daughter because let's face it, she IS!
And you know what happened in the process, I attracted a community that celebrates me. I found the freedom I had always craved. I stopped criticizing my husband and started celebrating him. As I grew closer to myself, we grew closer together. I stopped yelling at my kids. My irritation gave way to gratitude and giddiness. As I grew closer to myself, I grew closer to my daughters. My energy level soared. And I discovered that my mess is my message. All the parts of me that I hid from the world, were the very parts that I'm leaning into now. I was a dancer who wasn't dancing and a writer who wasn't writing. Now I'm getting certified to teach JourneyDance, I'm writing a blog, and I'm writing a book.
Anxiety was an alert that there was something needing to be released within me. Control was the opposite of what I needed. Learning to allow myself to be seen, to embrace my needs, to sit with my emotions, to express my truth and to love myself unconditionally in the process-this was my homecoming.
Everything in your life is a mirror of your inner relationship. Peace starts within. Connection starts within. Intimacy starts within.