Sunday, October 30, 2016

How Parenting Has Affected My Faith

I am happy to be returning to this blog with the annoncement that I am, once again, "fully Catholic". That's not to say that there's really such a thing as a "partial Catholic", just that I FEEL Catholic, and that I am actively living a Catholic life, however imperfect, striving for virtue and faith.

It has been a long journey, over two years.  Being given several months of clarity to reflect on what went wrong before being launched into the postpartum period again next month, I've been able to determine what went wrong.  Why did I lose my faith?  What can I do differently this time around?

You see, I pretty much blame postpartum depression/anxiety on my loss of faith.  So as I prepare to give birth to baby #2 next month, I worried that any progress I may have made in the interim may be compromised yet again in the postpartum period.

Prior to the birth of Maya, Alex and I were very involved in our church community, had an active prayer life at home, and had overcome several trials of faith.  Our prayers had been answered with the blessing of our daughter, and it killed me to be feeling anything but eternal gratitude to God.

Here's what I believe contributed to my postpartum depression/anxiety and the resulting loss of faith.

1. Breastfeeding challenges. Within a week of birth, I suffered nipple damage that resulted in a breast infection (mastisis), breast absceses that needed to be drained twice, and a yeast infection, all of which contributed to my limited milk supply and the heart-wrenching decision to supplement with formula.  It took a full two months to resolve our breastfeeding challenges, thanks in huge part to a godsend of a lactation consultant, Angela, and the fact that Maya had a chance to grow a bit, thus resolving the low palate issue that caused the initial nipple damage.

2. Loss of familiar surroundings. Almost as soon as the breastfeeding issues were resolved, we sold our house and moved to be closer to Alex's work.  While this was the best decision for our family without any doubt, it did bring about severe stress.  For one, the house we spent a decade together, the house where I had just given birth to our daughter, was gone.

3. Loss of a support network. We moved out of state, away from what limited support network I would've otherwise had.  I didn't know anyone, friend or relative, and was very isolated home alone with a newborn.  As much as I've wanted and enjoyed being home with our daughter, in retrospect I see that I really needed some sort of social outlet to help normalize the situation.

4.  Neglect of healthy lifestyle.  We resorted to convenience foods, low on the nutritional scale, and certainly didn't think beyond getting sleep whenever possible.  There was no thought of exercise, or hydration, or a social life outside the home, or personal development, or couple-time.  There was only being "on" with full-on care of our baby, or desperately catching some sleep whenever possible.  In my case in particular, sleep is a big necessity.  My body requires 8-10 hours of uninterrupted sleep to feel fully refreshed.  Needless to say I was not getting any meaningful stretch of uninterrupted sleep, much less the amount my body needs.

The above put me into survival mode.  I was just going from day to day, trying to make sure our daughter was safe, fed, clean, repeat.  I had completely ignored all other aspects of myself, my identity, my life. I avoided leaving the house, including to church, for the first month or so, finally venturing out for Christmas Vigil mass, because I didn't want germs around my precious baby.  So even before we moved, I had distanced myself from the church community that meant so much to me.  Somehow, prayer also got lost in the shuffle.  There's no other way to describe it: I was in survival mode.

I had ridiculously high expectations of myself and what it meant to me to finally be given the opportunity to parent, to be a mother.  That's why our breastfeeding challenges were such a deep blow to me.  I couldn't even articulate the disapointment I felt over having to introduce a bottle on day 6 of Mayas life, of having to feed her factory-produced formula that I couldn't vouch for myself.

This muggy mental state that resulted, primarily from sleep deprivation but also from unrecognized stress factors (the move, social isolation, and already feeling like a failure in motherhood) contributed to the onset of my postpartum depression and anxiety.  It either didn't kick in until after 6 weeks post-partum, or I didn't realize it was already underway until then.  Afterall, I did go to my 2 week and 6 week postpartum visits with my midwife, and they do screen for depression, yet it wasn't flagged at those times.  By the time my 6 month postpartum visit came around, I had been to hell and back mentally.

For four months straight, isolated and sleep deprived, I suffered from horrible visual images of worst-case scenarios popping into my mind throughout the day.  There didn't seem to be any discernible trigger.  If one of our dogs caught my attention, my mind went straight to my baby being attacked by the dog.  If I wanted to go sit out on our balcony with baby on my lap, my mind went straight to accidentally tripping and dropping baby over the banister.  I know parents worry, but this wasn't worry, this was as if I was having flash-backs of horrible things that actually happened.  I imagine post-traumatic stress disorder works in a similar way.  There's no reason for the thoughts, they just creep in and take over any sense of logic.  I stopped watching crime shows with Alex at this time, and the news, thinking that perhaps the violence there is what subconsciously triggers violent thoughts for me.  It's now been over two and a half years since I've been censoring what I view.  (And if you knew me, you'd know how much I enjoyed watching shows like Elementary or NCIS with Alex.)

Presumably because my mind was constantly occupied with violent visuals or subconscious fears of another vision episode catching me off guard, I just went about my daily life on auto-pilot.  Around four months post-partum, I started being able to incorporate housework into my daily life.  I took tons of photos and videos of my precious daugher.  I was very keenly aware of the miracle she was in multiple ways.  My entire life revolved around doing everything I possibly could to give her the best start in life.  I jumped into attachment parenting with both feet first, and only in retrospect have I realized that I completely ignored one of the principles of AP: balance.  I did not seek to balance my daughter's needs with mine at all.

Most of our parenting decisions I continue to stand by, even though outsiders may think they contributed to my sense of overwhelm.  However, I definitely went overboard with a few, and this is where hope enters in.  Having recognized that I did not do Maya any favors by neglecting my own mental health, I intend to be vigilent and proactive about my own mental state with her baby brother.

First of all, I do not have to worry about moving or social isolation this time around, which already gives me a sense of ease.  We are settled into our new house and I've made friends locally.  As for breastfeeding, I cannot predict if we'll also struggle or not, but I know now to immediately seek out a lactation consultant if need be, and we know of one through our church.  We have develped a bit of a sense of community at our new church, and my faith has returned to a good working place. I know that there are a few things I have to keep at the forefront of my mind in order to avoid slipping back into mental chaos.

Daily prayer.
Weekly Mass attendance.
Monthly Confession.
Regular visits with friends (most likely playdates)
Regular alone time while kids enjoy daddy-and-me time (we started this with Maya)
Daily exercise: family walk or yoga while the kids play or dancing with the kids
Weekly one-on-one connection with each child (while Maya is having daddy-and-me time, baby brother is having mommy-and-me time, and vice versa)
Every few months, Alex and I need to find a way to connect just the two of us.  (We don't require frequent date nights, as the past three years have proven.  We are happy to take Maya with us when we go out to eat, and that is always a nice treat with no need to worry about childcare.  Also, car trips usually allow for adult conversations, though lately our little jibber-jabber has been struggling with giving us our own conversation time.)
Annual spiritual retreat.  I don't know if we'll be ready when baby brother is only 8 or 9 months old, as the annual women's retreat through our church is in August.  It will all depend on his sleep and nursing.

Which actually brings me to the Balance aspect of attachment parenting, and how I hope it will contribute to a saner post-partum period and baby/toddler years.  I did not hold anything back when it came to breastfeeding and cosleeping. What's more, I took it upon myself to practice elimination communication, which was great during the daytime, and Alex and I both agree that it was worth the effort (Maya has been diaper-free since 18 months, completely out of pull ups for backup on outings since 2.5, mostly bc we finally got up the courage to trust her.)

I was able to reestablish exclusive breastfeeding for three months before solids entered the picture with Maya, and I wanted to make up for the formula I had to feed her in the first three months of her life.  I still intend to breastfeed on cue, however - especially if we are spared the trauma we went through with Maya - I now know that you can, indeed mix breast with bottle without any dire consequences (something I feared the first time around but was forced to find out was unwarranted), and so perhaps we can have some night feedings done by daddy with pumped milk, and if so, I may very well be able to attend next year's spiritual retreat.

Sleep.  Sweet sleep. I simply cannot provide the same environment to my second baby as I did to my first, as that would involve neglecting my older child.  I cannot be of any use to either of them sleep-deprived, and so I will be more strict in this sense.  I do not adhere to crying it out.  I do not believe in "sleep training" per se.  However, I do now recognize that just because a baby cries doesn't mean I'm doing something wrong.  I simply did not want to hear my daughter cry, and that was a mistake. With my son, I will take a different approach.

For starters, since we saw how successful it was for us to watch our daughter for signs of needing to use the potty, and how that enabled us to keep from teaching her to go in the diaper, then why can't we apply the same approach to sleep?  Basically, we will watch him for signs of sleepiness, and place him in his bassinet to fall asleep there.  I won't make it a habit of letting him fall asleep at the breast every time, even though I know it's only natural that he'll get drowsy nursing.  I won't just drop him off and leave the room, either.  But I want him to learn that sleep is something that he can do on his own, if still in the viscinity of loved ones.  I don't see why I didn't do this with Maya.  I kept a meticulous log of the times she ate, slept, eliminated!  I could've easily looked back to see when I should be encouraging sleep by placing her down instead of letting her get used to falling asleep in our arms, especially at my breast.  I will be keeping a log with baby brother too, so after the first week or two, I will look back to see if a rough "schedule" could be drafted for his sleep times.  (I do shutter at the word "schedule" on one hand, but on the other hand, I know that limits allow freedom, both for me and the kids, so I just need to view it as something we do in moderation, but that we do do.)

And as for elimination communication, we will definitely do it again, but I will definitely not deprive myself of further sleep in order to be putting him on the potty in the middle of the night when he's still peeing multiple times at night!  (I did this with Maya, and had to take a break at 10 months to save my sanity.  Lo and behold, when I returned to it a few months later, I noticed she was able to hold her urine all night, and she actually started staying dry at night before daytime dryness.)  So we will defintiely take him to the potty during the day when at home, but we will definitely not stress about him wearing diapers on outings, and I won't be getting up at night to put him on the potty for the first year. If I'm up anyway, to nurse him or change a diaper, then of course might as well sit him on the potty.  But I need to stop waking up at every little sound and movement my cosleeping baby makes!  If he pees in his diaper at night, so be it.  The trade off is a happier, better rested mama.  I'm sorry, but my Eco-Idol needs to go.  I do now think that sanity is worth a diaper in the landfill (since I'd want disposables at night to minimize discomfort and thus wake-ups; cloth during the day for sure!  I'm not planning on worrying about accidents left and right either by letting him go diaper-free before his skills have been tested.)

So with those three parenting adjustments, the different set of circumstances in our living situation, and my conscious decision to maintain a balance in my own well-being, I hope to keep post-partum depression/anxiety at bay, and by extension, keep my faith growing and going in the right direction.

This post started out being about the state of my faith, but I think the practical analysis will prove to be more helpful in its application.  Bottom line, I do not want to lose my faith again.  I am choosing to remain Catholic.  I am choosing to believe in the fundementals of Catholicism.  I am choosing to focus on those areas of Catholic faith and spirituality that nurture my desire for holiness and virtue.  I am choosing to ignore those areas of faith that create in me any sense of doubt, skepticism, or temptation to "use my intellect or reason".

God exists.  God created me.  God loves me.  Death is a mere transition to a more complete state of being with God.  These things I know and believe with every fiber of my being, and these are the things I want to nurture from a uniquely Catholic perspective, because why not?  Catholicism is my heritage, it's a beautiful religion, and it makes no difference that others may find exactly the same thing in another tradition.  To each their own.  Catholicism is for me.