Anxiety

"The Weight": Repost for Cleft and Craniofacial Awareness Month by Cara Stolen

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To say I was blindsided by Royce’s cleft lip and heart defect would be an understatement. I didn’t see it coming, not for one single second, and the trauma of his birth forever changed the course of my motherhood journey. July is National Cleft and Craniofacial Awareness Month, and to help raise awareness I’m re-posting one of the most vulnerable essays I’ve ever written about my experience.

These days, I hardly notice Royce’s scar, and his birth defects only come up twice a year: at his yearly well child appointment and the dentist. But his mild cleft lip was once all I thought about and all I (heartbreakingly) saw. And it forever clouded the way I think about and experience pregnancy.

The CDC reports that, in the United States alone, about 2,650 babies are born with a cleft palate and 4,440 babies are born with a cleft lip with or without a cleft palate, ranking craniofacial anomalies among the most commonly occurring birth defects. While there is a link between folic acid intake during pregnancy and cleft lip and palate, there’s still a lot to learn about the occurrence of these types of defects.

Looking for ways to help fund research and treatment? ACPA (American Cleft Palate-Craniofacial Association) is my personal favorite. An easy way to donate is to visit smile.Amazon.com where you can donate a portion of each purchase to the non-profit organization of your choice. Select “Cleft Palate Foundation” to have Amazon donate directly to the ACPA on your behalf.

Another great way to help? Donate to your local children’s hospital. Often, private donors help bridge the gap between what private insurance covers and the balance owed by families. These private financial assistance programs can be lifesavers for families like mine.

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The Weight


June, 2015

The house is unbearably hot, but the sound of the window-unit air conditioners rattles my already frazzled nerves, so I’ve turned them off again. I stand in the tiny downstairs bathroom, looking at my foreign postpartum body in the mirror and watching as tears stream down my face. There is silence on the other end of the phone in my hand, my mom waiting patiently for me to get the words out, to take some of this weight from me and shoulder it as her own. I desperately try to control the tears, control my emotions, control the grief that I can’t even accept as grief yet.

‘He’s not the perfect baby I pictured. It’s just...I’m sorry, I’m just really emotional. I think it’s my hormones.’ I stammer between sobs. I turn from the miserable stranger in the mirror, and walk away disgusted with myself.

I feel a heaviness in my body. Much heavier than the tiny 7 pound newborn sleeping upstairs. Heavier than anything I have ever tried to carry before. Too much weight for one person to carry alone, but I am stubborn, and unwilling to admit that I need help.

***

May, 2016

‘How old?’ the middle aged checker asks as she scans my cart full of groceries. I am preoccupied with keeping my very active 11 month old from grabbing the candy, or gum, or yanking my card out of the chip reader again, so by the time I realize she has spoken to me she is staring pointedly, as if I have snubbed her.

‘Oh! I’m so sorry, I didn’t hear you!’ I’m flustered, and my face feels hot, the weight of her gaze making me feel as though I should be better at this. ‘He’s 11 months!’

She turns to face him, and he leans as far away from her as possible in the seat of the cart. ‘It’s ok, buddy, you can say hi if you want,’ I say as I grab his hand and bounce it up and down in my own.

‘It’s ok,’ she says to me, her expression not exactly matching her words. ‘Would you like a balloon?’ she asks him, in what seems to be an attempt to make us all feel better about this awkward interaction. She turns back to me and raises her eyebrows, asking permission.

I nod, and smile. ‘He loves balloons, that would be great.’

She turns behind her, and untangles a ribbon from the web attached to her station, then hands the balloon weight carefully to him. ‘Here you go buddy, this will make that ouchie split lip of yours feel better.’

I can’t hide my confusion and irritation, and I feel my face contort into a look of pained annoyance. Knowing that she is referring to his Cleft lip, I stammer out a thank you and wheel the cart to my car.

After unloading the groceries and safely securing my son and his balloon, my hands shake as I call my husband in the parking lot. But he doesn’t answer, and I am left burning with anger, and irritation, and, if I’m honest, shame. Why can’t I get over this? Why do I even care what some stupid middle aged woman says about my son’s appearance? I drive home with tears streaming down my cheeks, overcome with the weight of it all.

***

February, 2016

‘Can I ask you something about his lip?’ a friend asks nervously. I am standing in a freezing cold arena, waiting to watch my husband rope. My son sits perched on my hip, completely enthralled by the bawling cattle, the horses, and the ropes flying through the air.

‘Sure.’ I say. But I already know what he will ask. His wife is pregnant, and I can see the worry and fear written all over his face.

‘Did you know about it before he was born?’

The question that so many people want to know, but are afraid to ask.

‘No. We had no idea. They missed it in all the ultrasounds. We didn’t find out until he was born.’ My answer disappoints him, and his nerves fill the space between us. I glance away, desperate to find my husband in the crowd, but it’s too late. His fear has added to the burdensome weight I carry, and I am left shifting my son from hip to hip, trying to balance my load.

***

August, 2015

Her name escapes me, but I remember her face. They have driven all night, ten hours from Eastern Montana with their son, at the urging of the rural hospital where he was born. She tells me about the rare genetic disorder that was discovered in utero, and apologizes for nervously checking her cell phone.

‘We have two older kids at home. I had to leave them with my mom…’ Her voice trails off, distracted by a message on her screen.

Glancing again at her son, I am taken aback by the tubes, and by the severity of his birth defects. Desperate to look away, I look around the waiting room we are sitting in, and see wheelchairs, and specialty medical equipment, and sick children everywhere I look. Each one of them accompanied by an exhausted, burdened caregiver.

I smile at the woman as she looks up at me again. So badly do I want to say something, anything, to ease her suffering. To ease my own suffering. But as I look at our two sons, side-by-side, I know that I am the lucky one. In the competition of ‘who has it worse,’ she wins. Every time.

When they call our name from the orange doors of the Craniofacial Clinic, I am surprised by how hard it is for me to get to my feet. I struggle under the weight of it all: the infant car seat, but even heavier, my grief, my shame, and my guilt.

***

February, 2017

The room is too dark, the couch is too soft. I am distracted by the mess of paperwork on the desk in the corner, feeling an overwhelming urge to tidy it up. I don’t want to be here. I have known this day is coming for weeks, and I’m still not ready.

‘Let’s see...where did we leave off?’ My therapist’s voice is calm, and I’m surprised by the anger I feel toward her. I want to shake her shoulders and scream in her face: ‘YOU KNOW EXACTLY WHERE WE LEFT OFF!’ Instead, I twist my sweaty hands in my lap, waiting for her to read through her chart notes.

Half an hour later, I have shredded three tissues, and sit surrounded by paper shreds, like a naughty cat, or nervous toddler. It has taken all of my strength to tell her what details I do remember of my son’s birth story, and I am emotionally spent and exhausted. ‘It’s ok to let yourself grieve. It’s ok to use the word traumatic.’

There it is. The permission I’ve been waiting for. The invitation to set down my baggage, and leave it in this dark, messy room. But I can’t. I look into her kind eyes, pick up my heavy bags, and struggle out the door, thinking of the mamas in that waiting room. The moms that have it worse. The moms that deserve their grief.

***

June 30, 2016 06:00

‘Will Mom or Dad be accompanying him back?’ the nurse-that-looks-too-young-to-be-a-nurse asks. The four of us are crammed into a tiny pre-op room, seated awkwardly around an iron-railed hospital crib that I refuse to stick my 12 month old son in. My husband and I exchange pained glances. We have discussed this already. It will be me. While I asked to be the one, part of me hoped that he would fight me on the issue.

When it’s our turn, I gather my sweet boy in my arms. He struggles against me, wanting to walk on his own and explore this new, strange place. I desperately try to stay in the moment with him, to see every detail of his face: his crooked grin and chubby cheeks, his white blonde hair and gap between his teeth; to remember how he looked as God gave him to me. But the hallway to the operating room is too dark, and I am distracted when the room itself looks everything and nothing like I expected it to. I need a minute. I want to scream at everyone to be quiet, to stop moving. I’ve been anticipating this day for 393 days, and now that it’s here I’m not ready.

***

June 30, 2016 14:00

I follow a different nurse down the same hallway, this time headed for post-op recovery. My heart beats in my ears, making it impossible to understand what he is saying to me. As we enter the recovery room my eyes frantically scan the cribs for my son. My heart jumps when I spot him: sitting on a nurse’s lap, in a tiny mickey mouse hospital gown, clutching his grey blankie with the hole in it.

Then, we are rocking together, as we have so many times before. Just the two of us, in this strange room, in this strange chair, surrounded by strange and unfamiliar noise. I stroke his hair, and gaze into his beautiful blue eyes, so filled with love and adoration. I examine his stitches, surprised by how few there are, and he smiles his big toothy grin at me. My breath catches in my throat. What was crooked is now straight. What was ‘broken’ is now fixed. And, to my surprise, I miss it.

We rock and rock, until they ask to move us. A still spot in a moving picture. Just me and my boy, and the heavy bags at my feet.

A Prayer for the Angry, Selfish Mom by Cara Stolen

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Heavenly Father, God of all things, Creator of sunshine, and motherhood, and ‘nola bars, thank you for the motherhood moments worth savoring.

The slobbery, yogurty kiss from a toddler who’s screamed for the better part of a morning. The unprompted I love you’s. The walk down the driveway when nobody cried or whined, and the late afternoon sun illuminated the wildflowers perfectly, and the preschooler exclaimed, “Oh, mama, LOOK,” mesmerized by the world You made.

You know, because You created that tired, overwhelmed mom, that she prefers silence to chatter and that her son’s incessant talking sends her over the edge by 7 a.m. on a semi-regular basis. You know that she longs to spend her days alone, lost in thought, instead of wiping bottoms and preparing food that may or may not get eaten. And You know that she thinks of her children as an interruption to her life entirely too often.

You know, because you see her struggle, how hard motherhood is for her—how much she agonizes over her parenting, how she berates herself for losing her temper again, and how difficult it is for her to be present in the moment and truly enjoy her kids. How counterintuitive it is for her to put the needs of her son and daughter before her own. You know how, when she gets really quiet and really honest, she wonders why she had those kids at all, and feels unfit to her core to mother them.

You know, because you hear her prayers, how often she asks forgiveness for her raised voice, her harsh words, her uncontrolled temper. How she withdraws to protect her kids and her husband from the anger festering inside her.

And you know, because You love her, how much those perfectly orchestrated little moments really mean to her. How they sustain and soothe her, breathing life into her weary soul and reminding her why she wanted to become a mother in the first place.  

That afternoon last month when her son asked if his sister could ride his balance bike? When they each held a side of the handlebars, and she perched her 18-month-old’s body on the seat as they walked slowly forward? You know the day I mean. On that afternoon, the warm sun caressed her still-pale-from-winter arms as a laugh bubbled up in her chest for the first time in weeks, its sound intertwining with her childrens’ giggles to create the most beautiful melody she’d ever heard. Her eyes met her son’s, and as she grinned she thought: Remember this. Remember this moment of pure joy, of being fully present, of loving my life so much I think my heart might explode.

It didn’t last (it never does), but that moment, brief as it was, sustained her through the tantrum-filled witching hour. It provided the fuel needed to get through the long book with real pages her son chose at bedtime instead of rushing through an eight-page board book they’d read a thousand times. Even weeks later, recalling how she felt in those brief seconds helps her suppress the resentment she feels toward her awake-too-early daughter’s screams this morning.

So thank you, Lord. Thank you for creating sunshine and wildflowers and laughter. Thank you for entrusting her those tiny humans whose needs are so great. But thank you, most of all, for the gift of moments worth remembering.

This post was written as part of a blog hop with Exhale—an online community of women pursuing creativity alongside motherhood, led by the writing team behind Coffee + Crumbs. Click here to read the next post in this series "Remember This."

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2018 by Cara Stolen

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I’ve never been much for New Years Eve. In fact, I don’t remember the last time I even stayed up until midnight to celebrate. But I LOVE New Years Day. I like to get up early and watch the sunrise, I love to set goals, and I am convinced that a new day planner has the ability to change your life.

On January 1, 2018, I woke up in our new house for the second time. Half the house still had subfloor exposed, and our kitchen was missing countertops and a sink (among other things). The night before, I celebrated the new year from my rocking chair. As fireworks sounded in the distance, I attempted to nurse Maggie before giving up entirely. That night I put all 90 mL of breast milk through her feeding tube at 12 am, 3 am, and 6 am, as she refused to nurse entirely. So as I made coffee that morning in our laundry room, I felt defeated, and disappointed, and mind-numbingly exhausted.

That day I didn’t set any goals. I didn’t reflect on the past year. I definitely didn’t look at our budget. I just tried to survive another day.

But later, at the end of January, I decided that February 1 would be my own personal New Years Day. And after some journaling, and lots of prayer, I felt God pulling me away from the elaborate goals and plans that I usually make for myself. Instead, I felt Him put a simple theme on my heart for the year: self discovery. After years of trying to better myself for others, I felt called to dig deeper into who He made me to be. So, in 2018 I set out to discover who I really was. These are a few of the things I found along the way:

  • After years of declaring myself “uncreative,” I discovered that I am, in fact, the opposite. This year I took several writing workshops, a photography class, started this (mostly neglected) blog, and had an essay published on Coffee+Crumbs.

  • I am a One on the Enneagram. I spent most of the year trying to discern my number, and thought for months that I was a Three. But after reading a few books and listening to too many podcasts to count, I finally figured out that I am in fact a Perfectionist. This has, without a doubt, been the most life changing revelation of all this year.

  • I love coffee, but caffeine is not my friend. I’ve been (mostly) caffeine-free for about 6 months and have never felt better. My skin is clearer, my sleep is more restful, my energy levels are more consistent, and my anxiety is reduced. Bonus? I can drink coffee all day long when its decaf!

  • I am a better mother when I take anti-anxiety medication. This year I spent about half the year on meds, and half the year off, and I can say with utmost clarity that I am a better version of myself while taking them.

  • I put a lot (too much) of my self-worth in my productivity and image. I focus an embarrassing amount of energy thinking about possessions, and appearances, and analyzing the appearance and productivity of others.

  • While I can create a killer spreadsheet budget, I am not all the great with money. I live in the present moment, and delaying gratification is difficult for me.

  • I am much more of an introvert than I previously thought, and I require a surprising amount of alone time to recharge.

  • It’s easier for me to be vulnerable with people I don’t know very well than those that know me best of all.

  • My mind is filled with non-stop chatter, that is (mostly) negative and self-focused. I am ruthlessly hard on myself, and it’s exhausting.

  • At my worst, I can be critical and judgmental of others. And after a year of self-reflection I have to say that this is, hands-down, my very worst quality.

So, there you have it: 365 days of reflection boiled down to 10 bullet points. And while 2018 turned out to be a pretty great year, I’m ready for the fresh start of 2019.

Happy New Year, friends.

On Rainy Days by Cara Stolen

‘Mom! Mommy! Mama!’

He has been awake for an hour, talking and singing and ‘reading’ to himself. I take a deep breath and flip on the light. He is bouncing up and down, eager to start the day.

‘Mom!’ He points a chubby, accusatory finger at a book on the floor. ‘I don’t want that book, I want this book!’ With triumph, he holds up his well-loved copy of Cowboy Small.

I had hoped that the quiet time I spent snuggled up with hot coffee and a book this morning would prepare me for the physical and emotional demands of parenting a toddler all day. But I can already feel pin-pricks beneath the surface of my skin and know it wasn’t enough.

Mustering a smile, I roll my shoulders, trying to relax. ‘You want me to read it to you, Buddy? I can go get Sissy and we can all read it together in your bed?’

His face falls, and I silently ridicule myself for being selfish this morning instead of spending some one-on-one time with my son. ‘No. I want up.’

I cross to the window and pull back the curtains to see low clouds threatening rain. Before babies, I relished days like today. They felt cozy and full of promise, begging to be filled with a good book and hot tea. But today, those rain clouds mean a day stuck indoors. Inside, there is never enough of me to go around, and my senses become overwhelmed by the noise and touch and demands of my children.

***

‘Mom!’

I turn to face him and kneel down to meet his gaze. His face lights up again.

‘Mommyyy! I’m going to Miss Sara’s today?’

‘No, today you get to stay home with Mom and Sissy alllll day!’ I inflect enthusiasm I do not feel, and my stomach clenches with guilt. In irony that does not escape me, I spent my morning reading about forming secure attachment to your children, the first tenant of which is Proximity.

Tentatively now, he asks, ‘I get to go to work with Dada?’

‘No, Buddy, Daddy’s busy today.’

His whole body tenses, causing me to brace myself in anticipation.

‘NOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!!! I DON’T WANT TO STAY HOOOOOOOOMMMMMMMEEEEE!’

Throwing himself on the floor, he is overcome with emotion. Tears stream down his chubby cheeks as he pounds his fists on the floor. I count to ten and resist the urge to react similarly with a fit of my own. I say a silent prayer for the day ahead, and mutter ‘I’m the parent, not the child. I’m the parent, not the child.’

***

‘Mom I want a muffin.’ His hand yanks at the hem of my shirt. ‘I want a muffin. Mom! I want a muffinnnnnnnnnn! MOMMY! I SAID I want a MUFFIN!’

I physically recoil from his touch. My chest tightens, and I force myself to take a deep inhale. My nerves feel frayed. Exposed. Raw. I am not supposed to have this reaction to my own son. His incessant chatter shouldn’t cause such a visceral response in my body. How can my own child trigger my anxiety? Shame courses through my veins.

***

A therapist once described my anxiety as ‘free floating,’ and I sobbed grateful tears that someone finally named the feeling I had experienced for my entire life. For me, anxiety is physical, and I feel it in every cell in my body. A tightness in my chest, an inability to expand my lungs, a claustrophobic tenseness in my muscles. I feel like a caged animal. A prisoner. Like I drank 15 cups of espresso before an MRI. And more often than not, I have no idea what is making me feel this way. No specific worry or concern, no fear of impending doom. Just the feeling, without the specificity.

I am most often triggered by sensory overload: loud noise, excessive touch, clutter; but also by the rapid fire of my own thoughts. Sitting in silence makes my skin crawl, but I find relief from reading in silence. The sensory overload of sitting in traffic can be mitigated by an audiobook or podcast. For me, occupying my brain and avoiding sensory overwhelm when possible are ‘best case scenario,’ and I have survived that way for years. But living that way is also incredibly selfish, a fact that motherhood has forced me to face head on.

***

The room fills with laughter, drawing my attention away from the mountain of laundry I am folding. We have retreated to the master bedroom as rain pelts the windows. He has pulled the comforter from our bed and giggles as his sister tries to use him as a climbing gym, tickling him in the process.

‘Mom! Come lay with us!’ His eyes twinkle as he meets my gaze with a grin, his words wrapped in a blanket of joy and delight.

I am startled by how light and innocent his voice sounds. Where I have so often seen a demanding, loud, and attention-seeking toddler, I see a sweet energetic boy with his daddy’s eyes who is growing up too fast. Am I missing it? Am I too preoccupied with my own survival to truly enjoy his childhood?

I hope that my children remember their childhood with fondness, my love for them shining golden light through those memories, the way the evening sun shines through a forest and creates pockets of twinkling magic. But I worry that they will instead remember me as being sober and withdrawn, busy battling my anxiety. I fear that this illness will prevent me from providing them with the mother I know they deserve.

‘Mommy! Come lay with us! Please!’

And so I do. I lie on the soft down and wrap my arms around my babies. I breathe in their sweet smell, and feel my lungs fully expand for the first time all day. I fly my white flag, and temporarily make peace with my demons. I snuggle them closer, and close my eyes to allow this momentary calm to wash over me. In moments like these, when I am so aware of all the ways I am not a perfect mom, I am still exactly who they need me to be.

 

 

 

Photo by Danielle Dolson on Unsplash