by Maggie Dyer Cusack
When life as we knew it changed, and schools, universities and daycares shut down “for 2 weeks” I like many moms transitioned into a work from home, daycare at home, stay at home role I never had any intention of living. “For 2 weeks”, I was to care for my three young children keeping them alive, fed and entertained while also working 3 days a week as a now “virtual” school-based SLP and teaching a now online course at a local university. I took crash courses to learn Zoom, learn effective virtual course management, and learn how to keep students engaged. I re-imagined final assignments, progress monitoring and my interpretation of “too much” screen time for little minds. As 2 weeks morphed into 2 months then schools and universities announced they'd be closing for the remainder of the year, I realized that my role as working professional mom was going to look very different from what I ever intended it to be. And so began what my husband and I now refer to as “my pandemic life”.
When I look back at the beginning, I am struck with the sadness and anger I felt to give up my identity as a working mom. I found myself asking why I had to be the one to stay home, to make a shift, to plead with managers and coworkers and other families to change schedules and meeting times. Why couldn't my husband stay at home? Why couldn't I go and hide in the upstairs office, why couldn't I go find a Starbucks parking lot or some other WiFi enabled refuge...and the truth is my husband tried to make it an equitable transformation. He tried to stay home; tried to navigate a world where we worked and lived and schooled and ate and played and tantrumed all together in less than 1500 sq ft. It lasted about a week, and he was on a call with someone in a foreign country, talking about distribution charts, and logistics models when our then 4 year old had the loudest, most emotional breakdown of the month, and I lost my bananas. Soon the whole house was yelling or crying or stomping, and my typically patient husband came storming down the stairs to figure out why the house was vibrating from noise, everyone was crying and he had to excuse himself from an international video conference. And so I was left to manage the schooling, the working, the cooking, the emotional adjustment, the snack giving, the whatever else we trudged through until my school year finally ended and we could start our summer- the whole reason I took a job in a school district. It was ugly. It was filled with sadness, rage, and anxiety. I missed deadlines; disappointed and frustrated college students I was teaching; and shifted expectations more than I could track. Finally however, the school year ended and I felt like I could breath even just for a few minutes.
Our summer was filled with time outside, distanced visits with grandparents, and beach trips. We again shifted our expectations for everything from summer play dates, to grocery store trips and walks to the ice cream place. Overnight trips to the beach we'd taken for years were replaced with day excursions and waving at family from a distance. My kids became bad asses at wearing masks, staying away from people who weren't, and playing with each other. I stuck to a schedule to make sure we got outside, broke the rut of staring at screens, and I stayed somewhat on track of keeping the house livable and the food edible. We walked to the playground on most mornings, made use of local trails, and waved at every neighbor who passed by our gates. I still yelled, the kids still cried and I still handed out what felt like 40 bazillion snacks a day. We eventually let our guard down, and started sleeping over with my parents and mother in law. In August we decided to join a local swim club, and we went everyday to soak up as much normal (while keeping our distance) as we could.
As the summer wound down, as a family and as a mom there was a big decision that needed to be made. Virus numbers were only getting worse, and there seemed to be no end in sight. I needed to decide if I'd be returning to work, where we'd send our kids for care, and if needed what a leave of absence for me or my husband might look like. Initially we'd signed the younger kids up for daycare, our oldest up for Kindergarten enrichment as well as public school. As my anxiety sky rocketed, and deadlines for leave applications loomed, I made the decision to not return to work. I was able to take advantage of a union negotiated leave that would grant me unpaid time off for the entirety of the 2020-2021 school year. I also declined an offer to teach a new course at our local university.
At the beginning of September 2020 I started my new official role as a pandemic stay at home mom. I set out to provide learning experiences for my preschooler, enriching experiences for my toddler, and foster a love of learning for my Kindergartner. As became a theme I adjusted my expectations, shifted the schedule and tried to hold tight as emotions continued to evolve. I tried to remember that I was doing something I'd never done before. Much like early motherhood, this would take learning and grace, time and patience. I've cried, yelled, screamed and felt bitter. I started medication and therapy to work through my anxiety. But I think most importantly, I've learned to recognize that I am incredibly lucky to spend all of this time with my kids, watching them grow and navigate their pandemic lives. My family is not negatively impacted by my pandemic life in terms of finances, food security or the ability to return to work. I am blessed and when I remember grace and patience I can almost by thankful for this shift.
by Lynn Polin
I hated everything about being pregnant. I hated the constant nausea, the restless nights, the way my body looked and how it felt. The movements and kicks felt foreign to me too and, truth be told, kinda freaked me out. Pregnancy glow? Yeah - that wasn’t me.
And I was infuriated about it because I deserved and wanted to enjoy every last bit of it.
See, I worked hard to have my 2 girls - 10 rounds of IVF hard. I spent 6 years of my life in doctors’ offices getting probed by ultrasound wands, getting my arms poked for blood draws and administering shot after shot of fertility drugs in my belly and bum. All I ever wanted was to conceive and be a mother. When I did, I felt an intense amount of guilt for complaining about it because this is what I wanted right?
No matter how you conceive, pregnancy. Is. Hard. It puts a strain on your body physically and emotionally. You don’t feel well a lot of the time, your feet swell, your back hurts and you can’t walk up a flight of steps without gasping for air. Just because you wished for it, worked for it and paid for it does not negate the fact that it is not glorious. And remember when you told everyone that you couldn’t wait for the morning sickness and would never groan about being pregnant? Yeah, that old you didn’t really know what she was saying so forgive her innocent ignorance.
You have permission to complain about pregnancy after infertility. You have permission to be angry at the fact that you worked really hard to conceive and are struggling to relish in it. Pregnancy is complicated and yours, despite your journey, is not immune to these blips. Embrace it, accept it, grieve the kind of amazing pregnancy you envisioned and ground in the fact that yes, this is what you wanted, yes, it is more difficult than you imagined, and yes, this too shall pass and your little miracle will be in your arms.
I’m going to share something really hard, so take a breath before reading on….
You also have permission to complain about being a mom because being a mother is incredibly difficult and taxing. So forgive that old you who said she couldn’t wait to be up all night with her screaming infant because she really had no idea that this is what it was actually going to be like. Sure you love your baby and wouldn’t want it any other way. But parenting is hard, like unequivocally hard. You are not a “bad mom” for wishing your baby would sleep a little longer, cry a little less and be a little more cooperative. You are being a mom who is doing the absolute best that she can.
Offer yourself the utmost compassion and grace during these life changes. You have been through an incredible and most likely traumatic family-building journey. You deserve to be a mom. You deserve the time and space you need to complain like other “normal” moms do. The truth is, you may have reached parenthood in a different way but you are not exempt from the beautiful chaos that comes with it.
You are enough, Momma. You are enough.
Lynn Polin is a wife, mom, fertility coach and volunteer, and a fierce infertility warrior. Her coaching practice is Kindred Beginnings in South Jersey.
My mom died 4 months before I found out I was pregnant with my daughter. My mom was my biggest champion, and us kids were the center of her world, even after we were grown. Finding out I was pregnant was both joyful and deeply sad – the definition of bittersweet. I know my mom would have been so thrilled to hear the news and would have shared it with every one of her friends that same day. (When I’d go home to visit and we’d run into friends at church or the grocery store, it was always VERY clear that Mom had kept them updated on my life!)
As I suffered through ridiculously terrible morning sickness, I wanted to call my mom for sympathy, and I wanted to ask her if she had experienced something similar.
As my pregnancy progressed and the morning sickness waned, I was grieving my mom’s death. I wept, heaving sobs, crying myself to sleep many nights. I worried about the impact on the “bean” growing in my womb.
My sweet friends organized a baby shower for me. The women gathered in a circle to bless me and the baby who was coming. My friend who was leading the women in offering these blessings asked me if I wanted to say anything about my mom. What a thoughtful offer, right? Well, that didn’t go well. In that moment, I wanted to run and hide and weep and never see anyone again. Instead, I choked down my sobs and said, “No thanks.” Awkward. The wave of grief that overcame me was about the realization that I was going to have to give birth and make my way through mothering an infant without my own mother. Of course I knew this intellectually but I hadn’t felt it fully until that moment.
And then, the moment of truth. Giving birth to my daughter was one of the most powerful experiences of my life – right up there with being with my mom when she died. In the moments after my daughter was born, I felt more connected to my mom than ever, and also felt her loss more deeply than ever. (Well, let’s be honest – in the moments after my daughter was born I was getting stitched up after a terrible tear, so I wasn’t really thinking about my mom. But I’m talking about once I recovered from that!)
During that first year of my daughter’s life, I learned so much about my mom. I learned what being a mother is, and I began to understand my mom in a whole new way. I want to apologize to her for all the ways I misunderstood her actions as overbearing or annoying when in fact they were just the loving, protective actions of a fierce mama bear. I want to have the relief of saying, “Mom, I’m sorry. I get it now.”
I want to be able to call her and hear her squeal with delight at each milestone my daughter reaches.
I both understand my mom more than I ever did when she was alive and also miss her more with each parenting question or milestone my daughter reaches.
So, what helps? The first step: Feeling the feelings. Talking to people who get it. Grief work is hard work, but it’s worth it. Grief work is meant to be done in connection and is meant to be witnessed. I co-founded a group of motherless mothers who were also parenting small children and we supported each other in parenting through grief. Our monthly sessions were a place I knew I could go to cry, scream, vent, and be petty about the moms around me with grandmas swooping into help. We figured out how to talk to our kids about our moms, and to keep our relationship alive with our deceased mothers.
So if you are a motherless mother who is pregnant or parenting an infant, remember it is normal to:
Susanna Gilbertson, MSW, ACC offers grief support and coaching for motherless mothers. Her own journey of mothering her daughter without her mother, and the support she received inspired her grief coaching career. She is a graduate of St. Joe’s Coaching Leader Program, an Associate Certified Coach through the International Coaching Federation, and a certified From Grief to Gratitude coach. Susanna has 20 years of experience as a social worker and teaches social work at many local universities. More information may be found on her website or follow her on Instagram. Susanna can be reached at email@example.com.
On this night into the next day in 2007, I experienced trauma beyond what I even thought possible. I always write blog entries and never publish them, but today is a day I think it's appropriate to share a brief bit that led me into trauma-informed birth work. I am also linking below to the amazing Birth Bruja podcast on the episode where Eri so lovingly interviewed me about my survivor birth story.
In 2007, I was taken and held in the home of a man I did not know, and assaulted. I survived physically, and it left me flailing, trying to find safe ground to root again and thrive. I sunk everything I had into healing, because, for me, it was life or death. I had survived, and I was not about to hand my life over any more, or give anymore than had already been taken. I found incredible healing in yoga-- my body could do amazing things! I reclaimed it, reclaimed its power and its beauty, and began to slowly love her. I went to trauma counseling. I tried groups. I started a nonprofit to help survivors heal through creative arts and movement. All of it peeled away the trauma, and left me whole again.
When I became pregnant, I very naively expected the birth world to be trauma-informed. I expected that I would be given options for exams, and that I would be told what was going to be done to my body before it happened. This was far from the case. I always say that I am an "out loud" survivor. I am fairly comfortable sharing my survivorship. I told provider after provider that I was a survivor, and still exams were traumatic and upsetting. What was happening to all of the survivors who did not feel as comfortable sharing their survivorship with their providers? It left me with the realization that trauma-informed education needed to extend to birth work.
I began speaking at conferences and workshops with birth workers, lactation professionals, OBs, labor and delivery nurses, and midwives. Every single time I would finish, a doctor or other provider would come up to me and unload guilt for not knowing before. It is always wonderful being able to empower birth workers and others by sharing information on birth and trauma, and helping with the healing and moving forward-- when you know better, you do better. I have met amazing healthcare professionals and other birth workers through sharing what I know best in this life-- trauma and healing. It was after years of doing this type of education that I realized how much I longed to be back with clients hands on in a direct service capacity.
Being a trauma-informed doula and lactation counselor has allowed me to offer healing, empowerment and advocacy in spaces that may feel frightening or retraumatizing to survivors and others who struggle with higher anxieties. There is nothing that makes me happier than helping someone realize how amazingly strong and wonderful they are.
While my birth experience was challenging at best, it led me further down the path of post-traumatic growth, and led me further into spaces where I could help others. I learned too that my body was not my trauma, and that it could do amazing things. Experiencing this trauma anniversary in quarantine certainly is producing some challenges. Feeling "stuck" tends to be a hot button feeling for me. Not having the typical distractions of going out, spending time with friends or family, working, and generally keeping busy has left me to sit with that girl from 2007.
Today, as I sit with her, I am telling her (and maybe you) that she is lovely, and brave, and so so strong. She survived the unthinkable, and spoke it out, and healed it up, and came into her own knowing exactly her worth and her wants. She has been to hell and back, and when you touch that darkness, the light in every corner is more beautiful than you could imagine.
If you would like, please visit the link below to listen to my survivor birth story. Note that it was created gently and lovingly, and while there is mention of sexual assault, most of the story focuses on survival, thriving and growth. Thank you for bearing witness to my story.