Acceptance is often discussed as the final stage in a variety of different emotional transformations or processes. Acceptance of the loss of a loved one, acceptance of divorce, acceptance of a chronic illness. And there are other common stages that come before acceptance, including disbelief, denial, anger, and sadness.
For me, having twins has been such an emotional transformation. And, at least according to my therapist, I have yet to accept that my life has changed as a result of having two babies. This lack of acceptance is allegedly the cause, or at least part of the cause, of my ongoing struggle with severe anxiety about just about everything, but particularly everything related to being a mom, the mother of three, including 9 month old twins.
Looking back, my disbelief stage didn’t last long because, you know, science. It was undeniable that there were two of them from about six weeks on. But denial, denial and I became good friends. So long as I didn’t think about it too hard, I could almost pretend that the pregnancy wasn’t happening, even when I was throwing up four times a day and eating my (ever-increasing) body weight in potato chips each week.
When I wasn’t busy pretending it wasn’t happening, I was angry. Mostly at myself. If I hadn’t needed fertility treatment, if I had been more normal, more healthy, more like a woman should be, we most likely would not have had twins. They don’t run in my family or my husband’s family. We could have had just one. My God! Imagine what just one more baby would be like instead of two. [Side note: Two newborns, and even two not-so-newborns, is so much more than one baby. It is exponentially more baby.]
My obsession with what might have been got so bad that my mother finally confronted me. She said, unless I planned on giving one of them away, there would always be two so there was no point in thinking about any alternative. She was right and, eventually, I willed myself to stop because it made me so sick with envy and shame.
Before my first son was born, I had been deeply ashamed of not being able to get pregnant. Now I was ashamed for, in some sense, not wanting one of my babies, for feeling angry and sad instead of elated and hopeful. Even after the babies were born, perfect and healthy and big enough to come home from the hospital right away, I still felt sad. Sad and overwhelmed and incompetent and scared. Eventually, all of these feelings coalesced into a general, ever-present feeling of anxiety.
Anxiety – a feeling of worry, nervousness or unease – follows me around now like Winnie the Pooh’s little black rain cloud. Sometimes it grows so big I have a panic attack (like I did this past weekend, at home with three small, sick kids on a rainy Mother’s Day). Mostly it just hovers in the background of my days, making my heart race a little too quickly, my mind focus on the lows rather than the highs, my sleep restless, my concentration poor, my marriage tense.
I work four days a week as an attorney and I come home every work night to two babies who are either the happiest or most furious babies I have ever seen (sometimes both and always seemingly at random). I take over for the au pair immediately but also need to change, set the table, make dinner for my husband and older child, etc. Sometimes it works out; sometimes it doesn’t. By the time dinner is done (food strewn everywhere except my toddlers stomach), it is time for bath and books, which usually involves some bathing and book reading but mostly feels like a game of whack-a-mole, except instead of whacking the moles, we have to try to diaper and dress them and keep them from maiming themselves. Then baby bottles and toddler back rubs and trips to the bathroom until finally, blessedly, the kids are asleep. Sometimes my husband and I take time to cuddle on the couch; sometimes one (or both) of us needs to catch up on work. Regardless, within a few hours at best, we are also in bed.
As I write this, none of the above seems that difficult. In fact, it sounds like it should be the best part of my day. But it’s not. I often spend the period between work and bed feeling so anxious, so overwhelmed and inadequate, that I want to cry. Or drink. Or runaway. I don’t understand it and I can’t seem to fix it. I sometimes numb with whatever is handy to avoid it, which only makes me feel like a worse parent.
Weekends feel even harder. Constantly trying to entertain and tire out the three-year-old; fitting in two naps plus assorted feedings, diaper changes and activities for the babies; husband wants to play tennis; not to mention all the chores that keep our house and clothes clean, our fridge stocked, our bellies full. I get through it, but that’s about all I do, which only makes me feel worse. I feel anxious and sad about feeling anxious and sad. Because apparently even my feelings are wrong.
I like my job and I love my family but it’s an effing lot to deal with day in and day out. And despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary, I still haven’t managed to truly accept that I can’t live my life the way I did before I had children, or even when I had only one child. I joke about lowering my standards but I haven’t really done it. Not in any significant way. I don’t know how. Also, it scares me. If I let control of any one thing slip away, how do I hold on to the rest? If I’m not constantly vigilant, constantly planning ahead, constantly trying to anticipate and meet our family’s needs, who else will do it? I am the mom after all. Isn’t this what moms do?
I know I’m not alone in feeling how I do about being a mom. But I also know many moms are able to navigate their daily lives with more gratitude and joy and far less anxiety than I have. At nine months postpartum, my anxiety about mothering seems to have become a mental and emotional habit, a self-fulfilling prophecy. From the moment we found out we were having twins, I expected it would break me and so it has. But if my expectations were different, maybe my reality would be, too.
If I can accept that I am a mother of three, now and forever — that my to-do list will never be completed, that my house will not always be clean, that my days will be unpredictable, that I will be pulled in multiple directions, that I will disappoint or hurt or not be present for one or all of my children (or my husband) at (many) points along the way, that I will not be able to control the outcome, that much of my planning will be pointless — then maybe my anxiety would dissipate. No more little black cloud. Because if I don’t have unreasonable expectations to fail to live up to, then I don’t have to spend my days fearing failure.
So that’s the goal: to accept that my life is not and will never be the same as it was or what I imagined it would be. It will be different. It is different. And I will have to learn to be different too.
Wish me luck.