The day after Christmas, we piled the dog, the kid, and many of our earthly treasures into my 12-year-old Subaru and headed up to Matt’s parents’ house to celebrate the holiday with his family. It was a tight fit. Getting out of the house was, as always, fraught with anxiety for me. We were staying overnight, which adds a layer of complexity and stress for me. I do not love staying overnight in places that are not my home, unless it is a hotel or other private space.
The last time I had a roommate, I was 21 years old, and that relationship did not end well. It took us nearly a decade to be able to develop a new friendship, even though we had lived together less than a year. She was at a dark time in her own life, partying and finding her independence, struggling to navigate a relationship with an older man who was manipulative and abusive. I was in my own dark time, working long hours at two jobs, dating a self-centered tool, and having major buyer’s remorse after breaking off an engagement.
It’s funny; as I look back objectively, I realize that if we had removed dudes from the equation, we likely could have related to each other differently and perhaps even salvaged the relationship without parting ways at the time. Perhaps. We wrote hateful letters to each other throughout the process of disentangling our lives, and one line of hers will always stick with me. She referred to my eggshell existence. Something about “good luck with your” or “you can go back to your” or “have fun with your.”
The gist was, “Let me get out of your hair so you can return to your eggshell existence.”
She was right. My eggshell existence. That has been my truth for my whole life, and part of why my childhood was so difficult. I had no control over my environment as a child, and into adulthood, even after being on my own. When I was first on my own, I was still a child. I was poor with a 9th grade education. That does not lend itself to great autonomy. But even now, in the home that I own, the life that I have painstakingly built rests heavily on an ability to control and regulate my environment. My mental health counts on it. And my mental health has been steadily declining over the past two years.
I have not written about my labor with my son because I still have not processed it entirely. It was a huge example of my needs not being met under the guise of social norms, politeness, and being loved. I wanted no one to be present for my labor, aside from my partner and my sisters. It had nothing to do with how much I loved anyone else. It had everything to do with knowing myself, knowing my own mental and emotional limitations, and wanting to protect myself by advocating for my own needs.
Instead of “no one,” I ended up with half a dozen people. They were all people who love me and/or Matt, people who were excited and happy, and whose goal was to be supportive. I tried to advocate, to fight for myself, to hold a boundary that was important and about which I had been explicit.
But I was in labor, I was vulnerable, and I was exhausted.
So my needs took a back seat to other people’s desires.
I did not have the birth or postpartum experience I wanted, and I still have not fully unpacked that reality. I may never completely unpack it because it is so complex.
It is so hard to untangle people’s expectations of what love is from your knowledge of what you need from love.
We often love people in the way we want to be loved, instead of paying attention to their needs and loving them in a way that is meaningful for them. This is why The 5 Love Languages has been so popular; we’re all so damn desperate to be loved in ways that are meaningful to us.
My sisters left the hospital as soon as they knew that the baby and I were healthy. They did not stick around to hold him. Sure, they each had lives to get back to with their own kids waiting, but it was also a function of understanding that I would need space and rest after a 24 hour labor. I was bewildered by how fast they had gone, and by the fact that other people were still at the hospital.
I tried hard to make the best of what was in front of me, and to be gracious despite wanting to hulk smash my way through the third-floor window, tuck and roll into the parking lot, and sprint home barefoot, clutching my baby with my open-backed hospital gown flowing in the moonlight. But what kind of monster would I be, harboring ill will toward people who just wanted to show love, who were excited about the birth of my son? Shouldn’t I be grateful that people in his life loved him, and were willing to take time out of their own lives to show up for him, for his parents?
As Matt and I argued about me not wanting a house full of visitors five days after our son was born, he shot at me with, “You can’t just keep him to yourself forever.” He would later apologize for that, along with other things that transpired in those days, weeks, and months surrounding our son’s birth, and we continue to heal.*
I could logically process that plenty of people had a rotating door of visitors after having a baby, and that the Internet was filled with sanctimommies wielding pitchforks who would certainly tell me that they wish their families and in-laws were willing to come to the hospital for them. Still, I was raw and frustrated. Instead of celebrating and basking in the new life that had exploded into ours, I didn’t trust my partner, I was angry at him, and he continued to miss the mark. Just over 24 hours after the baby lion was born, a lactation consultant stood at my bedside and held my breast like a hamburger to help my baby latch, and as she asked me how I was doing, I burst into huge, choking, breathless sobs.
She stood frozen, hand still squeezing my engorged left boob, the baby nursing and grunting like a tiny piglet, oblivious to his mama’s plight.
I realized in that moment that I had never felt so alone. I had never felt so completely misunderstood. The only person in the world who knew me well enough to understand and respond to my needs, and who would actually hear me and validate me as I articulated them, was lying in a grave 40 miles away.
I had not been able to let go since… well, since I couldn’t remember when. Certainly not since I had been admitted to the hospital the day before to induce labor. I had been curled inside myself for months, hugging myself tightly, feeling alone, afraid, and increasingly angry. And here was this lactation consultant, a woman who was probably younger than I was and whom I had never met before this moment, and she was completely focused on me. She was there to meet my needs, whatever they may be, even if they might’ve been considered “selfish” or “unusual” or whatever else. Even if what I needed was for her to leave me alone.
Therein lies the rub for most people: how can they possibly demonstrate that they love you simply by leaving you be?
The implicit, and sometimes explicit, message is that you are being selfish by not wanting to be social, by not wanting to engage family or friends in the way that our society deems “normal.” Except, for many of us—those of us who struggle with sensory issues, anxiety, depression, chronic pain, and anything else that might be on your list but isn’t on mine—engaging in that way means self-sacrifice. It means white-knuckle struggle, holding our breath, being physically uncomfortable.
And the truth is, when it comes to my needs, it’s not about you. Just as when it comes to your needs, it’s not about me.
This is where things get sticky for pregnant women and new mothers, and an area where I believe we fail women in a very big way. We are often only moderately concerned with the mother, both throughout pregnancy and once the baby has been born. Recognizing that, and having both been through childbirth, my sisters made a pact between them that one of them would stay at my side at all times, even after the baby had been born. I didn’t know it until weeks after I had given birth, but I remember them exchanging glances as they alternated who was at my side holding my hand and who was checking on the baby in the moments after he was delivered. It was one of the most beautiful things they could’ve done for me, and I will never forget it.
A few weeks after Leo was born, a dear friend of mine who has and will forever get me came to town, and stopped by to visit and meet him. We see each other about once a year, at most, but I would consider her a close friend because physical interaction is not the most meaningful metric of a relationship for me. She told me a story about how her lifelong best friend had given birth to her first child a few years ago, and at the time the woman was fairly young, probably a solid decade younger than I was when my son was born. My friend was horrified at how quickly everyone else in the room disappeared from this young mother’s side to focus on the baby. I couldn’t believe it, my friend said. I mean, yeah, the baby is important, I get it, it’s a new baby, but, like, she’s my person, ya know? I’d be sad if something happened to the baby, but she is the person I have a lifetime of memories with, and who has lived an actual life. And they all just left her there, alone, after she had gone through this incredible and harrowing thing, like she didn’t matter anymore.
Before I had a child, I didn’t really understand why a pregnant woman might hire a doula. I get it now. Having a person in the room whose sole responsibility is to advocate for and meet your needs means a lot. Based on many conversations in the months following my son’s birth, as I struggled to deal with my rising anger and the fact that I couldn’t seem to let go of what had felt like a traumatic experience (there were medical traumas that I’ll get to in another post), I learned that many women had similar stories. And, sadly, many women had been strong-armed by clueless or well-meaning partners who insisted that “loved ones” have every right to a new baby, as if a baby is a shiny new toy and not a fully-formed human being.
It took me months to finally realize, acknowledge, accept, and be able to say confidently that, no, other loved ones do not have rights to a newborn baby. When it comes to childbirth and postpartum time, the mother’s needs supersede every other adult’s wishes (I say wishes instead of needs here because no one needs to be with a newborn except that child’s primary caregiver(s)). Labor and delivery is, essentially, a medical procedure. If we’re talking in sex-based gender binaries here, as a man, would you want an audience as a doctor performed your prostate exam? As a woman who has never given birth, would you like to have a group of loved ones in the room for your pap smear? What about when you’re recovering from major bodily trauma, do you want a bunch of people around with whom you need to make small talk, and for whom you need to clean your house?
Mind you, there are plenty of women who love having a room full of visitors while in labor. I am not talking about those women. Many women can’t get enough of people pouring in to meet their bundle of joy. To those women I say, good for you, be yourself and do your thing.
But just because that has been the norm in modern American society does not mean that we all have to accept it, particularly when it is incongruous with our needs. And we as women should be trusted to know our own needs, we should not be coerced or made to feel strange, difficult, selfish, or whatever else.
The last serious relationship I had before I met Matt ended because we had incompatible “special needs.” He could only manage his major depressive episodes through extreme activity. I could only manage my depression and anxiety through quiet and solitude. Sometimes our coping mechanisms overlapped and we hiked mostly in silence with the dog; it was active enough for him, and not overwhelming for me. Much of the relationship was built on discussions and self-reflection, realizing that we shared a lot of the same struggles, despite different diagnoses and histories. We did an enormous amount of emotional growth and mental health work. We talked objectively and unemotionally about our challenges functioning in the “normal” world, our difficulty with certain social expectations, and about our struggle to relate to people who had never dealt with depression, anxiety, sensory issues, or other mental health issues.
While the relationship could not have worked long term, it contributed significantly to my ability to view my own mental health issues objectively, to examine them thoughtfully and with a cerebral approach. It helped put me into the kind of head space that would enable healthy romantic relationships going forward, which was serendipitous because, as it happened, my next romantic relationship would be with the person with whom I’d end up spending my life.
This was right around the time that I became friends with a few other people who remain some of the most important humans in my existence.
It was one of the first times in my life that acceptance was central to our interactions. The focus was not on, how can you be more normal?
Instead, it was, you and I are delightful, worthy humans, even if we are not “normal” and do not adhere to arbitrary standards.
That is not to say we should not seek to manage our own mental health issues. But it is possible to manage your issues while also refusing to kowtow to society’s expectations of who and what you have to be.
I used to believe that I am hard to love, mostly because many people throughout my life have told me so, stretching all the way back to when I was a misunderstood and angry child who often did not want to be touched.
I remember being preschool aged and kicking, screaming, biting, hitting—whatever it took to get people to take their fucking hands off me.
I did not hate affection. I did, and do, love affection. I hated forced affection. Because other people’s hands on my body often felt like needles or sandpaper, especially when their touch was unexpected, I needed some say, some agency, some control. I loved sitting in my dad’s lap, or snuggling with my mom. I loved holding my sisters’ hands. I loved “tickling backs” with my Irish twin. I still love lying in my oldest sister’s lap and letting her play with my hair. I loved and still love being pressed into the breathing body of a sleeping dog.
I have learned in recent years that everyone can be hard to love. It is part of being human. And the people who told me over the years that I am inherently and immutably hard to love missed out on what I have to offer. My mom always told me that I have one of the sweetest spirits she ever knew. I internalized that message, and rely on it still, particularly when I feel cornered by expectations that I know I can’t meet without completely ignoring my own needs.
I have a nephew who is similar to the way I was as a child, and when I see him in situations where his panic is rising, and I know he is miserable, and that misery manifests in biting speech, trying to control everyone and everything around him through force, and being generally hateful, my heart breaks for him. Because that was me. That is me. Being a person is hard. Being a person with mental illness, sensory issues, and other physical and mental limitations is arduous. Being a child with any of those issues is damn near unbearable.
While we were at Matt’s family’s farm the day after Christmas, I took pictures of our son playing in the yard. He and I had absconded to the outdoors to have some space where we did not need to talk or do anything besides be. Those quiet moments in the cold winter sun with the dogs and the wind were my favorite part of the trip, aside from the quiet moments in the basement bedroom when I was lying with the baby lion putting him to sleep with the white noise of a space heater and the dog lying on my legs.
After I posted some of those on social media, I got a heart-warming email from one of those extremely important friends I mentioned above, letting me know that it looked like I was experiencing a little slice of heaven, and they hoped I was having as good of a time as it seemed. I wasn’t sure whether to laugh or cry. The truth was, in those moments, I was having a wonderful time and it felt like heaven. But I had to go back inside and put on my I’m a Normal Person, Let’s Interact Like Regular Folks! suit and I would be exhausted, irritable, and miserable by the end of the day.
And the truth behind my photos was that Matt and I were fighting quietly off and on in the moments we were away from his family; that I was uncomfortable staying in their space; that I begrudged being there at all; that I was worn out already from having my own family over; that we have closets and closets full of baggage around his family; that my mental health is precarious as ever; that I could not enjoy my time off because I was too anxious about how quickly that time would end; that I was worn down from traveling for work two weeks before; that I was having trouble with compartmentalizing my feelings about the people in his family who voted for Trump; that I was missing my mom desperately; that I was basking in self-loathing over my own feelings of ineptitude and being abnormal; that I was worried for my kid, who was becoming obviously overstimulated and not getting enough rest; that I felt alone, frustrated, and bewildered, and that I often feel this way these days.
I didn’t have the heart to write my friend back and tell them that those moments were a spectacular bright spot in an otherwise dismal experience because my brain is the worst and I am not a shiny, happy, regular person, no matter how much I may want to be, and the holidays mostly rip out my soul and I just wanted to be at home with my small family, a roaring fire, some Christmas music, and some hot chocolate. I also didn’t write back and say that because I knew that this friend, like many of the most important people in my life, would have told me that they were sorry I was having a rough time but that I am perfectly regular and delightful and lovable, even when I don’t feel that way.
* Any allusion to imperfections in my relationship is meant to illustrate that partnering romantically with another human is complicated business. We fight. We have problems. We struggle. But we also love each other tremendously, and are committed to working through our challenges, even as they loom large in front of us. I was nearly 30 years old before I learned that conflict in a relationship is healthy and does not spell the end of the relationship. While my perspective is mine, and projects my own experience which often comes from a place of hurt, I never intend to vilify my partner. I have my fair share of flaws and have certainly failed to treat Matt with grace. I still fail. I likely always will. But that’s life, and love, and being human. The commitment part of it is that, even when things are really tough, even when we lash out at each other and can’t seem to agree on the color of the sky, we are in this. It’s a fascinating phenomenon, being in a mature partnership.