This photo of me trying to dry my hair following a lousy shower in the NICU stepdown unit, while simultaneously attempting to nurse a glowing newborn is from 2015. I delivered my son at freestanding birth center and was cleared to go home with him the same day. I was really enamored of the perfection of this tiny person. Indeed, he was so perfect in my eyes that I didn’t notice when he started to look like an extra from the 1971 Willy Wonka set. They sure noticed at his 5 day visit to the pediatrician though. The doctor had my son preadmitted to the NICU and we headed over there for some phototherapy. His bilirubin counts were extremely high and we were in the NICU and the NICU stepdown for a few days. The whole thing was a traumatic blur. For some reason, one of the only clear memories I have from those days in the hospital is my mom sending a huge thermos of homemade potato soup. My appetite was suppressed from the anxiety of being in the hospital but I took a courtesy sip of the soup. In that moment, I thought it was the absolute best thing I had ever tasted. It was warming and comforting on both a physical and emotional level. I ended up finishing the whole thermos and feeling more comfortable than I had in days. Three years later, when I brought my daughter home for the first time, my mom was waiting in my kitchen with a pot of that same potato soup on the stove. This week I read The New York Times’ article How Food Traditions Nourish New Moms and I was transported right back to that first sip of potato soup. I highly recommend popping over to read it.
Since I’m already talking about food, nutritionist Jennifer Anderson of Kids Eat In Color shared a wonderful post this week on her Instagram about feeding kids while dealing with overwhelm. It’s one of many seriously helpful posts on her feed.
Looking for an engaging virtual activity to participate in with your kids? Mark your calendars for Saturday, March 13 at 3:00pm EST for the book launch event of Don’t Call Me Fuzzybutt! Author Robin Newman will share her new book and answer questions. And if your kids are anything like mine, after a year of quarantining together it might not be a bad idea to get a little refresher on not name-calling.
The Giving Tree, by Shel Silverstein is a beloved favorite in some families and a book to be avoided in others. The tree gives its apples, its branches and eventually its trunk to the boy who has grown up “loving” the tree. For some people the tree provides an example of selfless love. For others, the tree models love which knows no boundaries and ends up destroying itself in an effort to give the boy all he wants.
If you or anyone you know fall into the second category, a playwright has written an alternative ending to The Giving Tree just for you! While possibly not as poetic as the original and perhaps needing some rewording for young children, it does provide a model of what it means to love while also setting self preserving boundaries: https://www.topherpayne.com/giving-tree
More people are getting vaccinated, spring is coming, and little by little we may be able to get out more than we have been.
This is a good thing, right?
Well, it IS a good thing, as long as we continue to use precautions like mask wearing and social distancing and hand washing. This spring more children may actually get to go to school and daycare and this summer children may get to go to camp and families may actually be able to go on vacation.
BUT we need to be prepared for some increased separation anxiety for some children – and even for some adults.
We have gotten used to hunkering down at home and spending more time there than ever before. And as hard as it has been, as claustrophobic as it might have felt at times, as much as we all yearned for the freedom to be able to go where we wanted, it is possible that some of us will find it difficult to go back out into the world to do the things we think we want to do.
Even now, trips which used to be mundane can feel like a big deal. For those of you who have worked at home, have you tried visiting the office yet? Have you tried driving to places you used to go routinely which you haven’t been to in months? It can feel strange to do these things; it can be anxiety provoking.
So, assume that your children will feel some of these feelings of strangeness when they try to do things they haven’t done in months. They may be excited – but they may also have trepidations; they may be hesitant; they may ask questions like, “is it safe?” or “will my friends recognize me?”
The best advice we can give, given that none of us have been through anything like this before, is the following:
– Prepare your children for what is coming. If they are going back to daycare or school in person – or back to church or synagogue or music lessons or play dates, start talking about it a few days in advance. Tell them what it will be like. Tell them that they might have worries or questions and that they are welcome to talk with you about it. Tell them how you expect them to behave and remind them of what is required in these situations.
– Take it slowly. Do not assume that everyone will be on board right away with doing things they have not done for a year.
– Expect some last minute demonstrations of anxiety. Before doing something that they have not done before or something they have not done in a long time, it is not unusual for a child to develop a stomachache or a headache or to feel ill in some other way. This is their body talking and saying what they cannot say with words, “I’m afraid to do this!” Remember, children do not develop these symptoms on purpose.
And adults, take it easy on yourselves as well. You may feel anxious when your children start back to school full time or go for sleepovers at relatives’ or friends’ houses. You are used to having them close by. And again, as difficult as it may have been at times, it may have become so familiar that it feels strange to have them away from you. You may feel relief…and you may also feel nervous. Give yourself time to get used to your children doing more on their own away from the house – and reassure yourself that ALL of you need to learn how to be more independent again.
My attempts to do anything for Valentine’s Day this year are basically the harried parent equivalent of the scene from a movie where someone is running to catch a train that is already leaving the station. When my son mentioned this morning that he wanted to make something for my mother (if you’re reading this, Mom, please act surprised), I knew that I needed a project that would be quick, easy, and use only the materials that we have at home.
To recreate this Valentine, you need paper and something that makes marks on paper. Position your child’s hands on the paper so that thumbs and pointers are touching and the space between roughly resembles a heart shape. Trace and decorate. You can leave the paper flat or fold and turn into a greeting card.
The energy expenditure here is low and by the time my kids were finished, they were quite pleased with the final effect.
I can only speak for myself; but this week felt long. It might have something to do with my two year old daughter, whom I refer to as my “quokka child.” There’s a meme that floats around periodically that (erroneously) says that when a quokka attempts to flee from a predator, it will throw its joey behind it as a way to distract the predator and escape. Yep. That’s my daughter. She has an uncanny knack for finding and taking pretty much anything that she’s not supposed to have. The moment she realizes that someone is on to her, she takes off at a sprint, throwing her contraband over her shoulder at whomever is chasing her. Though occasionally comical to watch, it’s basically just exhausting. And because I’m still spending all day every day at home with the kids, when I’m not laying chase, I’m giving my scrolling finger some exercise. Here’s a little bit of what caught my attention this week.
I get very excited about age-appropriate STEM for kids. N*Gen, a science-focused TV show produced by junior high school teachers in Uganda, debuted in North America this week. NPR has a detailed article on the program.
Every year my son’s school honors the Lunar New Year by studying it in class and then hosting a Lunar New Year celebration for students and their families. For obvious reasons, there isn’t going to be large school-wide celebration in the gym this year. A mom I know shared this list of books about Lunar New Year, which is particularly helpful if you’re in relative isolation right now.
Finally, Valentine’s Day is right around the corner and not everyone’s creative juices are flowing. Looking for something super easy and fast to do with your kids? I found this free printable and all it’s missing your little one’s hand print. If you don’t feel like cleaning up a paint-dipped kid hand, tracing and coloring works just as well. Voila!
Recently a young mother and trainee at my Psychoanalytic Institute and I were talking about the transition to motherhood. She has a four month old and she had just read an article that talked about “Matrescence”. I had never heard this term before but I was immediately taken by it! Finally, a word to name the developmental stage that women go through when they become mothers!
There is really nothing like this transition and yet we don’t talk about it much. Going from being an individual who can do what she wants, when she wants, responsible mostly just to herself, to being totally responsible for a new, helpless human is an enormous shift. And it can be a shock. Suddenly, everything changes. Independence and autonomy go out the window! Now the baby’s needs have to be constantly considered. When the baby has to feed, sleep, be comforted or cuddled has to be taken into account before the woman can decide to do anything else. Life becomes less orderly and MUCH more messy.
This is especially true for women who worked and had control over their own schedules outside of work. Staying home and caring for a baby’s needs can feel like a huge shift in every aspect of her being – her schedule, her priorities, her freedom and especially, her identity.
I remember one new mother saying to me, “No one told me how hard this would be!” and she wasn’t just talking about taking care of her baby. She was talking about so many things. She was jealous of her partner getting to go to work each day, getting to take a half hour for lunch, getting to go to the bathroom on their own. She went from working to being at home all day and she felt hemmed in. She loved her new baby but she also felt that his needs were all encompassing. She felt she didn’t get a moment to herself. Her partner worked long hours and for those first few months she felt quite alone and isolated. She had friends but she did not feel she had time to reach out to them. At another time she said to me, “The responsibility for keeping my baby alive is all on me”. She felt the weight of this and it was nothing like anything she had felt before. She also felt the weight of her love and connection to her baby and THAT was like nothing she had felt before either.
Of course, for each new mother and each new parent, what feels hard may be different – but for all new parents, especially first time parents, the transition to motherhood/fatherhood is huge. Each parent has to adjust to who s/he is now, now that s/he is not just an individual or part of a couple but now that s/he is responsible for caring for another human being and having that human being be totally dependent on him or her. S/he has to rethink what it means to be HER.
This shift in identity is something that we take for granted. But we shouldn’t. It’s difficult – and comes with mixed feelings and in some cases, considerable struggle. An article in Psychology Today compares matrescence to adolescence, another stage of life that can be stormy.
Every phase of development in human life comes with conflict. First time mothers may love their new role – but they can also hate it. They can hate having to stay home because the baby is napping when they would rather be out on a walk or having coffee with a friend. They can hate the long days and the lack of adult companionship. They can hate the total dependence of the baby, or the endless routine of feeding, burping, diapering, soothing. They can feel bored and beleaguered and resentful. They can miss work and the sense of purpose that work brings. Deeper conflicts can be stirred up including feelings about how they were parented themselves or how they feel about bodily functions, time management, productivity, independence and commitment. And all of this is completely normal.
We need to acknowledge the significance and the difficulty of transition from non-mother to mother and non-father to father. This is a life transition that resonates with past and future identities, goals, routines and ways of being. It is transformative. The role of parent adds new dimensions to one’s existing sense of self, to one’s repertoire of feelings and abilities – but it is often a struggle getting used to the new role and all it entails.
And becoming a mother/parent during COVID? Reread the above and multiply by 1000. All the normal challenges, deprivations and frustrations are magnified by the current conditions. New parents often don’t know what to expect from their baby, moment to moment, but now NONE of us know what to expect from the outside world. When will the pandemic be over? Will we get sick? Will our family members get sick? Will our jobs survive? Will we survive financially? Will daycares be open or stay open? Can we even grocery shop safely and if so, how many masks do we have to wear to do so? Moreover, it’s hard to find help. Relatives and babysitters can’t come over as easily to help with child care. Friends with babies can’t get together without negotiating around COVID safety. Life for the new parent is even more uncertain and more isolated than ever.
Some mothers are “on the brink.”. It is just TOO much – particularly for single mothers, mothers whose financial situation is unstable, mothers who have to manage working from home and childcare simultaneously. Maternal stress levels are high – life can seem scary and tedious and frustrating all at once. Some have taken to going to a local park and screaming as loud as they can. One mother said, “I feel like a ticking time bomb…but then I am unable to defuse myself”. Another said, “Some days are so busy they feel like they don’t exist. It’s like I just went through 24 hours and I don’t remember any of it because I was just go, go go.”
It is hard to concentrate on a new baby when there are so many worries. And at the same time, that is what is needed. Some parents find it an escape to just care for their baby. Some are glad that there is little for them to fear they are missing out on while caring for their infant during this time – after all, so little else is happening. There are fewer distractions from the baby and more time to get to know him or her – and after all, that is the job of the new parent – to get to know the baby and to get to know ourselves in our new role.
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Folks, it snowed here in Philadelphia this week, and not just the few pathetic flurries that we had over the last couple of winters. We had actual snow. My son was thrilled and literally dove right in. My daughter, who has no experience with snowy winters was more reluctant. She was very preoccupied with the idea that she might get stuck in the snow and no amount of reassurance or cajoling could convince her otherwise. Want to know what finally won her over? Squirt bottles filled with water and food coloring! This girl has never met an art supply that she didn’t like or a surface that she didn’t feel would benefit from some additional color (I buy Mr. Clean Magic Erasers in bulk). This is a fun snow day hack that can easily be done with items that are already in your house. We currently use any bottle with a squeeze top; but my kids get so into the activity that I’m thinking we’re going to upgrade to these before the next snow. Even if I don’t get around to placing the order, any bottle with a controlled release will work. My weekend will undoubtedly include plenty of time outside playing in the snow. If you’d prefer some indoor diversions this weekend, here are some things that caught our attention:
Philly wasn’t the only place that got hit with snow this week. Check out how this Connecticut-based superintendent announced the snow day to his schools. It’s amazing.
The amazing Christopher Plummer died today. His work spanned decades and includes many memorable performances. If you’d like to celebrate his life and his work this weekend, cuddle up with your kids and watch The Sound of Music. If you’re a Disney+ subscriber, then it’s part of your subscription but there are also many, many other places to find it.
Did you catch The New York Times‘ piece “Three American Mothers, on the Brink“? It’s a part of their Primal Scream series and it honestly made me feel so seen. It’s definitely worth a read.
Finally, The African American Children’s Book Fair which is usually an annual in-person event here in Philadelphia is going to be online this year. Find more here.
Dear readers, I am so excited to be able to share this wonderful woman you. Rebecca Fox Starr is an author, a blogger, and tireless mental health advocate. I’ve been following her writing for years. When I was a new mother myself, I used to devour her blog posts about motherhood while I was up nursing my newborn in the middle of the night. I’m thrilled that she’s agreed to chat with us here on Thoughtful Parenting.
Let’s get the basics out of the way, where are you from, how many kids do you have etc.
Hi, I am Becca, and I am a wife, mother, daughter, sister, friend, author, blogger, singer, musical theatre nerd, shoe collector, Philadelphia Eagles superfan and survivor of severe prenatal and postpartum anxiety and depression. In all seriousness, I am supremely grateful for the opportunity to write, share, and connect, especially in such a warm, nurturing environment. As of late, it has been hard to wear my “Becca the author/advocate” hat (more on that, later!) and so I really appreciate the chance to get to know you and your readers. I grew up in the suburbs of Philadelphia, just about five minutes from where I live now; in fact, I bought a house on the same street where my paternal grandmother raised her five kids! I married the boy who grew up around the corner (after years of seeing the same childhood therapist and having my dog run away in his backyard). His name is Kenny and he is the most loyal, decent human I know. My daughter, Belle, was born in 2010 and she is my mini-me. We are currently on Season 5 of a Glee marathon, she just got cast as Dorothy in a local, virtual production of The Wizard of Oz, and she is the child I always dreamt of having. My son, Beau, was born in 2013 and he is the sweetest thing, with strawberry blonde hair, blue eyes, and a dimple in his chin that I truly cannot resist kissing (regrettably, for him, during his Zoom classes, which has gotten a bit embarrassing, but it is what it is). He is the incredible, hilarious, bright child I never imagined I’d get to know, and therefore the one who made me into the mother – and human – I am today. I have two dogs, which is still hard to type, as we lost our first baby, our 13-Year-old Yorkie, Lola, last month. Crosby is an Australian Miniature Labradoodle and Georgia is a four lb Yorkshire Terrier who thinks she is the boss.
Your blog, Mommy Ever After, has readers from all over the world. Can you tell us a little bit about how it started and how it’s evolved over time?
I became a mom on April 18, 2010, exactly one week after my 25th birthday. None of my close friends had kids and motherhood, to me, was enchanting AND hard at the same time. While I did not suffer from a diagnosable perinatal mood disorder after having Belle, plenty of loneliness and worry managed to creep up on me. And so, when she was just two-months-old I started a blog, which was still a pretty new thing, back then, called “Mommy Ever After.” It was hard to put myself out there in such a vulnerable way, so I sold it to myself as an online baby book of sorts; a place in which I could chronicle our daily goings-on in a raw, honest, familiar way. I developed a small following and kept writing, almost daily, which afforded me with the boost to write serialized entries about meeting and falling in love with Kenny, getting engaged, giving birth, and all facets of daily (spit-up-covered) life as a new mom. I was able to employ dialectical thinking and share how motherhood was so many things all at once.
After Beau’s birth on October 24, 2013, I developed severe postpartum depression. Four months later, after a wri-atus on the blog, I came out, in real time, with my story, effectively announcing, “Hey, I have been really quiet and that is because I have been suffering, and I am still suffering, so let’s talk about it.” I do not know what gave me the guts to write so openly during that dark (and, frankly, terrifyingly bleak) time, but it changed everything for me. Though much of my memory from that time is hazy, I remember saying, “Well, if I come out with this I will always be stigmatized as someone with mental health issues. BUT, if I can help one other woman by sharing my story then it will all be worth it.” My readership and following grew and I had the honor and privilege of connecting to so many women who felt exactly like I did; it helped all of us to feel less alone, I say with the utmost humility and gratitude. I was able to take the blog and turn it into a job, which, for me, gave me a profound sense of purpose. I began to heal.
From the blog, three books were born. Can you tell us what the books are about and who might benefit from picking up a copy?
After my children, the greatest accomplishments of my life have been writing the two books about my experience with prenatal and postpartum anxiety and depression. “Beyond the Baby Blues: Anxiety and Depression During and After Pregnancy” was released in January 2018 and is my own story along with actionable advice from an expert in the field of perinatal mood disorders. I was also incredibly fortunate to include the stories of five other women (spanning many decades) as a way to emphasize the fact that no one is immune and no one is alone. “Baby Ever After: Expanding Your Family After Postpartum Depression” was released last January, just before the pandemic really hit us here in the U.S. and is about the “if” and “how” of having more children after surviving an episode of extreme perinatal distress like my own. This was born out of my own experience wrestling with the future picture of my family as a young, fertile woman whose husband had a hasty vasectomy and whose family had deep scars surrounding the notion of my embarking upon another pregnancy, as I’d only previously survived by the skin of teeth. This book is an exploration of my own journey to find answers, how this decision can be approached, the factors to weigh, the options available, including a future pregnancy, IVF, surrogacy, adoption, and, importantly, the valid choice to not expand the family after postpartum depression. Again, I was blessed to include the stories of seven other brave souls who shared their experiences, worries, woes, triumphs, heartache, and solace. Spoiler alert: I have not expanded my family. But, I have not closed the door tightly, either. As I say in the book, when the door is left ajar, the weather is always windy.
I am extremely excited about my third book, which is a picture book for children aimed at normalizing negative emotions and opening a dialogue about mental health for parents and their kids. I have not officially announced the title, yet, but I am very excited to say that the publishers will be releasing “Mommy Ever After” next year, as I explain that I may not always be happy, but I will always be a mommy.
What does your life look like right now, mid-pandemic?
I alluded to this earlier, but life during the pandemic is – like so many things – awful and amazing. I recognize that I have an incredible amount of privilege, so my worries and woes cannot compare to those of so many others. I have great anxiety surrounding health (read: GERMOPHOBE AND HYPOCHONDRIAC) so this is a perfectly awful storm for me. Every sneeze feels like a potential grenade being thrown at me, but I am leaning on the members of my treatment team, medication, and Kenny for a lot of support. As a family, we made the decision to take a very conservative approach to COVID exposure, and so we have not been inside a building, save a few necessary doctor visits, since March. My kids have been in virtual school exclusively, have not touched another child in over ten months, and are counting down the days until they can return to day camp and Five Below. I feel like this time is showing me that I am a strong, resilient mother AND an awful, incapable mother, often at the same time. I spend all day, every day trying to meet their academic, physical and emotional needs and I am always falling short in some respect. In order to keep them physically healthy I am putting a tremendous strain on their emotional health. However, I feel better equipped to handle mental health issues than I do if they were to contract COVID. This means I am teaching first and fifth grades simultaneously while trying to keep our house in order, make sure all humans, dogs, and plants and souls are fed, connections are maintained, lives are enriched, and it is a hard tightrope upon which to balance. I have had to give up a lot of the things that are “just Becca” things, like music, which I used to do as a life-long singer and new guitar player, and writing. I haven’t had a proper date with Kenny or a girls’ night out with my best friends, and, like everyone else right now, I feel crappy about that. But, as someone told me when I was in the throes of my postpartum depression, this too shall pass. I repeat that to myself. I believe that.
If you could give one piece of advice to parents who are struggling with all of complications that 2020 threw at us, what would it be?
For any parents struggling with their own mental health issues right now, the first thing I would say is to repeat the above: this too shall pass. I don’t say this to minimize. I see you and I validate you, busy, stressed, clobbered parents. Though I have not been able to make time for many extracurriculars, as of late, I have made it a point to carve out time every week to speak to my treatment team members, including a psychologist, psychiatrist, dietitian, and primary care physician. Ideally, I want parents to be able to do those things and also to take time to engage in the things that make them feel alive, passionate and make their hearts sing. But, meeting basic mental health, nutrition, sleep, fresh air needs is salient. I know how it feels to not have time. It is crushing. BUT, we all have time for things like three deep, cleansing breaths; a body scan meditation before bed; a healing podcast while doing chores; a ten minute walk outside; a three minute stretch; an episode of “Sex and the City” from the first half of the sixth season; an admittance of “I am not OK right now” to someone who will listen. Even writing this list is illustrative to me, as I realize I am doing more for myself than I often realize.
If people are looking to follow you and your story moving forward, where should they look?
I am all about making connections, especially now. If you are looking to follow my journey, I am most active on Instagram @rebeccafoxstarr. There are almost eleven years of archived posts on Mommyeverafter.com and if you’re looking for a laugh, go to the site and type in a random search word in the big bar above the title and see what comes up! The most vulnerable, raw writing I’ve done can be found in the books (which are available wherever books are sold!) In all seriousness, If you are struggling, I implore you to reach out to me. I check my DMs. I am here for you. We can do this.
Thank you so much to Becca for joining us here on Thoughtful Parenting to share your thoughts as well as these wonderful resources!
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The vaccine is here, our new President is compiling guidelines for school re-openings, spring is coming and parents are thinking: “How are we going to get our children off their devices???” Yes, it is true. Life outside the house is going to resume. We don’t know when exactly and we don’t know how exactly, but we can all see that it is going to start happening over the next several months and into the summer. But children have also been using their devices more than ever. Parents have found it life saving to allow more movie and video game and YouTube time. Especially parents who work. Kids have found that they can amuse themselves during the long periods of enforced home time if they have a device at the ready and they can also socialize with friends via these same devices. Parents who always said they would not give their child a smartphone before age (fill in your number) did so earlier than expected. Parents who had strict rules about screen time relaxed them. Some parents (read: most parents) even encouraged children to watch while they worked, cleaned the house, made meals, talked to a partner or a friend or took a minute for themselves. So HOW do parents get kids away from these devices once we can go out more, do more, see more people (even if still utilizing some safety protocols)? I have one main suggestion. It will not be easy. You may say you don’t have the energy or the time or the mental strength. But I truly think it is the best way: Do NOT lecture, threaten or cajole. Instead, plan things that do not require a screen. Do not say that is why you are planning these activities or you will get heavy pushback, I guarantee you. But plan a hike, a walk by the river, a race, a bike ride, a baking contest, a bread making session, an art project then an art show (at home). If you didn’t do Zoom sessions before, do them now – schedule a family Zoom with relatives you haven’t been able to see. Tell your kids that to get ready to go back to school it’s time to get used to doing more things, to get in shape physically, to go outside the house more. Going back into spaces outside the home may actually cause some initial anxiety – among children AND adults. Seeing more than one or two people at a time may feel overwhelming at first. So prepare by renewing your efforts to set up some Zoom play dates and some Zoom dinners with family friends. Set a time limit that your children must participate depending on their age. For small children 2 – 4, five to fifteen minutes may be all they can manage. For 5 – 10 year olds, tell them they must stay on for 10 – 20 minutes, depending on their ability. And for teens, at least 15 – 20 minutes can be the minimum. We ALL need to start getting used to seeing people and going out and we ALL need to get off our devices. Set a good example for your children. When you spend time with them taking a walk or a hike or a bike ride or playing a game, turn OFF your phone and do not check it. We adults need to wean ourselves from constant device use as well!!!!