Wednesday, July 24, 2013

I am that mom you don't know and never want to be

I don't know Lisa Gibson. I don't know where she is tonight.  I don't know her story, her background, what her experience as a mom has been like. If she's alive, I don't know how she'll ever come to terms with the tragedy that befell her two children earlier today.

The Winnipeg mother of two has been missing since around the time police came to check up on the family and found her two-year old daughter and three-month old son allegedly drowned in the bathtub. Police are looking for her, looking for answers, looking for a possible explanation that might shed light on how a mother could do the unspeakable to her babies.

It's not a completely foreign story to me. Fourteen years ago, a mother from our community also drowned her two children in a bathtub. At the time, I was seventeen. Her oldest child, a four-year old girl, had been in the junior church I led on occasion. We had known the family for years. Even though I was more than a decade away from becoming a mother myself, the tragedy rocked me. The loss of innocence, the senselessness was incomprehensible.

Now I have two babies of my own. I love them so much that sometimes the feeling overwhelms me and leaves me short of breath. In the moments of a smile, a giggle or a sudden, unexpected outburst of affection, I can't imagine a love greater or stronger than the one that binds me to my children.

But while I don't know Lisa Gibson or much about her beyond the public photos of her Facebook page, I know the beginning of the journey that can lead to where no mother ever comprehends she could possibly go.

I have never hurt my children or had the legitimate thought of intentionally putting their lives in jeopardy. However, when Shooter was three months old - the same age as Gibson's baby - I was suddenly rocked with postpartum anxiety that slammed into me so hard, I felt like I could hardly catch my breath.

When we were in Hawaii earlier this year, I had a boogie board out in the shallow part of the ocean. I'm not a strong swimmer, so I figured I was safe in these waist-high waters. I saw a wave coming, got my board in place but mistimed my dive. I was knocked underneath hard enough that the side of my head hit the ocean floor and I was sent spinning and kicking upwards, trying to find the surface It's a horrible cliche, but fitting metaphor for how fast, how unexpectedly, this illness crept up on me.

I've always been something of a worrier. That feeling intensified as I grew older, but never as much as it did after I gave birth. I remember coming home from the hospital and being terrified that all the usual things that were part of my normal routine could suddenly put my new baby at risk. The dishes left on the coffee table could be knocked off and hit her on the head while she slept in her bouncy chair. The knife I used to chop vegetables could fly from my grasp and hurt her as she cooed in that same bouncy chair as I made dinner. For the first few weeks of my daughter's life, I was convinced every mundane thing I did was a constant threat to her well-being. Eventually I relaxed a bit. I got used to having her around, maybe even a bit comfortable.

And then that three-month milestone hit. I'd found my stride as a new parent. I was sure from my vantage point, I could see any waves coming and the water was shallow enough to omit any real threat or danger. Our family was driving home from celebrating the new year in the mountains when I had my first panic attack. It had been a lovely season of celebration and cheer and Shooter's first giggles, which we'd managed to catch on video. Mr. T had to go back to work after being home with us for a couple of weeks over the holidays and I had nothing to look forward to now that Christmas was over, except for a few more months of dreary winter.

Up until that point, I thought I was free and clear from the risk of postpartum woes. I had weathered the storm of the first few weeks after birth and was convinced I had made it to the happy, easygoing side of motherhood. It was the fact that I wasn't expecting it that made it that much harder.

It was the memory of that family friend and the horrific events of that summer afternoon that made me seek help right away. I was fully aware that mental illness had been the driving factor of that mother and I hoped that full transparency would be what kept me from reaching a point of desperation, and of no return.

There were some terrible days on that initial journey. We were in a phase where Mr. T was required to frequently travel for work. I am blessed to have family who live close by and were more than willing to be here and help out in his absence. But even still, sometimes I felt my patience and love for my child being pushed to their limits. There were occasions where she missed her daddy and she didn't want to go to sleep and would cry, and then I would scream at her in frustration, be a little rougher than I intended to be and dissolve into a sobbing heap once I finally got her into bed. In those moments, I was never tempted to actually hurt my precious baby. But I also recognized I wasn't in control either - of the situation or my emotions. I knew I had the next day to get it right, but in those moments, the feeling of failure felt like a 50-pound weight on my shoulders and I cried accordingly.

Eventually, there would be light and happiness again. I started seeing a psychologist when I first recognized the symptoms. I took up running and for an activity that makes so many people feel like death, it made me come alive and feel somewhat in control again. At the very least, it gave me 30 minutes to myself a few times a week where I could pound out my frustration and insecurities and irrational fears. It took several months, but I fought through the worst of the storm.My anxiety didn't disappear, but eventually the clouds parted and I once again had more good days than bad. I learned a lot about myself in that period. About my triggers, my limits, about how to ask for help. I also had a glimpse of how much you could love a child, but be capable of doing something so monstrous.

It was learning from that experience that allowed me to seek help so readily when those feelings of panic began to resurface somewhere between the sixth and seventh month of my pregnancy with Little Dude. This time, I wasn't so quick to fight the idea of medication. I knew that the feelings, the tears, the panic, would be much more intense when I added a baby and hormones and severe sleep deprivation. I didn't want to think of what I could be capable of if I didn't at least try to get a handle on the fear.

There have been many things that have saved my life, and maybe the lives of those I love the most. I am so fortunate to have people who love me unconditionally and who don't judge me on my ugliest days. I keep expecting that when I admit the worst of my thoughts, these people will gasp in horror, declare me an unfit parent/daughter/sister/friend and abandon me. But they don't. Maybe some of it had something to do with my experience as a naive 17-year old. I knew nothing of the love for one's own child, but I saw close-up, how mental illness can destroy even the most lovely, the most unsuspecting and unsuspected.

It's that realization that keeps me from jumping to any judgement about Lisa Gibson. I don't know her personal story and I firmly believe that she should be held accountable in whatever means are deemed best for her for whatever she may have done. But I do see how a loving wife and a devoted mother can suddenly change into a person she doesn't recognize, a change she has no control over. I know firsthand that sick feeling that you just aren't doing a good enough job for these beautiful creatures you helped bring into the world. I know how soul-crushing it is to be trying so hard and doing everything in your power to make these little people happy only to have them express nothing but frustration and anger back at you. I know what it feels like to be so helpless to make them happy and lack the power make it all okay for them, and to repeatedly feel like it's never enough, will never be enough.

I pray that as family, friends and neighbours come forward and tell their stories about this family, that complete strangers will keep their unhelpful commentary to themselves. No, not everyone can imagine what it's like to feel this way. That's okay. I can't imagine how somebody would voluntarily spend money on a One Direction album. There are all kinds of people out there and we can't always relate to others and their experiences, or determine why they are the way they are. Or why they have such terrible taste in music.

What I do hope is that other parents hear Lisa's story, read the details and wonder to themselves "Could I? Could someone I know?" Let me reiterate something: the mothers who commit these horrendous acts love their children. They love them as much as you love yours. The very scientific way in which their brains function does not reflect a lack of love or affection for their children. It's so easy to fall into the "I would never" trap. And you're right - in your normal state-of-mind, unaffected by hormones and no sleep, you would never. If you had asked me 10 or 15 years ago if I would ever be capable of doing something so unimaginable, I would have fiercely denied it and been offended you could even consider such a thing.

I know better now. I know that the perfect storm of emotions and circumstances and misfiring neurons can turn somebody into a person they don't recognize. I know that it's so easy to slip from "I would never" into "I can't believe I..."

I know Lisa Gibson because sometimes I wonder, had my situation been different, could I have been her?

Monday, July 22, 2013

My un-royal English muffin did it first

The royal lady biscuit gave birth to a son today. I'm kind of over Kate Middleton trying to steal my thunder. First she got married on April 29, a full day before our own anniversary (we did it six years earlier, for the record). Then, in typical royal fashion, she decided to overshadow my birthday by ensuring every July 20 will be devoted to coverage of the prince's upcoming milestone two days later. There goes my bucket list wish of the Daily Mail breathlessly reporting how I celebrate my much dreaded fortieth.

In an impulsive, non-midlife-crisis move, the day before I turned 32, I cut off all my hair.


Okay fine, not all of it. Just a foot. Enough to give any ordinary man a complex at any rate. I was inspired by a recent photo of Charline Theron. I just wish I had remembered a few important details. Namely, that I do not have the facial bone structure of Charlize Theron.

Because I only decided about three minutes before my friend chopped off two lengthy ponytails that I even wanted to do it, I decided to tweet photos of the end result to give Mr. T some advance warning. We had words. Yes, it's my hair to do with as a I choose. But considering I can't switch brands of tuna without consulting him with a full rundown and spreadsheet outlining the potential cost-savings, and confirmation at least twice that he's fine with the change, this might have caught him a bit off guard. Serves of right for wearing my pants better than me. That'll learn him.

I mailed the ponytails to Locks of Love, because I figured if I wasn't going to get enjoyment of my long hair, somebody else more deserving should. I made this same move back in my early college days, long before I ever owned a flat iron. Fortunately while I may not currently be rocking Charlize's cheekbones, at least this time around, I'm not competing with Joan Rivers and her curling iron for Best Geriatric Bob on the E! red carpet.

I wish I was joking.

Of course, earlier today, People reported that Emma Stone/Ms-I-saw-Ryan-Gosling-without-a-shirt-from-less-than-a-foot-away, also chopped her hair. Careful Hollywood: between Duchess Catherine's obvious need to emulate me and now this, I might mistakenly start calling myself a trendsetter and demanding my own reality show with frequent cameos from Kanye West.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

It's all fun and games until someone feels fat

Back when Mr. T and I were first dating (I don't really want to admit that was a decade ago and that Friends was still recording new shows), we made a bet: he was confident he could comfortably fit into a pair of my jeans. While he's certainly not overweight, he's a muscular guy with broad shoulders, arms and thighs. I figured the entertainment value of watching him fight and wiggle his way into a pair of my pants would far outweigh the cost of the drink I had to buy him if - if - he won.

I thought it was a long shot. I was thinner by definition. However, the early part of the new century was all about relaxed fit flares with lots of stretch. And men don't have hips. I would have been wise to keep both factors in mind before I put my money where my spandex was.

Long story longer, he won. He slipped my super low-rise jeans easily over his legs and we never spoke of that day again.

Until tonight. Shooter is obsessed with her toy tape measure and decided to measure my rear while I stood at the sink washing dishes. Mr. T made a passing joke, and it was on. Somehow I found myself reverting back to my early 20....something self and I bet him, once again, that he couldn't fit into my pants.*

*Note: this is an entirely different scenario than getting into my pants, which I assure you, will not happen for awhile, largely in part due to the events of tonight.

Before you go blasting my naivete and telling me I deserve whatever was coming to me, keep a few things in mind:

1) After that first pants-trading (except not trading since I didn't wear his) incident, I gained roughly 50 pounds. And then a few years later, I lost that weight and more and there was a time where I was almost dainty by comparative standards to my original size. Despite bearing two kids, I'm still clearly living in that fantasy world.

2) There were no such thing as skinny jeans in 2003. Jessica Alba had never sashayed own the street in a tapered cut. I figured the odds were definitely in my favour this time as there is no way - no way - the narrowest cut of my jeans would even go over one of his thighs.

3) I'd had a glass of sparkling wine. It's my kryptonite. My inhibitions were lowered.

Summary: I owe Mr. T ice cream. And yes, the irony that we bet ice cream on how our pants fit is not lost on me. I had a few brief moments of utter panic after he successfully zipped them up and strutted around the living room in victory (though I can promise you if I'd asked him to bend over and pick Cookie Monster up from the floor, I may have had to call the jaws of life to come rescue him).

This little experiment did nothing for my self esteem. The day you have to admit your husband's ass looks better than yours in your own jeans is a one of sad defeat.

This is not going to turn into a sermon about accepting your body and being a positive role model for your own children. Mostly because other people have already expressed that sentiment better than I could.

Nor is it going to be an epiphany, wherein I realize that I have birthed two beautiful children and run several half-marathons and I'm so strong and that's the new beautiful (and it goes on like this). Because sometimes my beautiful children are more frustrating than life partners who fit into the Ashley Ultra-Skinny Cut better than I do, and most Fridays, cocktail hour is the new beautiful and the best part of my day.

No, this is valuable education about a) Leaving your dirty dishes because let's be honest, that's what sparked this fuse and b) choosing your battles more carefully and checking your bank account before committing to spending $8 that would have bought you a bangs trim and a coffee if you'd played your cards right. And gone on a few more early morning runs instead of hitting the snooze button for the better part of a month.

Consider this a hard lesson learned.

 Work it...
And make love to the camera.