Episode 51: Surviving the Holidays

I recorded this episode on November 13, 2017, and it seemed like a good time to talk some sense about the upcoming holiday season. Or is the word “upcoming” wishful thinking on my part? As far as commerce is concerned, the holiday season has already arrived. I went to the pet store with Julian yesterday, and they were selling a Santa outfit for guinea pigs.

Seriously. A Santa suit for guinea pigs.

Before you go crazy, and think you have to buy a guinea pig, and then get a Santa suit for said guinea pig, let’s get down to Holiday Survival Basics.

YOU HAVE TO MEET YOUR NEEDS FIRST. Your basic needs. Sleep food air warmth.  Are you familiar with Maslow’s hierarchy of needs?  It’s a pyramid that represents our needs as humans.  The triangle at the tippy top represents self-actualization. I love self-actualization. That’s where we become our best selves. But before we can reach the top of the pyramid? We need a solid base. Otherwise the whole pyramid collapses on itself.

Maslow places physiological needs at the base. That includes sleep. Babies, god bless them, really batter the shit out of the base of our pyramid. It takes a lot of work, and luck, and sacrifices to the gods of slumber, to get enough sleep. 

Julian, my sweet rambunctious two-year-old, learned how to climb out of his crib recently and so we graduated him to a “big boy bed.” (Translation: twin mattress on the floor.) Now he is waking up early. As in 4:30 in the morning. Waaaaay too early. Nathan and I are taking turns with the morning shift, and damn, this experience has been an excellent reminder as to how important sleep truly is. Today, I got enough sleep. I am patient kind loving creative funny happy empathetic and all sorts of good stuff. Yesterday I was up at 4:30 and felt like a vicious bitchy beast all day. I literally growled at my children.  It was suboptimal. But I’m not going to beat myself up because holy crap, it is hard to do anything but survive if you are not getting enough sleep.

So why am I rambling on about pyramids and sleep? Because like newborns, the holidays muck with our basic needs. With all the commercials and carols, tinsel and traditions, it can start to feel like crafting the perfect wreath is more important than getting a good night’s sleep. It’s not!

Your mental health is everything. Not something. Not anything.  EVERYTHING. If you don’t have your mental health, then how can you even think of enjoying the holidays?

There will be Christmas 2018 and Christmas 2019 and on and on until the end of time. Do what you have to do this year – and every year! – to preserve your mental health. Don’t sacrifice your mental health in order to perfectly wrap baby’s presents. Baby don’t give a shit if the gift wrap coordinates with the bow. (Actually, baby don’t even give a shit about presents.) 

Holidays can get messy because everyone has their own expectations. It’s OK to disappoint someone if their expectations do not work for you this year. Especially if their expectations might damage your mental or even physiological health. 

You can’t manage other people’s expectations. Mainly because those expectations are floating around in their heads and you are not psychic. But even if you are psychic, or even if the people in your life go to great pains to articulate their expectations, you still have to remember the golden rule: YOUR MENTAL HEALTH IS EVERYTHING. It does not matter what your sister or father-in-law expects from the holidays if their expectations interfere with your ability to meet your basic needs. 

But you can manage your expectations. That’s what I’m trying to do this year. Manage my expectations. I started a list the other day on my iPhone. I put “holiday cards” on the list.  That made me realize I also want to take cute photos, which made me realize I also want to craft a cute Advent calendar, which made me get really honest with myself and admit to about thirty other insane expectations.

The list made me realize I’m heading into the holidays with some schemes that will interfere with my sanity. But now that I have made the list, I feel like there is more space in my head.

Next step: I have to show my list to Nathan so he can tell me where I am being insane. Confession: I’m a little afraid to do this because he’s going to get a good look at my crazy Pinterest side.

Before I show my list to Nathan, I’m taking a hard look at it and labeling things as “do-able,” “aspirational” and “societal.”

Christmas cards? I hate making Christmas cards. They stress me out. I only think I have to do them because it’s a societal expectation. And these days, a lot of people skip the cards. So maybe it’s not so much a societal expectation as a pressure generated by all the companies that want my money and create elaborate blog campaigns to convince me that my life will be perfect if only I get the best cutest hippest Christmas cards.

Yeah, I’m not falling for that this year. Christmas cards are getting slashed off my To Do List.

Then there are gingerbread houses. For me, those are aspirational, so I now have a ten year plan to eventually make elaborate houses with my kids. But this year? I will buy kits at Trader Joes and assemble the houses when the kids are asleep. Then, when we are all well-rested and happy, I’ll let the kids go crazy with frosting and candy.

With your list, be sure to listen to your gut and do what works for you. When your gut says one thing, but your head says something else, listen to your gut. 

You don’t need to get good photos. You don’t. The memories and love are there regardless of how many photos you take. By all means, take photos. I love cuddling with my children and flipping through old photos. But we get as much joy from candid shots as we do from staged fancy shoots. Actually, the candid shots are probably more entertaining. I don’t have any awesome Christmas photos from years past and guess what? That’s okay!

If there’s a tradition or expectation driving you crazy, remember: most traditions were started, or at least perpetuated, by someone looking to make a buck. The person selling fancy Christmas trees does not care whether you have a merry Christmas and they certainly aren’t worrying about your mental health. They just want your money.

If you are looking for a book to keep you sane during the holidays, I highly recommend Llama Llama, Holiday Drama by Anna Dewdney. I think it is as soothing for mamas as the little llamas.

When things do not go according to plan (and with kids, they rarely do), remember that a little chaos makes for a good story. Stories about the perfect calm holiday meal? Boring. The family story about the year the turkey spontaneously combust? Outstanding!

When all else fails: there’s always next year. 

Episode 50: Starting A Peer Support Group

Episode 50? Woot woot! I probably should have baked a cake, right? I baked a chocolate cake last weekend for Julian’s birthday, so let’s just pretend that cake was also for the podcast.

Thinking of starting a postpartum mom-to-mom support group? Fabulous! These are my top eleven tips. (Ten sounds better, but hey, I thought of eleven.)

1.  If you want to start a mom-to-mom support group, do it!  Don’t worry about the frills and frippery.  You don’t need a website or blog header.  You don’t need to know who your first one hundred members are.  You don’t need a five year plan.  You do not have to be perfect in the beginning.  Your group can and should evolve over time.  Just start.

2.  Do what works for you.  In a perfect world, these groups would be offered in every neighborhood at dozens of different times.  But you are human.  You can’t be everything to everyone.  Pick the time, location, frequency, and logistics that work for YOU so the group is sustainable. 

3.  Lower your expectations.  Moms will RSVP and never show up for a meeting.  There might be weeks (even months) when no one attends.  Be patient and remember: you are helping a tough crowd.  Life with a baby? DIFFICULT.  Nap schedules change without warning.  Babies get sick.  get really excited when a mom makes it to your group, because damn, she worked hard to be there. 

4.  Don’t take anything personally.  I think this is critical for just about everything in life.  I can’t stop talking about The Four Agreements and think it should be required reading for humanity.  If you want to run a mom-to-mom support group, read that book!

But more specifically for running a mom-to-mom support group, some moms will attend and clearly hate the group.  That’s their journey.  It’s not you.  Even if it seems like you, remember, they are dealing with all sorts of emotional and psychological issues. 

5.  Some moms need to attend regularly.  Others need only attend once.

6.  Remember: you are not a mental health professional.  Be sure to mention that to any new moms who attend.

7.  If you have the money, Meetup.com is great.  At least in Pasadena.  But for spreading the word about your group, there’s also Facebook and emailing mom resources directly, e.g. obstetricians, pediatricians, mommy and me classes.   

8.  You are allowed to quit.  I quit when I was pregnant with my second child because hello, I had morning sickness until the day I gave birth.  I knew I could not keep the group going while vomiting all day long.  Know yourself.  Know your limits.  You have to meet your needs before you can meet anyone else’s needs. 

9.  You are allowed to start over if you do quit.  I restarted my group when Julian was about six months old and the second incarnation was even better than the first.  That’s when I committed to a regular time and day and asked The Family Room if I could use their space to host my meetings. 

10.  You are helping people who you never meet.  I promise, you are.  For some moms, just knowing your group exists is a huge relief.  It helps them realize they are not alone.  They need that.  I have dozens of moms whom have never attended my group but signed up for the Meetup, and I know they are helped by the group’s existence. When you start the group, you are fighting the stigma.

11.  You can’t save everyone.

Also: check our Jane Honikman’s books!  They are amazing resources!   I have listed them all below with Amazon links. I did not read these books until after I had started my group, so don’t feel pressure to read them first. (See Tip # 1.) But don’t feel like you have to invent the wheel by yourself.

Jane Honikman’s Books:

Community Support For New Families

I’m Listening: A Guide to Supporting Postpartum Families

Postpartum Action Manual: How to Provide Comfort, Encouragement, and Guidance to New Families

Gluten-Free!

I’ve been gluten-free for about ten days now. In theory, I’m also going “grain-free” but I’m letting myself cheat there a little. Like yesterday, my mom baked pumpkin bread with gluten-free flour. There were some other grains in the mix, but fuck it, I love pumpkin bread. I want to be healthier, but that’s not going to work if I’m expected to abstain from pumpkin bread until the end of time.

I’ve read in various places that grains, especially gluten, can cause depression and anxiety. Well hey now. I have certainly had my share fair of those symptoms. I have quit gluten to lose weight and regain control of my body, but if the GF life boosts my mental health, you will not hear my complaining.

In fact, you’ll probably hear me rejoicing.

I’m just not content with the status quo. I’m at a great place in my life, but I feel like I can do more and feel even more amazing than I do today.

But all in good time. I know me. I can’t overhaul my life in 48 hours and expect it to stick. I have to make changes one by one. That’s why I cut refined sugars in early September and waited five weeks to tackle this GF transition. And that’s why I’m not worrying about my diet soda problem yet. Today I’m cutting gluten and grains. That’s enough. I want to stop drinking soda eventually. I know it’s bad for me. But I also know if I cut soda and gluten at the same time, I will go bat shit crazy and end up eating all the cake in Pasadena.

Memoir Update

I have not been very active with this website/blog because I was so busy revising my memoir about postpartum depression. It’s my first book, and I have been learning a lot through the adventures of writing and revising.

I finally felt good about the second draft and sent it off to my editor in mid-September. She is going over it now and will flip it back to me in early November. I’ll then make some final revisions and get the book ready for publication – definitely in 2018, the earlier in the year the better. I’m ready to send this baby into the world!

Ye Olde Gag Reflex

I’m so glad Pippa is my firstborn.  She spit up plenty as a baby, but once she got past that, the spit up was over, aside from puking when she is legitimately sick.

I wish I could say the same for Julian.

Julian has a mighty gag reflex. Which, I suppose, is a good thing from an evolutionary standpoint. He still puts tiny things in his mouth, which is less than ideal, but I don’t have to worry about him choking. He’d puke long before it came to that.

For example, today.

At Starbucks.

A crowded Starbucks.

Julian had been eating a peanut butter sandwich. Some crumbs were bugging him.  He started to cough.  And cough. And then whee, he emptied the contents of his stomach on to the floor.

I looked at the line of patrons behind us. They were horrified.  I assured them Julian just has a strong reflux.  Not sure they were convinced.

As I bent down and cleaned up the mess, one woman started to clean up Julian. I looked up and said, “You must be a mom.”

“Yup,” she said, “I have five kids.”

You got to love the kindness of random mothers.

Also, I’m so glad this sort of thing did not happen with Pippa. I was not nearly as strong then as I am today. If Pippa had puked all over a crowded Starbucks, I would have wanted to puke myself.

But today? Meh. I’m sure some people were telling their friends or colleagues about the horrible mother who took her sick child to Starbucks. Doesn’t matter. I still got my iced coffee.

It was delicious.

 

Deleted Scene: Alcohol and Depression

I am revising my memoir about having a perinatal mood and anxiety disorder and sharing deleted scenes here on the blog. In this scene, I talk about the effects that wine had on my postpartum depression.  My psychiatrist told me it was fine to drink an occasional glass of wine, but wine actually exacerbated the symptom of physical fatigue.  

Early on in my treatment, I asked my psychiatrist if I could still drink wine.  He told me it was better to avoid alcohol but an occasional glass would not make my head explode.

In college, I drank more than my fair share.  My friends could humiliate me with many tales regarding Courtney’s inebriated antics.  But after college, I only got drunk a few times.  The hangovers were too brutal.  The last time I have ever been drunk was December 30, 2006.  (The culprit: red wine.  When I moved out of my apartment in September 2010, there was a still a pink stain on the carpet next to my bed.) 

Nathan and I have never been drunk together, but we have shared many bottles of wine.  We love the movie Sideways and have gone wine tasting in Santa Barbara County at least a half dozen times.  We love the whole experience: driving along windy country roads, past vineyards and horses; sniffing and sipping several different wines; tossing around pretentious descriptors like “smoky” and “forest floor.”  Our trips to wine country were always relaxing and romantic.

One of my favorite bloggers often wrote about the trips she took to tropical islands with her husband while her mother watched the baby.  Her parents were divorced, and she thought these weekend getaways were vital to the health of her marriage.  I read her blog posts as if they were written by God Himself.  If Nathan and I did not go on a romantic getaway immediately if not sooner, our marriage would turn to ash and dust. 

Never mind the fact that our marriage was showing no signs of wear or tear.   In my mind, a romantic getaway was imperative, and the getaway had to happen in wine country, and if we went to wine country, by God, I would have to be able to imbibe at least three glasses of wine during the day.

OR TERRIBLE SHIT WOULD HAPPEN.

In the hopes of rebuilding my alcohol tolerance, I made myself drink a glass of wine at least once every two or three weeks.  I did not enjoy these drinks.  Before I got pregnant, a glass or two of wine made my body hum pleasantly.  Now every sip of wine made me feel edgier and edgier.  It felt as if I was forcing myself to drink poison.

Months after my psychiatrist said the occasional glass of wine was fine, I finally noticed something: there was a cause-effect relationship between my fatigue and the wine.  If I had a glass of wine with dinner, then the next morning, my depression-fatigue kicked in and I felt as if I was being dragged into hell by Satan himself.  

If I wanted to avoid my fatigue episodes, I would have to stop drinking wine and abandon my Santa Barbara romantic getaway dreams.

To wine or not to wine?  It took me all of 0.8 seconds to answer that question.

I stopped drinking wine in February 2014. 

Nathan and I are still very much happily married.

Deleted Scene: My Postpartum Obsession With SIDs

I am revising my memoir about having a perinatal mood and anxiety disorder and sharing deleted scenes here on the blog. If you are a mom who is currently struggling, please know that you are not alone.  You did not bring this upon yourself.  You can and will make a full recovery. 

According to my baby books, Sudden Infant Death Syndrome claims the lives of 1,500 infants every year in the United States. 

In 2013, the year Pippa was born, there were 3.93 million births in the U.S. 

Math never was my strong suit, but I knew that given when and where I lived, it would be incredibly unlucky to lose a baby to SIDs.

SIDs still scared the shit out of me. 

I thought about it every night when Pippa fell asleep and then I thought about it again in the morning when she awoke – we had cheated the SIDs reaper once again; we were one day closer to Pippa’s first birthday when the threat of sudden inexplicable death would dissipate. 

In my crusade against SIDs, I declared that Pippa must sleep in the master bedroom, end of discussion. 

A cradle was stationed in our bedroom next to our closet, which has large wooden sliding doors.  If Pippa was in her cradle, the closet doors had to be closed.  Otherwise, something might fall out during the night, land on top of Pippa, and smother her. 

If the closet door was open even an inch, it tormented me until I got out of bed to close it – even if the screech of the closet door might wake the sleeping baby. 

My closet fears were a bit, shall we say, irrational.  We had lived in our house for several years and one of the sliding closet doors was often open, sometimes all night.  Sometimes a shirt or dress fell off its hangar and landed on top of the shoes, but the clothes and shoes always stayed inside the closet. 

My anxiety inspired some creative thinking. 

There could be an earthquake!  Strong enough to give the clothes enough momentum to fly from the closet, but weak enough so that Nathan and I kept sleeping.  If the tectonic plates shifted just so… and we were at the right place in our sleep cycles…

It could happen. 

A psychopath might break into our house, tiptoe into the bedroom, remove a shirt from its hangar, and drape it over Pippa.  The psychopath would have to choose our house… and would have to sneak past me, Nathan and a sleeping baby…

It could happen.

The closet could suffer an infrastructure malfunction, and the pole that supported the hangers could collapse, and a shirt could fall on Pippa.  The wooden pole would have to break silently, but in a way that sent clothing flying through the air …

It could happen.

If I could have positioned Pippa’s cradle away from the closet, I would have – but I had evaluated all the dangers and selected the safest spot in the house for my baby’s cradle. 

A foot to the left, and the television might fall over and kill her. 

A foot to the right, and Pippa could be lacerated by shattered glass if a suicidal squirrel leapt through the window. 

A foot forward, and she was too close to the blankets on the bed, which could creep towards the cradle and engulf Pippa at 3 a.m. 

A foot backwards, and she was too far from me – if a kidnapper slipped into our room, I might not hear my baby being lifted away.  She would be sold to a cult in Australia and killed by dingoes.

I debated with myself whether or not we should lock ourselves into the bedroom.  A locked door might deter a kidnapper but it might also delay a fireman from rescuing Pippa if our house was on fire and Nathan and I were unconscious…. but firemen have axes, and kidnappers don’t (too noisy), so the door was locked.

I checked Pippa again and again during the night. 

She slept in pajamas and a sleep sack, a wearable blanket with armholes and a zipper in front, and I constantly checked these articles to make sure they were not covering her mouth or nose.  Adjustments were often necessary at 3 a.m.  (And 3:01 a.m.  And 3:03 a.m.  And 3:07 a.m.) 

I would climb out of bed and tug the fabric of her pajamas away from her face.  Assured that Pippa was not in danger of being smothered, I would get back into bed, only to crawl back out thirty seconds later. 

What if, when I turned away from Pippa, I had caused a disturbance in the air that made the sleep sack flap over her face?  Or maybe, when I had leaned over to kiss her forehead, I had accidentally disrupted the fabric of her pajamas.  I had to check her again, or she would die. 

Sometimes I checked her seven or eight times before I could force myself to stay in bed. 

Then I would get up again to make sure she was still breathing, that her heart was still beating.  I strained my eyes in the dark to see the rise and fall of her chest.  I placed a hand over the soft spot on her head where I could feel her pulse.  Then I leaned close so I could hear her breathing.  Sometimes, if these methods had not assured me enough, I poked Pippa until she stirred a little. 

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I Started A Hashtag

I started a hashtag yesterday: #PPDforDummies. Let me explain.

When I was recovering from postpartum depression (and postpartum anxiety) (and postpartum obsessive compulsive disorder), Postpartum Depression for Dummies by Dr. Shoshana Bennett was my bible. It helped me understand what was happening to me and gave me tons of great ideas to help me get better.

I remember finding this book online and thinking, Holy crap, For Dummies published a book about this? Then it must be really common.

A few months later, as I started to feel more like myself, I thought, This book really needs to be in the waiting room for every pediatrician and obstetrician.

That was over three years ago. At last, I am finally following through on my idea to make sure this book is EVERYWHERE because no woman should think she is alone when she is suffering from a maternal mood disorder.

 

I donated a copy of Postpartum Depression for Dummies to the parent education class that Julian and I attend.  They have a library with books about pregnancy and baby care, and now they have PPD for Dummies. I think this is the one book about maternal mood disorders that every mom needs in her life.

Folks, I’m publishing a memoir about my postpartum adventures in a few months, but this is the book I really want everyone to read. That is how serious I am about this book.

I have thought long and hard about the best way to get copies of this book into the waiting rooms of pediatricians and obstetricians. Should I start a Kickstarter? Form a non-profit? Host a fundraiser?

Then I realized the best way to start was to just start. Sometimes a little grassroots advocacy is the most effective way to raise awareness.

I hope I can inspire other advocates to donate copies of PPD For Dummies – or whatever book they love the most – to all the places that moms visit.

And you know what? This does not have to be a purely altruistic mission. I wrote a little love note with the address for my podcast’s website on the front page of the book. Think of the marketing possibilities for doulas, midwives, therapists, and anyone else working with new moms! In a world where everyone is screaming for attention on social media, why not differentiate yourself from the pack and reach moms in a totally different way?

I am going to create an actual nice “bookplate” to paste into future copies that I share. Something much prettier than my handwriting. But hey, I did not want another excuse to procrastinate. Maybe a mom will be in that classroom tomorrow and see the book and go home, order it from Amazon, and finally get the help she needs. How could I wait another day to make a pretty bookplate when there are moms suffering right this very second?

So that is why I started a hashtag. If you feel inspired and donate a copy of Postpartum Depression for Dummies to your pediatrician, obstetrician, whomever, please let me know! Post a photo on Instagram or Facebook, don’t forget to tag #PPDforDummies, and I’ll let my podcast listeners know. (I’m @Courtney.Novak on Instagram. Tag me, too, to help spread the word and make sure I see your post!)

I’ll start a page on this website to list all the people who get involved and include links to where you live online. This is such an easy way to make a difference.

We can change the world one book at a time.

3 Mom Circus

I received such a sweet message from Sunny last week that I just had to share:

My name is Sunny and I wanted to let you know your podcast helped me through my postpartum anxiety after delivering twin baby girls. I’ve always had issues with anxiety and when I became a mother it was unbearable. I listened to your podcast while taking my girls, Lynley & Emma on long stroller walks outside and it helped so.much.

Your creative use of storytelling as therapy for PPD also inspired me to share my story. Together, my cousin (currently suffering from PPD/A) my sister (clinically depressed) and I (anxiety) created a blog called 3momcircus. We live in MN, TN, and FL, and we’re working together to support each other as we share our lives with other moms.

It’s a brand new blog, but we’re hoping it will reach moms going through these struggles. We are working to normalize perinatal mood disorders and let moms know it’s ok to not be ok.
Your voice was the first real voice I heard on the subject, so thank you for your bravery for being so real and vulnerable. It’s definitely a hard thing to do, but it does help.

Thank you, Sunny! I am working at Pippa’s school book fair right now and having trouble concentrating because I just want to read all the posts on your beautiful new blog, 3 Mom Circus.

I’m so glad to hear of more moms sharing their stories because folks, this maternal mood disorder stuff? It’s real. It’s happening. And by sharing our stories, we empower ourselves.

Deleted Scene: The Physical Fatigue of Postpartum Depression

I’m revising my memoir Adventures With Postpartum Depression and sharing some of the deleted scenes here on the blog. Parts of this passage will probably make it into the final version, but I wanted to share it now, in this form, because it was so difficult for me to understand the physical parts of postpartum depression even as I myself was being treated for that very illness.

I still occasionally had days where it felt like my muscles were melting off my bones.  No matter how much I slept, no matter how much caffeine I consumed, my body felt like a useless sack of jelly. 

I first experienced this fatigue in the hospital on the same day that I realized I was depressed.  I assumed the physical feeling of exhaustion was my body’s way of adjusting to my medications. 

The muscle-melting fatigue happened again after I was discharged from the hospital.  Every afternoon, I felt exhausted in the marrow of my bones and collapsed on the guest room bed while Laura watched Pippa. 

Napping, though, did not help.  Lying down did not help.  In fact, the longer I lay in bed, the harder it was for me to mobilize and get back to the act of living. 

Even as I felt better and better, the fatigue still sometimes struck without warning. 

Several times, I felt it slam into my body at Mommy and Me class.  I could hear the moms talking but felt as if I was sinking into an invisible ocean. 

The fatigue also liked to grab me whenever Nathan was driving us somewhere on the weekend. 

And most baffling and frustrating, the fatigue often tried to haul me back into bed even after I got seven or eight hours of uninterrupted sleep. 

For months and months, I thought of this as Zoloft-fatigue.  The Zoloft was doing good things for me, so I accepted this little side effect.

Then, over six months after I was first diagnosed with postpartum depression, it hit me. 

I was not experiencing Zoloft-fatigue. 

I was experiencing DEPRESSION-fatigue.

Before I had postpartum depression, I always equated “depression” with having a “bad attitude” and “crappy mindset.”  Depression was all in the person’s head.  They did not need to spend all day in bed moping.  If they could just adopt a more pleasant attitude, they would be fine.

Depression is not just in the head.  It is physical.  For me, it felt as if the muscles were melting off my bones.  I spent a lot of time resting in bed not because I had a crappy attitude but because I truly and physically felt incapable of doing anything else.  

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