Chapter 3 is yes, all about grief. Although I've been told by many readers that this chapter really helped them process some very significant losses in their lives, I do illuminate the compelling similarities between grief as most people know it and the myriad symptoms moms often describe in the context of motherhood. Because grief is such an expansive topic, I divided this chapter into three distinctions: characteristics of grief, responses to grief, and symptoms related to grief. Again, as in most chapters, I provide examples and real life experiences from real life women in the throes of overwhelm.
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In the words of a true adolescent, “Grief sucks.” These words came from the son of a woman who died in the hospice where I once worked. His words were as succinct a description as I have ever heard. At the time I was relatively inexperienced and grasping for words that would comfort him, but I knew that his pain was too new and too deep for any words I could find that might console him in the smallest way. Instead we sat quietly for a long time surrounded by the familiar traces of his mother. What could one say about grief? Of course no one wants it, but it is a part of our lives and something we will experience repeatedly until the day we die. Grief is the natural response to loss, and loss can be experienced in many ways and in varying degrees. Most losses are obvious, such as the death of a loved one. This loss typically receives the greatest amount of public recognition and sympathy, and rightfully so. It is a loss that cannot escape our consciousness. But as I’ve come to learn from my own experience, some losses do escape our consciousness despite their powerful calling. Whether in denial, ignorant of symptoms, or impacted by society’s general intolerance for grief, many of us allow certain losses to go unclaimed. Be that as it may, a loss occurs if an attachment is impaired or severed. And the grief it elicits will express itself somehow, whether in our words, actions, feelings, and/or mental state.
How amazing to think that some mothers are grieving and don’t know it. How amazing to talk about losing one’s sense of self and yet not talk about grief. How amazing that I was grieving, a grief counselor, and didn’t recognize it. Me, well versed in issues of loss and grief, a mother of three, a woman who considers herself aware and smart, married to an intelligent man who has several degrees himself, including one in psychotherapy. Here I was displaying classic signs of loss and never thought about grief as something I was experiencing relative to my role as a mother. I suppose I was simply trying to survive the onslaught of feelings, new routines, lack of sleep, and the temperamental ways of young children. My attention was so well diverted away from my feelings that I sank deeper into depression and anxiety without questioning their cause. Life with my young children demanded action, not thought. I mean, I would think about the best ways to discipline and entertain my children, how to answer their innumerable questions, how to care for them physically, emotionally, and mentally, and perhaps how to use my time most expeditiously, but I didn’t ponder my feelings or the reasons for them. With young children in general, time moves in the urgent and immediate, and the pace is ever so challenging. When I did have a moment to be still and indulge a thought for my own, I daydreamed. There seemed to be no need to explore the feelings that I was trying to escape. The workload and drain of caring for my children seemed as great as the love I felt for them; conflicting feelings seemed inevitable and therefore acceptable. The reason sufficed. I was excited, happy, in love, busy, overcome, and captivated because I was a mother. And I was also sad, frustrated, angry, lonely, depressed, and anxious for the same exact reason.
Mothers of all backgrounds in every state around this country share common symptoms and similar experiences of motherhood, and still the connection to grief has not been made obvious to any degree that engenders recognition, acceptance, support, or healing. Symptoms, especially anxiety and depression, are often diagnosed as a medical condition that can be assuaged with the right prescription drugs; this may ease the symptoms but increase the risk of dependence. Further still, drugs are ineffective in actually healing any psychological effects of loss, should the issue of loss be relevant. Loss becomes relevant when mothers perceive the numerous changes in their self-esteem, appearance, marital satisfaction, financial status, sexuality, ambitions, etc., as damaging to their sense of self. Loss becomes relevant when mothers feel trapped and desperate, isolated and overwhelmed in a situation that has the power to strip them of self-worth. Loss becomes relevant when a woman’s physical, cognitive, social, and emotional responses to motherhood impact her in such a way that she no longer feels familiar to herself. Under these circumstances, grief must be acknowledged and treated as a possible (and reasonable) cause for the various symptoms afflicting so many mothers.
You know, grief seems like such a strong word to use when talking about moms and motherhood. You make it seem so dark and bad. I might be a little bummed that things changed but no, I'm not grieving.
I understand what you're saying and I also understand that grief is a response to loss. Loss comes in many forms and in many degrees. As I mentioned in the book, it comes down to value and what we value. Many people value their free time or their autonomy, friendships, careers, etc. so when those things change and are perceived as loss, people (moms) are going to experience symptoms that look and sound life grief. Certainly this type of loss and grief doesn't compare to losing a significant other. However, losing one's sense of self in overwhelm can be quite significant and felt deeply, even if temporarily.