By Christina Cooper
Long, long ago, in a galaxy before marriage and twins, I attended yoga classes. The instructor once had us all pair up with a stranger and look into his or her eyes, silently thinking supportive, kind thoughts. I smiled awkwardly, gazed into an older woman's hazel eyes and thought, "You're safe, everything is going to work out, you're doing a great job with your life, and you can be at peace." We sat for about two minutes doing this love-beaming exercise, and I started to morph from feeling awkward to rather warm-hearted and nice. Then the instructor told us to stop, close our eyes, and reverse the flow of kind thoughts right back into ourselves. I immediately burst into tears. The hazel-eyed stranger undoubtedly deserved unqualified support and kindness, but me? I was too far from the person I thought I should be to accept that. I went to the restroom and didn't come out until the classroom had emptied. Apparently I could face stretching my body into new positions like downward dog, but not stretching my heart into the unfamiliar territory of self-acceptance.
Today I lead postpartum support groups, and thank goodness I have to be the group leader, so I can't walk out of the group and cry in the restroom. I must open up that old inner self to some more compassionate attitudes if I'm going to be of help to my fellow moms.
I always begin by stating some principles that set the tone for my group. It's easy to call up wonderful quotes from my MotherWoman training such as, "We do not need to be perfect to be perfectly good mothers," and, "We believe that it's OK to ask for help and not stop asking until we find it." It's a joy to state these principles to the mothers who attend my groups, like fluffing a giant fleecy blanket of acceptance over them for who they are, as they are right now. And yet, almost eight years after my twins' birth, a few principles still give me a hell of a hard time when I turn them back on myself.
"You are the right mother for your children," I often say, looking at mothers with babies in arms or toddlers playing, and seeing the almost palpable love flowing between them. You really are. I believe this for you even if you can't believe it for yourself today. Then some kind, well-meaning soul in the group says it back to me and I cringe. You don't know me. I'm barely adequate most days. I wonder all the time if my kids are going to grow up anxious or twisted somehow because of the long, nasty bout of postpartum anxiety that shadowed their first years of life.
I have to stop thinking my kids would be better off raised by wolves or chipmunks; the other moms will see it in my eyes and never return to the group. I have to bear up under this assault of kindness from other mothers. I answer back, "That's a hard one for me to believe right now. I appreciate you believing it for me while I work on it." Big breath. "Let me try saying it out loud. I am the right mother for my children." The nasty radio station in my head broadcasts a chorus singing Liar, Liar Pants on Fire! in four-part harmony. "Yup, that feels all wrong coming from my mouth," I admit and the group laughs. But I stay in my seat. And we continue our group, sharing and listening, quietly supporting each other. We all need this. We all deserve it. Even me.
Christina Cooper lives with her husband and seven-year-old twins in East Longmeadow, MA. As a MotherWoman-trained facilitator, she leads parent support groups with the Massachusetts Department of Early Education and Care and writes about the challenges of motherhood for local publications. While no longer vibrating with anxiety and wanting to whack her husband with the baby monitor if he touches her while she's sleeping, she remembers her postpartum anxiety so very vividly. If motherhood makes you vibrate too, she wishes she could invite you over for cookies and milk. We're all in this together.
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