This week my Instagram was full of #mumtalk, a Sport Relief campaign around maternal mental health. I was overwhelmingly struck by how common feelings of depression, anxiety, stress and generally not being 'good enough' are among mothers.
I think part of the problem is that when we experience these feelings, we think we are alone. We look around at everybody else's polished Instagram feeds or Facebook profiles, bursting at the seams with joy and gratitude and hashtags like #blessed, and think we're the only ones who are struggling, the only ones not doing motherhood 'right', overall or just at that particular moment in time.
As if there were a 'right' way, and that itself is also part of the problem. There is no one size fits all. Regardless of what 'parenting experts' try to tell us, raising children and living as a family is not an x plus y equals success formula.
Motherhood for me was a gateway to a whole host of forgotten feelings, thoughts, memories and beliefs, including some I had buried away in early childhood. I first became a mother, albeit to something that could not come into being, in 2009. An unplanned, unexpected and unviable ectopic pregnancy saw me in emergency surgery having my fallopian tube and a great deal of blood from my stomach removed, having signed a consent form for a procedure 'to save the maternal life'.
Following this shocking and painful loss I felt profoundly confused and depressed, painfully aware of my own mortality, and trapped in a hinterland in which all around me friends and family were happily falling pregnant and having babies but knowing the time wasn't quite right for Noel and I. I was expected - and expected myself - to 'get back to normal' immediately.
Somewhere in all this grew the feeling that pregnancy and babies were for other people. Better people. Better people than me.
When we decided to try for a baby and I became pregnant with Cherry, I was ecstatic, but carried around the feeling that my pregnancy was in some way less worthy than other people's pregnancies.
That my tiredness and moodiness and excitement and joy were in some way lesser. Not quite as important, not quite as deserving. Not quite as legitimate or real. I was pregnant but not pregnant enough. I didn't deserve the support and self-care that I would have blindly encouraged other pregnant women to take. I never once asked for a seat on the Tube.
Then I had Cherry and I was a mother, but still, not quite a mother enough.
My feelings, thoughts and beliefs seemed to centre on a general feeling of unworthiness, of not being good enough, not trying hard enough. I compared myself relentlessly, always choosing to contrast the best of other people with the absolute worst of myself.
In many ways I was happier than I had ever been, and certainly coping really well with a cranky, screamy, irritable and sensitive baby who basically cried nonstop for six months. I had her in a routine that worked well for us both, she slept beautifully, fed well, gained weight and thrived, and I was also running a successful content business. On the face of it I 'had it all' and I certainly took great joy in my beautiful daughter. I would not say I was depressed.
But I could never shake the feeling that I wasn't enough.
Violet was born when Cherry was just 20 months old. She was the most easygoing, rewarding, loving baby. She was the first person in the whole world who I felt loved me entirely unconditionally.
Her devotion cracked open the very heart of me and out poured years of feelings of inadequacy and insecurity. Her steadfast adoration combined with Cherry becoming the mirror image of the toddler I had once been was my undoing. The joyful bubble we all inhabited with our beautiful and much longed-for second child had a darker side.
From time to time my emotions spiralled way out of control and spilled out in the form of intense fits of anger and rage, directed entirely at myself. Once I told Noel we should get divorced and I should leave him to raise the children because I was so unworthy. On more than one occasion he came home to find me on the computer looking up local nurseries and insisting that both children must go into full-time childcare immediately because I was so unfit to be their mother. After these outbursts I would 'pull myself together' and have weeks, sometimes months of peace and harmony. But time after time I kept coming back to that dark, self-hating place.
Eventually with Noel's support and encouragement I sought help and started attending therapy and beginning the slow process of rewiring my brain.
What my children showed me was that I was completely trapped in negative thinking. I thought the worst of myself and the worst of the world around me. Some combination of the person I am, the circumstances I have experienced and the beliefs and thoughts I have chosen to pay attention to had come together to convince me, beyond any doubt, that I was unworthy. My whole worldview was negative, I believed myself to be inherently flawed, and my solution to this was to constantly berate and criticise myself, hovering over myself like a controlling parent, hammering down on myself like a ton of bricks the second I slipped from the path of complete, utter and total perfection I had set out for myself.
In the last two years I have read, written, talked and listened endlessly. I have experienced numerous breakthroughs and an enormous amount of going around in slow, frustrating, often painful circles. I have searched for answers - for techniques and methods, a fix, a 'cure' - and come to the conclusion that what I am really searching for is nothing other than myself. The self that, for various reasons, became almost lost to me at certain times in my life.
In many ways I still don't know who I really am because self-knowledge isn't easy to come by in the midst of an intense 'season of motherhood' as my lovely friends at Seeds and Stitches put it. But I am beginning to put together the pieces of the puzzle.
I still have days when I feel everything I have done, and everything I have worked towards, has been pointless. I still feel down on myself some days - many days. And frustratingly I still struggle when things are going well, because I become anxious about what's going to go wrong. Somewhere, somehow, the wheels MUST fall off.
I know what helps me. Exercise, fresh air, talking to myself like a precious child, checking in with myself, eating well, writing regularly, yoga, taking the time to be alone, connecting with other people and inhabiting myself fully and authentically.
I know what doesn't help too. Illness, tiredness, isolating myself, and falling back into the habit of berating myself. My mind is far, far too used to that well-trodden path of 'this is all your fault because you're NOT ENOUGH.' The second I am tired or weakened or in some way not concentrating, that's where it goes. It takes conscious thought, effort, energy and will to guide my thoughts down a different path and let's face it, what mother of a two year old and a four year old has thought, effort, energy and will to spare?
But I keep trying regardless.
Because I am enough. Motherhood has taught me that. Isn't it a shame that it took motherhood to teach me that? But I know this to be true. I look at these brave, strong, beautiful, wild, entirely imperfect, entirely lovable human beings I am privileged to be raising and I see that they are enough. I accept them, love them, just as they are.
And I now know that I can turn that love inside and accept and love myself just as I am.
It's a work in progress, maybe it always will be. I will always have 'fat days' and I'll probably always struggle to value myself and my needs enough to truly stamp out the flashes of anger and resentment I can still feel. But hopefully as time passes I will act on these less and less, and more and more choose a different path.
I often talk about how grateful I am to my children. For choosing me and for saving me - for opening my eyes to the negativity and self-hatred I just took as normal on a daily basis.
But actually, they didn't save me. I saved me. I couldn't look at them with eyes of love and look at myself with eyes of hatred, and just like Anna choosing Elsa over Kristoff, in the end I too chose love.