Thoughts From A Mom Therapist

Thoughts From A Mom Therapist


A mom therapist! That’s a thing?!


Sure is. I’m Sarah! I’m a mental health counselor in Iowa who specializes in perinatal mental health. This encompasses issues experienced during or after pregnancy, birth trauma, postpartum, infertility, and loss.


Many therapists in my specialty have origin stories – how we developed a passion for serving a large, yet remarkably undersupported part of our community. All of our stories contain aspects that are unique to us, and the majority of our stories share a common thread: at some point, we came face to face with the hard, scary stuff that peppers the path to and through parenthood and were staggered by the lack of support for parents and parents to be.


My origin story? It began with six years as a nurse on a labor, delivery, and postpartum unit. Six years witnessing some of the highest highs life has to offer, and six years bearing witness tolow, heartbreaking lows that brought me to my knees. And through it all, a growing sense of disenchantment with the system I was a part of. A quiet, insistent little voice telling me, “You could do more.”  


Now, that’s not to say nurses aren’t doing important work, or that they aren’t doing enough, because let me tell you: they are! I have a soap-freaking-box about fair wages, safe staffing, and better resources for healthcare workers. That’s perhaps a different post for a different blog, though. I digress On the other side of this journey of mine, I’ve realized what that little voice was really trying to tell me: I needed more time. I could do some deeply meaningful work supporting and empowering parents in the span of an 8-12 hour shift. It’s what kept me coming back after the hard, heavy days. But the kind of change and growth I wanted to be a part of doesn’t happen overnight. I needed more time with parents. More time to listen to them, to cry with them, to teach them, and to empower them.


I don’t mean for that to sound like I’m some sort of savior, because I’m definitely not. I am one person, and I can not save everyone. I can, however, do what I can. I can use my training and my skill set to make a difference in the lives of people whose paths cross with mine.


So, here I am. And it’s incredible. Holding a space for parents and parents to be and witnessing what happens in that space istruly the honor of a lifetime.


When Sunny Babe asked me to contribute to the blog, I was thrilled by the opportunity to support parents in a new way. Before I sat down and started typing, I thought a lot about what I might write about. Societal expectations, gender roles, the impact of trauma, mom guilt, body image, comparison, perfectionism, what no one tells you, the mental load… It’s a lot, and it’s all important!


But… I’m one person. I can’t do it all.


Neither can you.


We feel that pressure to though, don’t we?


That pressure to do it all, for your life to look a certain way, can come from several different directions. Taking a closer look at where (and who) that pressure is coming from can be an uncomfortable experience. If you start to feel that discomfort as you read, it’s okay to take a break. Go for a walk. Have a snack. Throw something mindless on TV and turn your brain off for a bit. Be kind to yourself.


We’ll start on some common ground. The pressure to be a superhero parent who can do it all with a smile on their face is something we see a LOT on screen. We see it on TV shows. We see it in movies. Picture the sitcom parent (I am looking directly at you, Danny Tanner, Kitty Foreman, and Reba Hart)… They have challenges! They’re just like you! Wait, they also live in a clean, gorgeous house, cook three meals a day, and seem only mildly troubled by the scripted hardships that come their way?! How! Do! They! Do it!


Ah, social media has entered the chat. And wow, there are sooomany gorgeous photos! Engagements, weddings, pregnancy announcements, gender reveals, birth announcements, birthdays, and milestones galore! They’re professional quality. Edited to perfection. The house is clean. No one appears flushed from a recent tantrum. Everyone is smiling, maybe even looking at the camera??? What kind of sorcery is this? My life rarely looks and feels like that, if ever! How are they doing it?! What’s their secret?


More and more of us are finding out the secret. Here it is:they’re not. Life outside the frame, life beyond the highlights? It’s messy. We come from all walks of life and have access to varying levels of support, but every single one of us (myself included) deals with the messiness of life. It’s part of being human. We’re imperfect by nature. The idea of perfection is only that: an idea. It isn’t something we can achieve.


There’s another source of pressure to have it all together that can show up differently for each of us. This is the one that can feel particularly heavy, because it has to do with our own upbringings.


Throughout our upbringings, we receive messages about how the world works, what is and isn’t safe, what is and isn’t acceptable, what a successful life looks like, and what love looks and feels like, among other things. Those messages are delivered to us both directly through what our caregivers say to us, and more often, indirectly through what is said around us, as well as what behaviors that are encouraged, discouraged, and modeled for us. How were our big emotions like anger, sadness, and fear handled by our caregivers? How did they handle their own big emotions (around us and away from us)? How were mistakes handled? What did apologies sound like, and who did the apologizing? Are you worthy of love and support when you’re feeling something big, or do you have to suppress and silence yourself to be loveable again? In other words, do you have to be perfect to be loveable?


I ask these questions both here and in the therapy room because a natural part of becoming a parent involves reflecting on our own upbringings. We recall what was good, what we want to emulate for our own children. Then, we inevitably flip to the other side of that stone: what wasn’t good, what we want to do differently. At this point, some of us may realize that some aspects of our upbringings were pretty messed up.


Here are common responses I receive when I first ask about someone’s upbringing in therapy:


“My childhood was fine. It’s not like I was abused or anything.”


“My parents did their best.”


Here’s the thing. Our upbringings don’t have to involve straight up abuse or neglect to have an impact on us. That’s the worst-case scenario end of the spectrum, but the other end of the spectrum isn’t a perfect childhood. It’s minimal impact. Our upbringings, no matter where they fall on the impact spectrum, have an impact on us in both positive and negative ways. Our past shapes who we are and who we want to become, including the kind of parent we hope to be.


If your upbringing was on the abuse and neglect end of the spectrum, please know that I see you. I can’t change what happened to you. I can only tell you how very sorry I am that you experienced what you did. You deserved better. Then and now, you deserve healing, peace, and safety. Really, you do.


Anyone feeling uncomfortable? Remember what I said about taking breaks and being kind to yourself.


Why does this feel uncomfortable, anyways? A few reasons.


One: for some of us, the things I’m talking about may bring up painful memories that we try not to think about. We can’t change what happened to us, and opening the Pandora’s box of painful childhood memories is not something everyone is ready for. On some level, we know there’s no closing that box once we’ve opened it, and there are probably some painful things in there that we’re going to have to work through. Don’t forget that you’re in control. No one can force you to open that box and deal with what’s inside before you’re ready.


Two: as children, we’re often deeply loyal to our caregivers. We rely entirely on them for safety and survival. Centuries ago, during a time where humans lived in much smaller groups, those bonds with our caregivers literally ensured our survival. Depending on what our relationships with our caregivers look like, that loyalty doesn’t always follow us into adulthood. For some of us, however, it does. It can feel like a betrayal to think and talk about the mistakes our caregivers made, the ways they failed us, especially when we’ve maintained close ties with them into adulthood – when our caregiver has become our friend.


Three: once we become adults, and once we become parents ourselves, we find out very quickly how freaking hard it is out here. Adulting is hard. Parenting is really hard. Humans –including our caregivers – are imperfect. Holding our caregivers accountable for their impact on us feels like another betrayal because we develop understanding and empathy for their imperfection. Remember that two conflicting things can be true: my caregiver did their best, and they failed me. We are capable of understanding how hard things might have been for them when we were little, and tend to the ways we were impacted.


Before I move on to number four, it feels important to pause here and let you know that you don’t have to talk to your parents about this stuff if you don’t want to. There’s not a right and wrong answer here. The right answer for you is the one that will help you find acceptance and healing. Some people need to speak their truth to the people who have impacted them in order to find closure and begin to heal. Others have their own reasons why that might not work for them, but are equally as capable of finding closure and healing. Maybe it works better to process what all of this means to you, deepen your understanding of yourself, and make some changes in the ways you engage with your caregivers. You do you.


Also, if you do want to talk to your parents about this stuff and can’t because they’re not around anymore, I see you. Unpacking the ways you were impacted by someone who’s gone is a specific, complicated kind of pain. You deserve just as much support, safety, and healing as the rest of us.


Four: if we start reflecting on the ways our caregivers impacted us, we naturally start to worry about the ways we might impact our own littles. This one can get really heavy, folks. We love our littles, don’t we? We love them so much it hurts. Of course we want to give them a childhood that reflects the love we have for them.


But we’re human. We’re imperfect. Which means we will have an impact on our littles. We can’t avoid it, we can only minimize it.


Easier said than done, right? Part of the reason parenting is so scary is because there are SO many ways to get it right, and there are just as many ways to mess it up. We can’t always tell the difference. Sometimes we try something, trying to get it right, only to discover that we messed up.


Take a breath – you’ve got this. You really do.


You love your little, so I know you’ll keep on keeping on, even though you feel scared sometimes. You’ll continue striving to minimize negative impact. I want to challenge you to let go of the idea of perfection. It’s understandable that you would aim for that, because you want your little’s childhood to reflect your love for them. But since you’re human, you’re going to mess upsometimes. You’re going to make mistakes.


More often than we might think, the mistakes we make with our littles don’t matter nearly as much as what we do after the mistake. It’s called repair. Repair is where the healing happens. Repair is where reconnection happens. It’s how we show our littles that they are seen and valid, no matter what they’re feeling. It’s how we let them know that they matter, that they deserve good things, and that they deserve apologies and healing when they’ve been hurt. It’s how we teach them to become caring, empathetic adults who move through life with softness.


Think about it. What would it have been like for some of you to hear your caregiver say something like this: “I see how my actions hurt you. It makes sense that you would feel this way. I’m sorry I hurt you. What can I do to help you heal and feel close again?”


When I ask that question during therapy sessions, many of the parents I’m working with straight up laugh in my face. The idea of their caregiver taking that much accountability is so unlikely, so unheard of, that it’s laughable to them. I’ll be real with you: when my own therapist asked me that question, I laughed in her face, too. That’s kind of sad, isn’t it? Some of our parents and their parents before them have limiting beliefs about apologies. For some, apologies and admitting when they’re wrong can feel like an admission of weakness or failure, or like they’re handing the person they’re apologizing to a card to use against them later. So they don’t apologize to us. So we don’t heal, or learn to apologize. So we don’t apologize to our littles. So they never heal or learn to apologize. On and on it goes.


It doesn’t have to be that way. We can’t change our upbringings or the impacts they’ve had on us. But if we discover a parts of ourselves that are unhealed, or spot a cycle we’d like to break? We can do the damn thing. It’s hard, AND we can do it.


My recommendation? Reflect on all of this. And when you’re ready, find a therapist you vibe with and open the box. Process your past and connect it with your present. The things we did and said to feel safe and loved as littles are often the very things that are keeping us stuck as adults. There are patterns we learned from our caregivers that we may be repeating with our littles. You deserve healing. You deserve a space to become your favorite version of yourself, and to become the parent you want to be for your little.


For anyone interested in additional learning, I highly recommend looking up Dr. Becky Kennedy. I’m not a paid sponsor or anything – she’s just the bee’s knees, in my professional opinion. Her learning materials will build on what we talked about here and give you some parenting tools to try the next time your little is feeling something big. She has a book, social media, Youtube, a podcast, and a website, so find what works best for your learning style and run with it. Remember you don’t have to force anything that’s not working for you.


Whew, we made it. Thanks for being here today. I’m out there rooting for you. Be well.

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