For National Caregivers Month, we at Give InKind, are telling dirty little secrets. We want to celebrate the mothers who come out and informally pinch hit for each other. It’s a different way to look at caregivers – but a necessary one.
The dirty little secret is this: trauma mamas take it out on themselves. Trauma mamas don’t always take good care of themselves.
Mothers whose children have died or who have experienced a serious medical crisis often take on the responsibility for the absence or illness of their children. To be sure, this is not fair.
As mothers, we grow and nurture our children. When this fails it is hard not to take on feelings of personal failure. It is hard not to levy self-inflicted wounds. As I write this, I hear the chorus of voices trying to introduce rational thought into a process where rational thought just does not play.
What can feel like a boundary violation is not necessarily one. Inquiries about self-care can be caring expressions of love and concern.
Let me tell you why.
Twelve years ago, my son was stillborn. Shortly thereafter, I faced a medical crisis. In the several years that followed I experienced two additional healthy pregnancies. The integration of pain, loss, joy, stress and uncertainty took a tool. It is years out and I still have my struggles.
Flash forward to today. In the past few years there has been this shadow of worry that was growing evermore dark. I became anxious. Because I was getting increasingly concerned about how long it had been since I sought routine medical care. It felt like suitable punishment to carry this fear. I am friends with a physician in my community. I decided to make an appointment with her. I did three times. I cancelled three times. Finally, she texted me personally one afternoon.
“I have a cancellation at 3:00. Come on in." Hers was the firm voice of reason. I had no way to argue. I went in and she drew what seemed like 4,000 vials of blood and reviewed my entire medical history. I have since been taking steps to address ongoing health issues I had been ignoring.
I am lucky that it is not too late to address these things. But I was moving quickly toward a threshold of permanent self-harm. That I can stop at the very last moment and reverse course is something that terrifies me even as I fall to my knees in gratitude. How did I let it get so far?
Truth be told, I have been dealing with a lot of abject shame and low-level depression since I started understanding how close I came to totally failing my family by failing myself. The behavior had become so entrenched – so much a muscle memory – that I cannot remember how to scaffold the protection of my mind and body.
I started talking to other moms who have experienced trauma related to their children.
Oh yes. When asked a direct question – do you take care of yourself? Many will cop to avoiding certain necessary things. Things we would never neglect to provide our children. Things like annual physicals, dental care, exercise are all things trauma mamas often avoid in a sort of unconsciously and deliberately self-harming way.
We are living in stressful and uncertain times. All parents react. We stress eat ice cream while streaming bad television late at night. We finish work when kids are finally asleep. We pay bills in the wee hours.
It is very easy to ignore self-care. It is even incredibly easy to justify.
For trauma mamas, however, the toxic brew of stress, self-blame (no matter how irrational) and post traumatic maladaptive behavior perfectly scaffold a lack of self-care. We want to feel better but feeling better has an edge of betrayal. The edge glints and we rest our fingers on the blade.
Help a trauma mama you know and love by calling bullshit. Remind her that she deserves self-care and self-compassion. You can start small. Invite her to go with you to get a haircut, an eye exam and some cute frames for glasses. Work your way up from there. Start going to yoga or to Pilates with her. Keep her honest. Nag her until she makes an appointment for a physical.
A loss or trauma may be years old, but moms carry this fossilized grief around with them. Let new tissue grow up around her wound – healthy tissue. So that she can move toward a version of forgiveness and remembrance she does deserve.
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