The unfolding story of Lisa Gibson, aged 32, of Winnipeg, MB and the death of her two young children is preoccupying my mind. We cannot assume that this mother drowned her children, as the information is incomplete. But I can hear the judging by others that is likely happening, "What kind of mother would harm her own children?" I'll tell you what kind—a normal kind, with an abnormal moment in time.
Regardless of what happened for those two children, I started thinking about the moments when I was on the verge of snapping. The children in this case, Anna who was eighteen-months, and little Nicholas who was almost three-months-old, were just the ages I found the most difficult. Actually, I'm not sure the word "difficult" really does justice for the intense struggles that can happen with raising young children.
According to unconfirmed reports, Lisa Gibson was diagnosed and being treated for postpartum depression. As a psychotherapist, I know I would have been diagnosed with the same, but felt I could control and help myself. Those who know me were witness to all the help I needed to feel like my feet were under me.
A telling day happened when I wrote an article about how to manage a raging, tantruming three-year-old and entitled it, "How To Not Kill Your Three-Year-Old." I asked my son to pose with a growling face, took his picture like that and posted it in the photo banner at the top of the article. I then sent it along to two psychotherapy colleagues to review who both responded with shock, "Andrea, this title and photo are incredibly inappropriate! You need to seek treatment."
They were right, it was a horrible choice of title and photo, particularly because the week before Elaine Campione, aged 35, had drowned her three-year-old and nineteen-month-old daughters. I didn't see it—I was so blinded by my challenges, I didn't see the inappropriateness. I also didn't hear from those colleagues again. I felt sad wondering if they judged me for this action, rather than reaching out to help me.
I don't think we do a good job of admitting how brutal parenting young children can be—to ourselves, to our partners, to friends. I remember taking a big breath before saying out loud that I really wasn't enjoying life when my kids were very young. That was hard to do. The vulnerability felt when admitting I found motherhood hard was raw. Our society is so quick to judge others for "bad parenting" that I think too many are quietly crying and hiding behind their happy social media photos. The pictures being posted of Lisa from her Facebook page show the typical young child cuteness in combination with comments from Lisa like, "Man I love this kid."
When I conduct workshops for young parents, I often hear that moms feel badly for hating the drudgery and challenges of raising little ones. A common phrase said to me is, "I didn't sign up for this," which seems to have an extra edge from the moms who experienced fertility trouble and either worked really hard or spend a great deal of money to have their children.
Our generation of parents is experiencing new challenges like lack of support, short maternity leaves, and increased pressure for high income. A recent stat from the US states that only four percent of women are pure stay-at-home moms, a similar percentage of moms live close to their parents and siblings (for support), and many families are having babies later in life. More mothers are stretched thinly by going to work or trying to maintain a home business and all the social media required to be visible.
I hear from older mothers, and have experienced this myself, that the shift from the pre-kid years to the parenting ones can be drastic. The change from wearing professional clothes, sleeping well, spending lots of time with your partner, eating out, going to movies, travelling, and visiting with friends to sleeplessly dropping personal ambition and drive to take care of little people who are more often challenging than fun is very stark.
What I would like people to take away from Lisa Gibson's tragic story is to understand that behind the cute Facebook pictures and lovely comments is likely an exhausted person bewildered by the sudden life changes and intensity of feelings. Let's just assume any parent with young children needs support—lots of it. Those of us who have older children can adopt a new mother to make sure that mom has an opportunity to be honest about how she is feeling and also offer solutions to whatever can be made better for her.
To all those reading this who have young children, please know that the ratio of challenging to fun does increasingly move to the fun side as the days pass. It also moves much more quickly to the fun side when parents do what they need to in order to reduce exhaustion. It seems to me that parents who have time to themselves, do not feel pulled in all directions, and are getting enough rest can manage the normal challenges that happen with raising young children. Children aren't the only ones who tantrum more when they are hungry, over-stimulated, or tired!
I am sending healing wishes to Lisa Gibson's husband, family, friends, and also to the practitioner who was treating her—most of us in the mental health profession have seen clients walk out the door and although evidence indicates that person likely won't harm themself or others, you often wonder...and hope. Sending hugs to you, whoever you are.
(I post lots of free parenting support and help on my facebook page.)
Photo from ctvnews.ca