By Kaci Kohlhepp Conetzkey
I knew being a mom was going to be hard. I’m the youngest of five with 10 nieces and nephews and three great nieces and nephews. I have one sister with triplet boys and another sister with a set of twins. I’ve been helping raise babies since the age of 10. Trust me when I say that I was not this naive mother-to-be who envisioned her new life would consist of gazing into my newborn’s eyes as he slept peacefully hours on end and think, “What a blessing. I’m the luckiest woman in the world.”
With that being said, I should preface that there are women who truly feel or felt this way and I should note that some of you reading this might not be able to relate to anything I am saying from this point on. And that is amazing and I envy you and applaud you at the same time. However, I was not that woman and this is not going to be that kind of story.
This story is for others out there who are like me and did not have this magical Disneyland experience after their child was born, and my hope for you reading this is to let you know that what you have felt is completely OK and, dare I say, normal.
So moving forward into this journey, I was fully prepared knowing the first few weeks after this tiny human was born were going to straight-up suck and this kid was easily going to be my toughest challenge yet. There would be sleep deprivation, a lot of crying (from both the kid and the parents), dirty diapers and a whole lot of just trying to survive while keeping this new life-form alive. What I was not prepared for was how I was going to mentally handle everything. I remember learning about the baby blues and postpartum depression and I had countless moms with every good intention hold back their true feelings because they didn’t want to scare me.
Looking back, I wish these moms who struggled with PPD and baby blues would have opened up to me because although it may have scared me, it also would have prepared me. Which is why I decided to write this. To really get into the good, the bad and the ugly so hopefully future moms and dads out there will be more prepared than I was and truly understand that the real crap (pun intended) is not covered in those baby classes.
The first few weeks after our son, Kohltin, was born, how to put this delicately, I was a freaking mess. Going into this, I thought in between all the terrible moments I would be getting a silver lining when I would look at my son and think, “Yes, this sucks, but it’s worth it.” I did not. Like at all. Heck, I would have taken a charcoal lining. From the moment he was born, I felt no connection or bond.
I remember them handing him to me after the delivery and he was so awake and observant. He had these huge blue eyes and he looked right at me, and I remember going, “Huh, so you’re the one who was kicking the crap out of me for nine months.” The skies did not open up to beam down a ray of light on this child. There were no trumpets sounding or angels singing. No tears of joy were shed. There was me shaking uncontrollably from all the drugs and hormones, lying in a hospital bed holding this 7-pound baby, petrified that I was going to drop him and feeling no maternal instinct toward him whatsoever.
It didn’t get better after that. The first few days home from the hospital I attempted to breastfeed. It. Was. A. Nightmare. Fortunately, like all good journalists and Ph.D. graduates, Chris and I did our research on the benefits of breast milk before Kohltin was born.
Turns out, breast milk is not this magical elixir of life that everyone makes it out to be. In fact, most of the studies out there stating the benefits of breast milk, such as higher IQ, reduced allergies and reduced illness, are flawed and outdated and as a result, there really is no real health benefit to breast milk over formula.
In fact, the biggest benefit is for the mother, in that it reduces breast cancer by a small percentage. (If you want more information regarding these findings, refer to the book “Cribsheet” by Emily Oster.)
But there is a reason millions of moms choose to do it and why I decided I wanted to give it a try. Most women truly enjoy breastfeeding and being able to provide that for their child while simultaneously being able to bond with them. And this is amazing. However, I quickly found out I was not one of those women. In actuality, it caused me the complete opposite. I literally could not form a bond with Kohltin because I saw myself strictly as a food source and nothing more.
I cried that first week more than Chris has seen me cry in the 15 years we have been together combined. Finally, after about a week of no sleep and mental breakdowns, Chris looked at me and said, “You’re not doing this anymore. We have done our research and this literally is not worth it. We’re switching to formula.” Again I started crying.
Even after doing all of the research and knowing that there is no real benefit of breast milk over formula, I felt guilty for giving up. I felt like I was depriving Kohltin of something he needed when in actuality it was the one million hormones coursing through my body making me not think straight.
Things definitely got better from there, but it was still going to be a road to recovery for me. As Chris labeled it, “Mission Get Kaci Healthy” was going full speed ahead. I was constantly beating myself up for my feelings and believing I was the only one who felt like this. I was ashamed. Everything I read and every mom I knew would always say the same thing. Yes, it’s hard but at the end of the day they loved being a mom and wouldn’t change it for anything. I, on the other hand, did not like being a mom and felt like I was not cut out for this job.
Once again, I felt like the worst person ever. All things considered, Kohltin was a pretty good baby, so shouldn’t I be finding more joy in this? In between the sleep deprivation and crying, shouldn’t I be looking at my son sleeping and get that motherly love and devotion that all the blogs talk about? It’s during these times that I think back to what my therapist said when I was voicing these concerns. She looked right at me and said, “From now on, you need to replace the ‘should’ with ‘sh**.’”
In October 2018 we found out I had a miscarriage after being pregnant for eight weeks. Three weeks later I traveled to Denmark by myself for 10 days. It was Chris’ idea. When I first found out I was pregnant, I didn’t exactly handle it very well. I thought my life was over, independence gone. There were things left I wanted to do before having a kid, and traveling out of the country by myself was one of those things. So Chris booked me a ticket to Denmark.
When we got the news, I debated canceling the trip. Getting the news about the miscarriage was tougher than I imagined, especially considering I wasn’t sure I wanted kids. I went through every range of emotion including confusion, sadness and, as ashamed as I am to admit this, relief when we got the news.
I loved our life and I was terrified of losing my independence and being trapped in this role of motherhood. But the more time went on the more I realized I did want a family. I am a firm believer that everything happens for a reason, and this experience was no different. Almost a year to the day of the miscarriage, Kohltin was born.
During that year and traveling solo, I learned that the thing with independence is I don’t think you can really lose it. You can lose yourself and as a result your independence, but it’s always a part of you, waiting patiently until you claim it back. The struggle is finding the strength to do so. And that’s where my struggle was and has been.
A week after Kohltin was born, Chris and I visited my therapist. I felt like my depression was getting worse and I was walking a very fine line between baby blues and full-on postpartum depression.
Chris and my best friends were at a loss as to how to help me. As amazing as my support system was, they didn’t really understand what I was going through and how to help me. It was the best decision we made, visiting my therapist so early. We talked through how I had not been able to form a connection with Kohltin, how my optimism (something I always prided myself on) was gone and how trapped I felt.
I resented Kohltin and was questioning whether or not having a kid was a good idea. In summary, I felt like a terrible human being. But my therapist told me two very important things that have stuck with me. The first was that I needed to replace the word “should.”
I kept thinking that I should be feeling a certain way or acting a certain way, and the reality is that’s crap. There is no “right way” to act when you have a kid, and everyone’s experience will be different. I wish I was told that more before Kohltin was born.
Everyone kept saying that while motherhood was going to be hard it was going to be worth it and that you’re going to have this unconditional love for this child right away and you won’t be able to imagine your life before them. Turns out that’s a load of BS (at least for me). EVERYONE’S EXPERIENCE TRULY IS DIFFERENT AND THERE IS NO RIGHT WAY YOU SHOULD FEEL WHEN YOUR CHILD IS BORN. I started to understand that more when I was talking to some of my mom friends. I was blown away by the outreach of friends after Kohltin was born reassuring me that I am doing great, and that they’re here if I need to talk or vent. I’ve always heard people talk about this amazing support group or “tribe” of moms, but it wasn’t until after Kolhtin was born that I truly understood what they meant.
Women I hadn’t talked to in years reached out to me just reassuring me that I’ve got this and it gets better. I was blown away. So I did something I had never done before. I was vulnerable with some of these friends. I voiced my fears and struggles, and it turns out some of them had the same experiences I did. Little by little I was making my way back to the surface and was starting to be able to breathe again. To my friends who had kids before me, I’m sorry. I didn’t get it until now. This sisterhood of motherhood is legit and it has blown me out of the water.
The second piece of advice my therapist told me was in regard to my fear of losing who I am. I have always considered myself a strong person and someone who knows exactly who she is and is not afraid to show people. What you see is what you get. In the words of my friends, I am the sarcastic foul-mouthed delight you have all come to know and love.
Those first few weeks and months after Kohltin was born, I had no idea who I was. I was lost. I felt like a caged animal, and what’s worse is my optimism was nonexistent so my usual mentality of “it will be better tomorrow” was out the window. I was terrified that this was now my life and the new me, and that fear was crippling. My therapist reassured that it does get better and what I am feeling is normal. She then said, “The part that makes Kaci Kaci is not gone. Yes, your lifestyle and your routine may change, but you will not.”
I realized I was afraid that motherhood was going to define who I was. So many times when I meet a woman, one of the first things they tell me is that they are a mom. That’s great, but does motherhood really define who you are?
For me personally, I wanted to be more than just a mom and I wanted to be seen as such. Yes, it’s a part of me but it does not define who I am. And what my therapist said is true. I am still Kaci. At first I didn’t believe her, but slowly over time I discovered she was right. I still have my morals and my beliefs. The things that brought me joy before Kolhtin still bring me joy now (especially wine … nine months was a LONG time.)
Yes, I am still the sarcastic foul-mouthed delight that people hopefully still love. Although, I’m probably going to have to PG my language here in the next year (with an exception to ISU sporting events, of course). And most importantly I’m finding ways to reclaim my independence. I’m learning it’s OK to be away from Kohltin, and in fact it’s pretty dang healthy.
One thing Chris and I wanted to be very conscious about was to be sure to take time for just the two of us, which is why we decided to go to Puerto Vallarta two months after Kohltin was born. Yes, we love our son but we also love each other and our independence, and one thing we wanted to make sure of was to make time for just the two of us.
Leading up to our trip, I would mention how we are going to Mexico but leaving our 2-month-old at home. The look of judgment on some of these people’s faces was astounding. “You’re leaving a 2-month-old at home? How could you do that? Aren’t you going to miss him?” Well, yeah, but I miss my husband and sleep also, and I’m not going to be glued to this kid’s hip for the rest of my life, and at the same time we want Kohltin to feel comfortable with other people as well.
Chris and I need our freedom and some alone time, and I’m learning there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. We’re also VERY fortunate to have two sets of grandparents who want to watch him. Heck, my parents moved here from Florida solely for this reason! Spending time away from Kohlt is making Chris’ and my relationship healthier and a relationship with Kohlt healthier.
I didn’t realize that until we left Kohltin overnight for the first time about a month after he was born. The next morning I felt guilty because I really didn’t miss him and honesty was not ready to get him back. Having our freedom for one night reminded me of our old life. But Chris reminded me that this still can be a part of our old life. And let’s be honest: We aren’t the 22-year-olds anymore that go out and party every night. OK, let’s be really honest: We were never those 22-year-olds that went out and partied every night.
We are able to make this life how we want it, and if that means dropping our kid off with grandparents once a week or a few times a month, then we should do that and not feel guilty about it. I realize how incredibly fortunate we are to have a set of grandparents that live 20 minutes away from us and another that lives six hours away. However, I also know when that day comes that we aren’t that lucky, we are going to be Care.com’s No. 1 subscriber.
I would see these social media posts about these women with their newborns gushing about how they love being a mom and I just could not relate, and in fact I became jealous of these moms because it seemed like it came so dang easy to them. I mean sure, little dude is cool and all and I love him, but do I really enjoy being a mom right now? The answer is no. One big reason is that I am just not a fan of the newborn stage. Call me selfish, but when I am in any type of relationship I like it to be a two-way street, and when you’re under 3 months, the only thing you can provide is the monotonous routine of a million dirty diapers, crying, burps and the occasional smile. Although with Kolhtin it was more just a reaction from pooping.
I always joked saying newborns terrified me and I’d rather skip the first six months and go straight to when the kid actually does something. Well, turns out he eventually does do things and it is starting to make this part of his life WAY better than when we brought him home after the hospital, although it’s still definitely a struggle. He is now smiling (and not from a reaction to pooping) and babbling and I’m slowly starting to get these maternal instincts to the extent that I do miss him when we leave ― but at the same time, I’m more than OK with leaving him. Mission Get Kaci Healthy is still a go but we’re not full speed ahead anymore.
Going back to work was a HUGE help for that. A good friend of mine told me that she became a better mom by 120% when she went back to work and her son started day care. I could not agree more. To those of you reading this who are stay-at-home moms: GOD BLESS YOU. I honestly don’t know how you do it and keep your sanity, and I give you all of the props.
I still don’t know if I can confidently say I enjoy being a mom right now, but I do see light at the end of the tunnel. Just by my writing that and not thinking I’m a terrible person is a testament in itself. Baby steps have been taken (no pun intended) and I’m slowly starting to settle and adjust into this new life. I think secretly I will always envy those moms who didn’t go through any of the feelings I did, those for whom giving birth to their child and those first few months with them was really a joyous experience that they loved. But that wasn’t my experience, and that’s OK.
I am eventually finding my silver linings. It just took a little longer than some. It’s the rare night when the witching hour doesn’t exist and he’s a perfect angel with eating and going to bed. It’s seeing him smile up at Chris as he reads him a bedtime story. It’s watching the sunset in Puerto Vallarta with Chris on our last day feeling sad that we have to leave but excited to see his big fat face the next day. It’s watching him on the baby monitor when we put him in his crib awake and watch how he feels safe enough to put himself to sleep without being rocked and feeling proud of him for doing that but also a little sad that he didn’t need me.
I will always grieve my past life and my past self. And I’m learning to live with that. Because without knowing grief you can’t truly appreciate the good that eventually follows, however long that may take. The wait will suck, but I have a feeling it just may be worth it.
And to those reading this who cannot relate to anything I’m saying, please be that support system to your friend or spouse. The one who offers compassion and love instead of pity and judgment. Knowing that a simple “What you’re feeling is normal and you’re doing great” will go a long way. But at the same time, don’t be afraid to get these people help.
Looking back, I think I can safely say I never got full-on postpartum depression, but a big reason for that was seeing my therapist as early as I did and continuing to see her regularly. However, I also know that postpartum is a very real and very common diagnosis for women (and men) and should not be ignored by any means.
For those of you reading this who are new parents or soon to be new parents, I write this not to scare you but to hopefully just prepare you. And although you cannot truly be prepared for this ridiculously insane journey that is called parenthood, please know that every journey is different and there is no right path in regard to how to feel or how to handle it.
And last, for those of you who are reading this and it’s hitting home, please know that you are not alone and it’s OK to have these feelings. I came across a blog about a dad who had postpartum depression, and he said, “Just because you feel a certain way at one moment doesn’t mean you’re going to feel that way forever,” and it’s so true. I find it ironic that I am writing this last bit on March 6, Kohltin’s 4-month “birthday” and a month with me being back to work.
This morning, Chris and I were playing with Kohltin in bed and Kohltin was just laughing and smiling at us. I got teary-eyed and looked up at Chris and said, “OK, I get it now. I love this kid more than life itself and I honestly cannot imagine our life without him. We are so lucky.” This was directly followed by my extremely compassionate and supportive husband exclaiming, “Well, it’s about damn time! You hear that, Kohltin? Your mom loves you now. It only took her four months!”
So yes, to those reading this who have or had the same struggles as me, it does get better and there is light at the end of the tunnel. So I especially write this to you. To those moms or soon-to-be moms who gaze at their newborns right after delivery and not feel that maternal bond. To the ones in a dark place who don’t see the light. To those individuals who are constantly beating themselves up for being a “terrible person.” To those who are ashamed to say something or can’t find anyone who understands you. I hear you. I understand you. And I GET you and I write this to you to give you hope and comfort in those dark times. It truly does eventually get better and THERE WILL BE LIGHT. There are people out there to support you, and it’s OK to be vulnerable with them. Don’t be afraid to open up.
In the meantime, I will continue the journey of finding my silver linings and maintaining my independence. I have no doubt these next few years will be hard and raising this little dude will indeed be my toughest challenge yet, but I am up for that challenge. I will continue to do my best at being that same sarcastic, foul-mouthed delight that everyone knows and loves, never forgetting who I am and always remembering to turn that “should” around.
July 1, 2020
Kohltin is almost 8 months old and we are on month four of working from home, and no day care. Thank God my parents have been amazing and are helping watch him two to three times a week, or else this story might not have had a happy ending. These four months have been freaking hard. I was just getting into a groove of this whole parenting thing and feeling like myself again, and a HUGE reason for that was being back at work and Kohltin at day care.
Then COVID happened. These past few months have felt like the fourth trimester all over again and I have literally had PTSD over it. I don’t want to go back to that dark time, and with COVID about to get worse again, I feel like there is no end in sight and no relief. I have been trying to be better about looking on the bright side of things. For example, a positive is that Kohltin is no longer a newborn and is so interactive now and, dear Lord, HE. NEVER. STOPS. MOVING. The negative is that Kohltin is no longer a newborn and is so interactive now and, dear Lord, HE. NEVER. STOPS. MOVING.
The days of plopping him in a swing or on a playmat are long gone and now replaced with constant whining to be held (thank you very much, separation anxiety) and needing to be entertained and doing something 24/7. (OK, this one’s on me. Turns out the kid’s got my looks AND personality. Godspeed, Chris.)
He is not full-on crawling yet but instead has mastered the backward scoot and the forward flopping fish, which somehow always successfully lands him by a power cord or the dog’s chew toys. Long story short, the days we have him I get nothing done. The past four months have been maternity leave all over again, only worse because this time around we literally can’t go anywhere AND I have to work a full-time job.
Fortunately, my job is pretty flexible and I have gotten really good at cramming stuff in during nap time and zoning out his shrieks of love during Zoom calls by using a VERY loud sound machine and headphones. However this is just putting a Band-Aid over what I pray is a temporary problem. And I know I will look back at this time and miss it. (At least that is what I keep telling myself the days I want to put him in the dog’s kennel.)
Joking aside, this really has been a fun time with him, and Chris and I have loved being home with him to see milestones like rolling over, sitting up, foods, and what Chris claims is his first word. (It was “mama,” by the way. Ha-ha ― suck it, Chris.) We are very lucky in that we have a pretty happy dude and his smile and laugh are infectious. And as much of a pain in the ass as its been having him home so much, for me it has given me confidence that maybe, just maybe, I can do this whole parenting thing without messing him up TOO much and needing to take out a second mortgage to pay for therapy.
I have learned a lot. For one thing, it’s reinforced that I am NOT meant to be a stay-at-home, or a work-from-home. I am not meant to be at home. I am a 7 on the Enneagram, which means being trapped in a house, not seeing people or traveling or having experiences, is literally one of the worst forms of torture I can imagine. However, it’s also forced me to take a step back and pause, breathe, reflect and just be present.
One big thing is I learned real fast having the right partner makes all the difference in the world. Based on the makeup of our jobs, I have had to be the primary caregiver the days Kohltin is home with us. And yes, it sucks and it’s not fair but it’s reality. Chris knows what a burden this has been on me, and no matter what a long or strenuous day he has had, he always takes Kohltin from me at the end of the workday so I can go work out and also makes dinner each and every night. For that, I am eternally grateful.
Oct. 15, 2020
Dude turns 1 in a few weeks. I seriously adore this kid and I am amazed by how much I have grown emotionally over this past year. I love seeing his little brain work and figure things out. I love seeing him explore and be so independent but still have those days where all he wants is for me to hold him. And I look at those days and realize those thoughts I have and literally step back and ask myself, “Who are you?!” I NEVER would have thought I was capable of those feelings 11 months ago. But I do, and I am a better person because of it.
Last night I was in the front yard with Kohltin. He was on my lap playing some ridiculous game where he would face-plant and then pop up and start laughing. I could not stop laughing at him. I was so caught up in the game I didn’t realize a woman was standing in front of the house watching us. She had a newborn strapped to her and they were out for a walk. The look of utter bewilderment and awe that she had in seeing a person actually ENJOY playing with a baby still makes me smile.
I asked how old the baby was, and she said she had just turned 2 months and then asked how old Kohltin was. “He turns 1 in a few weeks.” She then looked at me with so much desperation and exhaustion in her eyes and asked, “Please tell me it gets better.” I smiled and looked down at this little guy who has transformed my life. The dude who I didn’t know I wanted and questioned every single second of every single day those first few months. The kid who slowly over time made his way into my heart and made me his mom. I looked up at her with every ounce of certainty, love, and compassion I could muster and said, “It does. It really, really does.”