Chapter 1: My Story: Do You See Me? : How I Disappeared in Plain Sight
One Mother’s Story of Deep Love and Deep Loss and How my motherhood experience led to the Creation of Work Like a Mother®
How would I ever have known that as I nervously waved goodbye to the nurses on the maternity wing and was gleefully wheeled out of the hospital with my beautiful baby in tow, balloons, and flowers attached, that I was unsuspectingly leaving my best self behind Why didn’t I ever question the absurdity of assuming it was ok to leave behind everything that made me ME in order to be a great mother. This is not what I thought it would be. The seeds of this unspoken, silent epidemic of self-loss were planted that day.
I was the poster child of an elated pregnant woman. “What to expect when you are expecting” was my bible and like the expert academic student, I was throughout my life, the tasks at hand preparing to have a baby, become the perfect distraction for me as I obsessively navigated my way through the rites of passage of a first-time mother. My to-do lists and doctor’s appointments psychologically and emotionally protected me from the tidal wave of change that was about to highjack my life as I knew it when my baby was born.
While happily pregnant and excited beyond belief to embark on this new and mysterious chapter in the life of so many women before me, somewhere buried deep, was the haunting and irking feeling of not knowing or understanding what would become of me when I left the professional life I worked my whole life to achieve, to become a mom. I should have seen the signs. I was totally oblivious and had no way to access, touch, or label the visceral and unconscious warning signs which ran deep through my blood like a quiet river approaching a cascading waterfall, unable to alert me of what was ahead for me. Somewhere deep inside my body was preparing me for the dissonance of the greatest joy I would ever experience and at the same time, a betrayal on a scale I could never have imagined. This cognitive confusion worked on me like a volcano that would eventually erupt, and for years consumed my entire being, wondering how I could have been so duped and betrayed. In hindsight, If I were able to penetrate even the tiniest hole into the rock-solid steel exterior of myself; an elated, glowing, and high functioning pregnant woman, I would have become keenly aware that I was gripped by an emotional blindfold, with full collusion from society and all those who loved me. I was silenced and enveloped in ignorance that prevented me from seeing the warning signs of a transition that would be both the most thrilling chapter of my life and at the same time the most devastating loss of myself and vitality.
That, no one ever warned me, prepared me, or acknowledged the truths of this reality plagues me to this day. I was great at my job and loved my career! I left without much trepidation or any real conversation about what would be best for me. I made this choice to be at home with my baby with my eyes wide open but I had no idea what that meant for me or my vitality. I took for granted that my work gave me purpose, pride, respect, and relevance and never once considered how life would feel without that daily evidence of my competence. Where were my parents, aunts, professors, bosses, doctors, friends, aunts, ANYONE to enlighten me about the choices I had before me and to become mindful that my relevance was in peril should I not be very intentional about my choices. Like most new moms, I could not imagine prior to her birth, the love affair I would have with my baby and my need to be with her. I was blinded with love and strolled out of my career into my home.
Right beneath the surface of my blissful existence, was a knowingly familiar sensation, a percolating danger. I was disappearing, becoming invisible – right in front of all those who loved me most. I became a casualty of all that I was; my professional competence, my vitality, my relevance, and finally and most lethally, all of my confidence. The exuberant woman who I was, was surreptitiously swapped out for a selfless, needless, voiceless, and essentially invisible woman who as it turned out, needed a lot more help than a compass, flashlight, and a map to find her way back to herself. Years would pass before this truth became conscious to me and I would be able to label it, begin healing, and do something about it. Here is my story and how it led me to my life’s work and purpose.
Being a new mom was not a natural role for me. My new daily accomplishments that year became, getting to mommy and me classes without a total anxiety attack, cleaning up a home, taking outings to malls for baby gift returns without the baby flipping out, getting laundry done, and having dinner ready at the end of the day. I wasn’t very good at nursing, laundry, or cooking. In one swoop, gone were the casual dinners out with friends, intellectual exchanges with colleagues, city days, travel – everything. I was a prisoner in my own life. Yet, wasn’t this what women do? The isolation and lack of stimulation pervading my new life were stifling and relentless. Holy shit. I’ve become one of those miserable women on the car wash napkins! Why didn’t I ever question the absurdity of assuming it was ok to leave behind everything that made me ME in order to be a great mother. This is not what I thought it would be.
I understood and truly bought into the notion that I was indeed “fortunate” for the opportunity to stay at home with my baby. Wasn’t I fortunate? Everyone around said I was. Shouldn’t I love staying at home with my baby? What is wrong with me? How can I be so fortunate yet be so unhappy? I was happy to be a mom, striving to be authentically joyful and positive about my new status in life. Yet, in truth, learning how to care for and tend to a new baby and being in a life “of service” to my new family spending most of my time alone was very hard. Depressive thoughts, brain fog, and a low-grade numbness were completely new sensations to me, yet they became my new best friend. I did not understand this chronic pit in my gut, nor was I able to label it. I was in an emotional “Abyss” and fighting to keep myself going. I was fighting a losing battle. Guilt, shame, confusion, and anger were my new companions as I embraced motherhood with every fiber of my being and tried to convince myself daily that I should feel fortunate and happy to be home with them. There must have been something wrong with me. I adored my baby, choose to be home to raise her yet I was slipping away in plain sight.
The Subtle Art of Losing One Self –
I should have seen it coming but didn’t. Did other moms feel like I was feeling? I was unknowingly succumbing to a silent epidemic that I now know that millions of smart capable and eager new mothers would experience – going underground and disappearing. Those first few years of motherhood, while engulfed by a bursting enthusiasm and overpowering feeling of love for my children with an unclouded certainty that I choose to be at home raising them. Yet, in truth, I lived each and every single day with a chronic, very low grade, sense that I was slipping and that something foreign and frightening was happening to me. Made no sense, after all, I had no legitimate reason to be sad. Ignoring and denying my intuition, I masterfully suppressed this and systematically rechannelled my high achiever orientation and sometimes intimidating intensity that always defined me into this new job at home. “If I just tried harder to create a more beautiful home, keep up with the housework and laundry, be more creative, attentive and engaged when playing with my children, be more social with moms, and find the “joy” other women seemed to have to do the mundane and mindless domestic tasks which comprised my every waking hour, then everything would be ok. Wouldn’t it? I could force myself to like baby music classes, tumble bugs, and playgroups and sit at playgrounds with other moms. Why don’t I enjoy this more? Truth be told, I felt stress and an unnatural trepidation approaching my over-scheduled days and felt anxious yet silly spending hours packing up my young children and organizing my diaper bag, who by the way was perfectly content at home, to shlep to our myriad of classes so they can be ‘properly stimulated” at ages 1,2 and 3 years old. Exhausting! My sense of anxiety is palpable as I recall bringing my 2-year-old daughter week after week to her ballet class in the REQUIRED full baby pink ballerina regalia, hair pinned perfectly in a bun, actual $70.00 ballet slippers, pink tights, and bodysuit, IN DIAPERS, where she would relish and delight in defiantly and excitedly and a most unballerina-like fashion, dart across and around the perimeter of the room, an oversized, professional ballet studio covered top to bottom in mirrors, with increasing speed and determination, desperate successfully stick her tiny fingers in each and every electrical outlet in the room, all while the other little girls were perfectly following the dance movements of the teacher, much to the delight of their mothers. 2 years old! I was horrified on a weekly basis and I knew the absurdity of the situation. I felt embarrassed and defeated to spend so much energy and time dragging my kids to this activity and even more embarrassed that I was crazy enough to do this. Obviously, all of my sensibilities were underground. My identity had become enmeshed with my children’s lives and behavior. As the years passed, I went from mommy and me classes, to take permanent residence in my SUV – often for a solid 6 hours a day. Boy was I isolated in my life, alone with young children at home and then driving alone for hours on end dropping and picking up my children. I was physically exhausted and intellectually starved.
I clearly choose to be home with my kids but wonder why at such a huge cost? I suffered in silence and confusion of such mixed thoughts and feelings.
Was it how I felt to relinquish my financial independence and earning power after all these years? Why did I not question this? After all, generations of women before me stayed at home with children while their spouses earned the income and they were ok. Right? Was I somehow different from other moms? I unconsciously pondered many painful questions? Why did I feel like an actor or imposter communing for hours on end, for days, months, and then years with what appeared to me as “normal and happy” moms at playgrounds, Starbucks, playroom floors, where discussions ranged from analyzing trendy baby clothes sales, home decorating tips, the latest mommy and me classes, healthiest snacks or where to find the must-have toys hitting the market? Why were so many women drinking wine at 3 pm to “start dinner”? Why did I self-medicate and soothe my isolation and loneliness with food, under the guise of being a nurturing homemaker, taking permanent residence behind my kitchen island? I spent more hours alone there than anywhere else in the world during these years. Why did I secretly yearn for my husband’s routine to be able to get dressed, go to work, be with adults and do what he was good at? Why did I feel suddenly “unqualified” and irrelevant to talk with my colleagues because what would I talk about anyway? Would my kids ever really know the real me? What kind of a role model would I be if my kids thought I had no purpose in life other than being their mother. Was it normal to be so isolated? To spend so much time alone in my home and driving around in my SUV? Is this all there is? Aren’t I supposed to feel fortunate? These questions spun around beneath the surface of my everyday life.
Brain Fog. (Marriage)
“Where were you when we made this decision? You said nothing. You brought this on yourself and should have spoken up when you had the chance ” My husband was furious with me when unbeknownst to both of us, I felt misplaced and unsettled in our brand new home and chosen community. Impossible! This can’t be happening. This was the creme de la creme of safe communities and school systems and is known for its incredible beauty. How could this have happened? Neither of us could explain this because there was no label or language in all of society to explain why my ability to honor my own individual needs had been numbed and my voice silenced. I simply wasn’t there. With zero ability to be cognizant of the glaring red flag waving before me or hear the desperation of my own now gagged and muffled inner voice, I choose a community that was opposite of what I needed to have my own needs met to feel the energy, be grounded and be vital in my own skin. Without any hesitation, I indiscriminately re-located our family from our much-loved home located smack in the middle of the bustle and many conveniences we needed to manage our family in Stamford Connecticut, to the charming and very quiet town of Weston Ct a rural, remote yet beautiful community 30 minutes north. Seeking the best education we could afford for our kids at the time, on paper, it completely fit the bill for what we had prioritized as being most important, a safe town with a premier school system, a Jewish population, and unequivocally kindhearted, highly educated and amazing people. To all those in my life, this big move reflected a clear measure of success and a clear path to an improved quality of life. Yet, If I had even a trace of access to my screaming inner voice, buried deep and silenced within me, I could have brought into the equation of our moving decision-making process, that my own personal psychological equilibrium, the source for happiness, confidence, vitality, and energy was nourished by drawing on the vibe of human connection and other’s energy, congregating with and belonging to a vibrant community, and bustling downtown and community centers where you bumped into people you knew and where families congregated to do their errands, socialize and connect with others and last but not least near the water. Even the little things like having small talk and being recognized and acknowledged in stores and markets were energizing to me. I willingly moved to the polar opposite of this lifestyle. I should have acknowledged that ever-present, and an insidious sinking feeling in the pit of my gut as my enthusiastic realtor escorted us off the parkway past three long miles of nothing and I mean nothing, but houses after houses and through a most picturesque community with nothing but plush woods, sprawling homes cascading around through rolling and curvy roads. No downtown. No water. Where were the sidewalks? The playgrounds? Where was civilization? The shops? The restaurants? The people? Not here. By design, this artistic and quiet community prided itself in having no amenities or commercial activity. No question, For most who lived there, Weston’s simple design cultivating serenity and nature, appealed deeply to its residents, its simplicity being anchored only by a school campus, and a nondescript collection of needed amenities, a small food market, pharmacy, liquor store, tiny coffee shop, a dry cleaner, a realtors office, and an antiquated hardware store. That’s it. It was a sweet small town with much affluence. But I was a city girl. How the hell did I get here? The silence, isolation, and landlock added even more fuel to the fire of my declining self, driving me at times to question my sanity and sent me deeper into an abyss of living outside myself and being numb….but only I knew this….Still. On the surface, I appeared fine.
In spite of my own feelings, I fought with every fiber of my being to put my head on straight every day, to make it work and my family thrived beautifully living in Weston over the next 19 years. Our neighbors became the extended family. We lived on A cul de sac overflowing with children my kids’ ages and wonderful parents. Together, we built a strong mini-community, not unlike the old fashion streets of Brooklyn or the Bronx, where folks sat on the stoops, chatted about the day’s events, watched out for each other’s kids..filled with love and genuine concern for each other’s kids. We had open-door policies, unannounced drop-ins, impromptu dinners. We raised our children together, built a true sense of belonging and lasting memories for our 8 families, hosting block parties, celebrating birthdays and holidays together, and giving our children the built-in friendships that were uncomplicated, safe, and convenient.
Yet for me personally, beneath the surface of my happy, enthusiastic public persona, these many years of isolation, deprivation of the energy from the human contact I needed, stole from me a huge chunk of my spirit and essence. I finally understood the true horror of the classic film, The Stepford Wives (filmed a few short miles from my home) because it depicted a harrowing truth about a mother’s loss of self. As my confidence and relevance nonchalantly slipped away, now stripped of my identity, power, and independence, it was replaced by an innate and urgent need for self-preservation, as a semblance of a way to maintain my pride and dignity when in truth I felt that I was losing my mind. I built an impenetrable facade and bulletproof shield of a happy mom, always put together, in an expertly managed home, with happy children, and had dinner on the table every night. I would have won an academy award for my performance. No one knew the truth about me, because even I didn’t know the truth, had no words to describe the absurdity of this daunting reality of becoming invisible and to live in a society that negated that this phenomenon for women even existed. This dichotomy was surreal. While I absolutely relished in being a mom and was crystal clear that I wanted to raise my children at home and was afforded the chance to do so, I never imagined in my wildest dreams that I would lose myself on the scale that I did and that those who loved me would not have noticed or tried to rescue me. I replayed in an endless loop in my mind the question of how it can be perfectly acceptable in society for smart and educated professional women to simply vanish before our eyes. I was now a shell of myself. , I forgot I was smart. I forgot I had expertise. I forgot how to be courageous. I forgot how to take a risk. I forgot how to work hard at something intellectual. I forgot how to focus. I forgot that I was once taken seriously and compensated for my time and skills. I forgot how to use my voice. I forgot how to think intellectually. Like a long-forgotten memory, all that made me who I am gently slipped away – and no one noticed. There had to be a way to raise my children the way I saw best but also be viable and relevant in my own life. I would spend the next 2 decades building this career model and roadmap for mothers to live by.
My defining moment….
Was I losing my mind I often wondered to myself? There must be something wrong with me. The early years at home with my children were busy and happy years on the one hand yet I was chronically and unconsciously plagued by the perplexing, incongruous question of how I can love raising these beautiful children so deeply and completely, yet in the very same instance feel an ache so deep, so out of step, and weighed down by ambiguous, unlabeled mourning, loss and sadness, for my own vitality and the zest for my life that once defined me. I simply did not recognize myself anymore and no one else minded that I was not the same. Not a single soul noticed. This stirring inside me, this feeling I could not label, would not let up for years until I was awarded “Customer of the Month” at Stew Leonards Supermarket.
On a beautiful sunny day, after my weekly pilgrimage to Stew Leonards, a Giant, “Disneyesque” supermarket, beloved in my neck of the woods, because of the child-centric experience it was, equipped with an adorable petting zoo, animated singing animals, and characters throughout the aisles, limitless samples of their delicious foods, and the best ice cream in the area. This was the pinnacle outing of the week for my kids and ok I admit it, me too. That day, I received the highest honor for a patron of Stew Leonards. Days later, I was featured as “customer of the month”, resulting in a full-colored page in a regional newspaper including photos and corresponding articles showcasing us(thank goodness it was before the days of social media). The photo depicted me, grinning ear to ear with one baby nestled in my chest in a Bjorn carrier, another baby bouncing around on my back in a backpack, a toddler seated in the carriage with ice cream, and a slightly older toddler walking next to me, pushing 2 carts of overflowing groceries awkwardly in route to my car. The article highlighted my family, our interests, and our favorite ice cream flavors. This taste of local “celebrity” should have been fun for me. Yet instead it took my breath away. I was bombarded for days by congratulatory calls and emails from old and new friends, family, and colleagues. The craziness of people’s excitement for me and the attention I drew over this silly article was my awakening. This giant public display of what my life had become and where it was pointed for the future was too much to bear. There was no mention of my hard-earned credentials, expertise, or impact I’ve had professionally, or in fact for any of the ways I would have described myself prior to having kids. I secretly fantasized about one-day having notoriety from my professional accomplishments, articles in journals but never for food shopping. Did I vanish in thin air?
No one knew or could have imagined how I was really feeling. I was Mourning. This was the day I knew I needed to scream this out loud, label it and start the painful work of reclaiming my life, my confidence, and my identity. I knew that if I felt this way then there must be other women who felt the same way and I was going to get to the bottom of it. Work Like a Mother was born that day. Still, I had absolutely zero access to my old skills or confidence but with this new clarity of my pain, I was hell-bent on retrieving them and better understanding why I lost them in the first place.
I woke up. That all too public display and celebratory accolade for my food shopping prowess, all but shocked me awake to begin to experience and validate and label the feelings I had suppressed for almost a decade. I was now determined to fight for my own life, and overcome the brain fog and numbness I was employed to cope with the loss of myself. As a passionate career counselor and mental health professional who positively impacted hundreds of people in the past, I became acutely aware that our current paradigms of motherhood were outdated and obsolete and I knew that I was not alone. There had to be a way for today’s women, educated, ambitious, capable, and professionally successful, to be fully able to raise their children the way their hearts and minds directed them, yet also maintain their relevance, identity, purpose, and vitality. Only there were no theories, models, or frameworks to support this anywhere in this country or likely in the world.
I realized that I did not show any physical scars from the deep wounds of privately mourning the loss of myself, my dreams, and my life’s purpose. Were my life’s dreams so easily dispensable? Did no one expect any more from me than the domestic life I was living in? I felt betrayed. While so much has changed for women on the professional front over the past 60 years, full-time homemaking was still a completely acceptable role for women. Yet the women coming to this role are very different from women’s experience in the past, identities shaped by education, competence, competition, and is expected to make meaningful contributions to the world. Is there any sense in thinking that this can all be stripped away in one fast swoop and we would all be ok? While I treasured and embraced raising my kid’s day today and wouldn’t have it any other way, I was not ok being not myself. Being unchallenged, unstimulated and without a sense of purpose in my own life had frightened and jolted me to the core. What frightened me, even more, was the despair and hopelessness I felt when I imagined 25-30 years of living this role knowing I would be abandoning everything I was meant to become. Would no one notice or object? It occurred to me that I was not crazy or depressed, rather this accepted model of living was completely outdated and obsolete for today’s mothers. I understood that none of the existing counseling, therapeutic, and career management theories and strategies, largely researched and designed with men as the subjects, applied to women and motherhood. We were not in the 1960s where Betty Friedan’s Feminine Mystique named “The problem with no name” This problem had a name but society and the frameworks that support the realities of women’s lives ceased to exist and rejected the real psychological needs of smart women. We were raised to be something, make our life purposeful, and contribute meaningfully to society and realized that although we are living in a society that still casts a blind eye and lack validation and imagination to embrace the realities of stay at home mothers who had no choice but to unconsciously shut themselves down to fulfill the important and precious role of raising children while leaving themselves behind.
So perhaps my own personal struggle has a larger purpose, to speak and address the unspoken truths of so millions of stay-at-home mothers. While my skills and expertise carefully guided my research and practice to create and build a new framework that accurately reflects the exclusive demands and realities of motherhood in relation to our professional identity, it is equally the empathy and deep compassion for mother’s struggles extending from my own personal experience over the past 25 years, which has enabled thousands of women to thrive and reclaim their lives.
My respect for all mothers runs deep to my core, regardless of their parenting choices. No matter how you look at it, there are incredible personal sacrifices that come with this job, spending decades prioritizing the needs of others over your own. There is no one right or wrong way to embrace this role and we do not fall into a one-size-fits-all bucket. Some moms choose or need to work full time to contribute to their family income, others may be single mothers supporting their family. Others work part-time or opt to be at home to raise children, requiring you to significantly sacrifice your status and compensation in your profession to do so. Needless to say, the personal cost is high for all mothers. Yet, it does not need to cost your vitality, fulfillment, or professional relevance as is so often the case. This book zeros in on a brand new framework and living model for the stay-at-home mother, which will guide you to reclaim and nurture your own vitality, be your best self and thrive in every way over the course of your parenting stages, while never compromising your parenting choices.
Copyright Hilary Berger.© All Rights Reserved 2021.