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How I Iearnt how to protect my mental space:

Experiences of a mother going through separation and divorce.

As a little girl, whenever I was asked what I wanted to be in future, my answer was constant - a mother. This was always followed by roaring laughter. Little did the adults know that to me, motherhood was, and still is the greatest hood in my opinion. Underrated, yes, but that didn’t make it any less magical to me. I imagined myself as a stay home mum, with children as many as those in the Von Trapp family in Sound of Music. I envisioned myself as a mum, singing to my many children, sewing matching outfits for them, kind of like what Florine Maria did in the same movie. I envisioned myself happy, living a life of sheer bliss, doing nothing but making memories for and with my `many’ children.

So you cannot begin to imagine my shock, when motherhood did not at all start out as I imagined or dreamed it would. Leave alone the all day long `morning sickness’, fatigue, headaches, and bloating, I was struggling. My mind was not well. I was underwhelmed by the fact that I was pregnant. Sure, I was married, and thus it was the `ideal’ time as per society’s expectations, but deep down, I was gravely unhappy. I felt a sense of guilt because only I knew that I had conceived in the hope that a baby would fix a breaking marriage - a marriage that had been at the brink of shambles even before we said `I do’. We probably both knew it, but I had hope against hope that it would end up like fairy tale - `happily ever after.’

Pregnancy, and the two years that followed were the loneliest I’ve ever been in my life. This is quite ironic, especially since I had an entire tribe of women around me. I was silently battling. Someone was constantly telling me that I was good at nothing, and a failure, and sadly, I was starting to believe it. It was slowly but surely eating me up. I was guilty because I wasn’t happy, yet I had a beautiful super healthy baby. I was guilty because I was carrying a burden of self-blame. It didn’t help that when I gave birth, I expected a gush of love for this child to engulf me because that’s what everyone says. Everyone says that when you hold your baby in your arms for the first time, there’s an overwhelming feeling of love. That’s what happens to so many people but it did not happen to me. I waited and waited for the feeling but it didn’t happen. Later, when I was in therapy I learnt that it didn’t happen because of the situation that I was in. I was not in a happy place, there was nothing like love in the situation that had got me pregnant. How do you expect to feel a feeling that is not there in your life?

Unknown to me at the time, is the fact that I was depressed. I thought depression was something that was only for the movies. I remember one time when my baby was merely a year old at the time smiled at me, and I got angry. I wondered to myself what was there to smile about. That was when It dawned on me, that something wasn’t right. That’s when I realized that I had lost my true self, and no one was coming to save me. I had to make a change, lest this thing, whatever it was, consumed me.

I made what I considered then a timid decision, to speak to a therapist. Now, I feel like that’s the best decision I’ve made since I became a mom. The therapy sessions showed me how deep the ditch I had allowed myself to crawl into really was. I learnt through these sessions that my mental health was in a bad place. I started to realize how, and when I got to that place, and more importantly how to get out of it. A valuable lesson I learnt, was to look at myself as an individual, and deal with myself as one, regardless of the many roles I played in society as a mother, a wife, a sister, and a friend. I learnt that the state of my mental health was actually affecting my baby who I assumed was too young to notice.

My mental space, not necessarily my mental health, had an effect on my daughter Ella. She suffered what is called Psychogenic mutism, where a child that has been talking suddenly stops talking. I took her with me to my therapist and she diagnosed her. It wasn’t a professional diagnosis because she is not a child specialist, but she advised that I put her in a calmer environment with more children. I ended up enrolling her into school when she was two years old. I also had to separate myself from certain situations like being on the phone quarreling with her dad. I thought she was too young to hear me but in actual sense she wasn’t. There are times he would come over to where I was, and it would become a full-blown fight - which was a bit strange for us because initially it had been grave silence. The house had become silent up to the point when I moved out. It had become silent to the point where you could hear your heart beat, and hear your own thoughts – there was zero communication. We came from a point of total silence to a space where you are fighting over the phone and the child is hearing this. You know, we assume that children do not hear, and do not understand, but my therapist told me she was actually hearing and understanding. Maybe she won’t remember it, but the effect is real.

When my therapist advised, I enrolled her into school, and she started to get her speech back, although with a stutter. Even now when she gets upset, she starts to stutter. Right now, she speaks so fast if you’ve heard her speak, but when she upsets or nervous, she stammers.

If I had to summarise what I have learnt, I would say be aware of the state of your mental health, and protect your mental space. I don’t know how to talk about the actual tips that I got from therapy without giving examples that are accusatory but one major statement that my therapist made that stood out to me - and still does to this day - was that “sometimes doing the right thing may mean doing something that’s not generally accepted by society”. She kept pointing out to me and encouraging me to let go of the feelings of shame, betrayal, and anger that I was holding onto. I felt like I had reason to hang on to these feelings but she showed me that I actually had no reasons to hold onto them, and that letting go is actually letting go of a burden.

Another realisation she took me through was recognizing the part I played in it. She made it very clear that it takes two to tangle. I had to sit down and re-evaluate, and tell my story not just from my angle, but also from my ex-husband’s angle. To see where it got jumbled, and what role I had to play in the breaking of the marriage. It was very therapeutic to me and it was a very great lesson to me because I learnt so much about myself, and about what the future could look like. She taught to accept that some parts of his behavior will never change. I learnt not to beat myself up especially over things I can not change. If it has happened it has happened. If you cannot fix it, then let go. I was encouraged to get a support system, like a confidant – a place that I could go to escape, which was at my bestie’s house. My therapist also kept echoing to me that if you feel like someone has been cruel to you, don’t let that cruelty change you into a cruel person yourself because of what you’ve been through.

One thing that my mom always says to me, which I found annoying but helped me later, is to stop saying “why me” and ask yourself what lesson did I learn from this. Eventually I snapped out of self-pity, and started to think “Ok, this has happened. What lessons do I learn, and how do I use this to make me a better person”?

I realised that partying and engulfing myself in cocktails was not going to take the pain away, and it was not going to change anything - it was not a solution. What I had to do was to was actually face what it was that was going on with me and my life, and figure out a way to make it better.

It’s been so many years now. My little girl is now nine years old. My perspective has changed, and I am finally enjoying motherhood. I not only love my daughter, I like her as a person. I enjoy her company.

Once I sorted out my mental space, and sought help for my mental health, I started to fall in love with my daughter. And now, I not only love her, I like her. I like the person that she is. I like her energy. I enjoy her company. I am able to laugh from deep down, not just with my face. I am in a much better place. I am happy. And really intentional about protecting my mental space - something I once took for granted.

About the author

Phidra Aturinda is a divorced single mum of a 9-year-old biological daughter, and 14-year-old foster daughter. She is a Public Relations personnel by profession. She is a multi-talented/passionate business woman, running two events planning and designing companies, Lush classics and Lush kids. She is also the mind behind luscious essentials, a brand that makes household essentials like the luscious pre-poop bathroom spray.

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