I’ve always suffered from obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), not the tongue-in-cheek type related to organizing sock drawers in rainbow order (though I do that, too) but the diagnosed, medicated type that has prevented me from doing many of the things I wanted to do as a teen and young adult. Once I would get a flow going somewhere — a new job, a new city, a new relationship — I’d usually chill out a little and only needed the anxiety meds for “emergencies,” but patterns have always been an important part of this. Order. The elimination of chaos. Thus, when I got pregnant for the first time, I was pretty royally freaked out.
First of all, everyone knows that babies don’t come with a guide book. I’d always wanted a family and even loved babysitting, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t prefer sitting for slightly older kids who followed instruction and helped me clean up after we were done playing. My husband and I were living in a one-bedroom apartment with two pets and I was already feeling a little overwhelmed. As much as I loved shopping for baby stuff, the more of it that came in, the stronger the pull of my inner panic. It was so much. It was everywhere. I spent hours laundering, folding, and rolling up newborn diapers into little rosettes that looked pretty in the drawer. Everything about my pregnancy was as controlled as possible, and when things got weird (sciatica, excessive swelling), I became convinced I was dying and high-tailed it to the hospital. I’m sure my doctor really loved me there at the end (insert eye-roll here).
My birth plan did not go according to plan at all, and I ended up having a C-section for which I was entirely unprepared. This totally derailed everything. Once we got home with our newborn, my controlling instinct kicked into high-gear. Sure, I was tired, healing from major surgery, and teaching myself how to breastfeed. But there was no way in hell my house was going to be a mess. I distinctly remember pitching dirty laundry, piece by piece, into our washing machine with one arm while cradling the baby in the other as she nursed. Aside from the cooking, which I was simply too drained to handle, I did everything as usual for weeks, no months, after she was born. Friends would lightly suggest I slow down a little, stop worrying about cleaning and organizing. But I couldn’t. I would lie on the couch with my newborn sleeping on my chest and rather than flipping on the TV and enjoying the moment, my eyes would dart, panicked, around the cluttered 800-square-foot apartment, desperately wishing I could zap it clean.
And then there was the baby. Man, was I a control freak about her. Everything had to be just so. She had to eat at these. exact. hours. The diaper needed to be checked every 20 minutes. The nighttime slow-down was down to a science. I was so detailed and controlling about her rituals and routines that I missed out on social opportunities we totally could have enjoyed. I also, inadvertently, was keeping her from her father. I would be crying because I was typing out an article with one hand while holding her in the other arm, my husband would ask to take her for a few hours, and I would explode. What if she woke up when we moved her and started crying? What if they went out and she was hungry, would we have enough frozen milk stored up for true emergencies if we gave her a bottle on a random Saturday?
It was exhausting and stressful for both of us. I know he resented me for acting like I was her sole parent, and I somehow managed to resent him for not being involved, even though it was pretty much my fault. The first four months of my daughter’s life were a spinning dance of tears, internal pressure, and lost sleep. And the sleep had pretty little to do with her anyway, as my OCD and I had figured out a pretty solid method of getting her to sleep in long stretches at night from a very young age.
At four months, we moved out of that apartment and into another one that was slightly larger yet lacked storage. Her growing needs meant even more stuff everywhere, and my increased work assignments put more pressure on me to figure out what to do with her for stretches of time so I could actually get work done. Finally, I sucked it up and hired a part-time sitter who does things totally differently from me. The first time I saw her hand my daughter a crumb-inducing snack in the stroller, I swear I almost puked. But I held in my words, and walked away, because she was in charge and it was fine. I had four hours ahead of me to work in peace, and we would all be better for it. Breathe in, breathe out. Move on. The crumbs could be cleaned up later.
Fed up with my squishy mid-section and ready to feel like a modicum of my former human self, I started attending Pilates class nearby. Twice a week, I left my daughter with my husband for an hour and fifteen minutes and often, I came home to find stains all over her clothes, or see the two of them planted in front of the TV rather than doing whatever educational game I’d left out. Again, it was fine. I had gotten in a workout, they had spent some bonding time together, and we were all better for it. Breathe in, breathe out, Move on.
Fast-forward to today. My daughter is now one-and-a-half and everything is so different in our home. We’ve moved yet again (I know, we’re crazy), this time into a house with plenty of storage that makes my organizing side so happy. But three weeks in, we aren’t quite unpacked, and again, it’s fine. My daughter runs the show now. She’s loud, messy, and wild. She opens up my dresser drawers and pulls out the clean, folded laundry. We find hats and remote controls in the wrong rooms, tucked under pillows or wedged between an open door and a wall. She’s learning. She can twist off lids and climb the stairs, and has even figured out how to open doors. Sometimes I do follow her around cleaning up, but most importantly, I’m learning to let it go. Let us live a little.
I still clean in the evenings and I work when she naps. We’re in the process of figuring out part-time childcare in our new neck of the woods, but when I do go out and leave her for a few hours with her dad on a Saturday (like I did today), I don’t ask a single question. I don’t care what she’s wearing, what she eats. If he forgets to pack diapers, he’ll learn the hard way when he has to run into a drugstore and buy a pack, toting a soaked baby on his hip.
I can feel the tension in my home has subsided more and more as I held on to the reigns less and less. Of course, as the stay-at-home parent, I do most of the shopping and planning for our household. But I am so much more open now, and I have learned that when it comes to being a mom, there just is no controlling everything. My crazy schedule has gone out the window; where I used to make my husband it down with me on Friday evenings and plot out our entire weekends hour-by-hour, we now do things more spur-of-the-moment and leave plenty of open gaps for actual (gasp!) relaxing.
My daughter, who used to be completely attached to me, has learned to trust others because we’ve hired a few different awesome caretakers to fill in for afternoons when I work and to watch her on occasional date nights. My husband is calm now because he knows he won’t get yelled at if he proposes a change in plans or surprises me by offering to take our daughter out for a while on his own. And as for me? I’m breathing in, and breathing out. My old pangs of anxiety still come out when things get particularly messy or I’m two days behind on my laundry schedule. But I have started to learn how to chill out a little and enjoy the small things. If I finish working 20 minutes early, I don’t try desperately to feel up the space with more work. I spend it cuddling with my daughter or blowing bubbles on the back porch.
The thing is, her childhood is only a fixed amount of time. I want routine, I want cleanliness and order. But more importantly than that, I want fun, lightness of being, and joy. I have learned, the difficult and slow way, that it is possible to have both. And that we’re all better for it.
*Note: This article is not intended to minimize the importance of professional mental healthcare. I still see a psychiatrist to keep my OCD and anxiety managed and under control. If you think you might be suffering from a mental disorder, seek treatment.
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