I want to tell you the story of how I healed my inner mom after infertility and depression. I want to tell you the story of how I learned to nurture myself, to be a mom to myself.
Moms and daughters
It began in 1951, when my mother was pregnant with me. She started spotting. She was prescribed a drug called Diethylstilbestrol (or DES) to prevent a miscarriage. Although she didn’t take it for long, this chemical damaged my reproductive organs, even in the womb.
Later, it would become clear that this drug harmed both males and females for generations because their offspring also exhibited damage to their reproductive organs. DES Daughters and Sons (and their offspring) are not only infertile but also face the fear of cancer and other problems. Because of the side effects of this drug, today, it’s rarely prescribed.
In my case, DES caused many medical issues, including fibroids in my breasts; polyps in my uterus, which had to be monitored and removed; and, as time passed, a scare of uterine cancer, which led to a total hysterectomy.
A follicular tumor also developed in my thyroid, requiring a partial thyroidectomy. I’m not sure whether thyroid issues are caused by DES, but this diagnosis still caused me a great deal of fear and uncertainty. I had to have two major surgeries–and soon.
I longed to become a mom
And then, I discovered, because of DES, my uterus was T-shaped.
As a result, a fertilized egg would be unable to attach to the uterine walls. Dr, William Griffin, the DES Specialist who diagnosed my case, told me if I wanted a viable pregnancy, I would have to undergo invitro fertilization. During this process, my uterus would have to be tied off and I would receive daily hormone treatments.
One day, I experienced terrible cramping and ran to the bathroom. After a painful session, I noticed a clump of blood and tissue floating in the toilet water. I realized that I had just had a miscarriage. I had no idea I was pregnant because my periods were so erratic because of the DES effects.
I’ll never forget that experience and the emotions that overcame me as I flushed this potential life down the toilet. If I had had a normal uterus, I would be a mom today.
I had always planned to have children, so when I learned that I was a DES Daughter and that it would be so difficult, risky, and expensive to have a baby naturally, I felt angry and cheated out of motherhood.
My husband and I looked into adoptions, but the whole process was overwhelming and expensive. At first, I refused to accept infertility, and I was still coming to terms with the miscarriage in secret. I’m not certain I even told the doctor about it. Because my miscarriage happened in my first marriage, I didn’t bother to process it much if at all with my second husband. I buried that pain, and it would only come back to haunt me.
Society’s expectations of motherhood
I was angry at medical science for inventing this drug, and even my mother for taking it. It ruined my entire life plans to have a family. Mom was able to have seven children naturally, and I couldn’t even have any. I felt victimized. The cancer scares from every tumor took their toll, too. Fortunately, all the tumors turned out to be benign because we caught them in time.
Still, I was on a roller coaster—and I felt sorry for myself. I hadn’t yet learned how I could heal my inner mom.
Societal expectations played a role in my inability to accept infertility with grace. People expect young married women to reproduce, so I was often asked when I was going to have children and even why I didn’t have them.
Some women asked me if I disliked children. “Why don’t you have kids?” “Don’t you like children?” “Why don’t you adopt?”
People’s assumptions added to my suffering. I felt like a failure. I compared myself to friends who were having babies. I hosted and attended baby showers, all the time feeling my heart twisting inside and facing more inquiries about my plans either to bear children or to adopt. I sensed it was definitely considered a sin to be childless. People couldn’t imagine a family without kids. I longed to become a mom–but I couldn’t learn how.
My husband was supportive saying, “Whatever happens… happens.” But I continued to hide my disappointment in my body, shame for being a failure as a woman, and guilt for not sacrificing more to do the invitro procedure or to adopt. We had discussed and researched these avenues to parenthood, but for various reasons, they were not viable solutions for us. And deep down, I felt shame and guilt over the miscarriage, sometimes thinking of it as an abortion.
Depression and the inner mom
The more fear, shame, and guilt I felt, the deeper into grief I fell. I had watched my mother experience pregnancies, and I had always wanted to know what it felt like when the baby kicked and moved. I also didn’t have my own child to nurture throughout the years, to help with homework, to comfort, to play with, and to even do battle with. Because I was childless, I had no emotional and spiritual comradery to share with a son or daughter.
When new moms shared their stories, I could only relate so far as I had siblings, and I helped my mother with her babies. If anything, I learned that having kids is a great deal of work.
In my day of playing mommy beginning at age eight, we had no paper diapers, so we had to soak, wash, dry, and fold cloth diapers. Mom had a toddler in the process of being potty-trained and a set of twins and her last baby all in diapers. Bottles had to be washed and sanitized.
My sister and I fed the babies by lining them up on the sofa. One of us would stick spoonful of baby food in a mouth, and the other would follow with a bottle. This assembly line continued until all were fed. These tiny tots and babies produced a lot of laundry, too. And they cried and caused all kinds of noise. Child rearing is a huge responsibility.
Still, at night, I would wake one up to hold and rock. Sing to them. Tell them stories.
I kept many feelings about my infertility to myself. I wouldn’t recommend that because, as I look back, I see how much stress and pain it caused me. My mind would ramble on with disquieting thoughts, and I wasn’t emotionally stable. The hormone imbalances and tumors that developed were no help. I was perimenopausal, causing erratic periods. My anger erupted far too often and at inappropriate times. Over time, I learned that unresolved pain only served to contribute to mental, emotional, and spiritual illness.
How I learned to heal my inner mom through Tai Chi
I realized I needed help. I had to reckon with the turmoil of infertility.
I was ready to heal my inner mom.
A few years ago, I sought mental health care and was diagnosed as moderately depressed. I saw a counselor and a psychiatrist, who prescribed Wellbutrin. The counselor just listened and really didn’t offer guidance, not even a book to read. The first psychiatrist told me I was “weird” and the second one was unremarkable. After a year and a half, I looked for other solutions that were more empowering.
Nurturing others is definitely a motherly instinct, yet many mothers easily burn out if self-care and self-love are lacking. My journey to healing involved turning inward to console and comfort my inner mom.
I started practicing Tai Chi, which is an internal martial art. Because the movements are very smooth and slow, it promotes the same benefits as yoga and often is called “moving yoga.” I enjoy practicing Tai Chi and other Qigong exercises to music, especially chanting and “Ave Maria” because the pace helps me to slow down my movements and breath work.
Working with life force energy, Chi, in my Tai Chi practice led me to Reiki, which is a hands-on healing modality from Japan. After two emergency surgeries due to cancer possibilities, the hysterectomy and partial thyroidectomy, I was determined to figure out the source of my illnesses. I knew the physical causes (the effects of the DES), but what were the emotional, mental, and spiritual causes?
A friend suggested I try Reiki. My first session was so strong and profound that I took it to be a calling and sought training to the master/teacher level in the Mikao Usui lineage.
“Reiki” means “spiritual life-force energy”. Practitioners are trained to channel this energy to stimulate healing in all areas: mental, physical, spiritual, and emotional. Studies have been done to show the benefits of Reiki, so it may offer alternative therapy to those with cancer and other physical conditions. The International Center for Reiki Training has many resources on Reiki.
Although Reiki originated in Japan, this healing modality can now be found worldwide. Some claim Reiki therapy acts as a placebo, which offers 30 percent effectiveness. But I say, if I can even feel 30 percent better one day, maybe each day I can feel 30 percent better exponentially and finally feel 100 percent better.
My inner mom heals me
Today, I am a new person, not the tormented and depressed person I was just a few years ago.
I truly believe we each have to the power to heal ourselves by mothering ourselves, loving ourselves, and finding things we enjoy—music to love, healing practices to pursue, books to read.
Although many of us women are childless, we are still moms. I’m healing my inner mom–but my inner mom also is healing me.
Barbara Harris Leonhard is a writer, poet, and blogger. Her work appears in Phoebe, MD: Medicine and Poetry, Well Versed 2020, Spillwords; FREE VERSE REVOLUTION; Heretics, Lovers and Madmen; Go Dog Go Café; Silver Birch Press; Amethyst Review (pending); and Vita Brevis. She is the author of Discoveries in Academic Writing, which is based on her years of teaching English as a Second Language at the University of Missouri.