“And what about you? How have you been doing?” the doctor asks, turning his attention away from my baby for a moment, and swiveling around on his little black rolling stool to face me. His face is compassionate, and it’s the first time anyone other than my mom has asked me how I’m doing lately. “Tired. I am so tired,” I think. I try to explain to the doctor what I’ve been experiencing: the funny, fuzzy feeling in my head, and the spells where I suddenly need to lie down right now, but can’t, because I need to look after my six-month-old son. How my eyelids often feel droopy to the point where I have to fight to keep them open. The headaches that come on in the afternoons, and radiate through my jaw and down into my teeth making it difficult to concentrate. How my baby sleeps through the night, so I can’t for the life of me figure out why I struggle to make it through the day without desperately needing to have a nap. That I’m mostly still my productive and organized self, checking things off my “To Do” list, volunteering, exercising (I even ran a half marathon in May), and cleaning the house, but how much personal effort it’s been taking to do those things.
“We can send you for blood work, if you like,” he says. Most people I’ve admitted my tiredness to have shrugged it off with a laugh (and I know exactly what they’re thinking: of course you’re tired, you’re a new mom!) so I almost decline the doctor’s offer. It’s my people-pleasing instinct to be agreeable, to not bring too much attention to myself, to maintain the peace in social situations and to make everyone else’s day easier, but I know that something’s not right. I take a breath, remind myself that I’ll continue to suffer if I don’t advocate for myself, and say yes. I take the printed lab requisition and go straight to the hospital. His office calls a few days later with the results. I have low iron.
“You need to take an iron supplement every other day,” they tell me. I am so relieved I could cry, and I almost do, even though I’m in the middle of The Butcher Block shopping for hamburgers. For weeks I’d been thinking something was inherently wrong with me; that I was lazy, guilty of sloth, one of the seven deadly sins, and I was disgusted with myself because I grew up in a family that so strongly believes in the importance of work that productivity is glorified above all else. My grandpa, for example, once bragged to me about working for almost two years straight without a day off during the oil boom in the 1970s, and casual daily conversations between my mother and grandmother center around what they managed to accomplish: cleaning out the deep freeze, digging all the potatoes in the garden, or taking down their Christmas decorations. This glorification of productivity also colored my understanding of motherhood, and I viewed good moms as possessing seemingly endless supplies of energy and patience; as tirelessly getting up at all hours of the night without hesitation, calmly rocking sick babies to sleep, making lunches, helping with homework, driving kids to practice, and doing it all without tiring, never needing a break or just some time to themselves. I mistakenly believed that their love for their babies should be so strong that it overrides everything else, even their own physical limitations. I grew up thinking that a mom should be some sort of superhero.
With that phone call from my doctor’s office, comfort came from knowledge. At least I knew what I was dealing with. More importantly, I finally had confirmation that nothing was wrong with the substance of my character. My love is strong enough to get up at all hours of the night without hesitation, to calmly rock sick babies to sleep, to make lunches, to help with homework, and to drive kids to practice, but I can’t do those things well if my own figurative tank is not full and functioning properly. Something is wrong with my body, and it can be treated. But the iron supplements aren’t magic. After a few weeks, I’m still tired, but at least less so. It’s on one of these days, a Sunday in fact, that, I’m struck with a revelation. If I was a cartoon character, I swear you would’ve been able to see the light bulb turn on above my head, radiating a sudden burst of light. The fatigue & low iron I’ve been experiencing are obviously supposed to teach me something. Just like when the doctor’s office had called the month before, I am so relieved I could cry. There’s always a lesson.
Maybe, I started to wonder, I’m supposed to learn that I can’t be productive all the time; that it’s okay to rest when I’m tired. Perhaps I’m supposed to shift my perspective away from moms being superheroes, and to face the impossible expectations I’ve placed on myself so early on this perplexing, complicated, and messy journey into motherhood. Maybe this situation isn’t all bad. This lesson could be a blessing in disguise sent for me to learn now, so I don’t make myself seriously sick, run-down, or completely burned out down the road. Maybe my need to rush around, manufacturing a list of tasks to keep myself busy, isn’t always the healthiest habit when I’m supposed to be grounding myself in the present moment to experience the small things that really are the big things: the giggles, the smiles, and the little chubby fingers reaching out for mine. Maybe, just maybe, this difficult situation has the important purpose of teaching me that to be a truly great mom I need to slow down and take care of myself, and that I had to be taught this particular lesson in this particular way; a way where I was physically forced to slow down so I wouldn’t rush right by it, and miss it standing directly in front of me.