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Embarking on Motherhood as a Highly Sensitive Person

I have always loved May. It heralded the end of the school year and brought warm weather, two things that make life feel more joyful and carefree. And of course there is Mother's Day, and many consider the entire month of May as the month dedicated to mothers and motherhood. While I have always loved and celebrated Mother's Day as I have been fortunate to have a mother I am close with, the holiday and month have hit differently over the past three years. In 2021, I spent May thinking about my hope to soon become a mother, and in 2022 I spent my first Mother's Day with my two month old son, husband, parents, sister, and maternal grandparents in Santa Barbara. This year my husband and now 14 month old son made the drive up to the Bay Area with me so we could spend Mother's Day with my grandma. I've learned a lot about motherhood in the past year and I've spent a lot of time reflecting on my experience of it as a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP).

It should be noted that not all HSPs have the same experiences and traits. While many are greatly affected by external stimuli, others find they are more impacted emotionally, and some experience both. I am a deep thinker and feeler which is where my big moods come from. My deep thoughts have fostered a rich inner life and I consider myself a more creative type. I certainly have spent a significant amount of time seeking meaning and purpose in life, and love to reflect on just about anything relational or emotional. Being a deep feeler allows me to be empathetic and deeply moved by beauty, but also easily overwhelmed, hurt, overstimulated, and emotionally intense. These traits have made my life richer in some ways and allowed me to feel special and unique, but have also been a great source of pain, frustration, and stress, and have led me to at times feel defective, misunderstood, and alone. Navigating relationships, school, and working life has been challenging as an HSP, but pursuing a career as a therapist has made these traits feel useful. Now as I embark deeper into motherhood, I've learned that being an HSP brings its strengths and challenges to this role as well.

Already being prone to anxiety and depression as an HSP, I wouldn't be surprised if there was some research out there showing that we are also more at risk for pre-natal and postpartum anxiety and depression. One of my highly sensitive traits is being very attuned to my body, so pregnancy was a challenge. People talk about morning sickness and stretch marks, difficulty sleeping, mood swings, the baby moving, and the worries pregnant mommas have, but nobody prepared me for how anxiety provoking it would be waiting for the initial appointment and ultrasound. How strange it would be to have no clue if the baby was okay between appointments before I could feel him moving around. I wasn't prepared for my feet to swell at the beginning of my second trimester, or for my resting heart rate to increase in the beginning of my first trimester. It's a series of countless physical changes over the span of 9 months while your body literally grows an organ and a person. Not to mention the shock of what was actually happening and headed my way. Sure I had thought about this and dreamed of it for probably 25 years of so, but the wave of grief that hit me was completely unexpected. I remember sitting in my office, lost in my thoughts, thinking so deeply about the transition into motherhood ahead of me and feeling so overwhelmed. Wasn't I supposed to be ecstatic? I was, but I was also terrified. And I actually have to keep working full time while I prepare for this huge life change and my body does all this work and I'm so tired?! Wild.

The actual transition into motherhood was incredible but of course tough. My contractions were so painful from the beginning, perhaps because I'm sensitive, or perhaps just because they were. He finally arrived. Nursing hurt at first of course, postpartum in general was physically uncomfortable in ways I wasn't planning for, but man was I on cloud nine with my precious little baby. I couldn't believe he was mine. As an HSP I am used to being highly attuned to my loved ones, and it was so strange and terrifying that I could love someone so much and care so deeply about his well-being, but not always know what it is that he needs. 14 months later and I still struggle with this from time to time. Society talks so much about mothers knowing what's best for their children and maternal instincts and recognizing different cries, it was jarring and disheartening to recognize I didn't have all the answers right away, and sometimes still don't. Talk about imposter syndrome.

The anxiety from pregnancy (well and just existing prior to that) continued on after birth as I got to know my son and adjusted to my new duties as his mom. Did he nurse for long enough? Is he getting enough milk? Is he breathing? Is he cold? Hot? What if I drop him? And the baby blues settled in after a week. I missed my old life and body. Overtime I found confidence and gratitude as things became a little more routine and I was able to meet his needs. The anxiety has waxed and waned as he's grown, from SIDs to his first encounter with RSV to introducing solid food.

I wouldn't consider myself someone who was easily overstimulated in my younger years, but like many I got used to the quiet when the pandemic hit in 2020, and over this past year thanks to sleep deprivation and my raging hormones I am now absolutely prone to it. Even though I've always craved and cherished together time with friends and family, I grew up having more downtime and alone time than I realized and by the time I was ready to consider motherhood, I was seriously concerned about how fit I would be for it since I had learned that I actually need that personal time. My son is an active and curious little guy who certainly keeps me on my toes on a daily basis, which definitely makes overstimulation arrive much quicker than it used to.

But wow has motherhood been incredibly moving and I do believe being an HSP has made it richer along with the challenges. Starting in pregnancy I loved reading about how safe the sound of my voice would make him feel or that he could feel my laughter. The depth of emotion I felt about little facts like that brought tears to my eyes. I am aware of the impact we have on each other and have been amazed to bear witness to it, like how even as a newborn he would often stop crying once I finally took a breath a relaxed my body. I have been there for tiny moments like his first laugh in his sleep when he had gas, or the first time he noticed birds in the sky. I have become attuned to his needs and can predict most of them and he has found safety in that. I have learned to take time for myself to manage overstimulation and by doing so am modeling how important it is for him to take time for himself as well. Sure there have been times where I wish I wouldn't think or feel so deeply for anxiety's sake, but then I wouldn't feel this incredible love and bond as deeply as I do.

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