All Posts By

Ashley Martin

Art Party! by Elaine Dahl

By Caregiving, Community, Early Childhood, Maternal Mental Health, Parenting

Are you looking for way to beat the heat?  Look no further!  We’re re-airing this article from our 2nd edition of the LIFTS Magazine featuring a very fun family art party.

Art Party!

By Elaine Dahl

HMHB recently invited some families with little ones to make art! And if you have a little one who is ready, you could too!

Here are some suggested “how to” steps:

  1. Find a place. It could be a park, a family’s home, or a meeting place. Remember that, depending on the art you do, it could get messy!
  2. Find a time. Keep in mind various work schedules, bedtimes, and mealtimes. This party lasted a little over an hour, and families had the option to arrive late or leave early.
  3. Invite the families you would like to attend. Consider health protocols, such as telling families to stay home if they are sick, having the party outside, and/or offering masks.
  4. Tell everyone to wear clothes that can get messy, if you are using materials like paint.
  5. Decide on your projects. We had help from art teacher Em Thiessen, but you can also look online or ask your creative friends for ideas.
  6. Gather the supplies and any snacks or drinks you want to offer. Look for non-toxic, kid-friendly paints, kitchen ingredients like flour and food coloring, paper, and other supplies. And make sure you have clean-up materials like towels and wipes.
  7. When the time comes, welcome everyone and remind them that it’s not so much about creating great art, but about creating great memories!

And here’s why!

  1. It’s fun! (Seriously, it’s important to have fun!)
  2. It helps improve your child’s brain development, motor skills, exploration of things in the world, and visual understanding.
  3. It’s a great way for you to bond with your little one and connect with other families.

For this party, Em planned four projects:

Plastic bag painting

  1. Take a piece of paper and squirt three or four colors of non-toxic paint on it.
  2. Carefully place the paper inside a plastic bag and seal the bag.
  3. Allow your little one to smoosh the paint around, with their hands on top of the plastic. They can even try using a toy to move the paint!
  4. When the smooshing is done, carefully remove the paper from the plastic bag and let it air dry.

Handprints

  1. Each family member can paint their own hands with a brush, or you can paint each other’s hands.
  2. Once you have enough paint on your hand, press it down on the paper to transfer the paint. Your little one may need help with this part.
  3. You can layer your handprints, or you can make other designs.
  4. Sometimes, you may be inspired to make a more “avant garde” artwork!

Ball-in-the-box painting

  1. Place a small amount of one color of paint in a cup, can, or bowl.
  2. Drop a small ball in the cup, can, or bowl and make sure it’s covered in paint.
  3. Place a paper in the bottom of a plastic bin.
  4. Drop the ball with paint into the bin.
  5. Shake the bin so the ball moves around.
  6. When you’re ready for a new color, repeat all the steps above, using a clean ball and a separate small container for each color of paint.
  7. Remove the finished painting from the bottom of the plastic bin.

Totes with bubbles

  1. You will need several bottles of bubble soap with plastic wands.
  2. Drop a small amount of food coloring or non-toxic dye into each bottle of bubble soap so you’ll have a variety of colors. Label each bottle.
  3. Get a canvas tote bag or a paper set up on a table or on the floor.
  4. Blow bubbles in the direction of your “canvas.”
  5. You can pop the bubbles, or even stomp on them!
  6. Switch colors as you see fit

What do you do when your little one’s artwork starts piling up? Em recommends repurposing a paper project by:

  • Using it as wrapping paper for gifts;
  • Cutting it up into small rectangular gift tags, which you can punch a hole in and tie with some twine to your gift; or
  • Cutting it into small shapes (circles, squares, etc.) that you can glue onto gift bags, lunch sacks, or other items that need some decoration.

We thank Em Thiessen and the Martin family, the Petrik-Harris family, and the Stumberg family for attending!

Throwing your own art party? Write us at stories@hmhb-mt.org if you want to learn more or share what you did.

 

Finding Our Footing by Anna Temple

By Caregiving, Community, Early Childhood, Maternal Mental Health, Parenting

This is a featured article from our 2nd edition of the LIFTS Magazine.  

Finding Our Footing

By Anna Semple

My son “Alex” (an alternate name for privacy reasons) just turned three. I can’t decide if his birth seems like yesterday or a lifetime ago, or maybe both. They say that your brain goes through as many changes when becoming a mother as it does during the teen years. I’ve long known this because of my job in early childhood, but didn’t really take the time to think about what this actually meant until after I became a mother myself. Comparing my childhood self with my young adult self, I see the same person in so many ways, but with different priorities, ways of thinking about the world, and levels of confidence and skill in navigating life on my own. Parenting has brought on the same sensation of feeling different, but also just the same.

Alex has Down syndrome. When I was pregnant, I shared this information quickly as a way to bridge a connection and set the tone of the conversation. I didn’t want people avoiding real conversation because they didn’t know what was okay to talk about. My partner and I were lucky to have incredibly supportive friends, with the wisdom to ask how we felt about the diagnosis instead of jumping to the conclusion that it was a tragedy. Even awkward comments felt supportive, as long as people were open to hearing how we were feeling at that moment. I knew that a month earlier in my life I would have been unsure of what to say as well, and I was okay with imperfect expressions of support.

My feelings were complex during pregnancy, and talking them through with my partner and friends was incredibly important. I often worried that I wouldn’t know how to connect with my son. I leaned into the words I read from other parents, that “once your baby is born it will be fine, he will just be your baby.” Before becoming a mother, I didn’t know that love for your children grows out of thousands of tiny moments of nurturing, not because your baby shows up in a certain way. And when Alex was born, I could see the depth in his sparkly little eyes and knew I didn’t need to worry about connecting. I’m saddened now that I didn’t understand this before. People with Down syndrome are just people, and being able to connect really isn’t surprising.

 

Now that Alex is older, I am slower to bring up this diagnosis with people who haven’t met him. Mostly because there are so many other things to talk about, but also because some people’s default is to focus on the differences. I need to start with the foundation that Alex is in many ways the same as any other kid. I want to share conversations about bedtime routines, picky eating, and hilarious toddler antics. I want people to know that Alex is a little charmer who loves to play games, whether he is catching my eye with a sly smile before tickling me, or giggling as he hurries down a path to kick pinecones in the park. Only after we connect as fellow parents do I mention the extra chromosome, or tell them that I’m sometimes overwhelmed with the added layer of thought that goes into every parenting decision, with juggling all the appointments, and facing the scary unknown of the long-term future.

These friends and acquaintances are an important support system, but I am also thankful our family has had outside help with navigating the extra considerations. Young children with delays and disabilities often qualify for early intervention services, which provide free parenting support and specialized services (like physical, speech and occupational therapies) until children turn three. We enrolled when Alex was two weeks old after one doctor gave us a laundry list of things that we couldn’t do, including being worn in a baby carrier. After filling out a short form, we were able to get in quickly to see a physical therapist who determined that he could in fact be safely worn in some specific carriers. Walking in the woods is a big part of our family identity, and it was an enormous relief to learn ways to safely do this with our son. We worked with this same physical therapist until recently when Alex turned three and aged out of the program.

Our whole early intervention team supported us in setting goals for our son and our family. They worked with us all to help achieve those goals through therapy exercises and connection to resources in the community. Our family support specialist knew what paperwork or appointment needed to happen at different phases. They encouraged us to apply for and enroll in Early Head Start. Most of our experiences with doctors have been positive, but we occasionally received conflicting or confusing information at appointments. We knew our early intervention team couldn’t give medical advice, but they did help us generate questions and research options if we wanted a second opinion.

When looking into preschools, we were referred to someone at our local Child Care Resource and Referral office who equipped us with information on reasonable accommodations and a list of questions to ask when we visited different programs. This helped us self-advocate and, ultimately, we chose a program that was open to adaptations and that valued my family as collaborators in Alex’s education.

Each person we’ve worked with throughout these three years has been a such a cheerleader for Alex. He warmed right up to each of them, and adored being the center of attention during appointments.

Like any new parent, I can’t imagine how overwhelming these first years would have been for us without people to turn to for help. Friends who knitted blankets, left Tupperwares of food and stopped by to check in on us. Professionals who supported us in becoming advocates, and who began teaching Alex the skills that help him gain independence. Both helped us find our footing as we underwent the huge shift in perspective and lifestyle of becoming a family. We are forever grateful for the help we had welcoming our beautiful son into a whole community of people who care for him.

 

Resources: Use the LIFTS Online Resource Guide to search for “Child Development Information and Support” and find organizations that assist families in screening children and making appropriate referrals.

Tips to Help Siblings Transition When a New Baby Comes Home, by the HMHB Team

By Parenting, pregnancy, Self-compassion

This is a featured article from our 3rd edition of the LIFTS Magazine.  

Tips to Help Siblings Transition When a New Baby Comes Homes, by the HMHB Team

Welcoming a new sibling is a big adjustment for everyone! Here are some tips and tricks to help ease the transition:

  • Snuggle up and read books about what to expect when a new baby comes home. Take time to talk about the changes to come and what feelings might come up.
  • Look at photos and videos and tell stories about what it was like when they were born and first came home.
  • Ask them what they’re most excited about and what they hope to teach their new sibling.
  • Take a moment to greet them by yourself and have a few minutes of one on one time before introducing them to the baby.
  • Give them a special gift (from baby) when baby comes home.
  • When taking care of the baby (feeding, diapering, bathing, etc.) ask them if they would like to help and give them a special task so they feel included and appreciated.
  • Before feeding baby, get them a snack/drink or interested in an activity.
  • Read to young children while feeding baby. Have child hold the book and turn the pages or play a “no-hands” game, “I spy something red…”
  • Teach other children how to get/make a special snack for themselves. This will help them feel like a big kid!
  • Set aside 5 minutes of focused, uninterrupted one on one time when they have your FULL attention the whole time. Even just a few minutes goes a long way.
  • Build forts or special nooks where they can retreat and let their imaginations run wild. Try a cardboard box with Christmas lights poked through so they can “stargaze”.
  • Tell stories of what things were like when you were a kid. Our children sometimes forget that we were once little too and we can remember what that feels like. This helps them feel seen and understood.

Prairie Wolfe, a Somatic Therapist from Missoula, recommends these exercises to help you and your children process big emotions:

LET THEM FEEL POWERFUL. Press hands, palm to palm with your kid and then push each other across the room and let them win. Let them knock you over! Exclaim about their power, “Whoa! How did you get so strong?! I am pushing as hard as I can and you are pushing me across the room!”

As often as you can, talk to your kids about their strong emotions. Say to them, “I see you. I still love you and accept you, even when you’re mad.” This helps our kids learn that their needs for belonging and authentic expression can both exist and both be met, at the same time.

And, for you, recognize and honor when you’re feeling activated, frustrated, and downright angry. Parenting is incredibly challenging and it’s helpful to have ways to release intense emotions in safe and healthy ways.

Grab a washcloth or dish towel and twist it up until you can feel the tension between your hands. Wring it as tightly as you can and then let the tension in your jaw, spine, and shoulders really grind and release into the towel. Then, add sound. Try a low growl, like a “grrrr” sound so you can really give this anger a voice and a place for it to go. Stay present and FEEL the sensations in your body. When you’re ready, release and breathe deeply. Check in with your body afterwards to see what has changed. Be curious about how your energy felt before and after this release?

Lifting Up New Moms, by Emily Clewis

By Caregiving, Community, Feeding Baby, Maternal Mental Health, Parenting, pregnancy, Self-care, Self-compassion

This is a featured article from our 1st edition (2021) of the LIFTS Magazine.  

Lifting Up New Moms

By Emily Clewis

A new life joining the world is a very exciting time. Friends and family members may be eager to gather around to take part in celebrating the new bundle of joy! There are so many ways to show up for families welcoming a new baby. Before you invite yourself over to hold that new baby, there are some really important things to keep in mind.

While holding a new baby is exciting, it’s the birthing person that truly needs to be held, loved, and supported in this golden, but vulnerable time. If the mother is well supported, she can better care for her new baby. Supporting parents in what they need is just as important as welcoming their baby.

The first couple of weeks are crucial for bonding, and new parents may not want any visitors during this vulnerable period. Always ask parents what precautions they may be taking and if they are up for visitors before coming to visit. New babies have no sense of night or day, so parents may be sleeping with their little ones at noon after being up all night. Be flexible with your plans for visiting and understand they may change.

If you do visit, wash your hands well and keep your face away from the baby’s, as babies are vulnerable to common illnesses. Always ask the parents if it’s okay to hold the baby. If they say yes, encourage them to take a shower or quick nap while you’re there. This is a great opportunity for them to take care of themselves!

Offer to bring healthy snacks or a ready-to-heat nutritious meal. Ask mom if she has eaten, and maybe make her a meal (and then do the dishes!). New moms, especially those breastfeeding, are always thirsty and require more calories. If she feeds the baby while you’re there, help her put her feet up and offer to get her water or a snack.

Look around for things that need to be done: laundry, dishes, taking out the trash, etc. If there are older children in the house, offer to watch a movie with them or take them on a walk. Ask new parents what they need; they will likely tell you!

 

Finally, don’t overstay. Parents during this time are heavily exhausted, and even well-meaning company can make parents feel the need to entertain. An hour or so is plenty in those first few weeks.

The early weeks of having a newborn is a beautiful time to support moms and babies. With healthy support, parents are less likely to suffer from perinatal depression and their babies have better health outcomes. Feel empowered to show up for new parents in a way that is helpful, supportive, loving, and graceful.

 

Boundaries to Support You

During postpartum, it is easy to be led by excitement and pride. You want desperately to share this new human with the world and to shout, “Look what I did!” from the rooftops. As women, we know that in the first few weeks, we are supposed to rest and allow our bodies to heal and recover. But our friends and family start calling, and we tell ourselves that we will rest later. Suddenly, visitors and responsibilities snowball, and somewhere under it all, there we are, crushed and tired as hell.

Here are some simple phrases to help draw boundaries around yourself in postpartum.

“We are not ready for visitors at this time.”

“I’m feeling really tired today. Let’s plan for another time when I’m feeling up to company.”

“My body doesn’t feel up to that. I’ll let you know once I feel recovered.”

“I don’t feel comfortable with that quite yet. I can reach out to you when I feel ready!”

“I know we had plans, but I’m not quite up for it after all. Let’s try again in a few days. In the meantime, here are some sweet pictures!”

“What I really need help with at this time is…”

“No.”

Mama, feel empowered to listen to and advocate for your own needs during this time. Speak them fiercely and unapologetically, even if your voice shakes. Your own mental and physical health is so important, and you have permission to draw a circle of protection around yourself.

 

 

To find resources and support for postpartum, parenting and more, visit our LIFTS Online Resource Guide at https://hmhb-lifts.org/. 

The Becoming, by April Lemieux

By Parenting, pregnancy, Self-compassion

This is a featured poem from our 3rd edition of the LIFTS Magazine.  

 

The Becoming, by April Lemieux

My lips formed around

your name, little one,

long before I ever

held you close.

My body a living shelter

around the ember

of your essence.

And now here you are

living and breathing and

Oh….who knew it could

all feel so big?

This mothering.

This sudden vastness

of love that stretches wide and deep

like the prairie sky.

Oh tiny being,

my child,

my heart.

You have undone me

and made me whole

in the space of one breath.

What magic.

What wonder.

 

To find resources and support for postpartum, parenting and more, visit our LIFTS Online Resource Guide at https://hmhb-lifts.org/

Rupture & Repair as a New Parent, by Cait McWilliams

By Parenting, pregnancy, Self-compassion

This is a featured article from our 3rd edition of the LIFTS Magazine.  

Rupture & Repair as a New Parent, by Cait McWilliams

Becoming “mama” was not a part of my plan. I didn’t have a spare room that I was planning to turn into a warm and welcoming nursery. My partner was barely a partner and more of a very attractive man that I had met in a bar. My kitchen had no food but plenty of booze. I wasn’t exactly taking my vitamins on a regular basis.

I had just moved halfway across the country and all the way out of a marriage. I was untethered and exploring my newfound freedom when, in the midst of my move, I met a man who lit me up and captured my curiosity. We threw caution to the wind and avoided conversations about a future together. After our initial connection, we went our separate ways and then, a few weeks later, I found out I was pregnant–with him living in Seattle and me in Denver.

A rigid schedule and stability had felt like death to me in my 20s but now I had to get myself out of the way so I could create a life that supported this cub. I told my gypsy self she was no longer invited to the party and tried to lock her away out of intense fear that, haunted by my own trauma, I would destroy this family. In my attempt to “do it right,” I shut down parts of me that still mattered and was not able to allow myself to be human.

I was exhausted, depleted, fearful and in a new town without deep-set connections–including with my partner. From a nervous system viewpoint, I was in a state of constant survival. The feeling of being in a state of survival is one of intense stress and heavy burden on our physical beings – constricted muscles, tight jaw, chest breathing, constant startle, difficulty tracking conversations, insomnia, poor digestion, upset stomachs, inflammation.

This intense stress impacted my little as he was growing in my womb and for those first few months of his life, when attunement is key, but almost impossible when your system is filled with fear. I used the tools my parents had used, enmeshment and manipulation, to navigate my overwhelmed system. I fell back into familiar patterns of override and numbness. I rarely felt settled enough to rest and just play, and my attunement was primarily based in vigilance and not as much on connection.

At around sixish months, certain variables began to shift which allowed my system to start to release the grip of survival. My life, which had been ruptured by my unplanned pregnancy, began to repair and take on a new shape full of a deeper love and security than my younger self had ever known.

I began to build secure attachments (a foreign language to me before becoming pregnant). My partner and I found our rhythm and decided to make a life together. I met dear friends with babies the same age that I would gather with regularly for hikes, hangs, or just to fold laundry and compare notes. They brought playfulness and curiosity back into my life which are the opposite of fear and constriction. We learned from each other and gave ourselves permission to be imperfect.

My body became familiar again. That first year of mamahood, my body was unlike it had ever been in my life – large breasts and a split apart core. I didn’t know how to dress, and things that had physically come naturally to me in the past, were now impossible to access. As my core began to knit back together, I could feel my sense of self-worth building in potency instead of leaking out of me.

As I experienced the rupture that can happen during and after having a baby, I began to also witness the repair in my own life, which helped me begin to see the seeds that were planted in this cub during more fragile times. And, as I began to repair my own system and come out of survival, I began to provide him with repair as well.

I was coming out of my fear body and, as my new life came into focus and I stopped being so damn scared, I began to find joy. It took time. It took making mistakes. It took being a mess and asking for help. It took moving my body, finding people who loved me even when my breasts were leaking and my BO smelled like french onion soup (a real thing). It took me doing my own work studying Somatic Experiencing while also doing personal work with a therapist. It took me forgiving myself while also holding myself accountable. It took me having the courage to admit my failings to my cub.

And, as we grew our family (having two more cubs and weathering other storms), the wisdom I gained by walking through the intensity of what felt like an explosion of self, has acted as a guiding light many, many times over the last decade.

So, dear birthing people, as you hold that new little, know that you are not alone in your fears.  This is a time of great rupture–mind, body, spirit, relationships. In many ways, what you thought you knew will be turned on its head. But, repair is possible even if it’s hard to imagine what that looks like in those early moments.

Reach out for help.

Connect with others.

Move your body.

Find permission.

You are not alone.

Repair is possible!

To find local supportive parenting resources visit: https://hmhb-lifts.org/ and use the search terms “somatic”, “counselors”, “mental health providers”, “support groups” or “parenting classes”.

To learn more about Cait’s offerings visit her site: https://www.thebodyiswise.com/.

HMHB in April Issue of Health Affairs

By Community Support, Maternal Mental Health, Native American Initiatives, Native Cultural Connections, Parenting

Behind the Scenes: A Strategy to Support Perinatal Mental Health By Collaborating With Tribal Communities in Montana (A note from our Executive Director, Stephanie Morton)

Hello HMHB Supporters,

I am elated to share that staff at HMHB authored an article that will be featured in Health Affairs, April issue on Perinatal Mental Health and Wellbeing.  You can link directly to the article and full April Issue (both are open access).

Led by Dr. Amy Stiffarm, PhD, MPH, Director of Native American Initiatives at HMHB, HMHB staff including myself, Dawn Gunderson, CLC, Program and Communications Coordinator and former Executive Director, Brie MacLaurin, collaborated with Nicole Redvers, Maridee Shogren, Terri Wright and Andrew Williams, to produce the article titled, “A Strategy to Support Perinatal Mental Health by Collaborating With Tribal Communities in Montana.” The article highlights work completed to include family-supporting resources on Reservations in Montana into the LIFTS Online Resource Guide (hmhb-lifts.org). This project was completed in partnership with HMHB and Dr. Stiffarm while she was a graduate student at the University of North Dakota in the Indigenous Health Program. Funding from the Montana Obstetrics and Maternal Support (MOMS) Program made it possible for the HMHB Team to fittingly engage Tribal communities in the process of mapping local resource relevant to pregnant and parenting families to be listed in the LIFTS Resource Guide.

The HMHB team is so appreciative of the funding, partnership and support that has allowed us to engage in this important work. Many of you have been key partners in this work and for that we are deeply grateful. Additionally, we are so thankful for the community members who shared their time and knowledge to improve the system of care for families in Indian Country in Montana. Please join me in congratulating Dr. Stiffarm and the team on this success. We are so proud to work with you all to continue to improve the health and wellbeing of Montana moms, babies and families.

Sincerely,

Stephanie Morton
Executive Director

 

Find Native Cultural Connections and other support in your community on the LIFTS Online Resource Guide at https://hmhb-lifts.org/.

Learn more about Dr. Amy Stiffarm’s work and our Native American Initiatives Program

 

Rural Roots: Mothering Under the Big Sky, by Kelly Rumney

By Birth, Caregiving, Community, Maternal Mental Health, Parenting, pregnancy, Self-compassion

This is a featured article from our 3rd edition of the LIFTS Magazine.  

Rural Roots: Mothering Under the Big Sky, by Kelly Rumney

As Montana residents, we all have some sense of what rural life looks like. In fact, living in wide open spaces can be peaceful and rewarding; it’s one reason many of us choose Montana as home in the first place. But, as a mother of a newborn, it can also be isolating and intimidating.

I live on a beautiful ranch 10 miles outside of Cascade, a small town of around 600 people. As soon as my husband steps out the front door, he’s already at work, tackling jobs that require him to report for duty seven days a week, during most of the year. Living the dream! Except…I am 45 minutes from the nearest medical help or activities for my children. As a new mother, this definitely caused anxiety. Raising my children here is sometimes comforting and sometimes lonely. Often, it’s both. When they were little, I learned to get out and interact with other mothers because, through conversation, we shared similar worries, struggles and wins. Talking with them helped ease my anxiety and depression so much. But, getting up and out of the house and on the (long) road is easier said than done.

When I gave birth to my daughter, I was 22. I had never changed a diaper or interacted with babies other than our calves. Needless to say, I was unsure about motherhood. So, after she was born, the friendly nurses made sure the car seat was good to go and I was released into the wild – sore, exhausted, and terrified. I arrived home, a panicked mess, and tried to act like I knew what I was doing. Fake it ‘til you make it, right? I felt so unprepared. Luckily, my mom stayed for a few days to help, and my mother-in-law lived next door. They both offered advice, but it was mostly conflicting and definitely wasn’t what I’d read in the baby book. Visitors came, and they too would offer heaps of advice.

Meanwhile, no one warned me that I would continue to look and feel like a whale, or that nursing would be so darn hard, or that I would be so sore. Did I mention the baby was 8lbs, 10oz after 17 hours of labor? The cows out in the field make it look a lot easier! Eventually, things quieted down but, as soon as it did, I longed for people to come back and advise me. I was alone all day, every day with only my own panic for company. Is she pooping too much or too little? Eating enough? Crying enough? Too much? What if she stops breathing? Why won’t the baby stop crying; is she fevered? I swear I took her temperature 12 times a day.

Oh, the mom brain! I imagined horrendous things happening to my infant. I once spewed out all the thoughts in my brain to my husband, who seemed so calm in his transition to parenthood, changing diapers like a pro and unfazed by screaming or fussing. He asked how a person could stay sane with the thoughts I was having. Well, I wasn’t! I was struggling with postpartum depression but didn’t realize it until the birth of my son, two years later.

Everything felt so overwhelming. John would go to work, and I would worry about all the possible accidents he might get into. It seemed like I was faking it, but not making it. Even doctor appointments and grocery shopping felt daunting. Since we lived so far from town, we would try to fit in as many errands as we could into one trip. This meant long days spent trying to function in public. Nursing in the car’s not easy, and I constantly worried that people would hear my baby crying and judge me.

Finally, someone told me “Dumber people than you have raised perfectly healthy and happy children.” And, for whatever reason, hearing that made me feel better. In fact, 16 years later, I still remind myself of this. I came to understand that we all have strengths and weaknesses and despite, or maybe because of them, our kids will be okay, as long as we care enough to try. Let me repeat: TRY, not master!

I started to relax and let the baby cry for a few minutes in the crib while I showered. I napped when the baby slept. I went for walks, taking time to just breathe the mountain air and visited my 15-miles-away-neighbor who had a baby the same age and found that we shared a lot of the same worries and self-doubts. I saved my favorite show to watch during night feedings, so it felt like a special treat. And, instead of putting pressure on myself to keep the whole house clean, I just chose one spot (the kitchen sink) and focused on keeping that clean. The rest of the house might be a disaster but, if that sink was shiny and tidy, I felt like I was succeeding in life. These were small things, but they made a big difference.

Then, along came child number two and it seemed like everything I had learned up until then no longer applied. Depression hit hard. This baby did not sleep and, honestly, I can’t share much about how I got through this time because I don’t even really remember. We faced jaundice, ear infections and thrush (which made nursing excruciatingly painful). Labor was more complicated, so recovery was harder and took longer. I had intrusive thoughts that scared me and kept me up at night, but I also had thoughts that seemed so apathetic and disconnected they didn’t even feel like my own. I’d say to myself, “What kind of mother thinks this way?”.

I felt like I was in an exhausted stupor most of the time; just running on fumes in auto-pilot mode. I’d forget things and miss things and was afraid of what that could mean. I no longer felt like a healthy mom, so I finally asked my doctor to help me with the curtain of apathy and exhaustion that had landed between me and my world. The cowboy mentality of “spit on it and rub a little dirt in it” was not going to suffice here. I was isolated, sad, and tired, but none of that was my fault.

My husband was incredibly supportive and involved with the baby, which was great but, in some ways, made me feel worse. Why was this so easy for him? Eventually, I realized I was not a bad mom. Like so many other moms, I was trying to live up to an unrealistic ideal that just doesn’t exist. By taking the time to care for myself and allowing myself some grace, I was doing a much better job of taking care of my baby. I was learning to ask for help and that accepting help didn’t mean I was failing as mom; it actually meant I was rocking it!

As I look back, I realize that every parenting journey comes with unique challenges, and you have to just parent in a way that works for you and your family. Take the advice that helps and leave the stuff that doesn’t. Just because you don’t have a chore chart doesn’t mean your kiddos won’t grow into responsible adults. No two children are exactly the same, so no two parenting styles should be the same either. What worked for my first born had to go out the window for my second born. In balancing a teaching career along with parenting over the past 10 years, I have spent a lot of time with other people’s children and, from what I can tell, the kids that seem to be growing into fully functioning citizens are the ones whose parents consistently try their best, but also allow for chaos, mistakes, and messes. They surround themselves with support so they can be reminded that one bad day does not mean the end of it all. So, give yourself some grace, find support, and just TRY!

Resources and Support:

To learn about statewide programs and resources designed to help support rural families in Montana visit: https://www.frontier.care/beyondtheweather.html

Or, visit https://hmhb-lifts.org/ for local resources using the search terms “counselors” or “support groups”.

 

The Unexpected Blessing, by Crystal Ascheman

By Birth, Down Syndrome, Medical Diagnosis, Parenting, pregnancy, Self-compassion, The Power of Story

This is a featured article from our 3rd edition of the LIFTS Magazine.  

The Unexpected Blessing, by Crystal Ascheman

I remember it as if it happened yesterday, even though it’s been seven years now. My husband and I are sitting in our week 20 ultrasound, excited to find out the gender of our second child together (the third of four children in our blended family). We’re feeling so much excitement and joy and wearing the biggest of smiles. A boy! But then, our celebration is cut short as the ultrasound technician gets quiet while she takes typical growth measurements. As I look up at the screen, I see what has caused her sudden shift in mood. Having attended pre-medicine in college, before starting a family, I know that the measurements are not typical for the gestational age of our precious baby boy. She tries her best to explain the possible abnormalities to my husband and lets us know that she will be sending the image directly to our doctor for urgent review. I don’t add to her explanation as I am still trying to process this unexpected new revelation in real time and am in complete shock. My two previous pregnancies had been typical; with no reason for concern. One week from that first ultrasound, we received a phone call confirming a 96% likelihood of a Trisomy 21 (Down Syndrome) diagnosis. And so began the unknown journey into the blessings of the unexpected. Reflecting upon that overwhelming time in my life, I sometimes wish I could go back in time, sit down next to my 7-year-ago-self, look her in the eye, and reassure her. Here are some of the things I would say:

“I want you to know that it’s okay to feel all of these big emotions after the surprising news you’ve just received. It’s perfectly normal. It’s okay to not have all the answers right now. As parents, we will never have all the answers. Take your time to process and work through the whirlwind engulfing you. As mothers, we are the rocks to our families and we want to look strong and put together but, right now it’s okay to ask for help. (You will need to do this regularly throughout this special journey). You are not inadequate or failing. Just the opposite! You are strong and brave. In being so, you need support right now for your own mental wellness and health, so you can be the best version of yourself and be the mother you want to be. Please don’t suffer alone in silence trying to “hold it all together”. Extend the same grace and compassion to yourself as you afford to everyone else. Be kind to yourself. Little eyes and little hearts are learning from your example of self-care.

As you adjust to this new version of motherhood with a child with a disability, don’t be afraid to ask questions and reach out to the special community of parents and organizations who share your concerns, struggles, and triumphs. They hold invaluable experience on this extraordinary journey. They will truly be the only ones who will understand just how you’re feeling and the battles you will encounter. You are not meant to face these battles alone. You’ll need a collective community full of compassion and understanding. These will be your “people” and your precious son’s “people”. Embrace them with a happy heart. Learn from their experiences because they will help you to find your voice (for your son) and don’t be afraid to use it! You’ll need to speak up often along the way. And always trust your instincts as a mother–you can rely on them to carry you through.

As the weeks turn into months and months into years, you will encounter some hard days. On those days there will be many tears and doubts. Remember, they are but a moment in time and this too shall pass. There will be times when you feel like you’ve given your all and it’s still not enough. But I’m here to tell you that it is. You ARE enough. I’m here to remind you you’re doing a wonderful job, even though it’s a tough one. I want you to know that all the effort and hard work you’re putting in and all of the sacrifices you’re making DO make a difference. You might not be able to see it right away but, the most important difference you will ever make will be realized in the quality of life you’re giving to your children. There is no better reward in life than that. As you find your way through these hard days, you will also have days filled with a level of joy you’ve never experienced before. And, in the middle of all of it, you’ll have the subtle realization that you never would have found all this joy and strength and grace if you weren’t walking along this special path, holding his little hand in yours. While this journey is not one for everyone, it’s the journey you never knew you wanted, and it comes with the best unexpected blessings.”

 

 

Resources and Support:

To learn about statewide programs designed to help support families like Crystal’s, visit https://www.umt.edu/rural-institute/act-early-montana/resources/.  To find local resources, visit https://hmhb-lifts.org/ and search the term “child development”.

Crystal also highly recommends:

Community Children’s Pediatric Specialty Clinic: https://www.communitychildrens.org/services/pediatric-specialists/

Butte’s Special Riders program https://www.buttespecialriders.org/

Becoming a Dad, by Patrick Duganz

By Birth, Dads, Parenting, The Power of Story

Patrick and his son pause a game of football at their local park to embrace and smile for a photo.This is a featured article from our 3rd edition of the LIFTS Magazine.  Patrick also shared his story on our Motherlove Podcast –  Season 2, Episode 19.

Becoming a Dad, by Patrick Duganz

How can you tell a joke is a dad joke? It’s apparent. For people, it’s more complicated.

I don’t think you become a dad when a kid is born. Lots of kids never meet those he people who provided their genetics. Therefore, a child being born does not make a dad. So, becoming a dad must be something more. There’s a moment when a choice is made.

I was raised by TV in the 90s, so of course I wanted to be a dad. Sure, Homer Simpson was the most popular dad, but I also had Dan Conner, Uncle Phil, Jason Seaver, and Carl Winslow. Having grown up in a “complicated” family like I did, I looked up to these dad characters and how it seemed like they always knew just the right thing to say, or do, whenever a problem arose.

So years down the road, when we considered starting a family, I was pro “let’s have a kid”. My son is the outcome of a meticulously planned pregnancy process. We read books and went to a several-months-long birth class where we were free to ask any and all questions. We found a duo of midwives who his mom and I liked and who would, eventually, facilitate the birth. I was at every appointment, tracking our mixed-up RNA as it grew into something an ultrasound tech could identify. His mom wrote out a detailed and extensive birth plan and we carefully reviewed it with our midwives. We were going to go with the Bradley Method – a drug-free, low- intervention process.

If such a birth sounds intimidating to you, just understand that my son’s mom is fearless, and has a pain threshold far beyond us mortals. That’s how she was able to face 22 hours of labor starting and stalling before our midwife delicately advised that we might need to consider making a few changes to our very particular plan. From there, as is common, things got more complicated.

An annoyed anesthesiologist arrived in flip-flops to administer an epidural, and delivered a few doses of Pitocin. After several intensive interventions plus one final delay from shoulder dystocia, our son was here. It had been 25 hours.

The process of his birth was difficult for all involved. His initial Apgar score was low and his mom was exhausted. I felt useless and helpless as my son and his mom faced this incredible task of birth. Obviously, my experience pales in comparison to what she went through, and it feels wrong to say it was hard for me too. But it was terrifying to be that helpless when my family faced a crisis. I didn’t even know what “Apgar” meant.

But both were okay.

My son was the largest baby born at Bozeman Health Deaconess Hospital in 2013. I know this because, in those days, the nurses kept a sandwich board of height and weight statistics just outside of the nursery. While holding my newborn, I watched our nurse wipe away the high score of some smaller baby and replace it with the new champion: Baby Duganz at 10 pounds, 11 ounces, and 22 inches in length.

I remember thinking that he was a miracle, and that he was terrifying.

I was 28 and in the hours after his birth, it began to occur to me that I had no idea how to handle a baby. No idea how to comfort. No idea about needs. No idea about cues. No idea about anything because most of the books told me to, “follow mom’s lead.” So, as the nurses took his mom to recover after her feat, I realized the awful situation unfolding.

“You’re not leaving me alone with him, are you?”

“Yes,” a nurse said. A door shut behind her, and we were alone.

He cried. I cried.

Eventually, he ran out of energy and fell asleep in my arms. I felt like I’d failed my first test as a dad. My baby had to exhaust himself to find peace. Oof.

As we sat there alone, waiting for whatever was next, I was nearing 48 hours without sleep and started thinking of random nonsense until my brain fell on lighthearted fare like The Road by Cormac McCarthy. It’s a father and son story set in a post-apocalyptic world. There’s a bit near the beginning that stuck out to me when I first read it: “[T]hey set out along the blacktop in the gunmetal light, shuffling through the ash, each the other’s world entire.”

Each the other’s world entire. Heady stuff to consider, but that’s what my anxious and sleep-deprived brain spat out as I worried about who I’d be as a dad. Is the role of a dad to be the leader after a calamity? Is it more? Changing diapers? Making Money? Baseball coaching?

“I’ll get better,” I said to my kid, just hours old.

Like most men, I didn’t get paternity leave. However, my employer at the time did kindly lay me off for two weeks so I could go broke while learning basic parenting tasks like diaper changing and swaddling. The kid mostly breastfed and slept, with some interruptions from me to change his diaper, or swaddle him. I brought his mom water and snacks.

Soon I was back to work. The two of them were alone at home. It seemed like he’d change between the hours when I left and when I’d return. He was a new person every day and I was missing it. I began to feel useless to my family’s needs just as I was beginning to understand how to be useful.

This, of course, was a symptom of my own postpartum depression which is more common than most people want to talk about. I’d later learn that 1 in 10 dads experience similar thoughts and feelings during this time. Since I was still so focused on my time at work, I was ignoring these symptoms and was, unfortunately, unable to recognize that his mom was dealing with similar symptoms during the 10-12 hours I was gone each day.

When his mom returned to work a few months later, I adjusted my schedule to be home with our son on Mondays and Tuesdays so we could save on daycare. With her at work, the kid and I suddenly had 16 terrifying hours together. From what I’d been told, parenting was so good you could set a laugh track to it. Instead, mine felt like an episode of Lost, complete with decoding cryptic messages (infant cues) that were crucial but made no sense to me. It took weeks to even begin to understand just what the hell I was doing. I had missed a lot by going back to work.

But I had made a promise to him. So, I worked on it. It wasn’t fun or easy.

All of this is to say that the question “When does a guy become a dad?” remains complicated. Maybe it was that first night, but to me it’s waking up every day and making a choice to try and be better than yesterday. I try to engage with what he’s into. I try to lead my son through the calamities of everyday existence – a rude kid at school, his parents divorcing, or the frustration of losing at Rocket League. I try to be a better dad, and a better man. That’s the choice I make.

In that way, I become a dad every day.

A graphic displaying a list titled '8 Things I Wish I Knew as a Dad'. The text is bold and centered, with each item numbered sequentially. The background is likely a neutral color to enhance readability

Visit: https://hmhb-lifts.org/ services page and use the term “dads” for support groups and resources specifically for fathers and “counselors” or “mental health providers” if you or a dad you know is experiencing similar symptoms like depression or anxiety.

To learn about Patrick’s work as a Fatherhood Engagement Specialist and read more of what he’s written visit: https://www.healthygallatin.org/family-health/for-dads/