Originally posted December 2, 2013.
My colleague, Dr. Christina G. Hibbert, has been a leader in Maternal Mental Health for many years.
From the outside, her life looks kinda like a modern day fairy tale!
Before she turned thirty, she married the love of her life, had three children, earned her doctorate, produced her DVD about Postpartum Couples, founded the Arizona Postpartum Wellness Coalition and started her own clinical practice!
A dazzling list of accomplishments, especially before turning 30! Surely, I thought to myself, well, her life is charmed!
But when I read her memoir, however, I found her reality to be different than what I expected. She has dealt with many challenges in her life. The themes of postpartum depression, grief, personal growth, healing from family dynamics resound throughout her memoir.
“I wouldn’t be who I am today without my hard times, including PPD. I say a prayer of gratitude each day that I’ve been given opportunities to grow and that I’ve taken them…My memoir is really the story of how I, the mental health “expert” become the “patient,” how I struggle through my life trials, and the lessons I learn as I work to build a new family and build myself too.”
A Death in the Family
When Christina is in the last trimester of her pregnancy with her fourth child, her sister dies from a fatal combination of alcohol and over-the-counter drugs.
This memoir is a story of Christina’s deep personal growth in the four years after her sister’s death. We watch as she digs deep emotionally, physically and spiritually as her marriage expands and she struggles to parent six children.
At this time, the father of Christina’s sister’s two tween-age boys had recently passed away from cancer. Instantly, Christina and her husband become the guardians of her two nephews. Soon, her fourth child is born, and they go from parenting three children to parenting six.
The death of her Christina’s sister precipitates a re-enactment of a family dynamic created long ago when her younger sister died from cancer at the age of 8.
Her parents were de-vitalized from the death of their young child earlier in their lives.
And Christina, as the oldest, had unconsciously stepped up to the role of the family helper. As she says in her book, I even expressed this helping role in my chosen profession!
And again, sadly, her parents are even more devitalized as life serves them another deep blow.
With this crisis, Christina goes into power helper mode, stepping up to the plate to make arrangements. She is in the last trimester of her fourth pregnancy at the time. Christina shows us strength and grace as she takes on her responsibilities.
Balancing Sacrifice with Self Actualization
Her journey is a long, four-year process. Her first priority is managing the enormous responsibility of integrating her two orphaned and grieving nephews into her family, and having a newborn of her own.
Over four years, she is on the tough journey of balancing sacrifice with self-knowledge and self-respect. She tried to include the entire extended family in her new family, but this wasn’t as simple as it may appear to be. People have their own agendas and the legal aspects of guardianship, adoption and distribution of the estate are complex.
Over the years, we walk with Christina as she goes through the grieving process in her own way, variously experiencing despair, exhaustion, depression and rage.
Her challenges are both personal and familial. As the “helper” in the family, she puts aside her own grief in order to parent her newborn, soothe her nephew’s anger and grief, and help all the children with blended family issues.
As Christina grapples with her current grief work and coping, it slowly becomes clear to her that her parent’s grief response to the loss of her younger sister was long-term emotional numbing and withdrawal. This emotional numbing unconsciously shaped her family system for years.
Christina slowly realizes she unconsciously took on the role of “helper:” pushing her needs down but looking after others.
As she grows, Christina painfully frees herself from perfectionism. Slowly, she learns to find that tenuous personal balance between taking care of her needs and being available to her family.
In a mature way, she says she believes in sacrifice but she also learns to dig deeper for the definition of her authentic self.
Her struggle is the struggle of all mothers who strive to be there in a meaningful way for her family, yet retain parts of the self that are outside the mothering role.
Therapy and Emotional Skills as Self Care
Throughout the book, Christina is humorous as she walks herself in the third person through her own emotional turmoil. She often calls on “Dr. Hibbert” for emotional skills like reframing, relaxation and awareness therapies and dream interpretation work. She also allows herself self-care in the form of getting a support through her own therapist. And Christina’s faith and church family provide her a strong scaffolding of support.
Her realistic portrayal of a good marriage is invaluable. Her husband is loving and present. And, as the researcher John Gottman says, 69% of all issues in even very good marriages are not resolvable. But, in a good marriage, people find a way to manage and accept the feelings around these issues. Christina shows us this in some of the ongoing issues in her relationship.
Finally, there is an issue in the book that I found personally triggering. I was challenged with secondary infertility and still have a sadness about this, so it was a bit difficult for me to read about someone who effortlessly became pregnant with four of her own children and then adopted two more.
I asked Christina about the issue of fertility/infertility. She was so gracious. Here’s what she has to say:
“I was VERY aware through the whole process that there are so many people who have trouble conceiving and would love more kids, yet here I was completely overwhelmed by having ‘too many!’ In fact, I used to talk to my friends struggling with infertility about it. We would shake our heads wondering why life happens that way. I hope the way I wrote things didn’t come off insensitive to that, though I know I didn’t really focus on that aspect of things as I wrote the book. I guess I just hope that people can see our struggles are all so different and while we think we would welcome another’s trials, while we think that this is exactly what we want, we can perhaps see it’s not what we really want and that we are given our unique trials for a reason. I hope that makes sense. I have great compassion and love for those who struggle to conceive. It has obviously not been my trial. But I have certainly had others, so I can relate in that way.”
This is How We Grow is a memoir of personal struggle, that can be related to all mother’s struggles.
We all face in our own way, the balance between responsibility and sacrifice and self-growth. Read the book and be inspired to never give up!