Nyssa team member and writer, model and mother Angelina Schmalzried shares her personal experience of becoming a mother before her peers, her attachment parenting and weaning journeys with both of her daughters, and her path to reclaiming her identity beyond being 'mom'. She lives in NYC.
When I became pregnant with my first child, it came as quite a surprise. I had just moved to New York City six months prior and was living the way many 20 something hope-to-be artists do, present in the ups and downs of my day to day without much thought to the future. Part of the surprise was due to having only begun my dating history with men about a year and a half earlier, making an unintended pregnancy almost out of the question for me before. I had only been with my partner for 9 months then, the first few months long-distance from Chicago, and when I decided to move forward with my pregnancy and both of us had committed to continuing the relationship, the baby I held in my belly seemed like the answer to my always uncertain future.
Before my pregnancy, I got a job at a much-loved Brooklyn restaurant and was working on writing a collection of poetry that would hopefully become my MFA submission for an East Coast graduate program in Creative Writing. I worked through my pregnancy until about 38 weeks when my huge belly barely allowed my passage in the narrow aisles. When Ingrid was 3 months old, I went back to work a few nights a week, but it did not go well. Her father was beginning a business at the time and working long hours almost every day. The days I worked he’d come home early to relieve me of childcare duties, partly because we were nervous to leave our baby with a stranger, and partly because paying for childcare in NYC to work a service shift meant breaking even, or worse. Ingrid would also not take a bottle. We tried for weeks and it worked a few times by waving one of my nursing bras past her nose while brushing the bottle nipple against her lips. But besides those few times, all attempts failed probably because of the seamless way we were nursing on demand during the day. She would hold out for me to return from work, screaming hours on end until she fell asleep wrapped close to her dad in a carrier. If she woke up, her father had no choice but to drive to my work with her crying to the point of gasping for air from the carseat. I’d look out the window of the restaurant during a busy shift to see our car parked outside, both of them anxiously waiting for me to hop out and nurse her for as long as I could. After a couple months of this, Ingrid’s pace of weight gain slowed and my milk supply went up and down depending on the frequency of my work. The impossibility of taking a break to pump during a dinner rush, no matter the management’s good intentions to provide the space and time for me to do so, didn’t help either. Her father and I made the decision for me to stay home as Ingrid’s primary care-giver. We made the difficult decision many parents make, for the higher wage earner to be the breadwinner and the lesser one to be a full time stay-at-home parent.
Officially a stay-at-home mom, Ingrid and I cemented our glued at the hip, accidental intense attachment parenting. Ingrid protested in her stroller, turning into a rod of anger, almost overturning the contraption on the sidewalk, until I succumbed and put her in the carrier. Ingrid stopped sleeping in her crib after a bad cold at 4 months old and never returned, screaming and slamming herself endlessly against the crib whenever I tried, until I couldn’t bear it any longer and I gave up. And Ingrid never did take a bottle or a pacifier again, no matter how hard we tried, leaving childcare out of the question unless with my partner or my mom during her infancy. I could be away from her for a couple hours until she needed to nurse again. And even as a toddler it was difficult, because Ingrid would not nap or fall asleep without my nipple in her mouth. I would leave her with a trusted friend or babysitter for just a few hours in the afternoon hoping she would nap, and come back to reports she hadn’t and had cried for hours. It was difficult for me to talk about with people. Unless my 2 year old fell asleep in the car after a morning at the park or I was miraculously able to slip my nipple out of her mouth during a nap and roll soundlessly off the bed, her nap would end and if she didn’t nap, the day was miserable for us both. Most of my mom friends couldn’t understand, let alone anyone else. By the time she stopped nursing at 2 and a half, I was 8 weeks pregnant with my second child. I remember the first time I took an entire day away from Ingrid; she was 2 and a half.
To use the word “burnout” is an understatement. (Terms like “mom burnout” or “high need baby” weren’t in casual circulation then, they had to be sought out.) Any attempts to explain my situation to friends, who were all not yet parents, left me feeling ashamed. The only thing they seemed to hold onto was that I wasn’t working. I felt I sounded spoiled and I should keep my mouth shut.
When my second daughter Ursula was born, I had hopes to set a perfect routine for her; follow all breastfeeding with bottle-feeding advice, with pacifiers for naps and the perfect little crib on wheels to allow me to set her down to sleep, both at arm’s length for a newborn’s nursing needs or in a bedroom shared with her sister when ready. Ursula also refused every model and make of bottle and pacifier. She only slept in her crib for 3 months and worse, she would only nap in a carrier while awkwardly simultaneously breastfeeding because she’d gotten used to the carrier as a comfort while I juggled the demands of a toddler. I never had “putting the baby down for a nap.” I was never able to take a moment for myself as they slept, only in their early infancy. Putting the girls down for sleep at night was a little more successful. I would put Ingrid to sleep in her toddler bed while Ursula nursed and then put Ursula down in my own bed to co- sleep with her, perhaps getting away to brush my teeth. On a bad night, I lay for hours between my children, Ursula endlessly night-nursing. Weaning my children from night-nursing as toddlers was torture unless their father was home, which was difficult, because his business had grown and he traveled for work all over the country now, working long hours, sometimes on set for a client through the next morning. Somehow with much effort, I was able to wean and potty train both girls by 2 and a half, and at that age, with those milestones achieved, they slept in their own beds at night, and very well at that. But the intensive care I gave them was at a cost to me. When Ursula was a little over a year old, I started getting styes. I visited multiple eye doctors to learn they were caused by stress. I experienced debilitating migraines and had to start wearing a mouthguard to protect my teeth from severe clenching. I was overwhelmed and exhausted, but pushed through it, thinking there was something wrong with me for being stressed by being a stay-at-home mom. Although my friendships thrived, with both my old friends and the new parenting community I established, my relationship with my partner was distant and I was irritable and impatient with both him and my parents; those closest, who I expected to love me unconditionally.
When Ursula began to wean during the day, I felt a startling change in myself. Looking back now, I know I was severely depressed. I was with my children day in and day out and surrounded by friends, but I felt unbearably lonely from the space I had to put between myself and Ursula to keep her from nursing. We could no longer sit nuzzled close during music class and of course, wearing her in the carrier was completely out of the question. At the same time Ingrid began kindergarten and was at school a full five days a week for the first time. I felt naked and exposed without a child in my arms at all times, perhaps finally faced with myself as an individual, and not just a mom. I lost all interest in food and lost considerable weight so quickly, I had bloodwork done to test my hormone levels fearing that my sudden weight loss was due to a thyroid condition. My results were perfectly normal, but I wasn’t educated enough then to ask which hormone levels were tested and which not. I felt the presence of something in my throat, also checked by a doctor and found to be nothing. I remember searching for therapists specializing in depression in mothers, but never making an appointment. This was little over five years ago now, but I found no research on post-weaning depression, especially post-weaning depression after extended breastfeeding. There are more studies now acknowledging its existence, but little more than that. Emotions surrounding my identity that bubbled up from time to time during my marriage became unavoidable; I was deeply unhappy and unsure if it was due to the specific relationship between my partner and I or to the fact that I couldn’t imagine my future without being with women again. I pushed through. I continued on through another summer full-time with the girls and left their father hastily in the fall when Ursula started preschool and Ingrid started 1st grade. I took time away from my daughters and the responsibilities of our home in ways I never had. It was like I had to be in a manic state and outside myself to leave the safety of financial stability with absolutely no plan, to protect myself from my family and friends’ disapproval. I began a relationship with a woman, I took a waitressing job, and I toured schools seeking the right graduate programs for writing. But I had exploded my life so quickly, it only took a couple months for the balloon of perceived joy to pop, and letting the reality of my actions and their consequences to fully set in.
It took time and work, but I am very happy now as a single working mom; still deeply committed to my daughters, and now deeply in love with my partner of a year. I am finally able to forgive myself for the hurt I caused those I love, but I am left with so many unanswered questions. Was it mom burnout from the unchosen and intensive attachment parenting or a dramatic shift in hormones after 7 years of being pregnant or breastfeeding with no break in between? Is there a difference in postpartum depression and post-weaning depression? Was I clinically depressed? Or just unable to wear a singular identity that didn’t suit me anymore? The only resonating answer I have is that support for mothers and parents is integral; that more research into women’s health must be done; and that community can be life-saving. When someone who is lost feels brave enough to share their experience, someone else is found.