Three and a half ago, I was sitting in a patient room with my OBGYN for a checkup following the birth of my son. She completed her exam, went over some important things to know about my physical health and then asked: “How are you doing?”
“It’s really hard,” I said as I unsuccessfully fought back tears.
Everyone tells you parenting is hard, but no one tells you just how hard. You hear about the “baby blues” but not that you might endure weeks before finally experiencing a day without any tears — yours, not the baby’s.
She gave me a look of understanding and then told me she didn’t feel like herself until six months after the birth of her own children.
OK, I thought. Six months. March 2020.
Come March 2020 on top of my anxiety, depression and self-confidence issues, I was dealing with something that no one had experience with and could give me advice on: parenting an infant during a global pandemic.
Add into the mix that my husband — who I love with my entire being — and I were trying to figure out how to be around each other constantly. That presented its own set of challenges.
My professional life, which was now being done from home, included writing thousands of words daily about the impacts of COVID to the university’s students, employees and operations, publishing a magazine issue, and a university presidential search.
And I expected to navigate all of this with the perfectionist standards I’ve had my entire life.
The “shoulds” took over, as they often do.
I should be able to write award-worthy stories.
I should be able to whip up a variety of homemade solid foods for my son so his nutritional needs are met and he doesn’t become a picky eater.
I should be waking up at 5 a.m. every day to run at least a 5K.
I should be able to do all of this and more because, in my mind, parents always have — and many during more dire circumstances with far fewer resources than I have.
But I just couldn’t do all of it and none of my go-to coping mechanisms — exercise, adequate sleep, limiting caffeine — were working.
“I was tired of measuring the success of each day by if I merely survived it. I didn’t want to just survive my life. I wanted to appreciate it and live it.”
By July 2020, I decided I couldn’t live like this anymore. I was tired of measuring the success of each day by if I merely survived it. I didn’t want to just survive my life. I wanted to appreciate it and live it.
I think that feeling coupled with my devotion to the only podcast I listen to religiously, Armchair Expert — which advocates the benefits of therapy nearly every episode — motivated me to finally take some action. The hosts Dax and Monica made me feel seen and like I wasn’t alone in needing help; that seeking counseling isn’t a sign of weakness — a philosophy of which I think our society has a long way to go.
I had heard about UCF’s Employee Assistance Program (EAP), which offers six sessions of free therapy per topic, but in the past I had always shooed away the idea. I shouldn’t need that. I have no major trauma in my life to cope with. I just need to suck it up and get through this.
But one day I vowed, today is the day I call. In less than 30 minutes, I was matched with a counselor. I had never done counseling, so I had no clue what to expect.
In my first online session, I explained my anxieties — that even though rationally I knew I was a good mom, a good wife, a good coworker, it didn’t keep me from feeling like nothing I did professionally or at home was good enough. That I was so overwhelmed at times, I was missing out on the joy of my son and my husband. That I wanted to be me again.
My counselor asked me an important question that has continued to help me shape the way I reason with myself when I start to spiral:
If a friend was telling you these same things about herself, what would you say to her?
I realized I couldn’t extend myself the same compassion that I would give anyone who was in such distress. And I mourned that I subjected myself to such negative self-talk when I would never let a friend talk about herself that way. Why couldn’t I want that for myself? How many days of my life have I ruined doing this?
So that’s what I’ve been working on. I’ve since done 11 video sessions with my counselor. We message from week to week in between sessions, and it has been so helpful to just talk to someone.
There are days I am better at giving myself grace than others. I’ve learned the end goal isn’t to be happy. Life isn’t happy all the time, and all of your emotions, even the tough ones, are meant to be experienced. That means you’re living.
My husband and I have even done a couple of counseling sessions together since EAP covers family members too. We both love each other, and we both are confident in the strength of our relationship, but again it’s free; what do we have to lose? One of the strategies we’ve adopted from counseling is to set aside time during the week to check in with each other; to hash out anything that might be lingering, address needs that aren’t being met, or tell each other about the moments we truly appreciated one another during the week.
I plan to continue counseling. I know now that practicing self-compassion and self-care need to be included among what we demand of ourselves.
I resent that our society doesn’t normalize, prioritize or validate mental health like it does physical health. Maybe if it did, I would have sought counseling sooner.
Nevertheless, I am here now and I am thankful that UCF offers the resources that serve as a reminder that, as Albus Dumbledore said, “Happiness can be found even in the darkest of times, if one only remembers to turn on the light.”
Resources available to UCF students and employees
UCF offers its Employee Assistance Program to all non-student employees. This program provides resources to help employees and their eligible family members — including spouses, dependent children, parents and parents-in-law — to address any personal challenges and/or concerns that may affect personal well-being and/or work performance. The EAP, administered by Health Advocate, provides confidential, short-term counseling at no cost to the employee.
Health Advocate toll-free number: 877-240-6863
Health Advocate website: HealthAdvocate.com/members
If you are a student looking for help, Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) is UCF’s mental health resource for students. You can visit CAPS’ website for information about and resources for coping during the pandemic. Students can also schedule phone or virtual consultation with CAPS by calling 407-823-2811 or visiting their website.
Student Care Services continues to work remotely with anyone who needs additional academic or personal support during this time.
Jenna Marina Lee is a features writer for the UCF Marketing and Communications department. She has also worked for the university’s alumni and athletics departments.