Photo of Robin holding Evren, a smiling baby.

Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop: Mothering with ADHD

Becoming a mother has been one of the most earth-shattering endeavors of my life. Motherhood fills me and drains me, unleashes and stifles. All of a sudden, my daily structures, routines, and systems have been thrown into the tornado of baby-dom and I am left trying to live in the rubble. As a person with ADHD, this storm of early motherhood has been extremely challenging and, in many ways, full of shame.

The first is the slurry of information I attempt to keep track of and manage. It begins with the daily basics: naps, diapers, and feeds. Beyond the typical baby management, my son has had a myriad of medical issues from birth, and was sent home after his month-long NICU stay in the <0.1% of weight and height and with two medications to be given twice a day, an hour before and after any feeds, blood sugar checks required 3x a day, and two kinds of special formula to be mixed together to create an exact number of calories. In addition to the regular pediatrician appointments, he had follow-ups with endocrinology and hematology, and labs to be done every two weeks. I was pumping every 2.5 hours, tracking how much I pumped each time, tracking how many minutes he was eating, how many milliliters he ate, how long he nursed for. After several months of painful, difficult breastfeeding, his pediatrician referred us to a pediatric dentist, and we had a lip tie and tongue tie revision, which saved our breastfeeding relationship but added mouth exercises needing to be done every four hours, weekly chiropractor appointments, and follow-ups with the dentist.

Managing this variety of tasks with this level of seriousness and intensity is not necessarily new to me. Before I became a stay-at-home mom, I worked as a professional school counselor in a public middle school. On an almost daily basis our team handled student emergencies. I had solid systems to make sure I remembered every step in our crisis management process – flow-charts and checklists I created myself, to-do lists and calendars that were housed and repeated in my email account, school counseling software, and paper notes. I used to spend nearly an hour every morning when I first arrived at work going through my planner and getting organized for the day. Mondays I spent nearly twice that time getting myself set up for the week. I manage this well, I used to think. No one probably would even guess that I have ADHD.

Now, my days look something like this:

Baby wakes up. Shit. It’s only 7. He’s supposed to sleep until 8. I was going to get so much done. I’m exhausted. How many times did he wake up last night? Wasn’t there a wake-up at 3 am that I didn’t mark? Whoops, I forgot to note when he woke up just now. Maybe that was ten minutes ago? Okay, diaper time. Wet diaper. Mark it. He seems hungry – feed him. Come on, baby, drink just a little more. Is that 20 mls or 30 mls left? How much did he eat yesterday? Let me calculate it – man, he didn’t eat enough yesterday. Maybe I should weigh him? Maybe I need to bring this up at his next doctor’s appointment? When is that again? Did I call the office to make sure they knew he needed a CBC done next time? Did I pay the last bill for the last CBC? Dangit – I was supposed to check his sugar and give him his medicine and then wait an hour and now I’ve missed this first medicine. Okay, I’ll make up for it later. Need to set an alarm to remind myself to give him his medicine in an hour. I guess now I’ll do his mouth exercises – it’s okay baby, don’t cry, don’t cry, here, you can nurse and that will make you feel better. Damn. Now I need to restart the alarm for another hour before I can give him his medicine.

All the systems I had in order for keeping track of things – none of them seem to work when applied to parenthood, not to mention they don’t work for their intended purposes anymore. So not only do I feel like I’m failing at motherhood, but I’m also failing at things I had once mastered. And, with a baby, time moves fast – I don’t have a moment to pause, reflect, revise my organization strategies – I just have to keep pressing on with my nose to the grindstone, hoping that the balls I’m dropping are made of rubber, and not glass.

Even when I do feel semi-organized, I can’t manage to get anything done. The baby’s schedule – or lack thereof – supersedes my schedule. The baby’s needs constantly, and necessarily, pull my attention and focus. Having ADHD for me means difficulty with transitions – whether that’s coming back from a commercial break, changing topics in a conversation, or moving to the next task in my day. With every interruption I feel irritation creeping in, and the energy I have to expend to focus and re-focus over and over again is exhausting, which means that what little I get done feels incomplete and insufficient. If I cross one thing off my miles-long to-do list, it’s been a productive day. But being a mom isn’t productive because raising a child has nothing to do with producing anything – I’m feeding, I’m changing diapers, I’m playing, I’m calming tears. I have no list to cross off and it isn’t task oriented, so my days feel like blurs with no structure.

Not to mention that playing with an eight-month-old is boring. He wants to do the same thing over and over again – scratch the couch cushion, then scratch the carpet. Put his pacifier in his mouth and throw it away. Blow spit bubbles. Crawl to one side of the living room then crawl back. I find myself constantly turning to social media, phone calls, texting, because I am bored. One marker of ADHD is that it’s very interest driven – if it’s not exciting, novel, thrilling, then my brain has a hard time sticking with it. Oh, the first time he makes that cute little noise, sure. But the thousandth? I do my best to be present, to be in the moment, to mirror and reflect whatever my son is experiencing. I set screen time limits on my phone, I restrict social media apps, I make rules about being outside and returning phone calls and chats. But I constantly find myself mindlessly scrolling while my son chews on his foot until I realize he is babbling at me and waiting for a response. What is wrong with me? Shouldn’t he be enough?

I am early in my motherhood journey. And I know that motherhood is challenging and difficult for neurotypical parents, too. I think that makes it even harder sometimes, because I tell myself that it’s hard for everyone, that I’m being dramatic or whiny, that I’m using my ADHD as an excuse to keep me from being a better parent. But then again – maybe my ADHD doesn’t make me a better or a worse parent, just a different one.

I am the parent who will happily follow your train of thought from cartoons to Halloween to Christmas to snowflakes to cornflakes and love it. I am the parent who will have boundless energy for outdoor adventures. I am the parent who will daydream with you, who will use my imagination to help you envision your life and goals. I am the parent who will sing silly songs, dance silly dances, and run around the house playing games. I am the parent who will feel all of your big emotions with you, validate your worries and fears, empathize with your anxieties. I am the parent who will let you slide when you forget to take out the trash or stop cleaning your room because you get distracted playing with all the toys you found under your bed.

At the end of the day, I have to remind myself that my son won’t remember if the house was clean, or how many things I was able to cross off of my to-do list every day. Truly, he won’t remember anything about these months that we grew into being family. But the feelings of love, joy, safety, and connection are what he will carry with him, and that is something at which I know I can excel. That is something of which I can be proud.

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