It was one of those days. The ones that poke holes in your mental health, and put your body through the wringer before you even step into the ring.

I’d finally finished bedtime with my babies. Leaving their room, the emotional avalanche started. I was achey, anxious, depressed. All I wanted was to go upstairs, crawl into bed, and sleep. Sweet sleep. It seemed like a lifetime away, though it was just upstairs.

Actually, it was up a lot of stairs. Because I was in the stairwell of our building. I stood there in pitch black, wondering what to tell my husband.

He was laying on the couch. He tried talking to me, but it was hard listen to anything rational. The baby had screamed for hours. The toddler refused to sleep, insisting on more water, more potty, more “hold you, Mama.” I was infuriated and impatient and couldn’t comfort them. It all felt out of control, so I clasped my fingers. I prayed. The fire of my anger mixed with hollow guilt, and I wanted out of there.

I thought of jumping off of our terrace, with its view of the glittering Eiffel Tower (my go-to thought pattern when I’m feeling depressed). But then I remembered a tattoo I’d seen once that read “anxiety is a liar.” Truth.

So, I went downstairs and walked around the block instead, seeing no one. It wasn’t like New York. There I’d find friends at any hour outside. Here, in our quiet residential Parisian neighborhood, it was crisp and quiet and everyone was sleeping except my children. I decided it was time to go back upstairs almost as soon as I’d come down.

Fatigue does that. It changes your mind, makes you think you want something that you don’t. It tells you to go for a walk when you just want to curl up and sleep. Sweet, quiet, mental health-saving sleep. It’s one thing that can pull me back up the Polyvagal ladder.

(I always know I’m tired when I start having dreams about sleeping. Like, I see myself staying late — way past closing — in a department store. I lay down on the floor of a clothes rack or display, and close my eyes until a salesperson opens the doors the next day. Then, I wake up, from the dream — and realize I was sleeping while asleep.)

This is how tired I was in the stairwell, trying to come up with an explanation. Do I say “I’m feeling better”? “I’m sorry”?  No. I walk back in and say “I’m fine.” Even though I’m not. In fact, we all say “I’m fine” when we aren’t. I’ve heard this phrase from no less than 100% of mothers at one time or another.

“I’m fine” might seem benign. But it’s a rally cry for reclaiming our mental health.

We don’t have to say this, of course. Maybe, instead, I could have told my husband the truth: “I feel like a mess, in total chaos, with everything is spinning in circles.” In fact, maybe I could tell EVERYONE. Wouldn’t that be liberating? Isn’t disclosure the way out of guilt and shame?

But there are 3 reasons we don’t tell the truth.

  1. When most people ask how you’re doing, they don’t actually want to hear about the mess. It makes them too uncomfortable.
  2. It takes a long time to explain. And even then they may not get it. I mean, we may not even get it.
  3. We’re already so freaking tired, and “I’m fine” is easy. It gives us a break from our own feels.

“I’m fine” is clean-cut, reassuring, distant enough to keep up our self-isolation operations. It lets us get in and get back to that depression and anxiety cocktail that we’ve been nursing. But it doesn’t work.

When I walked in and told my husband this, he didn’t buy it. He wanted to hold me, to be close. I laid there with him, trying to figure out why my fake “I’m fine” plan didn’t work… instead of letting him help me feel better. I lasted for 30 minutes, or maybe 3, and then wriggled away with a quick, confident kiss good night. I might’ve even winked. Oscar-worthy.

Upstairs, I drowned in dreamy silence. I laid down, repeating “I’m fine.” “I’m fine.” “I’m fine.” I knew it wasn’t true, and that didn’t feel good.

Luckily, I eventually broke this pattern and figured out what to say instead.

I spent months becoming more conscious of all the times I relied on good ‘ole “I’m fine.” And I stopped saying it every time I wasn’t. Because, used unconsciously — and I know this now — that default position is a mental health detour to feeling depressed, anxious, and disconnected.

“I’m fine” is a way of going on autopilot. It breeds inauthenticity. It makes us contract, not expand. Say it enough, and you stop feeling like yourself (also called, in fancy psych lingo, cognitive dissonance). It chips away at your oh-so-essential mom mental health, bit by bit, until you don’t even tell yourself the truth anymore.

What’s the answer, then? That depends on you. What words feel honest, but also honor how much you want to share with others?

Now, when I want to say “I’m fine,” I tweak it to something like “Actually, not great. But I’ll be fine.”

Because that, I know, is true. We will be.

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