Refreshing Honesty for New Moms
**As typical of my life as a mom these days, I wrote most of this blog entry yesterday but never clicked publish because I was single-parenting it as Jared travels for work and I was too tired to complete a thought by the end of the day. But it is fitting that I would publish this today because November 14 marks my original due date with Olivia (and you may remember, she arrived a week late!). I will always smile when I think about this date because it marks another reminder of surrendering my plans to a God who is not surprised even when I am. Now onto what I wrote yesterday…
I truly cannot believe that we are a week away from Olivia turning one year old. I completely resonate with whoever said, “The days are long but the years are short” about raising a young child. There have been some days, especially early on, that felt excruciatingly exhausting. (How’s that for dramatic?) I know I couldn’t have gotten through without a heaping measure of God’s grace but I also know I couldn’t have endured without reassurance from moms who have gone before me. Their vulnerability encouraged me and has emboldened me to give the gift of transparency to others in this journey like they gave to me. How freeing to know other moms can relate to not finding the time to shower every day, overlooking the dust gathering on the furniture, and sometimes needing to just take a field trip to Target to get out of the house.
In that vain, there are two articles circulating around Facebook that have reminded me how refreshing it is to share the honest truth about each season of life. I hope to write more of my own thoughts of what I have learned in a blog entry soon but until then, enjoy this Wednesday Wisdom Well from two mothers and their honesty about mothering a newborn.
(As a disclaimer: although I resonated with the transparency in these articles, the authors are quite honest about certain topics and bold in their language. They don’t represent all of my thoughts but I appreciated the honesty.)
By: Jody Peltason
(originally posted on The Atlantic)
Early one morning when my daughter Rosie was a few weeks old, I packed her up in a baby carrier and took her to the drugstore, which felt at the time like an ambitious outing. It had been a rough night, and she was now happily sleeping off her bender. I got into line with my stain stick and baby wipes and let my eyes go out of focus.
“Can I see this little one?” said a smiling voice at my shoulder. I turned around so that the older woman behind me could peek at the tiny creature nestled against my poop-stained shirt. She sighed, looked deep into my bloodshot eyes, and asked, “Aren’t you just on cloud nine?”
Actually, I was queasy with fatigue. I was sad about the way my husband and I had snapped at each other while Rosie was crying the night before, and fretful about when she would regain her birthweight, and slightly freaked out about how totally my life had been upended and whether it would ever be mine again. And I was more than a little worried about this cloud nine. What was this supposed to feel like?
For me, and for many other women, being a new mother is hard. It can be hard in a million different ways: painful physical recovery from a difficult birth, breast-feeding problems, colic, tensions with your partner, sleep problems. It’s also just hard on its own, on top of and in between all these other challenges. As a friend of mine said, “I knew it would be hard, but I didn’t know what ‘hard’ would feel like.” We thought it would be sitcom-style hard—not necessarily with a feel-good resolution at the end of every episode, but at least punctuated by those frequent moments of uplift indicating that, in spite of everything, life really is beautiful, isn’t it? I’m pretty sure it’s like that for some people, but for many of us, it’s not. For many of us, it’s not good hard, as in a “good hard workout”; it’s bad hard, as in, it sometimes feels like something bad is happening to you.
But does anyone really remember this? I don’t. I only know it’s true because I remember saying it out loud, and because I wrote the previous paragraph almost three years ago, with Rosie sleeping at my side, in a typo-filled document titled “Before I Forget.” Since then, my body and mind have edited my memories of the newborn period into the parenting equivalent of a kung fu movie training montage. Fatigue, hormones, nostalgia, and hindsight have reshaped those long months into a series of wordless film clips, set to the inspiring music of the love I now feel for my daughter, spliced together to tell the story of how it all worked out in the end.
On the whole, I’m grateful for this mechanism. Like the hormonal magic that dulls our memories of the pain of childbirth, the montage-ification of the first months of motherhood is therapeutic and practical. It allows us to smile fondly at a photo of the baby taken on her one-week birthday, the very day that we woke to her cries just an hour after the last feeding, put lanolin on our bleeding nipples and, sick with exhaustion, made a mental note to ask the man for whom we once wore expensive lingerie to run out for some adult diapers (excellent for post-partum bleeding). And it readies us to produce a sibling for the little tyrant who made us so genuinely miserable on that surprisingly photogenic morning.
But this benign forgetting also has the unfortunate consequence of making us feel a little more alone in those challenging months, because no one we talk to—not our mothers, not our friends with toddlers, not our pediatricians or lactation consultants—is able to re-inhabit her own experience fully enough to really understand how we feel.
Sometimes this memory gap takes the form of remarks like the drugstore lady’s question about “cloud nine”—the first installment of the phenomenon Glennon Melton describes in her much-forwarded “Don’t Carpe Diem,” about older women who see her wrangling her three children in the checkout line and tell her to “enjoy every moment” with them (at once demonstrating their own amnesia about such moments and managing to make her feel guilty). But often the disconnect is subtler, occurring in conversations with people who really know us, people whose perspectives we value. I had a supportive team of experienced moms to whom I could turn for advice, and I can’t imagine what that time would have been like without them. But as they answered my many questions, I heard them struggle to create coherent, internally consistent narratives, to cross back into the unique universe of those months when their lives as mothers began.
Here’s an example of a sentiment that I know I experienced but can no longer access at all. One night after a long, fussy evening with our generally unfussy newborn, I suddenly realized that some people’s babies were always like that. A chill of horror went through me, something like what I normally feel when contemplating prisoners of war placed in stress positions. My voice hoarse, my guts in knots, I turned to my husband and said, “The thought of having a baby with colic terrifies me.” Now I think back to that moment and can’t relate. The thought of having a baby who cries a lot terrifies me? But at the time, it seemed like a nightmare that I simply could not have faced.
Why? For one thing, it’s hard to remember how distressing sleep-deprivation is when we’re not actually experiencing it. Second, as many people have remarked, it’s hard to explain how upsetting it is when your baby cries. My perspective on the horrors of colic was probably more accurate that night, with Rosie’s cries fresh in my ears, than it is now.
But something about new motherhood also darkened my worldview and made the thought of those cries more threatening. This is where you may be wondering if I’m just talking about post-partum depression, but the struggles I have in mind are unlikely to raise any significant red flags at the six-week check-up. And while, being raised in a family of psychologists, I certainly asked myself whether I might have PPD, I generally didn’t find that line of questioning helpful.
Don’t get me wrong—it’s an important question that we should keep asking ourselves and each other, and we should seek treatment unapologetically if the answer might be yes. But the problem with that question as our primaryapproach to the struggles of new motherhood is that it suggests that the post-partum experience itself is just fine, unless of course you have a legitimate clinical illness that distorts your perception of it. And the post-partum experience is not just fine. It is immensely, bizarrely complicated. It is, at various times and for various people, grueling and joyful and frightening and beautiful and disorienting and moving and horrible. There’s a lot going on there that will never make its way into the DSM V.
Mood—in both its ordered and disordered forms—is influenced by both internal and external circumstances. When it comes to post-partum mood, the internal circumstances are all the more unpredictable. As I was wheeled down the hallway immediately after Rosie’s birth, I felt a dark anxiety mushrooming inside me. The TV in my hospital room was playing a public service announcement about post-partum depression: Minor chords, a woman by a rain-soaked window staring mournfully over the head of a sleeping baby. “Turn it off,” I said urgently to my mother. “Turn it off!” The anxiety dissipated after those first post-partum hours, but it was enough to give me a creepy sense of the biochemical forces moving within my body and beyond my control.
A year later, I visited a friend who had just given birth and found her crying with joy about how much she loved her baby and her husband. As a mutual friend said, “It’s like a roller coaster. We’re all experiencing the same thing, but it makes some people laugh and whoop with joy, and it makes other people cry with fear or puke.”
How the external circumstances of new parenthood will affect your mood might be easier to predict. If you are good at just being in the moment and taking your life as it comes, there can be a Zen-like quality to your days with baby. But say you’re someone like me—someone who likes the feeling of planning out your day, both what you’re going to accomplish and when and how you’re going to relax, and then executing that plan–then you will probably find that the long, aimless weeks of waiting on and reacting to your newborn are unsatisfying, frustrating, even depressing. You may find yourself a little weepy at the end of a cold, gray day in which you accomplished nothing but half a load of laundry, now moldering in the washer since the baby’s surprisingly early awakening from her morning nap. You may find yourself unreasonably irritable when your partner calls to say that he or she is going to be home from work thirty minutes late.
I was less weepy on the days when I got more done, when I felt more competent. I draw a lot of satisfaction from the experience of mastering a task, of figuring it out and doing it well, but the task of parenting a new baby changes so rapidly that it’s nearly impossible to feel any sense of mastery in those first few months. Everyone kept telling me that, when in doubt, I should tune into my “Mother’s Instincts,” but I didn’t really feel like a Mother yet. I had Instincts, but they just seemed to be the same ones I’d always had, like the very strong Instinct to make myself a cup of tea and watch The Wonder Years. These Instincts didn’t have much to say about parenting Rosie, and they were struck especially dumb when confronted with conflicting theories about childrearing. The hard-core attachment parenting ideologues said I should hold my baby all day (actually, it was worse: They said I should want to hold my baby all day), and I was pretty sure that was crazy, but what did I know? In the absence of loud and confident Mother’s Instincts, some new mothers find it helpful just to pick an ideology and follow it. I opted for the more balanced approach of allowing them all to make me feel equally inadequate.
How much does all this matter? Not that much, in the scheme of things. I love parenting Rosie now, and I have little direct memory of the distress I’m recounting here. I would not have written this essay if I didn’t have that old “Before I Forget” document burning a hole in my hard drive because, for the most part, I’ve forgotten.
And yet I’m still capable of tearing up a little when I talk about the challenges of those first few months, about the fear and loneliness I felt when that woman at the drugstore assumed I was “on cloud nine.” I wish I’d understood then that the memories motivating her comment were probably less New Motherhood than New Motherhood Montage. My own montage is pretty convincing, and it can trick me into making all kinds of insensitive comments if I’m not careful. If I see you in the drugstore with your newborn, I probably won’t say anything, but the adoring look on my face will say it all: I’m replaying my New Motherhood Montage, and it’s beautiful. Let me apologize in advance for that. But let me add: Someday yours will be too. And that, if you can possibly believe it, might be the best thing for you to tell yourself as you shrug off my gaze, wipe the baby drool off your collarbone, and ring up that second package of adult diapers.
By Karyn of Girl of Cardigan
(originally posted on the blog, Girl of Cardigan)
I did a ridiculous amount of reading when I was pregnant. I read natural parenting books and baby scheduling books and how to make your baby happy with no crying and eating is good for everyone led by the spirit of your baby your self books. If there was a book to read, rest assured, I gave it a go.
I thought I knew everything I’d need to know.
How much of that information did I actually use? Some. A little. The best bits of this, a quick trick from that, but no single book was spot-on accurate, and nothing was anywhere near as easy as all my reading had led me to believe. Fable was just herself, and apparently she hadn’t been reading the same stuff I’d been bingeing on. All that reading was mostly a waste of time.*
These are the words I wish I’d read instead, before jumping headlong into the mommyhood with my books and my charts and my ideals and my high horses. They’re flawed, and they aren’t all pretty, but they’re hard won and honest and as true as I can get’em.
Here’s what I wish I’d known:
1. You are going to suck at this parenting gig and be awesome at it at the same time, all the time. You will be a different parent every morning to a child who will also be different, sometimes changing in just hours, or minutes, or before your eyes. There will be good days and bad days, good minutes and bad minutes, good choices and not so good ones. You will do some things, probably a lot of things, wrong. Be gentle with yourself, because you are wildly loved and incredibly needed. You are climbing Mt. Everest with basically zero conditioning – expect to be kind of terrible at it for awhile. You are beautiful. We are for you.
2. Post-partum bodies are squashy and wobbly and dimpled and stretched and foreign and embarrassing and difficult and painful and gorgeously imperfect, and they tend to stay that way for quite awhile. You made a human. Now make your peace. Eat good food. Walk around when you’re well enough. Listen to the people who tell you you’re beautiful. Take them at their word. Remember where your worth comes from.
3. Your baby is not like the other babies. Your baby is the only one of herself who has ever been, and you and your partner are the only experts on her. Your baby will not behave like the books say, won’t like what she’s supposed to like, won’t do what she’s supposed to do when she’s supposed to do it, and that’s normal and great and perfectly okay. The best thing you can do is put down your literature and get to know your baby. What does she like? What makes her laugh? How does she best fall asleep? What does hungry sound like? The discovery of these things will serve you so much more than any stranger’s care instructions ever will. You don’t have to make your life or your family look like any particular model – you don’t have to follow the rules. You just have to create a life that works for you and fosters love and security and a whole lot of laughter. If that looks like 2am pancake parties, I’m not going to tell on you. I might actually admire you and be just a little bit jealous.
4. We have got to stop telling people that things should be easy and painless. We live in a culture that equates ease with value – the easier it is, the better it is, if it hurts you, something is wrong. Reality check: sometimes things that are hard and painful are also really, really good. Every once in a while as a parent, one of the things that you thought would be really difficult turns out to be incredibly easy and drama-free. This is called a miracle, and though it might be somehow related to some book you read and the alignment of the stars and a magic way you pat the soles of your baby’s feet and the tea you drink on Thursdays, it’s still mostly a miracle, and the odds of that same miracle happening to EVERY OTHER PARENT EVERYWHERE are pretty slim, even with books and stars and tea and so much foot-patting. We get excited in our victories, and want to share them, but it’s important to remember that we are all struggling with different issues. One daddy’s easy is some mama’s nightmare. And just because your baby doesn’t sleep through the night at five weeks or eat with a fork by her first birthday or cries a lot or your boobs get sore from breastfeeding (even though her latch is perfect) – just because it isn’t EASY and PAINLESS – it isn’t necessarily wrong. Sometimes hard is okay, sometimes, often, it’s even good. Hard is how we grow. And guess what, kiddo – parenting is hard. Any book that tells you otherwise deserves the big fat sticker of bullcrap.
5. Speaking of bullcrap, oh mylanta, the poop. They warn you. They tell you. And despite every warning, it is still baffling and alarming and downright awe-inspiring how much of your next year is going to be spent dealing with, assessing, smelling for, washing off, evaluating, discussing, logging, and transporting poop. Get good and comfy with poop, friends. The poop cometh. For whom the poop tolls. The hunt for poop-tober – you get the idea.
6. The sooner you can figure out how to accept unwanted advice gracefully, the easier your year is going to be. For whatever reason, people love to weigh in on babies – everyone has an opinion, and everyone wants to share. I believe that most of this advice is pretty well-intended – most of it falls into the “it worked for me and I am so happy and I want to share my joy joy joy with you because you look very tired” category, which is at least only mildly offensive and really very sincere.
Here’s the thing – you can stumble through this crazy first 12 months in defense mode, snapping witty comebacks at judgey old ladies or know-it-all childless people, or you can decide to give everybody the benefit of the doubt, smile and say thank you, and become very zen and confident about knowing what’s best for your child and not giving one ounce of your abundance of poop about what anyone else says.
If I were you, I’d aim for zen.
Nobody is out to get you. Everyone wants you to succeed. And screw them all anyway, because you are raising a child, and that is awesome. Did your kid eat something today? Is she relatively hygienically sound? Smiles occasionally? You win all the things. You are awesome enough to absorb any and all commentary, keep the bits you like, and toss the bits you don’t. How sweet of them to care.
7. Start stretching, because it’s time to get flexible. I’m not a big fan of general statements like “All babies like swaddling” or “Co-sleeping is best for everybody,” but there is one I can get behind – babies are really inconvenient. Your schedule, your sleep, your stellar punctuality record, your deadlines, your best shirts, your relationships – everything is about to get messy and complicated. You have two choices – become a weepinghungrytiredmess of doom, or swallow every ounce of pride you have and become flexible. Ask for help. Admit failure. Be late. Stay in your pajamas. Ignore the dishes. Let slide what can slide and rejoice when you make it through with all your bare necessities intact. You are going to miss a few parties and a lot of snoozes and probably many other important things, and it will be okay. It will be better than okay. It will be amazing.
Maybe, just maybe, you’ll be one of those parents who gets a magic baby who responds to the methods in whatever book you read or is just naturally benevolent and fits like a glove into your fabulous and organized life. Again, this is called a miracle. We love you and are happy for you. Now please, shut up.
8. The most important thing to get for your baby is not a Rock n’ Play, nor a good set of swaddling blankets, nor a high-end stroller. The most important thing to get for your baby is a village. Your village will keep you afloat. They will carry you when you are tired, feed you when you are starving, forgive you when you are unkempt and hours late and a neglectful friend who can’t remember to wear socks let alone whose birthday it is. They will love your baby when you are too tired or frustrated to hold her at the moment, because you are imperfect and human and have imperfect and human failings. They will remind you who you are when you start to think your whole life is only about poop. They will lift you up.
9. We have to lift each other up. Raising babies is the hardest thing many of us have ever done. We can tear each other to bits, criticize choices, and turn up noses, or we can love each other, admire adorable babies, offer a hand, and celebrate victories. This is not a difficult choice, people. Nobody cares that your way is better. Everyone cares that your kid is gorgeous and let’s chat over coffee and what have you been doing with your hair lately because, girlfriend, you look fabulous. Don’t be horrible. It isn’t really that hard.
10. Success is found in being willing to grow. Here’s the truth: you don’t know much of anything. A year from now, after your fantastic kid turns one, you won’t know much of anything still. Gather wisdom around you. Learn from your mistakes. Stay humble. Stay open. When you know better, do better. Be a better parent tomorrow than you were today, always, everyday, as often as you can. Try things out and leave them behind shamelessly if they don’t work out. Life isn’t a contest or a game – it’s simply only beautifully life. Live the minutes instead of scoring them. Love that incredible baby.
Oh, lovely – you are going to have so much fun!