Don't Forget About Yourself
From my experience, new moms are given some basic information about how to care for a newborn and keep him or her alive and thriving but very little, if any, information about how to make sure MOMS are OK. Personally, the extent of the inquiries about whether I was handling the early days of motherhood well could be found on a form I received to check off at each of my baby's check-ups, but that was it. How many wet diapers has she had? How long does she eat and how often? As they get older, we'll get more developmental questions to make sure they're progressing in their physical and mental capabilities. Can she stack blocks? Does she know her colors? We have all heard about postpartum depression, but what about plain ol' stress or anxiety? There weren’t any questions about how many hours of sleep I got on a regular basis or how many times I cried to myself out of exhaustion and frustration. When was the last time I had a hot meal or a hot anything? No one seems to care. These expectations society and doctors put on us can sometimes create dangerous levels of fear and anxiety in new parents. But we’re not supposed to talk about any of it. We're supposed to smile and pretend everything is sunshine and rainbows all the time. For those who go deeper into these dark mental places, they’re afraid to tell anyone, even people they’re close to sometimes, for fear they’ll be judged--that they “can’t handle it”--and be shamed. It’s a serious issue, and it needs to change. It all starts with us, the moms, and our need to vent and be very real with each other.
In the first few weeks after my baby was born, it was easy to be patient and relaxed because I was tired but I had help during the day, with my parents in town. Not that anyone could really help much, since she nursed so frequently. When my parents left, it did feel overwhelming that all the things they did to help me, like cleaning and cooking, I was now going to have to take on in addition to keeping my little human alive. Eventually I would also be going back to work and, being a planner, I needed to know what my life was going to look like. It was after that, in the first couple of months, that things would start to spiral. Generally speaking, when people asked me how things were going, I said they were fine or great, because they were! They WERE! I was so tired, but that was to be expected. It was when I started to do a lot of reading about infant sleep that I started to let my thoughts consume me. My research started with just trying to figure out how to get my girl to sleep on her back in her bassinet, and it took off from there. I read what seemed like a million articles about schedules and routines, and swaddling, and circadian rhythms, and sleep training, and regressions--you name it. As I wrote in my last post, I became obsessed with getting my baby to sleep. Most people will tell you that newborns basically just eat and sleep all day--they allegedly sleep something like 18 hours a day at first--but mine didn't, and I was sure it was because I was doing something wrong. I obsessed about her sleep because I wanted to make sure I did everything I could to get her as close to a solid schedule before I went back to work, and just in general. I even took an extra month off work so I could get her on a reliable schedule. That's how stressed I was about it. I read books, I found sleep consultants' websites, I combed through forum after forum about what other parents did. Part of the problem was the information was laid out like "just do this," rather than something like "work toward this because it won't happen right away." No one emphasized that this doesn't happen in one night and that I would need to be consistent to see results. I would try a new program for a couple of days and get extremely worked up when what they told me to do didn't work. Nothing else mattered. I didn't care if I ate, showered, brushed my teeth, slept, or even looked out a window. All I thought about was that I had to be doing something wrong because my baby wasn't sleeping like babies are supposed to sleep. I didn't really want to talk about it, but I did talk about it with one person extremely regularly.
Bless my bestie's heart. Every single Gchat conversation between us included my telling her how stressed I was and how I just could not get a handle on things. She tried her best to provide some advice on the method she used for sleep training, but, having had her daughter two years before I had mine, it was hard for her to recall exactly each step. Side note: you’d be amazed, if you don’t know already, how easy it is to forget things your baby does even weeks or months after, so write it all down. I know she felt frustrated not being able to help me other than trying to reassure me that I was doing a great job. I did my best to try to be a good friend to her, too, and remember that she also has a life and a child and problems and I genuinely wanted to know about all of it. I just could not get past the darkness (I don't mean to make it sound like every moment was dark. I actually had a wonderful time getting to know my baby; however, I dreaded nap time). But she never made me feel like I was being a bad friend or that she didn't want to hear how things were going. She was patient and understanding because she knew how difficult things could be. Sometimes you just need someone to listen and say, "that really sucks." You need to be honest about your feelings. Then, one day, I had a text conversation with an unlikely person and my life changed.
One of my friends, who started out as my husband's friend from law school, reached out to me for a suggestion on a dairy alternative for her infant daughter (I suggested Ripple, by the way). After I gave her my suggestion, she asked me how things were going. For some reason, I decided to just be honest rather than just answer that things were fine. I wrote, "Am I the only one who can't get the hang of nap time?" And that was it. That one response changed my life. I decided to respond with how I was ACTUALLY doing rather than how I thought I was supposed to say I was doing. (Why is that so taboo??) This friend just so happened to also be obsessed with her baby's sleep habits and she told me what she did to get her daughter on a reliable sleep schedule and I implemented some of the things immediately, like paying close attention to wake times, i.e., how long she was awake between sleeps. I had read something about that but didn't know how important it was. And the last sleep consultant program I attempted had WAY too lengthy a wake time for her age. No wonder things weren't working! From then on, I cut her wake times down to an age appropriate duration, and I started paying close attention to her signs of tiredness.
But, beyond her telling me what she did with her baby, she reminded me that I was doing a GREAT JOB and that this was not my fault. She helped me lower my expectations and relax. The world truly started to change that very day, and I have not looked back. I learned how to take care of myself mentally and to be kinder to myself. Even my husband said that it seemed like I felt better. I think even my baby could tell I wasn't as anxious. This is not to say that she suddenly started sleeping for every single nap and through the night, but she did start to understand routine, which was my initial goal. I text this friend with questions so frequently that she went over her text message limit (ooooopsy!!!) but she never made me feel like I was bothering her. Ever. She continued to answer all my questions and be one of my biggest cheerleaders, and it meant everything.
Because I started to feel lighter, acknowledging that it was only because of my support system, I decided to make it my mission to ensure all new mom friends of mine knew they had someone to lean on. I reached out to one of my friends who had a baby shortly after I had mine and I told her that I knew she had lots of friends who were already moms or were pregnant but that she could always lean on me and be honest with me if she ever needed. And that sparked so many wonderful, sincere conversations about our fears and doubts. I continued to do that with other friends of mine and SHE started doing it with some of her friends. I still believe the reaching out--the opening the door, so to speak--is what is so important. Some women won't respond because they are too nervous about being open and honest, and that is fine, but some respond really well because they've just been waiting for someone to ask. I've even extended this to women I only know about through their husbands. I just let them know that it's so important to have a good support system, specifically a system they can be completely honest with.
I don't understand why this is not talked about more often, as if there is some sort of shame in it, but I cannot stress enough that it is SO crucial to take care of your mental health and to be kind to yourself, especially when you have a newborn. Everyday things you took for granted before, like showering, sitting down to a hot meal with two free hands, going on a walk, and getting out of the house by yourself (even if it’s to Target for diapers) to listen to your music as loudly as you can are just a few ways you can make sure you put yourself first. As your baby gets older and you can afford more time away from him or her for yourself, do bigger things like a girls’ night out, date night with your spouse, a massage, a mani/pedi. You could also find a hobby you used to enjoy or pick up a new one! We start to lose ourselves in “mom world” with our tiny masters. It happens to us all, but the important thing is finding yourself again. Don’t forget: you can’t take care of them if you can’t take care of you. And don’t forget about your spouse--the person who is in all of this with you. Nurture that relationship. And don’t be afraid to tell your spouse when you need help. Either way, don't shy away from telling the truth and being open with at least one friend. What you'll find, I believe, is that most mothers have had the same fears, doubts, and worries you've had. You are not alone and you are not the first person to try to raise a baby and worry whether you're doing things correctly. Don't ever forget that the fact that you care SO MUCH already means you're doing a great job.