isolation

What You Might Forget About New Motherhood (and how to get help before you do)

 

I really enjoyed this essay at Atlantic by Jody Peltason, a mother recalling her firstborn’s early weeks.  The essay is based on her own journal entry titled, “Before I Forget.”  In it, she recounted how awful, frightened and generally lousy she felt soon after her child’s birth, and how irritated she was by a stranger’s remark that she must be “On Cloud Nine.” Now three years later, and the memories have faded; the recollection still hurts, but, oddly, she wouldn’t remember the details of those awful first weeks but for her own journal.

The truth is, of the 1000+ new mothers I’ve worked with in the past decade, I have yet to meet a single one who seems to me to be on Cloud Nine. Some of them are happier than others; none of them is constantly ecstatic.Not in the first six months, certainly, certainly not in the first six weeks. It’s not what new moms are like, though many of them seem to think there’s something wrong with them for not being blissful.   

I think partly this is because of what birth is like for almost everyone (even when it goes well, I have yet to meet anyone who described a hospital birth as ‘gentle’; can you imagine how those early weeks might change if new mothers routinely said, “everyone I encountered while I was doing all that work of labor went out of their way to make me feel personally cared for — they were kind and patient, took the time to do whatever made me feel like the rock star I am for having given birth”; can you imagine how different the world might be if women were taught to feel not “the only important thing is my baby’s outcome,” but, instead, that they were entitled to dignity and respect and pampering, gentle care in the hospital?  That they were taught to see that being treated gently on day 1 makes a difference in her confidence and mood on day 2, 3 and so on?). 

I also think that partly moms don’t seem to be on Cloud Nine because they’re often sent home alone with no one to take care of them during the next several months (in other parts of the world, there are cultural rituals around the care of new mothers; they are attended to so they can do the work of reinventing themselves, caring for helpless newborns, and recovering from birth. Our culture’s complete absence of any rituals is harsh by comparison).  

But mostly I feel like new moms aren’t on Cloud Nine because it’s just not like that at first – it’s chaotic, it’s a transition, your baby is a stranger and very needy, in some ways you’re a stranger to yourself and very needy, your body feels different. Even with the best of help, no one loves being a beginner. 

With my own firstborn, I remember some happiness, but mostly what I remember was that I felt drugged by him – drugged as in, dopey, in that I felt this compulsion to touch and respond to him even though it wasn’t, yet, recognizable as “love,” and also drugged as in “sort of sedated,” which may have been the sleep deprivation making it hard for me to think clearly, and also drugged as in “on downers”: I remember at least one day where I sobbed in bleary exhaustion because I couldn’t find the top of the water bottle, and at least one night where I cried and cried, because the un-shareability of breastfeeding was just too much.  I recall my daughter’s newborn period as much more straightforwardly happy, though when I hone in on it, I can also remember that that Pretenders song, “It’s a Thin Line Between Love and Hate” was literally a soundtrack in my head for the entire first month. And that there was that one afternoon when I declared, in irritation, that I was going to wean her TODAY, RIGHT THIS VERY MINUTE.  And that other time where my computer crashed and I knocked over a water glass onto some papers and my baby had been screaming herself purple all morning, and I sat down on the kitchen floor and cried and cried.

But my kids are past the newborn stage, so when I work with new moms as a teacher or lactation consultant, I’m one of the list of people Peltason says “don’t get it”: 

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.

That’s true.  And I’m sure that there are mothers, friends, pediatricians and lactation consultants who seriously lack empathy and make it all worse. I know some of them!  But I hope that even without being able to re-inhabit our own experiences, good helpers can help shepherd new moms through this stuff.  I encourage new moms to reach out to their own mothers, childbirth educators, kind IBCLCs, friends, and other new mothers and to keep looking till they find someone who actually helps.

We aren’t able to be the new mom with you, but perhaps we can recognize your experience and try to be of comfort or of service while you go through it, just like you can’t literally understand what your baby is going through when he cries, but you can be helpful and supportive and gentle while he goes through it, and that will be good for him. 

Still, Ms. Peltason writes, it’s lonely when no one else really inhabits the new mom place with you.  

It sure is. 

At some point, I think, it begins to sink in and feel “normal” that you’re the baby’s mother.  You are, of course, always going to be literally alone with it, but as you grow into it as a role, the bad part of “loneliness” abates some.  It takes a while, though, and it’s not made any easier by the fact that you’re tired and recovering and learning and, often, for a while, stuck at home, doing stuff that most of our country deems “not doing anything.”  (i.e., keeping a completely helpless creature who can’t even move his own head alive with your very bodily fluids). It is lonely work, in the sense that you are truly alone in the role.  No one else, no matter how sensitive, can inhabit this with you, that’s what’s hard about it.  That’s why you need to be pampered and attended. It’s not something that can be fixed, it’s something you come to terms with.  And that’s work. 

I loathe strangers who talk to new moms idiotically, telling them to “savor every moment,” or that “it goes by in a flash” or that they ought to be on cloud nine.  I loathe them for the pain they cause my students and clients.I think we all know, in our ‘normal’ lives, that random comments by strangers in the drug store are worth precisely zero, but in those early weeks, new moms are so extraordinarily suggestible – I wish the world would shut up around them or commit to be extra-gentle with them.  But they won’t – random people at the drug store will continue to say random things, and in time, I think, moms find they can ignore it. 

Till then, though, what helps make it a little more bearable?  Food, fresh air, qualified helpers for specific concerns, the presence of gentle people who love you and make you feel OK – the basics of being cared for.

Do these things make the first several weeks and months easy?  Do they remove all of that self-doubt?  Do they allow you to feel you have total control and confidence, relaxed about your baby’s unpredictability?  Do they ease spousal tensions, make you never weepy and confused, erase all your problems and leave you fully rested and understand your role completely?  No.  Nothing can do that.  

But the right kind of help can help support you while you grow into being the mother you’re turning into.  It won’t take all the pain away, but it will help you live with it.  Because the truth is, the first months are bumpy for almost everyone.  Peltason is exactly right that it’s not something you can master.  You just get through it, hopefully with gentle people around you that you can lean on.  

(And when you are through it?  You still, as a mother, have periods of self-doubt, incomplete control, occasional weeping and confusion and problems, and so on.  But you find that you’re much, much better at handling it than you were at first.) 

Like Peltason, I weary of the way we talk about the early months in a harsh dichotomy of “postpartum depression” versus “sheer joy all the time.”  The normal postnatal period is trying for almost everyone.  Sometimes, (often, I daresay), the tools that help folks who are tipping into Depression are also useful for everyone else as well; often a good facilitated new moms’ group is all that she’ll need.  No one benefits from imagining that “normal” and “healthy” is the same as “easy” and “happy all the time.”  No one is happy all the time and few important things are easy.  It’s a ridiculous standard.  

It’s easy, as she notes, for helpers to encourage moms to tune into their “Mother’s Instincts” to figure out what to do during this time, but all too often, I’ve noticed, new moms are certain they have no instincts!  Like Peltason, many of the new moms I meet worry their “Mother’s Instincts” are lousy, untrustable, or absent, because they don’t feel like a mother yet. 

I say, it takes a while to feel like a mother, period.  But you are, literally, a mother.  So if your gut tells you that you should drink tea and watch The Wonder Years, as Peltason’s did, that’s your Mother’s Instinct.  And it’s probably exactly what you need to do. 

What does drinking tea and watching The Wonder Years have to do with developing as a mother?  How can it help answer your questions about parenting philosophy and whether to keep breastfeeding or buy a different brand of diapers or return to work or whatever?  I don’t know.  But if it’s what you feel like doing and you’re the mother, that’s your instinct.  Go for it. See where it takes you. 

You know what will happen?  An hour will go by.  You’ll have an hour’s more experience, an hour where you did something that just felt right.  In time, those hours accumulate and you’ll have gotten through the early stuff. You’ll know your baby more, and yourself more.  You’ll be one step further from being that vulnerable new mom, at the steepest part of the learning curve, and one step closer to being the person who forgets herself in Duane Reade and inadvertently reminisces aloud about how wonderful it all was.

 

Are You A Mom or a Philosopher?

There’s been much hype lately about “hyper” parenting styles — from the Time Magazine brouhaha, to that book claiming that French-style mothers do everything better, and Erica Jong’s rant that overly “attached” moms don’t party enough — parenting styles are getting a lot of scrutiny, especially parenting styles that emphasize attentive devotion to an infant’s needs.

I’m always dubious about criticisms of parenting “philosophies” — there’s good and bad in any philosophy, but it doesn’t tell you much about what goes on for real people.  I’ve worked with over a thousand mothers; none of them lives a Philosophy.  

Here’s the thing — human young are extremely needy — they can’t eat regular food, or walk, or talk, or even hold up their heads, and they take years to mature — any philosophy that ignores that is at best delusional and at worst abusive.  On the other hand, real life parents cannot, as a practical matter, terminate every other aspect of life for the care and cultivation of perfect offspring for years and years on end.  They need a life, too.   Real people make nuanced choices through the day. So big arguments about whether This Style Of Parenting is the be all end all are arguments about nonsense, not practical discussions about what actually works for real moms.  I kind of feel like, let’s just throw philosophy in the toilet and talk about real life instead.

But before we do, there are two ways that I see “philosophy” really do some harm, so let’s just get them out of the way, OK?

1.  Seeds of Doubt:  

If I told you that my eleven year old came up to me asking for a drink of water on a hot day, was panting and red-faced from being outside in the heat and said he was thirsty, and I told him, “It’s not time for your water,” and made him wait 45 minutes, you’d think I was insane for withholding it.  Would it matter to you that I’d just read a book telling me to space my child’s drinks evenly through the day and not be tricked by manipulative nagging?  What if I told you that my five year old daughter was awake at 5 am crying that she had a bad dream, but I didn’t go in and tickle her back because she hadn’t been in her room twelve hours yet and my book told me that I should be consistent about boundaries and leave her till seven a.m.?  

I really hope it would sound like nonsense to you to follow a book at those moments instead of attending to my actual children.

On the other hand, I’m sure we can all imagine other types of situations where I’d be right to say no to both kids — over a lot of protest — where it was clear that they were pushing a boundary and needed some limit setting.  

In both cases, I’d be meeting my kids’ needs — the need for unexpected water or back tickling on the one hand, or the need for a boundary on the other.

What’s hard about having a baby, especially your first, is that it’s not always easy to be confident that you can tell what your kid really needs.  Here’s where the bevy of books and experts enter, designed to tell you.  But the thing is, none of the books live with your kid, and while some of them can be helpful in general about what you may be observing, ultimately the best judge of what your kids are doing and why, is you.  But  there’s a difference between giving you a general sense of what you may be observing, vs. scaring you out of your own judgment or telling you what to do regardless of the specifics.  

What’s really hard in the hour-by-hour of parenting is that no mother always knows the right thing to do.  Parenting requires living with some anxiety about how to proceed.  The wisest support people you encounter will give you some information about infant development but also help you learn to cope with that anxious feeling of uncertainty.  When you have some tools to cope with uncertainty, you can tune in to your best instincts and come up with a good plan for your family.  It won’t be perfect every time, but nothing is; it will be good enough.

The dogmatic books and experts, on the other hand, tell you it’s all very simple — three steps or five minutes or twelve nights, but if your life doesn’t happen to fit perfectly with their regimen, that lack of nuance sadly works to increase your self-doubt the way that airbrushed and photoshopped images of women plant seeds of self-doubt even in the most body-confident woman.  

With the photo-shopped images, the best course is to minimize your exposure so they can’t infect your brain.  Increasingly, I’m thinking, lets do the same with experts and books that leave no room for the real, weird, nuanced complexity of you and your baby.  Find the people who help you learn to cope with uncertainty.  Real moms, in real life, are the best place to start.

2.  Some Philosophies Are Just Wrong. 

OK some basics:  Human infants need to be held.  They need to be fed very frequently.  They need an adult around who can make eye contact, and engage.  There is simply no way around these facts.  Any book that is essentially telling you that you can turn your human infant into a tadpole who does not need parenting, is wrong.  Any book that says that you can harm your children by loving them or by attending to their needs, is wrong.  Any book that says that you should not ever trust your instincts about what your child needs, is wrong.  

Having said all that, we’d be missing half the problem if I ended it there.  Because the flip side is:  Human mothers have feelings about meeting the needs of their infants — good feelings and bad feelings.  It is not always easy, it is not always fun, it is not always lovable to be appropriately available to the needs of a growing child.  It can be frustrating and annoying and very lonely.  And any book that says that your own feelings and needs are irrelevant, that you shouldn’t have them or that you should ignore them, or that good mothers never feel these things — is equally wrong.  And any book that tells you that you should not want anything beyond meeting the immediate needs of your infant, is wrong and misogynist.  What you feel, and what you want are not always aligned with what you are prepared to do.

So — on the one hand, infants are genuinely needy and it is appropriate to meet their needs.  On the other hand, as a mother you may not always love that.  How do we reconcile these things?  

I think the way to answer that is to look at what not to do.  It’s a mistake and so unfair to reconcile these by not meeting your baby’s needs or by deluding yourself that your baby doesn’t have them.  Your baby is just a baby; she needs parenting.  

On the other hand, you don’t want to go to the other extreme either.  I like this piece by Katherine Stone which reviews a study in the Journal of Child and Family Studies which found that an “Intense” parenting style made parents unhappy and even clinically depressed.  “Intense” parenting style puts the needs of the infant at such a premium that the parents become irrelevant, and it’s no better than the other extreme.  Katherine discusses how this is different from developmentally appropriate parenting, where parents attend to the children without ignoring themselves. 

I have to tell you, I read the list of “Intense Parenting Tenets” and felt like clawing my eyes out — yeah, you’d become depressed if you believed these things.  Below are the “Tenets” and, following, my revision, for you to modify to your own life and your own needs, day by day:

INTENSE PARENTING:  mothers, not fathers, are the most necessary and capable parent

REVISION:

1.  Mothers are really important to their babies, and women who’ve just become mothers sometimes underestimate how much they’re capable of and how necessary they are in their babies’ lives.  That doesn’t mean you’re the only one who can or should attend to your baby’s needs.  It also doesn’t mean that you are going to love every second of it.  

(also, p.s., how heteronormative?!)

INTENSE PARENTING: parents’ happiness is derived primarily from their children

REVISION:

2.  Parents of older children often describe their children as a source of happiness and enrichment — this is something new parents can look forward to.  Parents of newborns are often surprised that they don’t feel a deep relationship yet.  Many of them take great pleasure and satisfaction in many aspects of being with their babies, but many of them also feel a sense of mourning for the kind of freedom and happiness that went with being childless.  It is an adjustment.  As an ongoing matter, adults need adults in their lives for happiness and stimulation, not just children and babies.  However, the bond you share with your children can be extremely rewarding, especially as it deepens over time.

INTENSE PARENTING:  parents should always provide their children with stimulating activities that aid in their development

REVISION: 

3.  Living with an attentive adult who makes eye contact, holds the baby and talks, and reads to her, is phenomenally stimulating for an infant.  Think of your job as a parent as to introduce your child to the world, not to create a second-by-second bonanza of stimulation.  Hanging out is often the perfect activity.  When you’re about to do something, you can start by thinking, “does this seem like it would be fun?”  Yes, for you, not just for your baby.

INTENSE PARENTING: parenting is more difficult than working

REVISION: 

4.  Parenting is surprisingly difficult if you imagined it was going to be easy.  It is harder than some jobs and easier than others.  The pay is awful but there is a casual dress code.

INTENSE PARENTING: a parent should always sacrifice their needs for the needs of the child

REVISION:

5.  A parent should sometimes sacrifice her needs for the needs of the child, and sometimes the child is going to have to sacrifice or wait on the needs of the parent.  This is true in any relationship and also true in parenting.  The difference is that in other relationships, both parties decide together about give and take.  With your child, you are responsible for figuring out what fair sacrifices on both sides are, because you are the adult.  If you have loving friends in your life and you aren’t depressed, you will learn to have confidence that you can make good judgments about how to balance that, but you will not always be certain that you’ve done it right.  That is okay, and enough.

This is a saner version of parenting, but it needs some honing to your particular situation, and that takes time. I hope you contact me so we can talk about it further.  

Taking Care Of You

I can’t count the number of times I’ve told clients and students “be gentle with yourself.” 

"Take care of your own needs."

"Put your own oxygen mask on first so that you can take care of everyone else."

"Fill up your cup."

"Make time for friends and cups of tea, chocolate, sex, fresh air, pedicures.  You deserve it."

"You deserve to be happy."

So easy to say, all of these things.  

Not always so easy to do.

Not even easy when your career involves talking about this stuff.  Which is why I love this recent piece called "Self Care Means Taking Care of You!" by my friend Caitlin Fitzgordon, a postpartum doula and childbirth educator in Brooklyn.   Caitlin writes beautifully about her own struggles to balance the normal sacrifices of devoted mothering with a genuine need to prioritize herself.  She says: 

Losing yourself might be considered a normal part of motherhood. Your old self is gone and a new self develops—one hard-wired to take care of a new, delightful, confusing, needy person. Sometimes, though, it goes too far.

It’s true.  In the early weeks/months/years it’s appropriate — and can feel awesome — to totally throw yourself into motherhood, even if that means you look, from the outside, like you’ve lost yourself.  But at some point, you’re not just Becoming A New Mother anymore, you are one, and your normal, human, adult needs come rearing up and need to be fit back in.  Not in place of caring for your child, but alongside.  Finding a place for yourself can be oddly difficult — not just because it’s logistically hard, but because it can feel weird and wrong to even have needs.  Caitlin reflects honestly and candidly about her own excesses, and I admire her courage in saying, essentially, “yeah, no matter how much of this I might tell my own clients, this stuff is hard for me, too.”

Boy do I see my clients struggle with this stuff, and boy do I struggle with this stuff myself, sometimes, too.  It can take different forms — for some moms it’s literally that they don’t make time for themselves, to go out with friends, to get to the gym, to sometimes take naps.  My own kids aren’t babies anymore, so I get a lot more time than new mothers do, but no matter how many times I re-learn this, I still have phases where the balance is really hard.  For me it’s less about what my free time looks like and more about my mindset — I sometimes forget that my own happiness is not only a priority but a necessity. 

A necessity.  Like, how feeding my children is a necessity.

It’s so easy to fall into the trap of considering a mother’s happiness only a luxury, something you hope “someday” to make time for, or something kid-dependent (“I should be happy as long as my kids are thriving and my work is getting done”).  Well, I think that a lot of the things we took for granted when we were childless are now luxuries (time, certain kinds of privacy, flexibility, comforts).  But not happiness.  The idea that you’re supposed to “do without” happiness as long as your kids and work are getting handled; the idea that you should be stoic enough enough to handle everything and never need much for yourself is, um, totally freaking misogynist, puritanical and basically effed up.  

And yet, weirdly easy to buy into!

And, once you’ve gotten a little mired in it, and you’ve either started yelling at everyone a lot (Caitlin) or become depressed and withdrawn (me), it’s a total pain in the butt to get out of because of Guilt (“I should be more stoic and need less and do more!”) and Hopelessness (“It’s pointless to take a fifteen minute nap when I’m this tired/ I’ll never have time to get to yoga anyway”).  

It’s so ugly.  

And what’s really tricky is that a lot of the time, the very obligations that leave us feeling trapped are things we also love: Taking care of our kids.  Nurturing our careers.  Connected time with our partners.  Tending to our home.  It’s not that we shouldn’t take these commitments seriously, it’s that we need to keep an eye on whether they’re in a balance that still makes us happy.  And if the answer is no, we need to take that seriously.

There’s not a quick cure or a permanent fix.  But I think sometimes it helps to just insist you go to that spinning class at the gym even though you feel sad and lumpy and you don’t have time.  You go anyway, and you sweat and feel better.  

Or push your sorry ass out the door and have a drink with friends even though you feel it’s all so exhausting and you are also now stinging-with-guilt-because-you-were-kind-of-a-total-martyry-beeyotch-to-your-partner-about-the-fact-that-he-was-going-to-do-what-we-don’t-call-babysitting-but-which-he-was-totally-thinking-of-as-babysitting.  You go anyway, and you get there and laugh and laugh and laugh and feel light, because friendship sloughs the stress off you.  

Or you send your husband out to dinner with your kids when you’re exhausted, even though you work full time and feel guilty that you “should” want to be with them every waking minute.  You do it anyway.  And then your apartment is quiet and you lie in bed and meditate or masturbate or read a book or browse Facebook, or I don’t know, whatever you like to do, and find that you are starting to feel a little better.  

And a little better with the next thing, and better still with the next and then suddenly you find yourself saying, “I’m starting to feel human again,” not because you’ve stopped being serious about your work or about your kids or about your other obligations, but because you’ve started being serious about taking care of yourself.  Too.  Being an adult, being a mother, being a wife, being someone with a career and a life — these things shouldn’t mean you don’t also get to feel human.  

It doesn’t get all solved with one pedicure.   Taking care of yourself is like taking care of your kids!  You do it in tiny bits, little by little, making small incremental progress, reassessing all the time to see whether what felt good last month is still good now.  It may start, though, by insisting: I will not succumb to guilt for needing some human comforts!  And it helps to remember, as Caitlin wisely notes, it’s not something you do once, not something you master and are then done.  It’s something you practice forever. 

What helps you take care of yourself?

Weaning and Depression

Here’s a conversation I have not infrequently with former clients who contact me when their child is a bit older:

Me:  Wow, so nice to hear from you!  Your baby must be <several months or more older> now — how is everything going? 

Her: “I was doing fine, really, everything was settling down … but suddenly I’m just feeling … <sniff> … really … down <sniff, sniff>.  I don’t know what it is; things are totally OK with the baby, it should be good … but I’m just feeling, now … <sniff, sounds of tears> … . “

Now, look.  Parenting is never a cakewalk, and sometimes what’s happening in a call like this is that the mom is just having a hard week — that happens to all of us. And talking about it really helps.

But more often, when I get this phone call, I have two followup questions for that mom — (1) did the baby just start sleeping through the night and/or (2) have you just weaned.  And more often than not, the answer to one or both of them is “yes.”  

Usually it’s:

"Yes!  And I thought I’d feel so much better, but here I am feeling even worse … "

I’ve thought about writing about this for a long time, but I’ve resisted because I haven’t been able to find good research backing up my speculations about why this happens.  But last week an article on Huffington Post talked about the very thing I’ve observed for years.  In “Weaning and Depression Linked In Many Women”, Catherine Pearson bemoans the lack of empirical data on this, and calls for more research on the issue. 

Here’s the gist of the situation:  When a woman is nursing, her brain almost constantly is secreting a hormone called oxytocin.  Oxytocin does a number of interesting things in addition to letting the milk down.  It acts almost like a drug that makes you feel good.  It takes the edge off pain; it makes you a little high, a little trusting, a little floaty feeling.  During lactation, a mom’s body is flooded with oxytocin and another hormone called prolactin, and together, they activate the same receptors as the drug Ecstasy; actually, a better way to describe that might be to say that Ecstasy is popular because it makes people feel like they’re having an oxytocin high.

Even before you give birth, you’re familiar with oxytocin from other life moments it’s helped you — oxytocin floods the body when you’re falling in love and that’s what makes you feel that sparkly feeling that all is right in the world.  And it floods the body when you have an orgasm, which is what makes *that* sparkly feeling.  You get a hit of oxytocin from massage, and from hugs, and from situations where you feel safe, loved, loving, intimate.  It’s the hormone we’re all, basically, addicted to; it makes us like being with people who take care of us and keeps us coming back for more.

We all have our usual dose.  And that dose goes way up while you’re nursing and then back down when you wean, and that transition back down seems to be particularly hard on some women.  

(Wait a sec, maybe you’re nursing a baby but you’re not finding nursing and new motherhood to be like taking E?  I think most people don’t.  But underneath all the chaos of your day, there’s that baseline of oxytocin, helping you to get through it, while it’s hard, tiring and confusing.  Oxytocin takes the edge off.)  

Some folks think that oxytocin is what makes you “bond” with the baby; I find it a little silly to reduce something complex like love to a simple chemical reaction, but perhaps the oxytocin helps us get started, so that we manage to find the baby compelling and cute even though she screams and shits all the time and won’t let you sleep.  In fact, when you think about it?  The fact that we manage to love our kids is a little irrational.  You’d have to be a little high to keep coming back for more.  High on oxytocin.  I think it’s supposed to be that when the baby is first born, it’s all chaotic and hard, but you have this hormone that makes you feel OK enough to get through it.  And then gradually your life calms down and is easier and then you’re ready to cope with it without a mega-dose of a feel-good hormone. 

Oxytocin doesn’t leave you forever when you’ve weaned, of course, you still get it from touch and security and trust and love.  But that regular hit of it, many times a day, at regular intervals, triggered by breastfeeding, the baseline — that’s gone once the nursing is over.  And while lots of moms don’t love breastfeeding, and many are happy for the freedom of having an older child who doesn’t need the breast, there are some women who seem to go into a kind of withdrawal after the oxytocin isn’t there.  I’ve seen it happen at weaning, and I’ve seen it happen when the baby sleeps a long stretch at night, or during a nursing strike.  In these cases, the mom herself is weaning off the oxytocin she’s used to getting all day long.  

I don’t mean to suggest that every mom who feels sad or wistful after weaning is experiencing only a chemical withdrawal.  There are also cognitive reasons a mom might be sad or down, or just feel the poignancy of life, around any major milestone.  And many moms find that weaning is a non-event for their mood.  But it seems to me that some women are particularly sensitive to this hormonal change.  

And yet it’s totally under-discussed.  

In my observation, women who feel a real dip in mood around weaning often find that they “even out” after a few days or weeks, as their hormones rebalance.  There’s a great description in Joanna Goddard’s blog post about her post-weaning depression at Cup of Jo — her depression starts when she abruptly weans, and ends, spontaneously, six weeks later, when her period resumed.

Still, it can be a shock, and a serious downer, and for some moms, it’s the beginning of a slide into clinical depression that they won’t spontaneously snap out of in a few weeks.  Yet I never hear of OBs or midwives mentioning any mood changes around weaning.  Even for moms who see counsellors or therapists, these transitional hormonal changes are often unexplored.  Most moms are utterly surprised by it, and that surprise can delay getting help.

Here’s what does help, though.

  • Understanding the way oxytocin works, and the way the body responds, perhaps, helps you anticipate that this might happen, and prepare.  If ever there were an argument for weaning slowly and gently and only when mom and baby are both ready, this is it.  (If you’re having a weaning-mood-dip because the baby is on a nursing strike, pumping may do the trick).
  • Exercise, Fresh Air, Sunlight, Rest, Good food, Doing a little less work for a few weeks.  In short:  take it easy on yourself.  We are talking about a short-term transition; you can do some extra resting and pampering for a few weeks.  This doesn’t make you lazy.  As I’ve blogged about before I think it’s helpful to have a handy list of things that might help, in case your mind gets really fuzzy and you’re lying in bed moaning and devoid of ideas.
  • talk to a friend.  OMG, please tell people!  You have friends in your life exactly for these moments, where you can rely on them to love you and keep you company and remind you that your entire life is not, in fact, pointless.  
  • See your doctor.  Any sudden change for the worse is probably worth a check-up over.  Some new moms experience transient low thyroid function or anemia, both of which can make you feel seriously rotten.
  • some moms find it helpful to take evening primrose oil to even out mood during the weaning process. 
  • Think about other sources of oxytocin that you can use to replace what you’re missing :-).  I think that what topples moms’ moods is the quick drop in oxytocin.  In the meantime, it’s worth thinking about pampering things that smooth the transition — a massage, perhaps?  Or … uh … sex?  It might be the last thing you’re thinking of if you’re depressed, but it could be just what you need.  In fact, when you look worldwide, sex may be the real answer.  In many parts of the world where folks have what we call “natural child spacing,” mothers nurse for a couple years, and are then  pregnant again a few months. (here’s a great example of this from another blogger’s description of post-weaning depression followed by conception) 

(Keep an eye on this, though.  You probably don’t want a decades-long cycle of pregnancy and nursing!  At some point you have to ramp down off the Fertile Goddess Dose of Oxytocin.  And I’ve seen some pretty irrational behavior by more than a few moms at the end of their reproductive cycle who seemed desperate and a little manic to replace the new-mom feeling of “abundantly needed and physically in-demand but rewarded by the powerful feel-good hit of oxytocin” — including everything from adopting half a dozen new pets to having an affair to using some pretty serious recreational drugs.  The problem is, obviously, you just create a bigger mess for yourself to clean up that way. How about one cat and a massage.  And some chocolate.  And a bunch of date nights :-)  Keep an eye on yourself.)

  • I think for most folks, a mood shift around weaning is going to be something small, like a few bumpy blue days.  And even if it lasts longer, it will probably resolve itself as the body gets used to the new baseline.  But if you’re finding that your declined mood is changing your behavior, making you feel irrational or desperate or out of control, that’s a clinical issue.  In Ms Pearson’s article, she quotes one mom who says, 

"I never sought out professional help … I never felt like I was a danger to myself or children. The extent of my mood swings were sadness and irritation, and they seemed to vanish as quickly as they appeared."

and another who says:

"I wish I had committed to seeing a psychiatrist or psychologist, since that might have helped me feel more supported and comforted …  But during my depression, I didn’t feel confident that they would be able to help — I didn’t think anything would help."

It makes me so sad.  Because I think we all know that the major symptom of depression is “hopelessness,” but when you’re saying:  ”I didn’t think anything would help” — darlings, THAT IS WHAT HOPELESSNESS MEANS.  All too often folks think that if they’re not “a danger to themselves or their kids” it’s not bad enough to get help.  

No!  It’s bad enough if you’re feeling like crap.  

It’s bad enough if you’re sad and confused and irritable with mood swings that are currently f*cking up your life.

As someone wise once said to me (because I’m certainly no stranger to depression myself), “You don’t have to be lying on a stretcher in order to get help.”  It’s hard to do, but you really gotta do it, because as hard as it is to believe, when you feel better, you will actually feel better.  :-)

Company helps.  And honesty.  And treating yourself right.  And patience and time and breathing and sunshine and chocolate.  But when you need more, you need to reach out and get clinical help in the form of talk therapy or medication or both.  If you’re finding that impossible to do, ask your partner to help you take the first step.  Or please contact me and I’ll see whether I can help you find the help you need.

What about you?  Did you have a bumpy ride with weaning?  

Working And Mothering -- What Would You Tell Your 22 Year Old Self?

Recently, I was talking to a client, lets call her Anne, about the logistics of going back to work now that she’s a mom.  Anne has a tough job that requires a big time commitment, more-than-occasional evening and weekend hours, and intense focus. It’s a job she loves and is great at. 

It’s also a lot like taking care of a baby when you think of it.  

As we talked, we were partly discussing childcare and time management, but, as we chatted, veering more and more into a conversation about what becoming a mother has meant to Anne, how it’s changed her perspective on what she enjoys and how she wants to spend her time.  Anne was pondering how to blend all that with the woman she’d always been, and the career she has really loved.  This kind of conversation involves issues you can only explore, not the kind you can Solve in Three Simple Steps.

Somehow we got onto a tangent about Anne’s infant daughter.   “My husband said, ‘Maybe when she’s growing up, we’ll encourage her to pick a career that blends better with motherhood,’” Anne told me, and went on, “I was so annoyed!  If someone had said to me when I was in college that I should pick a career that blended well with motherhood I would have been totally disgusted by that.”

"And what about now?" I asked.

"Well … "

There aren’t simple answers to this, are there?  The fact is, it’s very tricky to weave together a pre-baby life and a post-baby life.  What do you think?  Email me your stories about going back to work, what’s worked well and what’s been complicated, and what advice, if any, you’d give your 22 year old self, now that you’re on the other side of this.  I’ll feature the stories here.

meredith (at) amotherisborn (dot) com

Mom Upside Down

I did a handstand today in my yoga class!

Which is pretty ironic because only Friday, I mentioned in a blog post that after more than a dozen years, I’d never managed to succeed at an inversion.  So, first of all, wow, how cool!  There I was, upside down!  

Second of all, do you know what else is cool, in life?  That you can learn to do new things even when you’re old.

I used to do a lot of yoga, and then basically stopped for many years because kidsworklifeblahblahblah.  Having a kid turns your life upside down and I think it’s a multi-year process for the dust to really settle.  Add a second kid, a career, a marriage, a family … adulthood can start to feel like you’re constantly cutting things out to get the emergencies settled — it can feel constraining even though each of the things in your life is something you love.  Sure, I had a list of my favorite “me-time” activities, but though pedicures are lovely, a decade of using them as my “go-to” thing had me sort of bored.  

So, inspired by a friend’s “Now That I’m Turning 40” to-do list, I decided to get back into yoga.  I was lousy at it at first.  I got better really slowly.  The first time my teacher said, “You’re looking good!” I assumed she meant “for a middle aged mom” and not just “good.”  

It’s not always easy to get to class.  I have to use time I should be working, or could be writing, or might be attending to my family.  It’s expensive.  It’s inconvenient to get to.  I could burn twice the calories at the gym.

I kept at it anyway.

And then today I pushed my feet off the wall and stood upside down.  And I felt really good.  Not just good for a middle aged mom; good.

Can You Breastfeed On The Moon?

I’m surfing the net while my daughter plays with stickers, and she sees an article I’m looking at about a woman breastfeeding in this month’s Italian ELLE.  Here’s the pic, courtesy of Babble:

italian elle on babble

My daughter’s four, and, at the moment, very interested in female beauty and fashion, so she comes right over to comment on the model’s hair and shirt and lipstick.  Then she says,

"What is she doing?"  

I say, “She’s nursing her baby.”  

Nina says, “Standing up??”  

I love that the question isn’t “Can a nursing mother look like a model?” or “Can you be in a magazine while nursing” but just the physical logistics — can you do it standing up?  I tell her that, yeah, you can basically do it in any position once you get the hang of it and the baby’s not a newborn. 

"Can you do it in a headstand??"

I laugh.  Because I’ve spent the better part of the past dozen years trying to get both legs all the way up in a headstand, without success.  (Additionally, during that time, I breastfed, and weaned, two children.)  

So, the answer is “no” — I personally could not.  But, as it happens, I know of  a perfect example of this very thing, so I can show her a role model even if I couldn’t be one:

http://youtu.be/WqZCYCUcfGs

We watch, and she’s barely impressed with the mom’s yoga moves.  Apparently it’s a given that moms can maintain an inversion.  We are on to the next:

"Can you breastfeed on the moon?"

Nina assumes that if men have been on the moon, women have, too.  

That if women have been there, nursing mothers have been there.

Kids today.  They think mothers can do anything.

Guess How Many Times A Day Someone Barges Into A Hospital Room On A New Mom?

Here’s one for the “I Can’t Believe We Needed A Study To Tell Us This” file: an article I read this morning from lactationmatters.org, entitled “Do Interruptions Interfere with Early Breastfeeding?”

I don’t mean that the article was stupid (at all!), and in fact, there’s something validating that someone actually recorded how frikkin’ often new moms and their babies are interrupted while they’re still in the hospital.  Want to know how many times? 

53.  Fifty Three interruptions in a twelve hour period.

This topic came up last week at the new MOMs group — I’d asked a group of new moms who’d just met to talk about what was most surprising since their babies’ births, and although that conversation can go lots of different ways, this group mostly talked about how the births had gone, and the first couple days in the hospital.  Several moms talked with annoyance about how frequently people barged into the hospital room, (“it felt like someone was constantly coming in to do something”) and how difficult it was to get any peace, privacy, or even just a little time to think straight.  

Well, they’re right:  The study found that over the course of a twelve hour period, mothers in the hospital were interrupted an average of 53 times.  There were more than twice as many interruptions as periods of alone time.  That means that a new mom had to deal with someone coming in to do something to her pretty constantly; and the study also found that the interruptions themselves lasted longer than the stretches of alone time.  In fact, half of the “uninterrupted” stretches were less than ten minutes long.

Guess what?  Moms didn’t love that.  

In my New MOMs group, many of the same moms were also complaining that they didn’t have enough help with getting the hang of nursing, or that they were “left alone” to figure it out by themselves.

These things aren’t at odds, at all:  New mothers are not supposed to be left all alone, isolated, without help or company or support.  They are supposed to have easy access to supportive, knowledgeable people who can help them, and who can attend to their needs as they learn to get the hang of dealing with the baby.  They are not supposed to be isolated and when they are, they languish.  And all too often, they not only don’t complain, they feel guilty and weak for not being able to figure everything out themselves.

Isolation is bad for mothers.

But isolation is not the same thing as privacy, and all interruptions are not equal.  One mom I spoke to described how frequently people came in to take her blood pressure and temperature, or to check on the baby, or to have her fill out forms.  Did anyone come in to just sit with her and keep her company?  No.  No one in the hospital is paid to provide company. Did anyone come in saying, “Good morning, what can I do for you that might help you feel more comfortable today?”  Of course not.  The hospital does not provide a concierge.  Did anyone give her a list of resources that might help or educate her if she wanted that?  No, the hospital is not a school that provides education for its customers.

Did anyone assess her breastfeeding before the baby was discharged and provide her with detailed, evidence-based guidelines about how to proceed?  No.  Apparently the hospital is also not concerned with infant growth and nutrition.  You and your boobs are expected to figure it out for themselves.

What did they do?

Well, lots of people commented that she should be breastfeeding.  People talk and talk and talk about how “best” breastfeeding is.  People gave varied opinions about how frequently she ought to nurse and how long the baby ought to stay on the breast.  Most of them disagreed with each other.  

And they got all the data they wanted, about her temperature and blood pressure and wound-healing, and her paperwork was all complete.  They did that on their own schedule, in the way that was most streamlined for the hospital, not for the woman who’d just done a day of labor followed by major abdominal surgery and whose nipples were cracked and bleeding and whose baby had lost a lot of weight.

This. Is. Not. Good. Customer. Service. 

Newborn babies need lots of skin to skin time with their mothers, but new mothers (understandably) often feel modest about showing skin to strangers.  Having the door of your room burst open while your shirt is off can throw even the most unflappable new mom, especially when it happens multiple times per hour.

New babies also need frequent feedings, but new moms getting the hang of nursing often don’t appreciate someone barging into the room just when they’re squeezing the breast and looking at the color of their colostrum.  New moms are human beings; they need privacy.  When they don’t get it, they cover up.

The study found that moms perceived that interruptions interfered with breastfeeding.  This does not mean that doctors and nurses came in and literally said “You need to stop feeding now” or that the moms were told to ignore their babies’ cues to feed if someone else was in the room.  What it does mean is that as a practical matter, the moms felt that being on the other side of a revolving door was getting in the way of learning to nurse.

Why aren’t we making it easier on new moms?  How about some hospital protocols that group necessary clinical interruptions together in a way that makes it a priority to get new moms longer stretches of privacy?  

And how about making sure that, if someone’s going to enter a new mom’s room, that person:

(a) ask the mom “were you about to feed the baby?” and offer to come back later if it’s easier for the mom, so that no mom leaves the hospital feeling like someone was barging in on her every five minutes, and

(b) be prepared, qualified, trained and equipped to ask about nursing, assess the breastfeeding dyad, and provide appropriate, supportive help OR ELSE SUMMON SOMEONE WHO IS, so that no mom is discharged from the hospital without a breastfeeding assessment by an IBCLC.

People like to feel like they know what they’re doing — that’s because we’re human.  And when you’ve just had a baby, you often feel the opposite.  No one wants strangers barging in on them constantly when they’re feeling like a big messy work in progress — that can make you feel like giving up on whatever you were working on.  Instead, what new moms need is enough privacy to get the hang of things, and enough help to be guided in the right direction.  

Here’s what you can do:  

If you’re pregnant and planning a hospital birth:  Make a sign for your door that says, “Please, Only Urgent Interruptions; I Am Feeding The Baby.” Hang it at will.  Feel free to ask anyone who comes in whether they can come back in half an hour.  Have contact information for an IBCLC who can help you out as you begin breastfeeding.

If you’ve just had a baby:  The hospital will contact you with a generic call or letter to ask how your experience was.  I know you have a baby and you’re tired.  But take the time to answer their questionnaire and answer honestly.  If you got lousy customer service and know what would have helped, tell them.  You don’t have to figure out how they should conduct all their business, let them sort out the logistics.  But you ought to let them know you have a complaint with the way they do it now.

If you are a friend of a new mom, and can see that she had a lousy hospital experience because of this: write to the hospital and complain.  

Things don’t change when no one complains.

What Kind Of Help Would Help?

My friend Jessica Lang Kosa, PhD, IBCLC, a lactation consultant in the Boston area, and general new-mom-bad-ass, recently linked to this great post from Bay Area Breastfeeding, LLC, which tells new moms when to seek help for a breastfeeding problem.  It’s a good check list, and reminded me that I’ve been meaning to blog about how new moms sometimes need help sorting out what kind of help would help.

I find that new parents’ needs tend to fall into three categories, in ascending order of prevalence:  clinical help, information, and general support.  Let’s talk about how you can get all those needs met.

1. CLINICAL HELP:  This is the thing you’ll need least frequently, but requires the most expertise.  Clinical problems are problems that require an expert and need to be solved or else something bad will happen.

If you have a concern about the baby’s health, the person to go to is his physician.  If you have a concern about your own physical health after the birth, you should consult with your own health care provider.  If you have a toothache, you see a dentist.  If you are clinically depressed, counseling and/or medication is what will help.  Etc.  This much is obvious, I think.  

If you have a clinical concern about breastfeeding, you should consult with an Internationally Board Certified Lactation Consultant (IBCLC).

Somehow that one is less obvious to people.  So let’s explore it a little.  If you had strep throat, you wouldn’t rely on your mother, or your co-worker, or your neighbor, to deal with it, right?  Because it’s a clinical problem.  Your mother (or co-worker/neighbor) has no training in dealing with your medical problems!  She is not qualified.  She might provide you with comfort by giving you tea with honey, and she might be very compassionate and do a load of laundry for you because you’re sick and can’t deal.  She might help you not feel so down in the dumps about it.  And all these things are super-helpful.  But if you have strep throat, you also need clinical help for your throat, and your mom can’t fix that.  So you go to the relevant expert — your doctor.  

Likewise, if you have a clinical concern about breastfeeding, the person to go to is an IBCLC.  Because your mother (or co-worker, or friend) has no training in assessing and addressing a clinical breastfeeding concern, and is not qualified to help.  

If you had just given birth and you had strep throat, would you look to your Labor Nurse for a solution?  No.  The nurse is trained as a labor nurse.  She does not have the training and qualifications to deal with strep throat.  You’d see a doctor.

That labor nurse also doesn’t have training dealing with clinical breastfeeding issues, unless she is also an IBCLC.  

(Why do so many of us assume that just because she was looking at your vagina for ten hours, the labor nurse knows about human lactation??  Yet many people mistakenly look to their labor nurse for clinical guidance about breastfeeding, and, unfortunately, many non-IBCLCs spontaneously offer clinical advice about breastfeeding, instead of saying, “let me send an IBCLC to see you right away since you have a question about breastfeeding.” It’s up to you to remember to ask whether the person advising you is an IBCLC.)

By the way, speaking of who is and isn’t qualified to provide clinical breastfeeding assistance:  Let’s say your husband had a toothache and you happened to be at your kid’s pediatrician for a well-visit, would you ask the pediatrician what to do about his tooth? No.  The pediatrician is not the expert you go to for that.  

Guess what, your kid’s pediatrician also doesn’t have the training to deal with clinical breastfeeding problems.  

Can you imagine if you sat at your pediatrician’s office and described what was going on with your husband’s tooth and she said, “it sounds fine to me” without even seeing him?  

She might be right about his tooth.  But it would not be right to take that as appropriate guidance.  Your dude needs a dentist. 

Even weirder, can you imagine if the pediatrician said to you “it sounds like his tooth is a problem” and then she told you what to do about it, without seeing him?  

No! 

And what if she told you your husband should only be brushing his teeth once every three days and never flossing, because his teeth might not learn how to fight the germs off themselves if you let them rely on dental floss.  Wouldn’t you be like, “Wait — aren’t you a pediatrician?  With all due respect, have you ever had any training about dental health?” 

Right?

Your kid’s pediatrician isn’t an IBCLC, either, and hasn’t had training in human lactation.

The person to see for clinical breastfeeding problems is an IBCLC.  

Hopefully you’ll encounter many people who are gifted and knowledgeable about breastfeeding in general.  A postpartum doula or a childbirth educator or an experienced nursing mother — or even your kid’s pediatrician — might turn out to be a great, helpful resource for general breastfeeding support.  That is all that most people ever need.  Just like most of the questions you have about your baby (how do I give a bath?) don’t require an expert fix by your pediatrician.  But if there’s a clinical problem, you go to the expert.  And if you’re not sure whether there’s a clinical problem, ask an IBCLC.

(I should mention here:  I am an IBCLC.  But most of what I do isn’t clinical practice, but, rather, the guidance and education and counsel that are more commonly sought by new moms.  I got the IBCLC so that if I’ve developed a relationship with a client around our work on the logistics of going back to work, the challenges of sleep deprivation, the weirdness of developing a parenting style, or the marital strain that becoming a mother has entailed, I don’t have to refer her out just because she also has a bleb.)  

2. New parents also sometimes need INFORMATION.  (How much weight gain can I expect of my baby in the first three months?  How do I give a newborn a bath?  Why is my hair falling out?  Where can I find a great new-mom’s group in my area?) Some of this kind of information can be answered online (you can find growth curves here) and sometimes you’ll consult a book, or your childbirth educator, or doula, and sometimes your friends and family will have answers. Try to distinguish questions that have One Correct Answer from questions that come down to personal style.  If it’s a question that has a Correct Answer, you want to make sure you’re asking someone qualified to answer correctly — a lactation consultant, or a childbirth educator or a parenting educator, or a physician or midwife, or a tax attorney, depending on the question.  

Other topics, such as how often to bathe your baby and how to do it, come down to personal style and don’t have one “right” answer.  For that stuff, your mom or friends or even an email from your co-worker’s wife’s friend’s babysitter’s mother might be the best help.  

But if you don’t like their “advice,” do it your own way!  That’s the difference between “right answer” information and “personal style” information.

3.  SUPPORT.  More than any of the other issues, new parents need support and companionship.  Most moms I work with never need clinical help.  Their pediatric visits are well-visits, and their six-week followup with their own OB or midwife is a routine checkup.  They mostly never need the clinical services of an IBCLC either.  But they still need support, counseling and gentle guidance. 

Good support is a blend of guidance and friendship.  A great support person listens to you, helps you get the little stuff off your hands so that you don’t have to waste your energy on it, and gives you enough guidance that you have the tools to do the big stuff for yourself.  She helps you sort out the advice you’ve gotten into “right answers” vs. “personal style.”  She helps you figure out whether you’ve got a clinical problem, and if you do, she helps you get clinical help.  

Mostly, she lets you talk about what’s bothering you and sort it out.  You trust her judgment so it’s reassuring when she tells you you’re doing well, and if she tells you she’s concerned about you, it inspires you to make changes.  She is looking out for you.  

Every single new mother needs multiple support people, and they’re mostly going to be people you already know. Some of your support people will play a mentor or coaching or counselling role, and some will be more like helpers, and some will just be friends who make you laugh or make a good cup of tea.  You should have lots of people in your life — this is what it means to have a village!

It’s right to need support, and it’s right to look for it.   Too often the new moms I meet are embarrassed to admit how much help and guidance they need.  But that’s kind of backwards.  I think if we can remember that it’s so human to look to other people for support and guidance and companionship, and stop pretending that Good Mothers Have Everything Under Control All The Time, the whole world will be a happier and more gentle place.   

So open up to the people in your life and ask them to come hang out with you.  You’re not asking them to be experts and you’re not required to follow all their advice.  You’re looking for a human touch. That’s not being weak or dependent, it’s being a human being — we humans take comfort from friendship.  And when your need for support and information is more than your own family and friends is ready to provide, look beyond the nest — try going to new moms’ groups or working one on one to get the help you need so that you can find your way. 

Strong Start Day 2011

When I’m teaching a childbirth class, and I begin to talk about postpartum mood issues, I see every pregnant woman tense up a little, as if stiffening the body will ward off the possibility of Depression Happening To Me.  It’s a normal reaction, I think — even in this day and age, Depression carries a stigma.  We’re supposed to be happy all the time.  We’re supposed to be able to cope.  Mothers, especially, are supposed to be able to cope.  And if they can’t, they’re really not supposed to admit it.

We don’t even like to use the word “depression.”  I can’t tell you how often I’ve been approached by new or expectant mothers who want to ask me about “Postpartum.”  They mean: “Postpartum Depression/Anxiety/OCD,” but don’t want to say those words.  Even the *words* are too scary.  The word “postpartum” actually just means the time period after you give birth — it has nothing to do with depression!  But it’s become so common now for women to say “Postpartum” to mean “Depression” that I can’t even say “postpartum” anymore to mean “the early weeks” without freaking out an entire roomful of women.    

Here is the thing.  For some moms, the ride into parenthood is bumpy.  Well, hang on, I think for everyone it’s bumpy.  What major life transition isn’t?  But for some moms it’s More Than Normal Bumpy.  Often this is a result of  unexpected birth/breastfeeding/whatever situation + fatigue + isolation + unrealistic expectations having never seen a new mother before.  For many, many of those moms, the thing that helps them pull out is company, especially the company of other mothers.  

But for others Bumpy Ride derails into Depression or other Mental Illness.  Company helps those moms, too, but they also need clinical help, whether in the form of counselling, or medication, or both.  Depression is an illness.  It requires treatment.

But, see, one of the classic hallmarks of Depression is: hopelessness.  By definition, if you feel hopeless, it seems, well, hopeless to seek help.  So, women who are depressed are singularly unlikely to go out and look for the help they need.  Often they imagine that it’s … hopeless.  So why bother?  Add on the exhaustion of being a new mom, the logistical problems of getting out of the house when you have a baby, and the general stigma about Depression and you have a recipe for Depression that lasts, and lasts, and lasts, untreated.  

:-(

It’s so sad!  Parenthood can be tough, challenging, scary, and sometimes flat out annoying, as well as all the good things.  It’s normal for women to have mixed feelings about any big life change, and mixed feelings include negative feelings.  But feeling despair, predominantly, is not something to Just Cope With.  

Women who are Depressed need others to take care of them, and one champion for mothers on this issue is Katherine Stone.  This week she is looking for your support, beginning, today, with Strong Start Day 2011.  You should support her.  You should tell the new moms you know about her blog, whether they are depressed or not.  You should talk about the stuff that’s hard even though there’s pressure not to.  It helps.

By the way, you should also come to a New MOMs group.  Because when you’re in the company of other new mothers, you can see, more clearly, the difference between a new mom who is feeling the normal range of “down, confused, worried and Not Loving It Right Now” and a mom who is really not coping.  This helps you sort out what’s going on with you.  You can get comfort and support if that’s what you need, and you can *give* comfort and support to the moms who need it.  And, even if everything is going splendidly, you can meet some other cool folks who’ve also just reproduced.

"You have children"

Which is why you need to remember to, occasionally, take a long shower.  Put on the stereo.  Get your nails done.  Eat a little chocolate even though you haven&#8217;t lost all the weight yet.  Ask another mom to watch your little one so you can take half an hour in the supermarket alone and offer to do the same for her.  Get to a new moms&#8217; group so you can meet some cool other people.  Close the door for some privacy while you pee.  Etc. 

Which is why you need to remember to, occasionally, take a long shower.  Put on the stereo.  Get your nails done.  Eat a little chocolate even though you haven’t lost all the weight yet.  Ask another mom to watch your little one so you can take half an hour in the supermarket alone and offer to do the same for her.  Get to a new moms’ group so you can meet some cool other people.  Close the door for some privacy while you pee.  Etc. 

The Bug Story

This is a story about me and a big bug.  I’m warning you in case you’re the kind of person who can’t read a bug story without losing a week to nightmares. 

I hate when bug stories come without warning.  Recently, someone started telling me a story about a “weird thing that happened” to her; next thing I knew, I was hearing that a freaking cockroach crawled across her chest.  That is not a “weird thing”.  A weird thing is if a Velvet Underground song comes on your Ipod and just at that moment, you pass by Lou Reed. 

A cockroach on your chest is not “weird,” it’s horrifying.  And a story like that should come with a warning.  And possibly blinking lights in case I wasn’t listening. 

So, now you’re warned. 

I’m not bothered by all bugs. When I went to summer camp they had those skinny Daddy Long Legs spiders, which apparently aren’t technically spiders.  They ran up your leg in that tickly way.  I didn’t love it.  But I was in the freaking woods.  It’s their territory, not mine. 

But the city is for people.  Sure, there are wild turkeys in Riverside Park and Red Tailed Hawks nesting atop fancy buildings on the East Side, but I’m not for any other creature, here, besides us and cats and goldfish.

But of course they are here.  And I know, each year, that as soon as I have celebrated the Melting of Big Mountains Of Dirty Snow On Every Corner, I have to prepare for Big Bugs.  I’m not talking about generic cockroaches.  I don’t like those, but they don’t show up unexpectedly.  Some people’s apartments have them and others don’t, and if you don’t, you’re OK.  Several years ago I had two clients in a row who both had cockroaches.  It was super creepy and I will never forget their buildings, but, you know, those bugs stay put. They’re not going to jump out at me on the sidewalk while I’m walking in my strappy sandals.  They are homebodies.

The ones that really freak me are the Big Ones.  You know which ones I mean.  People call them water bugs, but they’re just as likely to be skittling down the sidewalk as creeping around a drain.

They’re huge.  They’re armored, defiant, impervious, like those young people in the East Village completely covered in tattoos and piercings, or those older, rich people uptown, hidden under Botox and Keratin treatments.  In some ways, water bugs fit right in in a city where so many people inhabit armored shells.

I can remember each one I’ve seen.  Where I was, where I was going, my footwear at the time. 

Once, my sister was apartment-hunting in my neighborhood.  When I heard the address, I thought, “last summer there was a water bug on the sidewalk right in front.”

She moved elsewhere.

 

A couple times, I’ve seen one in my own, (gasp, cringe, twitch) apartment.   I’ve lived in the city almost twenty years; it happens. 

Once, one ran by my feet – centimeters away, in my bedroom!!  I grabbed my children and hopped into the living room, stopping very quickly to pour myself two fingers of bourbon.  I planted the three of us on the couch, cross-legged, saying, “We are staying right here until Dad gets home.” Two drinks later, after my son had killed the thing, I still insisted we leave the city and spend the weekend at my parents’.  Even in the country, where Big Bugs aren’t, I jumped at every tickle and breeze for two days. 

 

It’s bad.

 

And yet.  When you live in New York City, you know, in the summertime, that you’ll likely see one, especially if other conditions are present.  Which is why, recently, when my building was getting a new stoop, I was in a chronic state of panic.  The front door to the building was completely blocked; there were three weeks of construction.  To get in or out, you needed to walk down to the garden level and out the back door.

New York + June + construction + walking downstairs into a garden.

It was only a matter of time.

I feel I need to digress for a moment and just say – there are lots of areas in my life where I’m confident and competent.  I think most people wouldn’t meet me and immediately think, “that is the kind of woman who completely loses her petunias over everything.”  You’ll have to take my word.

 

**

 

I was leaving my house to see a client.  I work with new moms, and if you are, or ever have been a new mom, you know it can be kind of freaky, at first, when they let you loose with a new baby.  Half the time you have no idea what to do and the other half you’re too exhausted to notice.  New moms need lots of things to help ease the transition, but more than anything, company helps.  Because when they’re all alone, moms can start to lose it a little.  When you’re isolated, normal worries can become epic.  Spending hours/days/weeks without talking to other adults can make anyone a total whack-noodle. 

Most moms navigate just fine through this transition, but some become overwhelmed.  And one of the things that makes it all harder is, almost no one wants to ask for help.  We kind of all act like asking for help is a sign of weakness, not a sign of strength.  We pretend that the goal is to have everything under control all the time, to never feel overwhelmed, scared or doubtful, and certainly not to admit it or depend on anyone. 

But when you have a baby, it’s not under control, and it’s not meant to be handled solo.  And so a big part of my work is helping moms recognize when they need help, and learn how to ask for it – from each other, from me, from their loved ones, from specialists when necessary.

 

Anyway, I was walking down the stairs thinking about my client, got to the front door and idiotically tried to open it, forgetting, for the 30th time, that it’s blocked off.  Then cursed a little and turned down the stairwell to the basement.  There’s a little half-staircase that leads downwards, and then a small vestibule.  At the far side of the vestibule, a fire door leads out towards the garden.  I rounded the corner and stood atop the stairs, facing the vestibule.  

At the foot of the stairs was a bug the size of my fucking hand.

It was on its back but very much alive.  It was trying earnestly to right itself, flitting and flopping and moving very frantically. And it was blocking my path.  A normal person would (a) walk by it or (b) step on it.  But I have this Thing. 

I considered my options.  

Option 1.  Cancel Client. 

Option 2.  Be magically beamed out of building and, ideally, off the planet. 

Meanwhile, the bug is buzzing, flitting and vibrating on the floor making a thwick, thwick, thwick sound.  But faster than that:  Thwick!thwick!thwick!thwick!thwickthwickthwick!

 

Now comes the part of the story where I say “fuck” a lot.

Fuck.

I can’t just cancel clients.  I’m a fucking professional.  And I had crap to fucking do that day.  I really did need to leave.  Plus, what was I going to do, go back upstairs and tell my kid and her babysitter, “oh nevermind, I think I’ll just stay home all day”?  With a mouse-sized bug thwicking around a few floors below us? 

The obvious thing to do was to walk past it, so I geared myself up for it.  I spoke sternly to myself:  ”Dude, just walk past this fucker.  Right this minute.  Get over yourself.  Don’t be a baby.  Just fucking walk.  One foot and then the next.  Just. Do. It.” 

Thwick.  Thwick. Thwickthwickthwickthwickthwick.

I couldn’t even lift my foot to take the first step.

I switched to a gentle, encouraging voice.  “Come on honey, you can do it.  You are much bigger than the bug.  Just, easy now, just take one step.  Just take one breath.  Slow your heartbeat.  Breathe down to the floor.  Good.  And now.  One step forward.”

Thwickthwickthwick went the guinea-pig sized bug.

Looking, now, at the words on the page, it’s embarrassing.  I am a grown woman.  I have endured worse shit than this and managed to keep going.  This. Was. Just. A. Bug.

But.  I couldn’t walk. 

You know how usually your thoughts come in chunks, but sometimes you get an actual sentence in words?  Well, this was one of those moments where an actual sentence went through my mind, and the words were: “I can’t get past this without help.” 

And I stood there, with the rabbit-sized, thwicking bug before me, and laughed bitterly.  Because how many times have I sympathized with a client, saying I know how hard it is to ask for help, but pushed her, encouraged her to reach out to whoever was available? 

It is easier to say than to do.

 

On the other hand, if I expect my clients find a way to ask for help, I need to be able to do it, too.  And so.  I walked up the  half-flight to the first floor and stood outside apartment 1A.

Karen, who lives there, is probably 60.  I know her vaguely — she has cat-sat for us sometimes and she is always nice to my kids. She has always seemed a little depressed to me. 

She opened the door, barefoot and in a house dress with no bra and unbrushed hair.  I managed to say, “Um. Karen, Hi. Uh. There’s a, um. Well, there’s a big water bug down in the vestibule, and I’m kind of finding that I … “

She pressed her eyebrows together and said, “You want me to kill a bug?!”

She got a pair of slippers (Slippers! For the armadillo-cockroach!) and the New York Post. We rounded the corner to the little half-stairway and I hung back.

“I can’t see it,” she said. 

"Well, fuck, it was on the floor."

"It’s gone now." 

My face obviously said, “It might be on its way to my bedroom right this fucking moment!”

Karen began to laugh and said, “Well, anyway the coast is clear—“   when suddenly she stopped and said, very quietly, “OHHH. Oh. There it is. On the wall. Wow. OK, it’s big.”

 

Fuck.

Karen eased into the vestibule and although I didn’t dare look in the direction she was looking, I could see her head tilted way back.  That fucker must have been way up high.  

She approached slowly, holding the newspaper back like a bat.  She braced herself to take a swing, muttering, “it’s big, it’s big, it’s big.”  She took a deep breath and did that little backwards motion batters do right before they swing. 

But then she stopped and lowered the newspaper-bat and appeared to deflate and said, to the floor, “Oh, Meredith, I’m sorry. I’m not going to be able to help you.  It’s – it’s too big.  I’m scared.” 

She turned to me, her shoulders slumped down and there was a very clear moment where I saw that I had just put all my hope in a depressive 60 year old with bed-head.  That was stupid, stupid. 

And yet – what next?  She could go home to her housedress and New York Post, but I was still stuck in the vestibule. 

Karen was walking back towards me and looked up sadly at my face. 

I tried to muster the Calm Face.  I have a lifetime’s experience telling people it’s all OK.  But I’d stretched myself a little, to ask for help this time, and I wasn’t springing back into the usual “It’s All Under Control” mask so easily. 

By now Karen was right next to me on the steps and in the pause, she looked me in the eye.  And what she saw was someone very vulnerable, and very frightened.  She took a big breath and said, “No, wait. I have an idea. How about I stand in front of it and you walk in front of me, so I’m between you and it?”

I felt a wave of relief.  Karen was obviously scared, too. But she wanted to help me.  And she was already walking back down to the rhino-sized-bug-zone and waiting for me.  She was stretching herself — pushing out of her comfort zone to try to help me, and, I thought, I had to try to do the same. 

Deep breath. 

“OK, Karen,” I said, “Thank you.  I’ll try—. 

And at that exact moment, the thing FLEW AT HER HEAD! She screamed, and batted at it frantically, and it fell to the floor and she jumped on it about five times and then pounded at it with the Post.

Actually all that is just how I imagine it, because the moment she shrieked I ran, screaming, up the stairs. 

Finally Karen called out, panting, “OK, it is totally and definitely dead now.”

I tiptoed back down, shaking. I felt horrible that I’d done this to her, but when Karen looked at me, her face looked, sure, totally grossed out, but also kind of alive in a way sometimes women look after giving birth, like, “WTF, I did it!”

And she grinned at me. 

So, I thanked her profusely, but the funniest part was that afterwards, as I walked through the garden and then to the train to meet my client, I felt a little bit high. I asked for help, and the help helped.  I got out of the house. I didn’t lose the whole day. And my life, now, included Karen in some way.  Karen the unlikely hero.

And I had the distinct feeling that Karen felt awesome about it, too, afterwards, having been able to do something for me.  Happy to be considered for the task.  She got to be included in my life, to make the world better for someone.  It feels good. 

Later, I bought flowers, and as I brought them to Karen’s door, I felt the embarrassed, exposed feeling.  She was, after all, basically a stranger.  Here we were, living in the same building, possibly for decades to come, and she now knew the depth of my craziness.  She would know it every single time she saw me.  She would give my kids Halloween candy and think, “Their mother lost her shit once over a water bug.”  Perhaps she would tell others. 

It’s easier to imagine that if I keep everything to myself, they might all be walking around thinking I’m perfect, right?

On the other hand, so what?  So Karen, and now everyone else knows I’m a little whackado on this issue.  It means, also, that they can help me, in whatever way they turn out to be able.  And help helps. 

And here, finally, is why I’m blogging this story:

Keeping the hard stuff secret keeps us all apart from each other, but sharing it—asking for help, stretching out of your comfort zone to give help, having courage to accept help you’re offered– weaves a net under us all.  And that net is the community that holds us together.  It’s the net, safely beneath you, that helps you remember, even when you’re at your worst, that overwhelmed isn’t the same as “helpless.”  New moms can feel low, weary, out of their depth.  What helps is reaching out, asking for help. 

I know it’s hard!  You’ve got to weave that net yourself and the thread is made of your own courage.  But when it’s there, it makes our passage through this messy and surprising life a little more manageable.

 

This month they’re replacing our roof.  I hope Karen hasn’t gone on vacation, oy.

How To Get Out Of Funkytown

There’s a kind of general cultural vibe that says that as long as your baby is healthy and your hair isn’t on fire, you shouldn’t complain.  But we all have days/weeks where ‘lousy’ is a euphemism, and especially for new moms whose lives have just turned upside down anyway, it can be hard to take. 

So, I really like this post from Meagan Francis’ lovely blog, which lists five things moms can do when they’re in a funk. Her suggestions:

  1. Go for a walk
  2. Take a bath
  3. Clean something
  4. Consume some non-computer media
  5. Engage in a mentally stimulating activity.

It helps a lot to have a list there at those moments when you’re so funky you can’t even think straight.  I suggest you make one for yourself.

I have a list like this stored as a memo in my phone.  Then, if I’m walking around and positive that Everything Is Shit, I can click on a button and get visited by a saner version of myself who is saying, Darling, everything is not shit.  But don’t sit here stewing in your own juices.  Go for a freaking walk.

There are some things on my list that aren’t on Meagan’s.  They include:

  • Call a friend.  I actually listed a few friends’ names because sometimes when Everything Is Shit I need really specific reminders of, like, who I like. 
  • Exercise.  Underneath, I wrote:  “If even seeing the word ‘exercise’ makes you feel like throwing the phone, it is good evidence that you should go to the gym asap.”
  • Music.
  • Chocolate.  One day the medicinal value will be clearly established and I will feel validated for taking chocolate syrup in a medicine cup.
  • Sex.  I feel like this is all I’m blogging about lately, but you know it does help, people!  Go it alone if necessary ;-)
  • Emergen-C.
  • Prayer.  Meditation would work, too, if you’re not a praying type of person.
  •  Call a friend.  I have this one in twice in case I ignored it the first time.  Because reaching out to someone who loves you is probably the thing that will restore you more than anything.  

Here’s the thing.  I don’t always remember to look at the note in my phone!  Neither will you.  There’s really no avoiding the occasional funk, and there’s no magic way to get out of it instantly.  But this stuff is a good place to start. 

Erica Jong is a Cranky Grandma

Recently I had dinner with a friend, who told me, in rather elegant detail, how she and her husband had recently got their freak on in a cab.  Date night, FTW!  We also talked about her new business venture and about my work, and about a recent Supreme Court decision and a few other things. 

When it was time to leave, standing on the street corner outside the restaurant, I said, “Oh and how are your kids?” 

There was a pause and then a lot of laughter at the irony.  A decade ago, she and I met not for drinks and sex chat, but for playdates.  Back then we discussed night-weaning and infant slings, and whether “time out” was a good discipline method and the evils of High Fructose Corn Syrup.  I remember several lengthy conversations about the color of our infants’ poop.  It made us both happy, then.

Isn’t it interesting how things change? 

 It’s this that makes me feel so weary of Erica Jong.  The famous sex-crazed ‘feminist’ writer, last fall, wrote a ham-handed polemic against young mothers who, she thinks, care too much about breastfeeding and holding their babies and don’t go to enough parties.  This week she has an essay claiming new mothers are too apathetic about sex.  She wants moms to get a life. 

The thing is, she’s so close to a real issue:  our culture tells us that “good” mothers are merely vessels to serve their kids, not adults in their own right.   The new moms Erica Jong knows are into attachment parenting; she sees them erasing themselves in a whirlwind of breastfeeding, helicoptering and sexlessness.   But there’s the other end of the spectrum, too:  all those parenting books and “experts” who tell moms to control their children’s sleep, food and behavior are also saying:  Mothers Exist Only To Serve Their Kids.

All that stinks.  It’s bad for moms; it makes no one happy; it even suggests that you’re not supposed to be happy.  We all have to stop buying into that.

But Jong’s essays lump the whole lot of it together in the most cantankerous and judgy way, somehow criticizing the moms themselves, sounding awfully like a Cranky Grandma.  

This is not the encouraging reminder that moms are human beings who deserve self-care, that their own needs are real needs. It’s an attack on the moms themselves, trivializing their earnest dedication to motherhood.  She criticizes new moms who:

wear [their] baby in a man-distancing sling and breast-feed at all hours so your mate knows your breasts don’t belong to him…. With children in your bed, is there any space for sexual passion?

Lets get a few things sorted out:

  1. Your breasts don’t, actually, belong to your mate.  Whether you are lactating or not, they belong to you. 
  2. No one likes that babies get hungry “at all hours,” and feeding them can absolutely interrupt your sex life and other things.  It would be less of an interruption to have your kids raised by a governess/wet nurse.   Or not have any.
  3. There’s nothing un-feminist about being, for a while, consumed with the mothering role.  Mothering is a female thing to do — why should it be the one thing feminists aren’t allowed to really dig? As you make it part of your identity, motherhood will fold in with the other aspects of you:  woman, worker, artist, activist, whatever.
  4. There’s nothing feminist about the idea that All Women Must Indulge Their Maternal Feelings Only On Erica Jong’s Timetable of Grandmotherly Wisdom.

So, how about this, instead, NewMoms:  if you dig breastfeeding and carrying your baby and thinking about your baby, that’s OK.  It’s more than OK, it’s awesome.  And it’s appropriate, especially if you’re dealing with a kid who’s not even walking yet.  But hey, NewMoms, that doesn’t mean you should never do things for yourself, either.  In fact, you really need to.  Check in with yourself from time to time and think about what you’d enjoy doing, just you, not for your baby.  And then go get some of that.

And speaking of getting some, NewMoms, if you’re sharing a bed with your baby and attending to his needs and consumed with the newness of it all, and that leaves you feeling a little blah about sex, for a while, that’s OK, too.  It’s more than OK, it’s totally appropriate.  Temporarily.  But do make sure that from time to time you check in with your own needs.  Adults need physical love as well as emotional sustenance.  If your dose is low for a while, that’s fine, but don’t ignore it entirely.  

My own kids are out of babyhood, but not so far out that I’ve forgotten it all.  A decade ago, a friend told a bunch of us, “We used to have sex and I’d think, ‘that was so great!’ and now if we do it, I think, ‘that was so great for the marriage!’” 

 “So true, so TRUE,” we all groaned wearily.  

Now we’re sharing our raunchy stories over drinks. That transition didn’t happen in a week, but it did happen.  Looking back, all of that seems like a season we all passed through, not a place we got stuck living in forever.  It was like a very, very cold winter that was in some ways unpleasant, and which I don’t want to return to, but was after all just one season.  We all worried a little bit that spring would never come, but when we could stop fretting over how freaking cold it was, we could see that it was also shockingly beautiful, unlike anything else.  And after a while the sun came out and flowers budded again, and that’s beautiful, too.

When in doubt, bathe

The other day, the moms in my Chelsea New MOMs series were talking about evening routines, and one mom mentioned that she likes to get into the tub with her baby.  It’s kind of a brilliant way to do some multi-tasking — you get your baby clean, you get yourself clean and you get to relax in the tub at the end of what was undoubtedly a long day.  

And apparently there’s even more to it:  a new study has found that soaking in a hot bath is helpful when you feel lonely or isolated:

Warm physical experiences were found to significantly reduce the distress of social exclusion, said the study published in the psychology journal Emotion.

"Findings suggest that physical and social warmth are to some extent substitutable in daily life," the study concluded.

"The lonelier we get, the more we substitute the missing social warmth with physical warmth."

Isolation can be a problem throughout the course of parenting, but especially strong for new mothers in those early weeks.  The best investment you can make in your own sanity is to reach out to others by making real, deep, personal connections with likeminded folks.  That’s what mothers’ groups and parenting classes are for.  Ideally, the moms you meet at a new moms’ group become lifelong friends who share each others’ lives through the ups and downs.  

But I know it takes a while for those relationships to deepen, so in the meantime, how about a nice bath and a cup of tea?  Warming yourself helps, and when you’re helped, you’ll be able to do more, get out, and begin to feel even better.   

Note — if you’re taking a bath with your baby for the first time, do it with someone else at home.  The tricky part is getting used to transferring a wet baby out of the tub while you’re still in it.  It’s easiest, at first, to hand the baby off to your partner, and then get out by yourself.

Full article here.