motherhood

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.

 

Marissa Mayer has a nursery in her office suite; says employees can't work from home, tho.

I’m miffed again about Marissa Mayer.  The Yahoo CEO sparked online rage this week after announcing Yahoo would no longer allow employees to work from home.  Last year, she pissed people off by announcing in a way that sounded rather cavalier that she would take “a couple weeks” maternity leave.  I blogged, at the time, about how her comments made it seem like she didn’t understand that the transition to motherhood is more than just learning how to wipe a butt (which women like Mayer can farm out.)

I actually feel kind of bad for Mayer — as the world’s most prominent CEO/New Mom she’s got to be under tremendous scrutiny to prove herself in a thousand ways, and it must feel like a minefield.  But whether she’d wished to be this or not, she’s the Working Mom In Power, who everyone is looking at right now, and she’s handling it badly, over and over.  I don’t know the right answer for Yahoo! in terms of work flexibility arrangements (and some online have suggested that flex time was abused within the company and/or that the scheme is a way for Yahoo! to achieve mass layoffs without having to do a public reduction in force), but a blanket ban on working from home seems outdated and monolithic in response.  

This isn’t just about mothers, it’s about all parents, and to be expansive, it’s about all workers.  Flexibility can be abused, for sure, but it can also allow workers to do better, cleaner, more efficient work and be happy with their lives.  As long as it’s managed well.  And what we expect in a CEO is excellent management skills, right?

But it gets worse.  Apparently, Ms. Mayer paid to have a nursery built into her office during her maternity leave.  This way, she can see her baby when she needs to, without having to work from home.  How nice for her!  She’s so lucky to work for a company where that kind of work-life flexibility is considered importa— oh.  Wait.  

Somehow I’m doubting she’s about to unveil Yahoo’s plan to provide on-site nurseries with childcare for the rest of its employees.  Everyone is a hypocrite sometimes, but this example is pretty egregious.  

It’s a shame; I was hoping she’d use this position and the timing of her motherhood as an opportunity to lead.

"When Mother Knows Best"

Here's an interesting piece over at Scary Mommy about what sounds like a vicious cycle:  a child is born and her mom is eager and enthusiastic and perhaps a bit worried about getting “everything right.”  She googles and reads about Everything, and, with a lot of work, becomes, eventually, more confident and super competent!  She has lists and Techniques and Methods and they work.  Yay, right?  She’s a little controlling about it, but oh well, whatever, right?  

Except that, according to Melissa Lawrence,years later, she ends up with her life like this on a typical Saturday: 

Time to head out? Mommy crouches down tying all the shoe laces while Daddy catches up on the iPad because Daddy doesn’t get the kids ready because he doesn’t know all the ins and outs.  Mommy hands Daddy the bag with the change of clothes, lunch and the water bottles.  The kids are firing questions at Mommy and she’s fielding them like a catcher during bating practice.  “Can I do this?”  “Why did he get that?” It’s only 9 a.m. and you’re so drained from the excess of planning, details and decision-making that you’re ready to head back to bed. 

She’s basically imprisoned in kid-minutiae, alone with it, because, as Melissa puts it, she has “trained [her partner] not to make any decision whatsoever regarding the kids.” 

Well, crap.

But before you’re like, “damned if I do and damned if I don’t” about it, I think there’s a lot more to it.  

First, there are a lot of different ways women grow into motherhood — not everyone has the same experience.  Melissa advises that to prevent this scenario, moms should,

Get the hell away from that baby and let Daddy do his messy, sloppy, imperfect, thing.

But:  For some women, even people who are usually pretty easygoing, part of the learning curve is a period where she simply is … how to put it gently?  … impelled to do everything and Extremely Controlling. It makes sense, when you think about it — the baby is a bunch of mysteries at first. For many of us, every little mystery that is resolved is like a hard-won, intoxicating gift — if doing something results in a sleeping baby, or a baby who stops crying, damn right you’re going to do it every time.  And you probably should, for now, because your sanity is a major ingredient in your family’s well-being.  

And if you’re, perhaps, be a smudge curmudgeonly when someone else starts to do it wrong?  You know, we’re all human.  Try not to be obnoxious, really do try.  But honestly, you’re entitled to a few grumpy moments when you’re getting used to your life being turned on its ear. 

This Controlling Thing isn’t a “problem,” it’s normal for lots of new parents, especially while the kid is still a baby. Many, many new moms get enormous satisfaction and pride out of being the one who “can” respond to the baby!  And for others, they may simply find it very satisfying or irresistible, for now, to “do everything.”  If this is where you are, it’s right for you for now, even if it’s unlikely you’ll love or need this much control in a few years. (BTW, if you are handling everything and *not* finding it satisfying or irresistible, but are, instead, annoyed/resentful, then foist some of that shizzle upon your partner (see below)!  But for now, I’m talking about moms who find it, temporarily, OK).

I don’t think you grow out of the temporary new mom desire to Control by being told that it’s going to ruin your life later if it goes on and on.  You know what does help you grow out of it?  

  • Time.  In time, you notice that if someone forgets to pack wipes in your diaper bag, you can pick some up while you’re out and it’s a hassle, but it’s not the apocalypse. Try to notice this stuff.  Then you start to ease up. And likewise,
  • Experimentation.  (Here Melissa and I agree) — when you can, let others take a turn, even if you know it will make a mess, take longer or potentially disrupt your balance.  This is how others learn why you do what you do, and it’s how you find new things that also work, and it’s how you learn you don’t have to do everything.  This is important; you should do it.  But do it when you can.  Don’t experiment when you’re not ready just because you’re afraid that five years from now your life will be bad.  Don’t experiment on a day where you’re already in tears mid-morning about how chaotic life is.  And if every day feels too chaotic to experiment with anything, though, you probably also need:
  • Company, friendship, fresh air, and food.  If you’re being well taken care of, there are a whole host of things that will bother you a million times less and you will be able to play with this more.  I promise. And, relatedly
  • A Partner who shows you he or she wants to be in there with you however works for your family now (more about this below).

If your baby is still basically a blob, and you’re basically doing everything and that’s working for you for now, take it easy on yourself. 

Second, though, and here’s what really bothers me about the article.  Can we just, collectively as a world decide not to use the word “trained” to describe what goes on in human relationships (except if we’re really joking or reading like Fifty Shades or something)?  Yes, we all respond to praise and try to avoid chastisement, but I hope there is more to your relationship with your partner than just a carrot stick situation.  

The truth is that a parent who wants to get in there, get his hands dirty and be, truly, a co-parent will do it, even if the other parent is a Bossy Beeyotch for years, even if her inherent personality is very controlling.  

I say this not just as someone who has seen it professionally but as a Bossy Beeyotch myself.  From a long line of Bossy Beeyotches (my mother calls us a “Family of Generals”; my cousin literally has a post-it on her computer with a little message reminding her to “Ease the Fuck UP!” which has, alas, not transformed her character).  Bossy Beeyotches, all, we nevertheless all have partners who are full parents.  I did not say “perfect” parents or “perfect” marriages. But all of our kids know that Dad can pack a lunch, arrange a playdate or hold your head when you’re barfing, even if he and Mom don’t do it the same way.  Why?  Because (a) it’s not fucking rocket science to do those things and (b) they wanted in.  Not in the same way, not on the same timetable, not like clones of us, and it wasn’t always beautiful or easy to negotiate.  But they got in there because they wanted to.

My point is this:  if you’ve got a bunch of kids and you’ve been doing the parenting thing for a while now, and Dad is taking a pass on all the daily crap of involvement, this is not because “mom is too controlling” and certainly not because she went through the normal new-mom controlling Thing.  It is because Dad isn’t trying to work with her.  

If he’s saying,  to himself, “she’s controlling, moody, difficult,” perhaps these are all true, and she ought to work on her tone.  Really, she should.  But it doesn’t end there.  Concluding that he ought to retreat into the Ipad and not bother to figure out how to make the kids’ lunch because Mom can be difficult? That is not the logical conclusion.  This is the person you’re sharing your life and raising children with.  If you want a relationship with your partner, you work with her.  If you want a relationship with your children as a full parent, you get in there and find something you can do.  

Being in the game can mean finding something the mom needs less control of and taking that on — because you want to do this.  Or it can be the simple statement, “I want to watch you and learn even if you’re doing it for now.”   

Even if it’s the early months and mom simply wants (or needs!) to handle many things herself, the simple expression, “I want to understand; I want to be in it” is so important and such a show that you are part of a growing family.  And from mom:  even the simplest expression that “I value your opinion and perspective” is team playing.

It’s not a woman’s responsibility to train her husband, for good or for bad.  He’s a dude, not a dog, and you are partners. No relationship is easy.  But that’s why we do this as adults.  

Go for it w/ your partner.  When you’re working together — whatever form that takes for now in your parenting adventure — it feels good.

You're not the most scatterbrained new mom

… because that award is held by me.  

I was just looking for something I was almost sure I’d find buried deep inside file folders in the bowels of a huge desk my husband and I use basically as a garbage can.

I found the document I needed.  But first?  I found a stack of thank-you notes I wrote but didn’t mail, for presents I got when my daughter was born.   

My daughter is. almost.  six.  years.  old.

More than half the people to whom the cards were written are now dead.  

So, just give yourself a pat on the back because you will certainly get to yours before your child is in kindergarten.

Don't Be A Dick

The shelves of bookstores sag under the weight of varied parenting advice books proclaiming different methods for you to get it all right, but this one piece at Huffington Post pretty much nails it.  The writer is a reasonable mom of two who sums up her parenting “philosophy” as:  

I try not to be a dick to my kids, but it’s okay if sometimes they’re inconvenienced by my needing to be a human in addition to being a mother.

You really don’t need more than this very basic concept to be a good mother, or good at any relationship I think.

She also points out that childbirth itself is basically just “one really rough day,” that in the first couple years of motherhood, “you may lose your mind” (and if so, get help), that it’s worth joining a nurturing non-judgy mothers’ group, and that it’s worth fighting the urge to be controlling (it’s the hyper-controlling attitude, not motherhood itself, she wisely notes, that makes people lose their sanity, sleep and sex lives.)

I like this piece because it’s refreshingly cavalier without demeaning the way many moms experience motherhood as awesome and profound.  She’s not saying that you ought not care, that you shouldn’t be really deeply invested, or that your children should be trained to comply like little French Automotons.  She is saying, take it easy.   

So, do that.

On Brain Fog, Marissa Mayer and Maternity Leave

Did your brain sort of go offline when you had a baby?  

When I was pregnant with my eldest I was a lawyer.  One of my colleagues informed me that a really bad case of “pregnant woman brain fog,” which she clearly thought I had, meant you were carrying a boy.  In her analysis, having a boy made you stupid: “they steal your brain, since males are dumber than females  generally, so they need to sap the mother.”  

(Meanwhile my secretary was telling me that if “you” — she used a generic “you” but she clearly meant “me” — looked ugly during pregnancy, you were definitely having a girl because, “girls steal your beauty.”  I was obviously having a hermaphrodite!)

My childbirth students and the new moms I work with often complain about “brain fog.”  It doesn’t happen to everyone and it doesn’t happen the same way for everyone, but it’s common enough that I giggled, reading this piece by Elizabeth Beller, about brain fog, which, for her, continues through breastfeeding, so that for months her mind works like this:

Feed Baby!

Blank blank blank blank blank blank.

Blank. Blank.

Baby!

Blank blank blank.

Bottles.

Blank blank blank blank.

Breastpump. Full Boobs.

Blank.

SIDS! SIDS! SIDS! SIDS!

Blank blank blank blank blank blank blank.

Blank. Blank.

Walk. Stroller.

Blank. Blank.

Air. Sleep. Sleep. Please, for the love of GOD, sleep. 

Christ these poor people with small children caught in earthquakes, floods, tornados!! The world is terrifying!!! How can I protect my children?!?

Blank Blank Blank blank blank blank blank blank. Blank blank blank.

Sleeeeeeeeeeeeeep.

Blank blank blank blank.

STARVING!! FRENCH FRIES! POUND CAKE! CHEESEBURGER! ANOTHER CHEESEBURGER! Pound cake. A beer.

Blank.

Pump.

Blank.

I totally laughed out loud at this description, but it also brings up something serious.

I’m not an expert on the chemical nature of these brain changes during and after pregnancy; obviously progesterone and oxytocin play a role in how we think and feel, and of course the sleep disruption typical of pregnancy and new motherhood plays a role in how clearly we think.  But I am hesitant to just chalk this up to “pregnancy” or “breastfeeding” biochemistry.  And I don’t like looking only at what you’re not able to concentrate on, rather than on what you’re doing instead.

Being pregnant and, later, becoming a mother, is an identity transformation, a creative project.  Creative projects use up a lot of brain power.  Perhaps that sounds mushy and new-agey to you, so I’ll put it this way:

You’ve just added a new citizen to the world and your body is required to grow him, and then to keep him alive.  If you don’t figure out how to get him cared for, he will die. 

Assuming he does grow up, he may become Ghandi, or Hitler, or a random guy selling shaved ice in Tomkins Square Park, or someone with an awesome sense of humor or someone who has really bad taste in shoes, or whatever.

In addition to whatever else you do with your life, your mind, and soul, and decades of your time and patience and attention are now required to help shape that person into Ghandi or Hitler or a random guy selling shaved ice in Tomkins Square Park or whatever; in some ways, how you spend these years will be a major factor in which of these paths he follows. This is true regardless of your parenting style — the fact is, your relationship with him affects his development. 

You created him out of your own cells. 

By fucking!  

And he’s going to turn out to be one of the five most important people you ever know, one of the people who changes you most in all your life.  

But for now he cannot do anything for himself, and cannot survive without you. 

You will be the most influential person in his life, for decades at least.  

You cannot get out of this relationship.  

Ever.  

Oh, also, by the way, you’re flooded with hormones and not sleeping normally and, unless you’re super-rich, you’re probably spending weeks/months/years wiping his butt and cleaning up his vomit and considering emailing photos of both to your pediatrician to check that they’re normal, and also doing work that our entire culture considers menial, and doing it without pay or benefits, and only sometimes finding that unbearable. 

Now, tell us, who are you?

Is it a surprise that, for a while, as you’re getting used to all this, some of your brain power is diverted from your other activities and to your new project?  Really, it’s only if we ignore what it is to become a mother that we could be even slightly surprised by it.

Let’s stop thinking about it as a fog that impairs concentration, and note that what a pregnant woman or new mother is doing involves a huge amount of concentration and brain activity 24/7  — some of it conscious and the rest of it simmering back there, the creative project of learning to be a mother.  Just because it’s natural doesn’t mean it’s nothing.

I’m thinking about this today because I just read that Marissa Mayer, the new CEO of Yahoo, has announced that she’s pregnant with her first child and plans, this fall, to take “a few weeks of maternity leave” and she’ll continue to “work throughout it” (obviously she means “work for Yahoo”).  I don’t know her.  Most likely she is in that tiny fraction of a percent of American women who can afford to not wipe butts if she doesn’t want to.  

Many women who are great, wonderful, earnest and devoted mothers find it reassuring and calming to reincorporate their work-life as soon as possible after their children are born.  There is nothing wrong with that — it can be done with patience and support and appropriate balance.  But, as the world dissects Marissa Mayer and her maternity leave plans, it’s important to remember what maternity leave is — beyond the physical recovery from childbirth, there’s the creative transition to parenthood, which is not something that can be farmed out to nannies and nurses. 

I’m not saying that’s simple or easy to navigate — certainly if you’re a CEO or owner, you can’t fully “leave,” just like a mother of a second or third child can’t simply stop paying attention to her firstborn.  But I wish we’d stop thinking of maternity leave as a vacation — which you might choose not to take, just as lots of Americans choose not to take vacations (or weekends!).  And instead, that we think of the first word in that phrase — “maternity” — and focus what the mother is doing, for itself, and not *only* inasmuch as it takes away from her other things.  

My kids aren’t babies anymore.  Looking back, I remember having an awfully hard time concentrating on some non-child issues I had to deal with when I was pregnant.  That “fuzzy” feeling extended into the new-parent period. It was most intense while I wasn’t sleeping and was breastfeeding round-the-clock, but in truth, it has lasted years. 

Years!  During which my ability to attend to the non-motherhood details of life was reduced, somewhat, compared to what I was like before I became a mother.

Finally, I asked myself, why I was comparing myself to what I was like before I became a mother?  Meanwhile, now I was a mother — I would be, forever. 

And it was time to stop acting like that was a freaking impairment.

Today, my eldest is home sick.  Just having him in the house means my attention is a little diverted from writing this post.  Not just because he is complaining every five minutes, but because I am thinking about him, and not just this.  

Is that “mom brain”?  I am, after all, charged with his care.  Wouldn’t anyone — mom or otherwise — find that attending to something new takes away some of the resources you have for your other things?  

Lets stop thinking mothers ought to be just like childless women. 

Where Are The Professionals?!

It is 3 am and you are changing your newborn’s diaper and looking at the glob of scab that will ultimately become her belly-button and suddenly, you are possessed of a certainty that you are supposed to *do* something to it, but you can’t remember what.  Wash it?  Swab with a q-tip?  Ointment?  Rubbing alcohol?

Depending on how tired you are, this resolves one of two ways:

1.  Say to self, “well, I’ll look it up in the morning, but whatever the right thing is, there is no way this baby is dying even if I get it wrong in the middle of the night.”  

or

2.  New-mom-meltdown where you become more and more anxious, not just about what the right answer is, but about the fact that you don’t know it, and whether this is a sign that you are basically a shitty mother.  I so hope this isn’t where it goes, but I know that for all of us, sometimes this is exactly where it goes.

Also, if you took a good prenatal class, this thought process is generally also accompanied by:

"Crap, we talked about it in that newborn care class, but I can’t remember what she said to do???"

Look, most of these late-night (and mid-day, and morning, and afternoon) freakouts are just the ordinary course of new parent development, and if you’ve got lots of loving people around you who take good care of you, they’ll help you figure out what to do.  Even more important, they’ll help you remember that freakouts are almost always over things that are low stakes and the “answer” doesn’t matter that much.  (And if those people don’t do that stuff, you need some other people in your life to help you get that!)

Still, in a pinch, it’s so helpful to have someone who can tell you the detailed answer, right? 

You can email me, of course, but I am generally asleep at 3 am (and one day you will be, too, I promise), so you won’t get a response till morning.  

So, at those moments, your best bet is an awesome resource called www.birth360.com  The website is a series of great, short videos by renowned educator and author Erica Lyon (author of The Big Book of Birth).  You click on a topic (like, umbilical cord care! ) and there she is, reminding you exactly what you learned in your newborn care class.

It’s more than that, though.  Great prenatal classes don’t just teach you “how”; they address the way that having a baby is a life experience that involves your body, your mind, your identity.  Having a baby isn’t just learning to change diapers and give a bath, it’s adjusting to the way that living with a newborn is weird and new.  It’s coping with uncertainty and doubt as you grow into the role.  It’s learning how to communicate with someone who can’t talk, and learning who you turn out to be now that you’re a mother.  

What helps you grow into all this is community and support, so that you are free to voice your fears and ideas and explorations in a safe environment, as you get the hang of it.  But when it’s 3 am and your Moms’ Group isn’t till tomorrow afternoon, you may also find yourself hanging on Erica’s words in some of the other birth360 videos, where she talks about maternal sanity, or doing “just one thing per day.”  

One of my favorites is this clip, called "Where are the Professionals?!"  about how many new parents feel, initially, when they’re booted from the hospital, baby in tow, feeling like imposters.  She injects a much-needed bit of humor into all this stuff, which dispels some of the horrible solemnity we can all slide into when we do something new.  

I have known Erica for many years, and her classes are some of the best out there.  She’s an awesome resource and the site is a great help for many new parents; check it out.

So, OK, but one more thing.  Erica says, at the end of that last clip, “it takes a little while for the part of you who is a mom to feel like a mom.”  I can’t overstate how true this is.  And so, when you’re freaking out in the middle of the night, as you’re clicking over to birth360, try to remember that one sentence, OK?  Because a lot of the anxiety and self doubt comes from just not being used to the role yet.  It will come, it just doesn’t come, for everyone, right away.  It comes in spurts, I think, and some people “feel the part” within the first few weeks, and others not for many months to come, or even over a year.  

It’s a big transition.  Be gentle with yourself.  

Why Do We Read Parenting Books That Make Moms Feel Like Crap?

The other day, I was finishing a childbirth education series, and one of the students voiced something I think many pregnant folks think about.  Now that we’d come to the end of our childbirth class, she said, she was less worried about the birth.  But with some of those questions answered, she was beginning to think about what would come after.  And when she thought about that, she was more wary:

"It’s really weird, and kind of intimidating, that after I actually have the baby, they’re just going to send me home with him, as though I know what I’m doing!"  

When you’re new to parenting, not knowing what you’re doing is pretty par for the course (actually, that lasts —  my son is nearly eleven and I still have no idea what I’m doing, but I think you get more and more tolerant of that feeling), but I still thought it was a brave thing for my student to admit.  No one likes to feel like they don’t know what they’re doing.

What helps, I think, is to build some community.  A supportive community means that you have helpers around after the birth so that you can get some rest and get fed and told you are awesome, which you are.  

It also means you have some knowledgeable people around, whose opinion and guidance you trust — those people teach you, and boost your confidence.  

And a supportive community also means you have some peers who help you see that what you’re going through is normal, even when it’s really unsettling.  You learn from your peers by watching them, with their struggles, and joys, and seeing your own fears and concerns and pride and successes reflected in theirs.  

Support is a combination of creature comforts, love, and guidance.  Everyone needs it.

But the thing is, for lots of people, the only thing worse than not knowing what to do is the possibility that someone might find out you don’t know what to do.  And so lots of people don’t reach out for the kind of community that helps boost confidence.  Instead, they buy parenting books.

I’m not opposed to parenting books and I own a ton of them.  But they don’t replace the kind of support and guidance you can get from real people in your life.  A book might tell you about a generic baby and mother, but the author doesn’t know you.

Still, people buy the books, looking for guidance and handholding, and expertise.  But too often, the books make the parents feel worse, not better.  A recent English study looked at parents’ reactions to a variety of books by parenting “experts” over the past half century, and found that 

although the advice from these experts changed over the decades, the one thing that didn’t change was the way it was delivered. Whatever the message for mothers, it was given as an order with a threat of dire consequences if mother or child failed to behave as expected.


I see this way too often.  It’s so disheartening when a mom comes to the MOMs’ group worried that she’s ruined her baby because she can’t meet the standards set forth in the parenting books she’s been reading.  So, just to get this out of the way — if you are following your gut, and trying to respond to your baby (your baby, not a generic baby in some book) and your baby doesn’t behave the way the book says she will,

Or if you’re using a combination of common sense and heart, and trying to get to know your baby, but it turns out you don’t feel the way a book says you ought to feel,

Or, if you’re reading a “trusted” guide about parenting, but the philosophy it describes sounds horrible to you, or just illogical or untrue, or you can’t imagine how you’ll ever do the things the book describes,

That’s all totally normal and not a sign that there is something wrong with you.  

And when you give up on following that book, it is not baby-ruinous.  

Babies aren’t generic.  Their fates are not sealed in whether you did what was written on page 302 of that book on your nighttable.  Parents aren’t generic.  They have legitimately different ideals and values and feelings about how to go about their lives.

Raising children does not require parenting “experts.”  It requires patience, attention, a lot of creativity, willingness to play a little, to experiment … lots of things.

It helps to have a decent knowledge of infant development, and you may need someone to teach you that, so you’re not exhausting yourself trying to get your 2 week old baby to walk.  And if you have a clinical question about your child’s medical care, yes, you need a doctor.  And clinical breastfeeding questions should be answered by an Internationally Board Certified Lactation Consultant (IBCLC).  And many many people find it helpful to read or learn about a variety of different parenting styles and philosophies in general.

But for day-to-day parenting decisions?  You don’t need an expert.  You need real people who really know the real you and your real baby, and can help you find your way until you’re confident that you’re the expert.  

So buy the books, if you like, but try not to take them as mandates.  And when you’re reading something that makes you feel lousy, you need to stop and ask yourself why you put yourself through that.  Isn’t your life hard enough now, without some obnoxious author’s voice in your head undermining your confidence when he doesn’t even know you and your baby?

Or skip the books entirely.  One of the moms in my MOMs group this week told us she doesn’t read the parenting books at all; she found them too stressful.  ”So what are you reading?” I asked.

Fifty Shades of Grey" came the reply.  Giggles all around.  

That’s a much more entertaining way to spend your time!

How to Treat Your MIL

In the New MOMs group, we often spend a session talking about mothers-in-law.    It’s a famous thing to joke about the woman who raised your child’s other parent, right? She’s unappreciative?  Clueless?  Finds you inadequate?  Brags about all the things she did that made your partner turn out so awesome?  Expects you to cater to her?  Doesn’t really like you?  Thinks you’re not quite good enough for her precious child?  Wants to see the baby too much, or not enough?  Doesn’t see how weird and idiosyncratic and demanding she is?  Doesn’t do things the way *your* family does?

OK, friends, check it out:  One day you may well be someone’s mother in law.  

Put that thought into your waffle iron and toast it while you make your next set of plans to see your partner’s mom.  What kind of mother in law would you be?  

Today I was reading a humor piece on Huffington Post by a woman with a five year old son, looking ahead to a time when she’s the mother in law, full of demands and expectations of her son’s future wife.  

I don’t think I’ve ever known a mother to obsess over her infant daughter's future spouse, but it's a thing I've seen often among mothers of sons.  Just the other day, I was talking to a group of new moms about their feelings about their babies' gender.  Of course everyone starts out saying, “I'm just happy to have a healthy baby,” but beyond that, many of us also do have some feelings about raising a boy or raising a girl.  And sure enough, one point that is often raised by mothers of sons is:  ”One day he'll marry someone and his wife won't like me and she'll want him to do all the holidays with her family and they'll move away and I'll be left all alone!  Whereas if I had a girl, she'd stay with me forever.”

There are many assumptions here that make me really uncomfortable — hetero-normative, sexist and marriage-normative.  (Maybe your son will be with a guy!  Maybe your son will marry someone who has two dads and you’ll be the only grandma! Maybe your son won’t get married! and so on).  But let’s get away from all that stuff and talk about what else is going on here?

Because assumptions aside, it sure is common for women married to men to incorporate their own family traditions, not in a 50-50 balance with their husband’s family’s traditions, but in a way that prioritizes her family’s access.  In many hetero marriages, the bride’s mother “gets” family holidays and access to grandbabies in a way that the groom’s mother doesn’t.  

Sometimes the new moms I work with who have sons, are already anticipating this imbalance and worrying about being the excluded Mother-In-Law, even when their babies are still in diapers.  This feeling is summed up in the HuffPost piece, which parodies a “prenup” the author wants her five year old son’s future wife to sign — a contract which puts mom at the center of her son’s life forever.

It’s meant to be a joke of course, but it’s not exactly a joke — it’s also an expression of this anxious feeling that one day your son will leave you after all the earnest love you’ve poured into him for these long months and years.  Those feelings, and the anticipation, are normal, and worth exploring.  Who doesn’t feel the bittersweet of a child’s eventual independence?

But you can do more than fret about this.  There’s actually something you can do:  be nice to your own mother in law.  And encourage your baby’s dad to be loving and expressive about how much he digs her, too.  Because your baby learns, more than anything, by watching what you do.  You want him to be good to you when you’re the mother in law?  Give him an example.  

I wondered, reading the HuffPost piece, how the writer treats her precious son’s grandma on dad’s side.  Does she follow the rules she hopes a future daughter in law would?   Does she include her and love her and consider her an equal grandma to her own mother?  Does she encourage her husband to be generous and loving and expressive about how much he loves his mama?  When you do these things — and holyOMFG they sometimes require a LOT of character on your part! — but when you do them, the message your son gets is:  grown-ups are good to their mothers; it has nothing to do with being a boy or a girl.  

Being good to your mother in law doesn’t mean taking away from your own mother.  Likewise, when your husband is good to, and loyal to, and enthusiastic about his mom, it doesn’t mean he is picking her over you.  There’s enough love to go around.  That’s what family is about.

But maybe your MIL is whack!  Recently a student of mine confided that her mother in law had just said something like, “Well, you’re better at being a mother than I would have guessed!  Even though you can’t cook.”  

Sometimes your partner’s mother is so freaking difficult that you absolutely marvel that she created him.  But honestly, your future child-in-law may think just the same about you, right?  So — don’t you think you ought to teach your kid how to behave in case you turn out whack yourself?

It is hard to turn the other cheek.  And I am absolutely NOT saying you should lie down and passively accept anything abusive from any family member!  It is vital to set good boundaries with parents and in-laws who can’t play nicely.

But I think only good can come of a lifetime of showing your child that when it’s family, you try to look for the best in someone, try to focus on what might make a positive relationship, and try to find ways to lovingly connect — because that’s how we take care of our family.

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.

What's Up With Motherhood?

Here are some healthful tid bits for women to savor as they embark on motherhood. Trust yourself. Rely on others. Ask for help. Seek support. Connect with loved ones. Take time for yourself. Expect to feel amazing, awful, and everything in between. Throw perfection out the window!

This is from an interview called What’s Up With Motherhood, at thenewperfect.com, with Dr. Jessica Zucker, a psychotherapist who specializes in women’s health issues.   

Such important points in an article that talks about the way moms waste energy trying to be as “perfect” as the other mothers.

But what I like most in this quote is:   look at all these things that seem like contrasts:  ”trust yourself” sounds so independent, but it’s right next to “rely on others” and “ask for help.”  That’s because when you’re a mother, you’ve got to be both independent and dependent. Those things don’t cancel each other out — each one is an ingredient in the other.  

It’s one thing to hear “trust yourself” and “rely on others”, but it’s another thing to do it.  So many new moms think “trust yourself” is great advice for people who know what they’re doing, but worry that it doesn’t apply to them.  If you’re a new mom who has no experience and few role models and is bombarded by “expert advice” telling you to do a dozen mutually exclusive things, you can start worrying that your common sense isn’t enough.  Or, perhaps, you’re just too tired to hear what common sense tells you.

And similarly, it can be hard to rely on others and ask for help, even when we “know” it’s good advice.  On the one hand, I think we all understand that the point of having 9 billion people on one planet is that there are going to be some good ones to share your life with.  But on the other hand, I think we all, sometimes, worry that needing people is a sign of weakness, something you shouldn’t admit. I do it, too, as I’ve blogged about.

So but here’s the thing.  You know what helps you trust yourself?  Relying on others.  And you know what helps you rely on others?  Trusting yourself.  

Here’s why:  When you can trust that feeling lonely or empty or confused isn’t a sign that You’re A Shitty Mom, you can open your life to other people and begin to rely on them.  And when you’re around other mothers and you become friends and your lives start to intertwine (I mean having real relationships, not just casual encounters where everyone pretends their lives are perfect) you start to see that what real mothers do, in real life, is not a perfect arrangement of beautiful Kodak moments, but a big soupy mess of decisions that are sometimes very planful and other times haphazard, where their personality, their common sense, their aesthetic sense and their quirks are the tools they rely on.  When you see other women doing this you realize — “trust yourself”  doesn’t mean “have perfect judgment about everything”; it means, “you’re going to be OK; stop agonizing so much.”

No one knows what she’s doing all the time and everyone breaks a sweat raising kids.  That’s because it’s hard.  But community helps, perhaps more than anything, at reminding us that the goal isn’t to be perfect.  I think the goal is to have tools to handle the stuff that’s just not fun, and to be able to enjoy the stuff that really, really is.

"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’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. 

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.