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.