When you become a parent, there’s just so much to learn. The pros and cons of prenatal testing, positions for birth, how to change diapers, how to swaddle, whether to swaddle. You’ll learn of the myriad stroller options. Sling? Bjorn? Ergo? And then there’s the actual child-rearing. Oh, and career choices. And the change from being a member of a couple to the head of a family. Identity shifting is a full-time gig.
Even with a deep knowledge that this has been happening “since the beginning of time,” the sheer volume of new information and changes can make even the hardiest among us feel intimidated. And yet everyone tells you to trust yourself! Trust your instincts! Trust my best-selling book! But figuring out how to hone instincts and filter a constant and conflicting stream of advice takes confidence.
Los Angeles-based psychologist Dr. Jessica Zucker and I have come up with some ideas for how to feel good about yourself as you move through this life-transition. We are not promising euphoric, ego-maniacal heights here, but rather providing some tools for making seemingly impossible tasks or challenges feel possible. We are both huge proponents of realistic expectations and see great benefits from acknowledging the very real challenges. In her clinical practice, Dr. Zucker works primarily with pregnant women and new mothers. Her articles and insights have been featured on PBS’ The Emotional Life, Huffington Post, GOOP, Every Mother Counts and The Conversation. I was thrilled to collaborate with her on this post.
Talk to Other Parents 1 of 10Seeing other new parents with their babies, live, in person, can be incredibly confidence-building and grounding. You watch others struggling, laughing, worrying, asking questions and figuring things out on the fly. You'll learn things. You'll teach things!
This is not to say you are all having the same experience. Sure, there will be overlap, but noticing the many ways women and men experience new parenthood reinforces the idea that there is no perfect way to do it. These people are just like you: they are trying, failing, adapting, succeeding, wondering, worrying, working, getting fed up, failing again, succeeding again.
You might form these groups with friends, through the neighborhood or through parenting or childbirth centers. Breastfeeding groups sometimes function as mother's groups and dads groups are on the rise. If there is not a group in your area, consider starting one! - Ceridwen Morris
Embrace Realistic Expectations 2 of 10Whether we like it or not, early motherhood provides a unique opportunity to attempt to tolerate the in-between— the space between perfection and imperfection — the places where peace and profundity ripen. Make a plan and be prepared for it to change. When we embody a graceful fluidity rather than a rigid stance in parenthood, we inevitably feel like less of a failure, less guilty, and a whole lot more connected to our actual experience. - Dr. Jessica Zucker
Realize It’s Okay to Not Know Everything 3 of 10People say, "Find your own voice as a parent." "Do it your way!" But what is your way? Sometimes you know, sure. But sometimes you have no clue. You're new to this world. Eventually you'll be a wise, worldly senior, but you're a freshman right now. And that can be a shock to the system, especially for parents who have kids later in life or have just gotten used to a modicum of control in their professional and personal lives.
It can be uncomfortable being clueless — about sleep training, diaper changing, nanny-hiring, pediatrician-picking, swinging a social life with a baby, sterilizing pump parts, maintaining a marriage while sleep-deprived and baby-obsessed. And then as soon as you figure something out, your baby changes and you're at square one again. Part of being a parent is feeling vaguely comfortable with the idea that the not knowing will never end. And that if you ask questions, learn, and reach out for support you will, quickly — or sometimes slowly and painstakingly — figure it out. - Ceridwen Morris
Photo: Benjamin Thompson/Flickr
Take Your Emotional Temperature 4 of 10New motherhood is indisputably messy, enlivening, excruciatingly exhausting —a permanent lens-shifter. Entering the maze of motherhood is bound to stir a panoply of emotions. The range of feelings is wide and the days will vary. What is vital in these early months (or maybe throughout the journey of motherhood altogether) is that we keep an eye on our internal worlds.
The basics: How's your mood? Are you feeling engaged in the process of mothering? What's your thought pattern like on any given day? The fluctuations of hormones, caring for and learning about your newborn, shifts in your primary partnership, and basically rearranging (at least temporarily) most aspects of your life can catapult you into sheer bliss, deep depression or somewhere in between.
You know yourself best. Reflecting on how you are reacting to your ever-changing identity in new motherhood is key. If you have an itching feeling that something isn't quite right or you long for your previous self in a way that pains you, reaching out for professional help gives you an opportunity to address burning concerns and will benefit you and your burgeoning family enormously. - Dr. Jessica Zucker
Photo: Theo Go/Flickr
Acknowledge the Small Triumphs 5 of 10There's the long nursing session on the couch in the morning. Then you get a break when the baby is asleep and you have high hopes for all you'll get done. But then that little nap comes and goes and all you managed to do was get the breakfast dishes away and brush your teeth. But here's the thing: These are small triumphs.
Sure, when you're feeding a baby (8-12 times a day, thank you), you're just sitting there. And that may not look or feel like work, but it is: it's physical work and it's the work of caring for a human who cannot yet do anything for itself. Maybe it feels like grunt work some days and the most meaningful work in the world on others. But it's work.
Acknowledging all that you're doing on an almost hourly basis is so important to hanging onto your mojo in your first year as a mother. Our society does not do much to acknowledge how hard this time can be. In other cultures — across time and continents — there are customs that involve some version of a 30-day "lying in" period where new mothers are expected to do nothing other than basically feed the baby and sleep on and off and drink lovingly prepared teas and ox-tail soups. Here it's a race to bounce back into jeans, and get back into work. — so you'll have to conduct your own award ceremonies for all that you're doing. Set achievable goals — maybe one non-baby related chore a day — and then acknowledge the victory when you get something done. - Ceridwen Morris
Be Gentle as You Look in the Mirror 6 of 10What's your first thought when you look in the mirror? Most newly postpartum women unabashedly spray self-loathing comments all over themselves as they glance at a version of their body previously unknown. No longer pregnant, it can be troubling to navigate this newfound temporary shape. Go gentle.
Though body surveillance is ubiquitous in our culture, it does not mean that it is in any way health-promoting, and it surely won't magically bring back your pre-partum body. I am inviting us to think differently about how we approach ourselves during the psychological/physical metamorphosis that accompanies motherhood. We don't necessarily have to love what we see. We do, however, need to remind ourselves of the experience we just went through in pregnancy and acknowledge how profoundly this journey impacts the body as well as the psyche. Your body nurtured another human being and in order for that to happen you transformed from the inside out. Attempt to be tender toward your body as it inches its way back after undertaking such a momentous process. - Dr. Jessica Zucker
Photo: Jon Ovington
Stay Connected 7 of 10When you give birth, your world can suddenly shrink down to the size of a baby's face. Then, slowly, the world begins to expand again. It's not that different for the baby. At first he can only see 15 inches ahead of him, but before you know it, he's darting across a field, arms waving. But in the beginning, caring for an infant can be incredibly focused. New parents might feel operatic levels of emotion throughout a day that barely involves more than two rooms and hardly any spoken words. So give yourself permission to burrow in your new mom-cave.
But don't shut things out too much. While the micro-universe is utterly fulfilling at times, it can also become mind-numbingly, startlingly boring. The extraordinary isolation can be one of the biggest challenges to new parents. This is probably why studies show increased use of social networking websites in the early months of parenting. Connecting online is certainly practical — you can jump on and off, and "chat" without strapping a baby into a car seat — but getting out of the house is sometimes necessary. Think about small, local sojourns you can make with your baby: a latte with a friend, a baby-friendly matinee, a stroller-walk with another parent. If you are the primary care-giver but your partner can take the baby in the early evening, get out every now and then. This is not the time to take on a new hobby, but a once-weekly swim or yoga class or quick drink with a friend? Baby steps. - Ceridwen Morris
Set Your Boundaries 8 of 10Friends streaming in and out of your house with tidbits of advice making your head spin? In-laws showing up at your door with sage wisdom on how to get your baby to sleep, eat, quiet down? Though support and connection are vital during this transformative milestone in your life, I often (half-jokingly) suggest that women pop in earplugs during this nascent period. Attempt to know your limits and honor them.
Finding your own rhythm as a parent takes time and space. Incorporating inspiration from others, experimenting with ways of being that bubble from your gut, rejecting philosophies that don't fit with your vision of motherhood, spending oodles of time with family/friends, or yearning for alone time during this tender crossroads it's all fair game. If you're inclined to cull all the research on mothering, do it. If not, don't. The key here is to find what feels commensurate with your style. - Dr. Jessica Zucker
Photo: Jon Ovington
Give Your Relationship Permission to Change 9 of 10Somewhere into the first few weeks with a newborn, you and your partner might wonder, When will we lie around in bed all Sunday again? When will we go to the movies? Splurge on a nice restaurant? When will I be the center of her/his universe again? It can seem like these things will never happen again.
It's true and not true. Your life will never go back to what it was. But it will move forward and if long, lazy Sundays are huge priority for you and your spouse, you'll figure out how to make that happen with kids in the house. But it'll be a new kind of Sunday. And your relationship will be a new kind of partnership. If you forget about "getting back to how it was" and instead embrace — or at least amble and grope towards — a new future, you may find new kinds of connection. - Ceridwen Morris
Photo: James Boobar
Be Present 10 of 10Whatever you are feeling, other mothers have felt it, too. You have entered a global experience that is bound to poke and prod you in unforeseeable ways — it might stretch your heart beyond compare, wake you up to childhood memories long forgotten, and inextricably alter your worldview. Being mindful of how we feel at any given moment provides pockets of potential learning or rearranging. Being honest with ourselves about the feelings that rush over us when we are overwhelmed, deep in a moment of joy, or confused about the continual identity shifts that can accompany new motherhood, is a practice that will invariably make a sweet imprint on our little ones.
If we know what we feel, name it (silently or aloud), and take care to address our needs, we eventually model for the next generation what it means to be astutely attuned. Curiosity and empathy are essential nuanced ways of interacting that cultivate a thoughtful, loving burgeoning relationship with your child. Remember: feelings are not facts. So, if you feel like a "terrible" mother for not loving each and every moment, this is likely not a fact. Knowing this should help you release a significant sigh of relief. Again, whatever you are feeling, other mothers have felt. - Dr. Jessica Zucker
Photo: Chris Jenna
Dr. Jessica Zucker is a psychologist in Los Angeles specializing in women’s reproductive and maternal mental health. She writes, speaks and consults globally on projects related to women’s health and maternal wellbeing. Follow her on Twitter.
Ceridwen Morris is a childbirth educator and the co-author of the pregnancy and birth guide From The Hips. Follow her blogging on Facebook or Twitter.
Photo: Pedro Cancion