Meredith Fein Lichtenberg really gets mothers. She’s been helping them for nearly a decade with her birth and parenting classes, her postpartum doula work and sleep counseling. I met her when I was a new mother myself and hung on her every word– she said things that were at once revelations and utterly familiar. Meredith knows a ton about babies, but it’s the way she works with parents that separates her from your usual “expert.” That, and the fact that she won’t give you a one-size-fits-all answer. She’s not selling the solution, or telling you the right thing to do–get an epidural, don’t get an epidural, put the baby in a crib, put the baby in the family bed– but rather helping you figure out what makes sense in your particular situation.
Meredith mentored me through my childbirth education training and advised on From The Hips (the pregnancy & baby book I co-authored) and in the process of all of this we became great friends. I wanted to share some of her brilliance here. I hope you enjoy this interview in which Meredith answers the million dollar question, “What do new moms need most?”
This is the second in my series of interviews with my mentors. Here is the first one: “Elevating The Epidural Vs Natural Conversation With Erica Lyon.”
What do new moms need most?
Company! We’re not meant to be alone with babies 24/7.
Visitors should bring food and news of the outside world, smile abundantly, and listen more than they talk. And show the new mom how well she’s doing with comments like: “Wow, you’ve gotten much faster with the diaper change since last week!” or, simply, “You look great with the baby.”
So, what’s the deal with 6 weeks no sex. Is this a hard medical rule?
As I understand it, it’s not medical at all, but was originally someone’s idea that women need a Big Authority Figure (their doctor) say sex is a no-no, or else they won’t be able to keep their eager husbands away. One of the real drawbacks here is it gets twisted to mean women “should” be ready to do it at 6 weeks.
The better rule, post-baby and in general, is: don’t have sex unless you feel like having sex. And if you do feel like it, go for it — it’s free and good for you. And meanwhile find time to hold hands and hug and kiss and be affectionate.
Push presents, yay or nay?
Absolutely. Since having a baby is the Official End to life being all about you, you both deserve something awesome.
Here’s a concern I hear a lot: “I’m worried I won’t bond right away.” Thoughts?
For some moms, this anxiety can take on epic proportions. Then every interaction with the baby seems to confirm the fear they haven’t bonded. But really, it’s like other relationships: not everyone falls in love at first sight. If you’re obsessing on this, re-frame. Focus on what you already know of the baby; observe the ways you’ve gotten comfortable. Small habits of familiarity are where the deep, lasting connection begins to grow.
Here’s another. “Will I ever sleep again?
Look, you’re having a baby. Your whole life is going to be interrupted for a while, including sleep. Anyone who claims their technique will Sleepify Your Baby In Three Easy Steps, or otherwise make your baby not a human baby, is selling something.
Short sleep stretches are normal for newborns. But sleep deprivation is agony for adults, and that’s what makes this hard. Making progress need not involve torture, though.
There are things that help, but most important, in the early weeks and months, is: rest when you can. Well-rested parents please believe this! can see when their baby is ready to sleep longer, and how best to help that happen.
Too often, new parents don’t take a 5 minute nap because they think it will be a useless drop in the bucket. But a tiny nap can be surprisingly restorative. Even sitting with closed eyes and doing a quick body scan (relax each part of the body from scalp to soles—takes like 2 minutes! Come on, people, you can do it!) can refresh you.
No, it’s not as good as sleeping for 8 hours! But part of being a parent is accepting that sometimes you can’t get “It’s Perfect,” yet, you can only get “It’s A Little Better.” You don’t have to like that. I think that if, as a culture, we all stopped pretending we liked everything, we’d be able to cope with the really difficult stuff much better.
Quick: 3 big new parent fears? Less Quick: What do I do about them?
1. Something bad will happen to my baby.
Well, lots of bad things will happen to your baby but probably not the things you’re picturing. I think parents have this fear because they realize very quickly that they only have control over a few limited parts of the parenting adventure.
Here is what helps: If you have a specific fear, do some research to find out how likely it is and take whatever safety protocols are available. Then, IF/when the fear remains, try to remember that you’re afraid because you don’t have control, and lack of control IS scary, but: your job isn’t to have total control. There’s some solace in knowing that.
In fact, the best thing you can do is try to live a good, sane life, filled with friends and laughter and outings and chocolate and other good things, so that you have great tools to cope with whatever curve balls life sends your way.
2. I won’t be able to breastfeed.
Not everyone loves it or gets the hang of it right away, but in the main, breastfeeding works. Start with that reassuring thought.
Breastfeeding is most likely to succeed if the mom wants to do it, has a supportive partner, and knows a bit about what to expect. So take a prenatal class together.
After the birth, breastfeeding clinics and new moms’ groups are great, not just for moms who are struggling. It’s funny, but despite the “breast is best” slogan, most new moms I work with have only occasionally seen a woman breastfeed, have never seen a nursing newborn, and don’t even know the full American Academy of Pediatrics recommendations about nursing.
I’ve never met a woman who hasn’t seen a bottle-feeding bottle-feeding seems “normal.” Being with other nursing mothers helps you start to see nursing as normal. That’s part of getting the hang of it.
Finally, most folks don’t have problems that require clinical support, but it’s helpful to have contact info for an IBCLC [lactation consultant] in case you need more help.
3. How am I going to deal with going back to work??
Eventually, most women want and need work beyond parenting, but when and how that happens varies. The American maternity leave system is nonexistent and the modern workplace requires extraordinary time and energy commitment. We expect that within a span of a few weeks or months, most women can recover from pregnancy and birth, master breastfeeding, embrace full responsibility for a new human being, take on the biggest identity change of their adult lives, and resume working all day away from home. It is ridiculous. It makes almost no one happy.
In fact, we act as though “happy” is unimportant or irrelevant. Which is tragic, since “the pursuit of happiness” was once a core American value. So the first thing I say is, whatever else you do, write to your legislators and tell them the whole gnarly story of your birth/ breastfeeding/ maternity leave situation, good and bad. Or make a youtube video of it and get all your friends to make one, too. Lets bombard them with a real look at it all and implore them to work towards legislation that really supports mothers and working families.
Beyond that, I’ve worked with moms around the transition back to work for almost ten years, and there aren’t simple, generic solutions. Try not to make decisions until you have to. Focus on what feels right for now, keeping options open for when your needs change. Try to look for tweaks that might make things a little better, even if not perfect. Talk to your friends.
Moms who work outside the home sometimes love it and other days regret the time apart from baby. Moms who are home also have some great days and other days when they are overloaded. Remember, every path has its good and bad.
Compared with other people, new mothers can seem really weirdly anxious. But if this, or any, worry, becomes consuming, or if you’re having intrusive negative thoughts, it’s worth seeking out additional help. All too often, I think, moms who have impairing anxiety don’t get help because they are ashamed. The Edinburgh Scale is a good starting point to check in with yourself. Most moms find that frequent company and a good, facilitated mothers’ group are enough to cope with the transition, but clinical help is available when necessary, and the prognosis for those who get help is great.
If you have questions you’d like to ask Meredith yourself, go to her website, A Mother Is Born where she offers thoughtful, practical advice on everything from labor induction to separation anxiety.