Originally published June 2016 and republished with the express permission of the author.
Reading articles about “mothering the new mother” (or, more inclusively, “nurturing the new parent”) would always make me cry. Have your partner take some time off work and help you out after you give birth, the article would say. See if your mother can come stay for a few weeks. When people come to visit, ask them to do some laundry. Pamper yourself. You deserve it.
Here’s the thing. I was willing to believe that I needed some pampering, some support, some mothering. I was exhausted, overwhelmed, struggling to figure out how to be a mother. But there wasn’t anyone lining up at my door offering to do laundry for me. My mother might visit for a day, but she wasn’t staying any longer than that, and my partner went promptly back to work the day after I gave birth.
My sister would tell the story about how, when she was pregnant, her friends would say, “Oh, when you have the baby, I’ll come over all the time; it will be so great.” Then once the baby was born, they’d stop by—once—and see the dark circles under her eyes, her spit-up-stained T-shirt, her unwashed hair, and the crying baby with yellow poop running down her legs. The friends would drop their cute little baby gifts on the table and be out the door again as fast as possible. With luck, they’d send a few text messages over the next few weeks.
That’s what it was like for me, too, at least with some of my friends. The rest of my friends already had their own little babies and were putting all their energy into just surviving. Not much chance of them putting much effort into mothering me.
I’m thinking you probably don’t need to be convinced of your need to be mothered as you make your own giant leap into motherhood. That need usually feels like a very obvious big hole inside you, begging to be filled. How can you take care of your baby when you really just want someone to take care of you? It’s a hard question.
Listen. If you do have people who are there to support you, take all the help you can get. And not just practical help, like making meals and scrubbing bathrooms. Ask for hugs, for encouraging words, for whatever it is you need. Take everything that is offered.
But for those of you who are in my situation, here are some of the things that helped me:
Words of encouragement you can give yourself
If you have a fussy or colicky baby, you may feel like nothing you try is working—he just keeps crying and you feel like a terrible parent. Isn’t that the number one thing good parents do: keep their babies happy? And you feel even worse when your partner gets home and says, “Couldn’t you have at least vacuumed?”
If you had a less-than-wonderful relationship with your parents growing up (yeah, been there), becoming a parent yourself tends to bring up a lot of emotions that might have been buried. Those critical voices can echo in your brain, pointing out every mistake or failure.
So if there is nobody to tell you what a great job you are doing, you might just have to tell yourself! I started keeping a journal when my first son Matthew was born. I’d write down what I did, what seemed to work, what didn’t, the little ways that he was changing and growing (and the ways I was changing and growing). I didn’t skip the bad parts, but tried to make sure I included the good ones. Pretty soon I could look back and see how much I’d figured out over the past few weeks. It gave me just a tiny bit more confidence.
One of my colleagues likes to print out little encouraging signs and post them in our offices. I have one on my wall right now that she stuck there; it says, “Today is going to be awesome.” Just looking at it makes me smile. I used to post little signs like that for myself in my early motherhood days. One was a Dr. Spock quotation. I didn’t agree with all he wrote in his famous Baby Care book, but there was one saying I loved, “You know more than you think you do.” I had that taped near the change table. Some others that I cherished came from La Leche League, “Trust your baby, trust yourself” and “People are more important than things.” When I felt criticized by others and discouraged, reading those words would give me a little boost.
You gotta eat
Nothing saps your energy and makes everything seem worse than trying to get by eating soda crackers and canned soup, or worse, potato chips and cookies. But who can make a decent healthy meal with a fussy, nursing-all-the-time baby and no help?
One thing that helped me was to start early. My babies seemed to be at their best first thing in the morning (possibly because they had nursed ALL NIGHT LONG), so I’d start dinner right after breakfast. Then when the late-afternoon meltdown started (for both me and baby), I had at least the foundation of the meal ready and could tuck the baby in a wrap while I finished up.
I could throw some ingredients into the slow cooker in the morning, some other ingredients in the bread machine after lunch, and we’d have soup or stew with fresh bread for dinner. It gave me such a good feeling to think of my meal cooking itself while I snuggled with the baby on the couch.
Another thing I learned: many of the healthiest foods require no cooking at all. Raw vegetables, raw fruits, nuts, and seeds. What could be easier? I’d keep a container of nuts, raisins, and sunflower seeds to munch on when it looked like lunch might be indefinitely delayed.
High school kids can save you
(I include high school boys in this, too, as my own sons loved doing this kind of thing when they were teens, but it’s true that most of the time, it’s girls who sign up to be mothers’ helpers.) Paid help was mostly beyond my meager budget, but I calculated that I might afford a high school student. I just needed someone to come after school and stay until dinner time, usually a couple of hours a couple of times a week.
What can your mother’s helper do? So much! Mine would hold and rock the baby while I had a shower, tidy up, put in some laundry or wash dishes while I took the baby for a walk, start dinner while I sat and nursed the baby (and gave instructions), weed the garden, walk the dog, take the baby for a walk in the sling while I had a nap, and many more things. If you get one who can drive, he or she can do grocery shopping for you and put everything away.
Even two hours one day a week can make a big difference when you are struggling. Can’t afford that? Many school systems require high school students to do volunteer work in order to graduate—and helping a new mother (for free) counts. And think how much they learn from hanging out with you for a few hours. One of my former helpers grew up to become a La Leche League Leader herself.
There is something about being outside in the fresh air that just makes you feel better. A helpful tip for those who live in Canada, like me: try to only have your babies in May. Then you get a whole summer of reasonably warm weather before the seasons of ice and snow set in. Of course, if you are like me and end up having two babies in October, you will have to muster up all that Canadian toughness and get out there anyway. Even if I just bundled up and sat on the front porch for half an hour, waving at the cars driving past, I felt better.
Another important reason for getting out: to go to La Leche League meetings. I know, there’s all kinds of breastfeeding information online. But that won’t nurture you the way sitting in the same room with other parents who are going through (or have gone through) what you are dealing with will. I promise you it will be worth the effort.
Focus on YOUR priorities
Yes, yours. If other people want things done, well, then maybe they can pitch in and do them. Right now, you are mothering yourself while you mother your baby, and, frankly, that can take a lot of time.
One woman said to me, “Don’t use the baby as an excuse not to do things.” I say exactly the opposite: your baby is an EXCELLENT excuse not to do things you don’t really want to do. Tired of that volunteer job you signed up for? Sorry, can’t do it now, you have a baby and he nurses ALL the time. Don’t want to visit that high school friend who still can make you feel lower than dirt? Sorry, your baby HATES going in the car, maybe you’ll be able to get together when the baby is older (perhaps when she starts university). Your baby can help you take those first steps to saying no when you need to. See how awesome babies are?
Remember that you and your baby are unique
It is hard when you talk to, or see online images of other parents who seem to have it all together. Maybe that outspoken mama really does make bread from scratch every day—starting with grinding the wheat—while also working full time, and keeping her house spotless. But she’s not you and she doesn’t have your baby. If you are spending your days relaxing on the couch eating store-bought bread while your baby sleeps on your chest because that’s what makes you happy, you are doing the right thing. For you.
We have a problem in our culture: we don’t value breastfeeding and we don’t value parenting, so we don’t support people who are doing those things. This is not your fault. Yes, you should be getting way more help, encouragement, and support.
I don’t have a solution, either, except to say—go to a La Leche League meeting. I promise nobody there will care about the dark circles, the lack of make-up, or the way your baby cries every time you put her down. They’ll just be glad to see you. It will feel a bit like you’ve found your way home.
Find local LLL support here.
Teresa Pitman has been a La Leche League Leader for 40 years. She is one of the co-authors of the LLLI books The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding and Sweet Sleep and is the author of 16 other books with a 17th book coming out in January 2019 (on starting solids!). She is the mother of four grown children and the grandmother of ten.