“Tell me there is no one way to ‘do’ newborns. Tell me you just have to figure out what they need. Tell me they aren’t scary.”
Emily has just had her third baby two weeks ago and she is overwhelmed. Her baby is overwrought with Emily’s over supply of breast milk so the adage, ‘if in doubt, flop them out (your boobs, that is),’ that worked perfectly with her first two baby boys isn’t working with this baby. Her baby hates being wrapped and she doesn’t like to be ‘worn’ – tactics that worked with her other babies too. So as Emily walks the floor trying to soothe her newborn – with a toddler clinging to her leg and yelling, “Mama!” – is it any wonder self -doubt is setting in.
To top it all off, visiting grandmas have told Emily, ‘in my day……. We didn’t have a washing machine or dishwasher; my husband went back to work two days after the baby was born; I had five babies and I HAD to manage all by myself. ‘
Then there is a friend with a (settled) baby the same age as Emily’s baby who has managed to go camping already with her husband and kids and her two week old baby. The kindy teacher has emailed, ‘we would love you to bring your baby in to meet the class (of germy four year olds).’
So now Emily is feeling like shit because not only is she drowning in the craziness of an unsettled newborn, an emotional toddler and a preschooler (and the mountain of washing from her vomiting baby, endless hours breastfeeding and kids crawling on her for extra cuddles), she’s hearing loudly and clearly that she ‘should’ be coping (whatever that means) by now. Emily also feels she must justify her husband taking his annual leave to support his family and bond with their newborn too.
I remind Emily … ‘in my day’, the grandmothers would most likely have spent at least a week or possibly even a couple of weeks in hospital resting with strictly supervised visiting hours, babies in a central nursery at night time, while mama slept and a trolley delivering meals and hot cups of tea. They may have lived closer to extended family and had help with children. They certainly wouldn’t have been influenced by media images of women juggling leaky boobs and laptop just hours after birthing. They wouldn’t have had a phone dinging with text messages and calls or emails to answer around the clock and they wouldn’t have felt pressured to take photos to share on social media, complete with joyous and clever captions or to respond to hundreds of well wishing ‘friends’ whom they had never actually met (message to new mums, switch off the phone!).
Of course, in grandmother’s day, women had stresses and pressure unique to the time and their own family situations. They too may have felt, like Emily, that they should have been ‘coping.’ They may have long since tucked away their own desperate feelings of vulnerability into the back of their minds or they may be carrying a deep sense of pride that they did make it through those early days with a newborn and very little support.
What is with this expectation of ‘bouncing back’ after having a baby? Why do we expect our bodies to ‘bounce back’ after spending nine months growing a baby then birthing and making milk to nourish our babies? Where does this pressure come from that says we need to ‘bounce back’ to our pre baby productivity as soon as the placenta is expelled? And why do we try and dismiss our feelings of vulnerability as weakness when our mind and spirits are stretched beyond anything we could have possibly imagined and our brain chemistry is awash with hormones that direct every anxious thought to the well-being and heightened awareness of our baby?
Women will recover physically and emotionally at different rates but please dear new mama, don’t let comparison steal your moments of joy as you gaze into your newborn’s eyes or nuzzle her soft downy head and breathe in that sweet newborn scent. This is your journey, don’t let it be spoilt by judgment, whether this seems to come from others or whether you are your own harshest critic. Please don’t be fooled by the perfect photos of the women in the media who look as though they are ‘bouncing back’ – into their clothes (without vomit stains), into the gym and into their social lives. Those artistic flat lays of perfectly dressed baby surrounded by designer clothing and the stunning photos of an impeccably groomed new mama and her family (with other kids all matching and even wearing shoes!) took a major effort for that mama too. And although she may not be fessing up, because she also feels the pressure to bounce back, that mama is exhausted (and probably reduced to tears) after all her efforts for one picture perfect moment!
Try to remember, dear mama, there are days when even the most ‘together’ looking mama is ugly crying because she is feeling more tired or sore or fragile than she ever has before. Or because her baby is screaming and her toddler is clutching her leg and she too is wondering, will this ever get easier? Will I ever drink a hot drink again? Will I ever get sleep? Will I ever bounce back? But of course, you won’t see these images on social media.
Whether this is your first baby or a subsequent child, there is no ‘ bouncing back’ There is no ‘back’. There is only ‘through’ – through these days of healing; through these days of adjusting to being a mother to one or two or three or more; through the long nights of broken sleep that seem to slip into daylight long before you feel rested; through the days and weeks of getting to know what your brand new baby needs and how she tries to communicate this through her subtle grimaces and her cries. And if this isn’t your first baby, through the adjustment and knitting together of the old and new fabric of your changing family that adding a child means for each of your other children and their unique relationships with you and each other.
Please be patient and try to be as kind to yourself and your beloved as you are to this new little being. Remember, your babies’ cries are not a reflection of your competence as a mother or a sign your baby hates you. Even when it gets scary because nothing you do seems to be working, trust yourself, you do know your baby best and if you feel confused, it’s OK to reach out and ask for help. It’s Ok to take time out, away from the outside world and to say ‘no’ to visitors if this feels right for you. It’s Ok to ask visitors to wash their hands before they touch your baby (yes, it’s normal to be worried about germs). Try to ditch the pressure to ‘bounce back’ and block out the noise as you honour the awesome job you have done bringing forth new life and the changes this means to your body, your mind and your spirit. You have got this. You will get through. Take it gently, mama.
Pinky McKay is an International Board Certified Lactation Consultant and best-selling baby care author. She is also the creator of Boobie Bikkies, organic and natural cookies for breastfeeding mothers and best selling author of Parenting by Heart, Sleeping Like a Baby and Toddler Tactics. See Pinky’s books here.