“I hate this kid!”
This was me, after too many sleepless nights, cradling my endlessly shrieking newborn. Needless to say, I actually loved him more than life itself.
What I wish I’d been told is this: “That’s so normal. Everyone feels that way fleetingly, though few admit it. Life will look cheerier after a good night’s sleep or two.” No one in my vicinity knew or shared that information, however, so guilt was added to my first-time-mom blues.
It’s impossible to foresee how your life is going to change after your first child is born. Good friends may tell you that nothing will ever be the same, though a few might swear they were so clever at making child-care arrangements and getting their husband’s cooperation that their lives barely changed at all. Somewhere between those two extremes lies the truth—YOUR unique motherhood story.
If you’re new to this mom business, a good book can help ease the way. In such a book, practicalities take precedence over philosophy, and we learn that we’re not the first ones to feel these strong emotions toward a helpless infant or, perhaps, a helpless spouse.
Contradictory cultural demands make a mom’s life harder, says Susan Maushart, author of The Mask of Motherhood: How Becoming a Mother Changes Our Lives and Why We Never Talk About It (Penguin, 2000, $12.95). Society glorifies motherhood, while downplaying the immense work involved and ignoring the feelings entirely.
When Maushart spoke to a group of women about the difference between parents and non-parents, those without kids said, “Having a child doesn’t change who you are as a person,” whereas the parents loudly disagreed.
Maushart quotes a study indicating that half of mothers with kids under age 5 experience symptoms of intense emotional distress on a regular or continual basis, and that women are five times more likely to be diagnosed as mentally ill in the year after their first child’s birth than at any other time in their lives.
“It’s really like living in a different world,” said one woman.
What can you expect in those early days after giving birth? Physical isolation, for one thing. A friend of mine confessed to being “bored” with her much anticipated baby. No matter how many walks she took with her baby, she had a lot less social interaction than she was used to. Soon she began taking her baby everywhere and felt fine again.
The other reality is that in the early days, it’s usually the mom who does the vast majority of baby caretaking. Dads mostly still “help.” Such truths, as elegantly presented in The Mask of Motherhood, may not make you free, but sharing them can feel immensely reassuring.
Ariel Gore is a fun read. In her The Mother Trip: Hip Mama’s Guide to Staying Sane in the Chaos of Motherhood (Seal Press, 2000, $14.95), she likes to trash the stereotypes and help women create their own new rules for what motherhood can be. She focuses on the unpredictability of caring for kids, and gives readers permission to be vastly imperfect.
“We can meet our children’s needs and fulfill our own desires,” because, as she explains, moms deserve the same attention we give our kids. Not a mandate to be neglectful, but a manifesto that we’re not slaves to our kids’ whims.
Gore’s book tells of her own experiences in a way that could provide more than one epiphany to the cash/time/energy-strapped. For instance, she tried therapy so she could “whine and vent” about her stress level. Then she realized she could get maid service for the same price.
Not that this will be everyone’s solution, but what Gore gets the reader to do is realize her options. Enough with the “musts.” And, in spite of the lighthearted tone, The Mother Trip contains plenty of solid, sane advice.
After interviewing dozens of career women, Wynn McClenahan Burkett wrote Life After Baby: From Professional Woman to Beginner Parent (Wildcat Canyon Press, 2000, $14.95) about the transition from independent woman to woman with a dependent. With lots of quotes from women who’ve done it, this book tackles how scary it can be to care for a baby when you’ve had no prior experience, how to deal with the “there’s not enough of me to go around” feeling, and how to cope with a husband who feels left out. She even has a section on building community with other moms, mentioning the power of the Internet to tie us together.
Juggling takes a great deal of focus, and when you’re juggling complex human roles, you have to be prepared to drop something once in a while. In Getting it Right: How Working Mothers Successfully Take Up the Challenge of Life, Family and Career (Pocket Books, 2001, $25.95), psychologist and researcher Laraine T. Zappert, Ph.D., shares hard facts gathered from a large study about how much commitment is actually required to “have it all.” Each chapter has an action plan. For example, there’s an “Eight-Step Plan for Dealing with Guilt”—adopt a cognitive approach (i.e., accept the inevitable: sometimes we’ll be late to pick up our child, and the best thing to do is focus on preventing the same mistake again).
Speaking of mistakes, one you don’t want to make is to ignore your marriage. The first two chapters of After the Baby: Making Sense of Marriage After Childbirth (Taylor, 2000, $14.95), by Rhonda Kruse Nordin, are so on target: “One Big Happy Family” and “The Bubble Bursts.” My own first marriage, like at least half of them, never recovered fully from the downdrafts of early parenting. I see similar stresses and driftings in the marriages of friends all the time.
Nordin’s book offers warm, realistic support when and where you need it most. You have to make the bond return—it so often begins slipping at this time—by small doable acts of love and appreciation of each other. It’s the same stuff that makes any marriage strong and gratifying, but so easy to lose track of in the flurry of new motherhood.
See also: Gift Books for New Parents