Baby Steps to a Happy Mom
By Carolyn Graham
I still remember that display at Babies ‘R’ Us. It marked the location where I kicked off a series of new-mom meltdowns. This one wasn’t a stark-raving-maniac, tear-through-the-aisles insane kind of event. But as I stared at 14 different strollers, trying to decide whether I needed to pay extra for all-sport wheels or the three-cup “parent beverage tray,” the tears just flowed like spilled breast milk.
If I wasn’t stressing about the gear, then I was ripping into my poor spouse who had the misfortune of mistaking the baby’s pajamas for her day wear. If he was out of range, then I had free time available for worrying about the child’s developmental milestones. I even kept a “poop” diary that first month to make sure that, in my postpartum haze, she was filling her diapers by the book.
Never would I have pictured myself keeping such careful tabs on something so ridiculous. Nor was it “normal” for me to bawl at a department store. And I couldn’t imagine that I’d ever fret about whether my baby was babbling enough (she was and still is). It’s apparent now that I was lost in the worry, emotions and over-the-top hyper-scheduling. It’s a baby, for crying out loud! Isn’t this supposed to be fun?
I vaguely remember my mom and poor beleaguered husband taking me by the hand and trying to convince me to just relax. Thankfully, those reminders – and I needed a few of them – helped me pause long enough to make my baby laugh so hard that she hiccupped. Exhausting midnight feedings also gave me a chance to look deep into her eyes and stock up on peaceful moments.
When Babies ‘R’ Us did its best to overwhelm me with an ungodly variety of baby-bottle nipples, she and I would find a spot in the stuffed animal aisle and chill for a minute.
Despite how it might feel, as moms, we are not alone, says Rachel Bernstein, a licensed marriage and family therapist and mom of three.
There are almost 83 million mothers in the United States, according to the 2004 U.S. Census, and most, if not all of them, experience the same major changes.
“We don’t have what [previous] women have had throughout the millennium,” says Bernstein. “We don’t have that give and take of community.”
Your new family dynamic, those hormones and that needy little wiggle worm you haven’t even gotten to know yet creates an irrevocable disruption in the universe. The resulting ripples are profound, perplexing and often get in the way of the fun – both simple and grand – that should accompany your new addition to the family.
“You’re making a shift,” Bernstein says. “And that’s hard to do all at once. First of all, you’re severely under-slept. So you have to rely on a lot of maternal resilience and fortitude. And that is hard, as strong as we are.”
Find Your Happy Place
Still, a new baby is called a “bundle of joy” for a reason – so where’s the joy?
There are a number of roadblocks that can trip you up on the path to finding joy in new motherhood: sleep disruptions, strains on your relationship with your spouse or partner, too much outside “advice,” and nagging self-doubts. There’s the worry, the stress and the never-ending tasks of tending to a helpless new life form.
But the joy is there, and being aware of and stocking up on activities and moments that bring you happiness will carry you through the tougher times. “That joy – that love – is circular,” Bernstein says. Babies give back what they receive, and those moments, she says, create a reservoir for you to keep tapping in to.
Here’s a smattering of advice on finding your happy place as a new mom. (Hint: for me, it wasn’t the stroller aisle at Babies ‘R’ Us):
• Rest is best. Research supports it. A lack of sleep contributes to weight gain, depression and other stuff you’re going to want to avoid. “The house doesn’t have to be crystal clean,” says Rallie McAllister, M.D., and coauthor of The Mommy MD Guide To Pregnancy and Birth. “You can only be at your best when you’re rested.” Now go lie down.
• Limit the worry. “You want to make sure you’re on top of it, but also say at some point, ‘I’ve now checked every hour to make sure my child is breathing, and each time, everything was OK,’” Bernstein says. Then wean yourself off those habits (I’m down to just once a night with my 10-year-old).
• Make fun of the dirty work. “A diaper change doesn’t have to just be a diaper change,” Bernstein says. “It could be tickle time or time to dance around.” Make those moments as noisy or as peaceful as you need them to be, she adds. And if you’re feeling isolated, invite a friend over to help you fold laundry.
• Tune out the voices. “They grow up healthy and happy because of us – and in spite of us,” Bernstein says of kids. While they may appear vulnerable to our every move, children are, in fact, quite resilient. Bernstein says she often hears from clients who regret taking advice that didn’t mesh with their own instincts – so don’t let those voices become louder than your own.
• Change your outlook. Make a note (either mentally, verbally or written) of at least three to five things you’re grateful for each week. My baby likes my singing. I got six straight hours of sleep last night. My husband did a load of laundry! Then make up your mind to be happy, McAllister says. You’ll be surprised how well that works once you put yourself in that mind-set.
• Be a people person. McAllister’s rules for getting help? Ask, be specific about your needs, show gratitude, and, by all means, let people do what they offer to do.
• No pressure! “It’s the quality of time, not quantity,” says child development and behavior specialist Emma Jenner. “Take time to read books, sing songs, listen to music, go for walks and get plenty of fresh air. Don’t feel you have to interact with your baby every waking moment. If they’re happy, it’s OK to let them be.”
McAllister adds that one of her patients was a career woman before her baby but was under pressure to become a stay-at-home mom. “She was about to chew her own arms off,” McAllister says. But in this woman’s case, she was a better mother for spending time at work as well as at home with her baby.
• Breathe. “Let the rest of the world go by for a little while. You don’t have to keep up with everything else,” McAllister says. “You can get back to that. Just focus on your baby.”
• Give yourself a round of applause. Did you know that not only did you create a human but you also made a new organ, the placenta? Stand up and take a bow (carefully). So the pressure’s off, Mom. You are learning on the job, Bernstein says, so give yourself some credit where it’s due. “You want to say, ‘Bravo, me!’” she adds. And if you don’t hear the applause, then she suggests finding a family member who won’t mind saying, “Good job.”
• Laugh. If you’re having a “moment,” try to think about how funny it will be later, Bernstein says.
Case in point: I was trying to keep my toddler happy and quiet for our best friends’ wedding several years ago. The bride was just about to walk down the aisle when my son very suddenly was in obvious need of an urgent diaper change. It was a quaint, quiet little church. There was no changing table – just a 3-foot-by-3-foot bathroom stall behind the pews. I had ditched the diaper bag for the sake of fashion and had only an emergency diaper in my little “purse.”
On the floor in the tiny stall, I sweated through my cute sleeveless dress as I manically got the job done – and made it down the aisle just ahead of the bridesmaids. This incident was not documented in a “poop journal” but is often retold among family and friends.
Both of my kids are now out of diapers (thank goodness), but I still yearn for those baby years and often wish I’d soaked up more of that new-baby glow.
“It’s so important to have fun with your baby,” says Jenner. “Childhood is fleeting, and every age has something amazing and unique to offer.”
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Carolyn Graham is an editor with Dominion Parenting Media and mom to Kate, 10, and Jack, 6. She no longer cries at baby stores.