Congratulations! You did it. After nine months of eager anticipation you have brought home your little bundle of joy. Welcome to the roller coaster of parenting! Becoming a parent, especially for the first time, is a major life transition. In one powerful moment your life changed forever as you brought life into this world. With it, comes a cacophony of mixed feelings; excitement about the baby, fear of “screwing up,” nervousness about making mistakes, fear about all the changes, a sense of fulfillment that you have filled a void in your life, and everything in between. This article will attempt to help you make sense of this wonderful and stressful time.
- reflect on your birth experience
- allow yourself to learn how to be a mother
- explore the basis of your “should” comments
- realize that you know more than you think
- let yourself get to know your baby
- try to be the perfect mother
- forget about your partner
- be afraid to laugh
- forget to take care of yourself
- be afraid to ask for help
In the days and weeks following the birth of a child, many first time moms find themselves thinking about, and even reliving, aspects of their birth experience. As prepared as you may have been for the birth of your baby, birthing is the ultimate experience that teaches you that you cannot always be prepared. Most moms have different birth experiences than they imagined and it probably did not go exactly as planned.
Allow yourself to reflect on your feelings about the birth experience: the good, the bad, and the ugly. Try and think about one or two powerful moments, whether it was feeling your first contraction, holding your baby for the first time, or hearing him/her cry. These are the moments that truly make your hard labor worth it! Some women benefit from writing out their birth story. The act of writing something down can help you process the experience, and research shows it can have a therapeutic benefit as well.
Many first time moms assume they should know how to take care of their baby; after all they have a maternal instinct, right? Yes and no. There are certain things you just know how to do but may not realize it, and other things that will take time to figure out. For some reason, many women feel a sense of inadequacy and self-criticism regarding what they don’t know about being a mother. Think about how many months or years it has taken you to learn certain skills you have. You will not automatically know how to swaddle a baby, put together a crib, make a bottle, or change a diaper, but you will learn. You may feel incompetent in your knowledge now, but that’s OK. In a matter of a few weeks, this will all be second nature to you.
Hearing your baby cry inconsolably can be incredibly stressful and overwhelming. You have no idea what s/he wants, and nothing seems to help. Putting your baby to sleep may be a nightmare that takes the entire night; learning how to breastfeed can be stressful and painful; learning how to soothe your baby may seem like the impossible task. The incompetence many women feel in these areas can be quite dramatic. As one woman put it, “I should know how to soothe my own baby! What’s wrong with me?!!”
These “should” comments tend to highlight tremendous areas of insecurity for new moms, and add a layer or pressure to an already stressful situation. Allow yourself to explore your sense of inadequacy and self-judgment. Why are you being so hard on yourself? Women tend to criticize themselves a lot for not knowing how to fix everything immediately with the baby, not realizing they are setting themselves up for an impossible task.
When first-time moms allow themselves to explore their sense of insecurity and give themselves the space to fumble and learn, a remarkable thing happens: they are able to tap into the elusive maternal instinct that was MIA before. The anxiety and pressure can inhibit a first time mom from recognizing that she has more skills than she realizes. The feeling of confidence often sneaks up on the mom when she least expects it – it may be soothing an inconsolable child who finally allows himself to be soothed, or finally putting a baby down in the crib and she actually stays asleep. But these successes come, and when they do, the excitement can be quite dramatic.
As you adjust to being a mother, your baby is also learning. Your baby just came into the world and there is a lot to learn. These will be a lot of mutual learning going on as the two of you start to explore your mother-child relationship. You are likely the most familiar and comforting thing your baby has in a new environment, having spent the last nine months listening to your voice, and cued into your body. The two of you are on a journey together, and along with your partner, this can be a fabulous ride.
Many moms become very fixated on ways they are potentially screwing up their kids. Let the baby cry, and you worry your child doesn’t have enough love; don’t let him cry, and you worry he won’t learn to self-soothe. Many moms are terrified of making the wrong decision in parenting, and this can be incredibly stressful. Donald Winnicott, a pediatrician turned psychoanalyst, coined the term “good enough mother” to reflect the reality of healthy child development. A good enough mother is attuned and dedicated to the needs of her child. That is what creates well adjusted children. Perfection is impossible and unhealthy. Mistakes in the context of an otherwise healthy relationship actually help the psychological development of your child.
Sometimes new moms feel so connected with their baby, that they create a dyadic world where the two exist together, and this can make the dad feel excluded. As your family expands from two to three, recognize there will be changes and adjustments as you grow together. Maybe Dad can take on a night feeding, or the two of you can have someone watch the baby while you grab a quick coffee, or the three of you can hang out in the park together. It may take some navigating figuring out what everyone’s roles are, but give yourselves some time to acclimate to this major change and allow yourselves to grow into your new family structure.
As mentioned previously, this can be a pretty crazy time. This will likely be a time where you make many mistakes, have a lot of confusion, and feel incredibly overwhelmed. It is also a time when you will have an armory of funny stories to share with your baby as she grows up. Whether there’s flying pee or poop, the time you fell asleep while making a bottle, or when you forgot what day it was. Sometimes a good laugh is just what you need to feel like yourself again.
Many moms are so focused on taking care of their babies, they forget to take care of themselves. One mom tearfully reported she had not had time to shower for a whole week. You will be better able to care for your child when you also feel taken care of. Basic necessities like sleep, showering, or going for a walk can do wonders in making you feel full enough that you can properly care for your infant. Often depleted moms become resentful moms, while moms who can take care of themselves find that they awaken their own maternal instinct.
Having a baby can be quite stressful. If you are feeling overwhelmed, stressed out, hopeless, depressed, anxious, or all of the above, there are many competent therapists who can help you turn this time from one of intense stress to one of self-discovery and actualization.
The birth of a first child is a wonderful experience that brings with it much stress. This article attempts to explore ways the new mom can learn to accept that which she does not yet know, and the mistakes she makes (and will continue to make), as well as empower herself for success during this important and powerful transition.