There is nothing on earth as important as creating and raising a child. Mothering means infusing a new little body and consciousness with love, making manifest through your presence and your responsiveness an experience of the world as a safe, welcoming place for this new little person. Imagine for a moment exactly what it takes to infuse a human being with a deeply embodied sense of security. It’s no small feat.
In those first days, weeks and months after having a baby (and in the years to come), every mother undergoes immense physical, emotional and psychological change as she shifts into the experience of mothering her particular baby and child. The change is all-encompassing and completely overwhelming at times even for the most well-adjusted, best supported mom. Just as her pregnancy gradually but utterly transformed her body and her ideas about herself, her postpartum experience is also utterly transformational but this time in an immediate, full-speed-ahead way that is entirely unrelenting. Babies’ needs are never-ending and meeting their needs is HARD, especially when we’re also coping with our own physical recovery from pregnancy and birth. For many new moms the postpartum period stirs up anxiety and despair. Let’s face it – the early days of mothering are shocking and difficult and can make us question ourselves in unsettling ways. As our children grow and develop we continue to encounter our own fears and limitations in profound ways. I believe there are some specific things we can do to help protect ourselves from anxiety and despair and help rebuild our strength. Caring for ourselves well is the key.
If I were to name the single most powerful contributor to anxiety and despair in the postpartum period it would be lack of sleep. Sleep continues to be a very significant factor throughout our lives and deserves attention. Creating opportunities for uninterrupted sleep is essential to mom’s wellness. If you are able to arrange even one or two nights a week of really good sleep you will find your mood improves dramatically, just knowing you can expect and count on getting these little (but hugely important) breaks for true sleep. For mothers who breastfeed, sleep can be particularly challenging. Our deeply held values around caring for our infant’s immense needs for contact and milk often means that we are “on” all night long. But there are critical moments in a mother’s life when she herself needs care and tending and that might mean foregoing a feeding in the night and letting baby take a bottle from a family member or another nighttime helper so that mom can refuel and recharge. Or it might mean sleep training your child in a manner that works with your values. If you are particularly sleep-challenged, here are some ways you might consider shifting things around so that you get some shut-eye:
Ask family members (moms, sisters, nieces, aunts, grandmothers) if they can come spend the night and take over the nighttime duties now and then (feeding, holding and changing your little one) so that you can close your bedroom door and sleep uninterrupted for a few hours.
Hire a night nanny or a postpartum doula if you can afford to. Even if it's just one or two nights a week, you will benefit immensely from being able to put in ear plugs, get truly comfortable and fall deeply asleep for a chunk of time.
Have your partner take over night duties on some nights. Remember, your partner is not recovering from giving birth, making milk (if you're breastfeeding) and is not as biologically hooked into the baby as you are...meaning, your partner's body likely has a greater reserve of resources available than yours does right now. Your partner has a huge advantage here in terms of energy.
Look into ways to assist your body with falling and staying asleep – through nutrition, supplements, sleep hygiene and relaxation techniques.
Without some decent sleep we cannot be well. Without our wellness our families suffer. At some point your baby or child will be sleeping longer stretches at night and not requiring the level of care he/she needs now. But in those times when you little one isn’t sleeping, make certain you have a plan in place to protect your own sleep.
Many new moms also suffer from the near complete loss of free time and the grief and guilt that seem to accompany that loss. We yearn for the ability to take a long, hot shower, watch a movie, think the thoughts we want to think, linger over a meal…and there is absolutely nothing wrong with wanting and missing all of those ways we used to live. I would go so far as to say, it’s incredibly healthy to yearn for all those ways we used to live, for those are the ways we knew how to take care of ourselves and the ways we knew how to feel joy and comfort and wellness. The fact that you miss your old life is really a good sign – that there is a personal life in you that wants to re-engage and re-emerge. However, many new moms have a tendency to feel this desire and this yearning is in conflict with being a “good mom”.
A “good mom” would be content just being a mom – just holding, feeding, changing, bouncing and tending to her little one 24/7. Right? No! Not everyone finds complete fulfillment in parenting a newborn or an infant and that’s perfectly fine. Loving your baby and being a wonderful, responsive, attuned mother can feel like it impedes or prohibits us from tending to or even having a self. In that first year postpartum, there is often challenge and conflict in attempting to meet both baby’s needs…and your own. And if I’m telling the real truth here, in the early days and weeks and months, baby’s needs win out most of the time. Often there just aren’t enough hours in the day or helping hands in the vicinity to give adequate attention to mom’s very real, very valid needs. But with a little effort new moms can arrange for some dedicated time on a regular basis in which to care for themselves. Those small bits of time are priceless and are like sleep, critical to maternal wellness.
I’ve given some thought to creating a list of ways to replenish sanity/energy/wellness if you have only a small amount of time. I suggest you add to this list and then use it at least once a day. And even if you only have a few minutes, invite yourself to really become present, to really inhabit your body in the moment. Become aware of your breath and of the sensations in your chest, your face, your arms, neck and back while you give yourself the gift of your own attention and time. Here we go:
If you have only 15 minutes to mother your self:
Take a shower and use a candle or cleanser that feels or smells wonderful.
Call a good friend/family member to connect – someone you can REALLY talk to.
Make a delicious snack.
Read a fun magazine or go online for enjoyment (not googling baby-related stuff)
Lie down and rest.
If you have only 30 minutes to mother your self:
Take a relaxing bath. Close your eyes and allow yourself to feel the warmth and the weightlessness of the water.
Sit down and eat a nutritious meal. Chew slowly and savor the taste and the sensation of being fed.
Take a walk in your neighborhood. Turn your attention to the way your body feels. Notice what it's like to move without holding a baby.
Go to a nearby coffeehouse and enjoy the feeling of being in the world, and being free to linger a bit.
Take a short (but hopefully sweet) nap.
If you have 1 or 2 hours to mother your self:
Arrange for a gentle, loving postnatal massage. Treat yourself.
Go to your favorite restaurant and eat something you are truly hungry for.
Go to a movie and let your mind travel somewhere entirely different from your current life. Do some advance research to ensure that the movie is uplifting and not scary or depressing.
Chamomile tea, earplugs, pillows, close the door and SLEEP.
Find an entertaining, enjoyable book and lose yourself in a wonderful story.
See a therapist to talk and feel supported in this particularly intense and amazing time.
Go someplace in nature that you find beautiful - the ocean, mountains, a lake, a park and soak it in. Walk, meditate, breathe and immerse yourself in the beauty and wonder of the natural world.
Go to a cafe and bring a notebook. Begin writing your birth story, or about your current experience as a new mom, or something entirely different. Take this time to explore the contents of your own mind - often our thoughts and impressions receive very little attention and yet there is so, so much to process and metabolize.
Go to a yoga or meditation class. Take some time to get in your body and give it some love. Doing so in the presence of others can feel like an entrance back into the world.
Add to this list and keep it nearby so that you can use the bits of “free” time you have to nourish yourself.
Perfect mothering is a hopeless endeavor. I’ve found that “good enough” mothering is a perfect compromise. Prior to motherhood many of us thought we would do it perfectly and enjoy every moment of the job. Part of learning to be a good enough mother is finding compassion for our own struggles and learning how to care for the little girl in ourselves even as we care for our children. We need to find a way to give ourselves a generous helping of what we are now constantly dishing out: love; food; rest; attention. It turns out the better we care for our precious selves, the better we are able to mother the baby in our arms.
Written by: Jessica Sorci, LMFT