There is a fundamental shift that occurs after having a first baby. It is cataclysmic. Everything changes. It is the beginning of a powerful transformation. Paradoxically, to become a mother means a deepening of one’s heart and narrowing of one’s world. A pre-baby world may consist of hobbies, friends, family, and an enriching career. Then, in one crowning moment, a woman’s whole world is harrowed down to one consuming orbit.
Some women find ultimate fulfillment in mothering. Others find staying home with children an interminable confinement.
I think most women fall someplace in between. There are a string of small moments that are so momentous it fills your heart to bursting. Yet, these moments are elapsed by long hours full of endless need that dull the mind and dampen the spirit. There is a complete lack of autonomy or personal space that many find suffocating. Finding footing in this new landscape can be daunting. There is a new defined sense of self taking shape. It is tender and easily bruised. This fragile form can easily be crushed by the relentlessly grinding gears of raising children.
Before many women have their first baby, so much emphasis is placed on their birth experience and success breastfeeding. New mothers’ seem to believe their whole worth lay in the balance. Yet, once your feet come down from the delivery stirrups; life goes on. Because the truth is, the evolution of becoming a mother is not something that happens overnight. Our validation is not found after a victorious birth experience. It is a slippery elusive thing intertwined with our ability to parent and find joy in the drudgery of rearing children.
How our country fails postpartum women
Our country is failing postpartum mothers. During pregnancy, support is abundant. There are prenatal visits, ultrasounds, baby showers, and courses abound to teach women how to prepare for delivery. There are support teams of doctors, nurses, doulas, and friends. We are armed to the teeth to deliver babies.
Then, after the climax of delivery, the help and support slowly drifts away. There is one brief 6 week follow up appointment to ensure stitches have healed and discuss birth control options. Then our friends and family return to their busy lives and we are left with a baby in our arms totally perplexed.
Now comes the rest of our lives.
Yet, all familiar tenets of our former world have been blown to bits leaving us adrift without a tether to cling to. It is not just caring for a new baby or figuring out how to breastfeed that threatens to drown women. It is being left without a foothold to navigate the complex and frightening metamorphosis into motherhood.
Why do I feel so overwhelmed?
How can I do this?
You can’t do it all
After 6 short weeks, mothers are thrust back into the world and expected to hit the ground running without complaint. Our culture pushes women to “bounce back” after pregnancy all while flawlessly caring for and adoring their newborn infant. This may paint a lovely picture of the all sacrificing mother and caretakers, but in reality it leaves women drained, unhappy and angry while parenting their children. They feel overwhelmed, inept, out of control, and horribly guilty for not living up to their own expectations. Our society nurtures this imbalance and makes any expression of discontent taboo and shameful.
While mom is suppose to be the ultimate caretaker to her newborn, she is also expected to drop that baby weight and get herself back in order as quickly as possible The cultural pressure to “bounce back” quickly and effortlessly into your pre-baby jeans is completely misguided. It is not realistic nor healthy. What a belittling of one of life’s greatest miracles define it’s success by postpartum pant size. Really? That body just gave birth to a whole new life. It is a mother frackin’ powerhouse. Women’s bodies need love and tenderness postpartum, not bootcamp to be beach ready in six weeks. For more on how to care for your body postpartum, read: Postpartum Healing: The Body
Set the tone
It truly does take a village to raise a child yet our culture has stepped completely away from this tenet while wondering why our mothers are floundering. We expect women to have a baby, exclusively breastfeed, return to work in 6 weeks, and know what the hell they are doing without offering any meaningful guidance. Then we wonder why 1 in 7 women struggle with postpartum depression. We expect women to do it all… alone.
Women neglect themselves in motherhood. The neglect starts day 1. Everything is about caring for the baby and there is no emphasis centering around caring for oneself. Many Eastern cultures actually practice a period of confinement for the mother postpartum. While this may sound antiquated from our cultural viewpoint, the practice is meant to ensure mothers have the time they need to heal postpartum. They are the center of attention and their care is a priority.
Make a plan
Mothers need other mothers
It is so vitally important women are given a chance lay a stable foundation. Women need community postpartum. Especially the community of other mothers. There is a relevance to their conversation that may have once escaped notice before. Being able to relate to both the highs and lows of other women living through the same period of life can be extremely enriching. You need to be able to rejoice in small milestones only other mothers will appreciate, cry tears of frustration to an empathetic ear over the hardships of childrearing, and learn and grow through shared experience. It is helpful to know the lows are not failings but just part of the landscape.
Find a group of mothers to meet with regularly. It can be at church, through daycare, through family, or friends. Some areas have fantastic new parent support groups that can be enriching while building a network of friends. Breastfeeding support groups can serve the same purpose. Postpartum is a good time to build a community. Especially if a woman is facing a hardship postpartum. The community of shared experience is invaluable.
Returning to work
To work or not to work? That is a tricky question.
The work debate is so charged because it is fueled with familial and societal obligations and pressure. Before girls grow into women, we push them to follow their dreams. We tell them they can and should have careers to help them find definition beyond the traditional roles of motherhood. Yet, on the other hand, we judge young mothers who prioritize work. How can she leave her baby? What kind of woman isn’t fulfilled by staying home with her children? While at work, everyone is whispering that this same women has not had her head in the game since she had a baby. She clearly doesn’t have her priorities in line.
Women can not win. We are pushed to reach for the stars; to have a meaningful career, raise a family, love a man well, and feel fulfilled in this life.
Has anyone stopped to think that having it all maybe too much?
Chasing every dream all at the same time, there is no room for enjoying any piece of our lives. When women reach with both hands for career, marriage, and children, the plot left fallow in their lives is THIER SPIRIT. There is no room left for her pursuits of self. No one encourages young women to think about what THEY really want from their lives. There is no counsel helping girls find balance. There is only a forceful push to reach for more, to reach higher, to reach father. Then we stand back and wonder why so many women end up reaching so far, they fall flat on their face.
What is the right choice?
I’m convinced there is no right choice.
If you are the woman who chooses work, there are hardships born of that decision. The working mom feels saddened for all that she misses at home. She feels guilt for choosing or needing to work. She feels wretched when she gets home after a long day and feels too tired to get down and play with the children she missed all day.
Then what about the mom she stays at home with her babies? I’m here to tell you she struggles too. She dreams of more than snotty noses, tea parties, and bologna sandwiches. She remembers having dreams that were bigger than the mountain of laundry at her feet. Where did that girl go? A mother should feel fulfilled by raising her children and yet she feels like she fills everyone’s cup but her own.
My love hate relationship with work
I once thought the answer was having a little bit of both. I was going to be home when my babies were young and then return back to my career once they were old enough to not need me so completely.
Now my kids are older. I always thought that it would get easier to go to work as my children grew. It seems the opposite is true. The long desperate hugs while whispering “Mommy please don’t go,” are black sinful pocks spoiling my heart. I feel so treacherous for going to work and even more hateful when I breathe a heavy sign of relief as I pull out of my driveway.
Because the truth is, I love and loath working in equal measure. The time away is liberating. Feeling challenged and energized by my career breathes life into my spirit in a way that raising children does not. Yet, those babes are my heart. They are everything of substance in my life. Even while I thrive in their absence, I feel lessened. It weighs me down while I am away. As greedily as I hungered for time apart, I long to be home with my children while I work.
Torn between two worlds
Forever torn between two worlds, working women are forever feeling they are failing. We cannot be everything to everyone. The question is, why do we feel obligated to try?
I think we have to be careful to not get trapped by the comparison game. Motherhood isn’t one size fits all. Some of us need/want to work to feel balance in our life. Some women are meant to be SAHMs and thrive in that setting. Some of us are not lucky enough to get to CHOOSE whether we want to work or stay at home but are obligated by circumstance and or finances. The point is, those women made a choice that was right for them and you should in no way feel diminished because you made or are compelled to walk a different path.
You can be it all… just not all the time
While there is no Right answer, there is choosing a path that works for YOU and YOUR family. The pressure to be everything is setting women up to feel like failures. Mom guilt is rampant and I blame the ridiculous notion that we should be able to be perfect mothers, loving wives, business women, supportive friends, and happy people ALL THE TIME. You can be all those things… just maybe not all at the same time.
There are chapters in life
There are chapters in life, each with their own climax and resolution. Before becoming a mother, you may have been all about your career. Now you look at the baby in your arms and think… How can I go back to work? That is okay. Maybe this chapter of your life is about you being a mother to your baby.
Or maybe you have been home with babies and now you think, “This can’t be all for me.” You are right. You are more than the needs of your family. Maybe your next chapter is finding some purpose that is separate from your family. Maybe it is going back to work, or maybe it is a new hobby. Every woman is different. Her needs, her desires, her struggles are her own. You just need to prioritize and find the focal point during this chapter in your life.
Mother YOUR WAY
We all bring different strengths and weakness to this gig and our own special secret sauce. I find when I let go of my imagine notion of what a mother “should be” I am finally free to love the mother I am. I feel stifled as a full time SAHM. I thought I was going to want a brood of 4 or 5 children but have found myself maxed out at 2. Turns out I like toddlers better than babies. I’m not organized. I am not well groomed. I mean I’m clean but I don’t spend much time putting on makeup or shopping for clothes. In fact, if I try to wear something white I can GUARANTEE it will be stained by lunchtime and 50% of the time, I can’t even blame it on my kids. We run late a lot. My son is probably wearing his shoes on the wrong feet as I write this post. I fail to embody any of the charecteristics of a picture perfect mom.
But you know what? I do play dino’s like a bad ass. I read stories with complete animated conviction. My kids and I have dance parties while I make them paleo pancakes. We are late because we stop to smell the flowers, or marvel at some totally ordinary beetle, or play chase in the yard. I may have chosen to pursue my career and define myself outside of mothering my children, but when I am home I am really present with my kids. Thats my super power. I have found that a work/home balance makes me a better mama. I have come to embrace the idea that mothering “my way” may not always look as beautiful and self sacrificing as our archetype we are all chasing, but it feels really really right. And the only two judges in the world who matter, know they are my WHOLE DAMN WORLD even if I need a little space sometimes to realize it.
There needs to be a fundamental shift in our prioritization from day one. Mothers need to be taught that self-care is family care. If we do not care for ourselves, we will not be equipped to care for our families. We need to help mothers gain solid footing postpartum. We should be teaching them skills to shore them up both physically and mentally and then allow them time to find their footing in their new role as mother before throwing them back into the lion’s den of our mad mad world.
Early on motherhood feels like a stripping away of all the elemental pieces of ourselves that brought definition. As time trudges on, you begin to realize it is not about losing hold but about blossoming. We emerge from the chrysalis of our former selves intrepid and unsure if we are ready to embrace our new form and take flight. Some of us flounder. We hold on too tight to who we use to be and miss all the possibilities that reside just over the horizon. As we grind through sleepless nights and never ending days wearing puke stained yoga pants and a messy topknot to hide the fact we haven’t showered in days, it feels nearly impossible to believe something vital has not been lost.
You define what kind of woman you are going to be
Will you fly? I hope so. While you’re sitting in your mesh undies in a hospital bed, or at home with a toddler screaming at your feet, just remember you are standing at the edge of a precipice. This is not an end. You can choose to be a woman who is defined by motherhood or a mother who refuses to be defined. I choose the later.
The birth of my children is not the climax of my life. I’m no longer a starry eyed girl dreaming of babies. I’m living it and I have the baggy eyes and gray hair to prove it. Thankfully, vanity has never been my strong suite. I’m more concerned with eating up these moments. I want to devour them whole. These are the moments that culminate to a good life. Our fleeting days literally take every bit of vitality I can muster but Lord I am grateful. So for now, I’ll throw my hair up in a messy top knot, slip into some stretchy leggings and live the shit out of these days while they are in my grasp. Birth was just the beginning and now I’m prepared to fly.