I was at a local gift shop looking for a card for my best friend, who had just delivered her first baby. What I wanted was a card that says something like, Labour sucks, but you’re a warrior, and a life-giving queen—great job! But all the baby cards are just that: for the baby. Welcome little one, so glad you’re in the world.
Really? Babies can’t even read, and we’re giving them greeting cards? I can’t find anything for my friend saying how amazing she is for growing a human being and enduring hours of labour, but I can readily find a whole row of birthday cards for cats?! WTF.
Anyway, as I was leaving the card shop I held the door for a woman with a small baby wrapped to her chest.
“How old is your baby?” I heard myself asking.
“8 weeks,” she says.
And I know I’m supposed to say, Oh, so sweet! So cute, so nice. But instead I look her right in the eyes and say, “How are you doing? Are you OK?”
She half-smiles and then says, “No, I’m not,” and starts to cry. I guide her outside the shop to a bench and we sit down. She starts apologizing and I stop her right there and say, “Do NOT apologize—this is a very hard time in your life.”
And with that she looks at me like I’m probably going to call Child Protective Services—so scared I will judge her, so desperate to not feel alone.
But I get it. I’ve been there myself. And before I had my own baby, I was a social worker. As a family support home visitor, I specialized in making house calls to new mothers. What I tell this woman now is what I would always tell my clients—mostly very young new moms. And I have repeated it to myself many times in the face of my own self-doubt and uncertainty since becoming a mother: “You are the expert on your own child.” In fact, if you have one guiding star in parenting, please let that be it.
Through all the books and all the contradictory advice, the things your mother-in-law is saying you should have done or will be sorry if you don’t do, through all of the noise of parenting and what worked for your friend but doesn’t seem to be working at all for your baby—listen to yourself first and foremost.
The second thing I would always tell my clients is that asking for help is a sign of strength, never a sign of weakness. We used to raise babies and children in large, tribal groups. There used to be someone there to help or take over. But in many families and neighbourhoods, we’ve lost that critical structure and support network, and now we’re doing a community’s work all alone. So I ask my new friend on the bench, “Who can you ask for help?” She looks at me, surprised.
“I don’t know,” she says. “I think I just need to sleep, or get over it. I can be better. I can do it.”
I tell her, “Yup, you can do it—you already are doing it. But that’s not the question. What you need is to feel better. You are the very best mom this baby has, but what you need is help—and that’s totally normal.”
When I had my baby I was fortunate to have my sister-in-law living right next door, but she never actually offered to lend a hand. One day, when I was totally overwhelmed with tasks I needed to get done, and I could feel the resentment rising in me, I just asked her, “Hey, could you please watch the baby while I look for something in the attic?” And you know what she said? “Of course.”
And then when I was done in the attic, I asked her if she could stay longer, and she said, “I’d love to. It’s so nice spending time with my nephew.”
All this time, all I had to do was ask.
I look back now and think, “Why on earth was I waiting for her to offer?”
As I told her all of this, the new mom on the bench was nodding. “Yup, OK, I do have people who have offered to help—I just didn’t take them up on it.”
Then I tell her something that really helped me in those first few weeks and months: “You will not love all of this all of the time, and that’s OK.”
How can anyone possibly love being permanently sleep-deprived (a legitimate form of torture), and constantly feeling uncertain and overwhelmed? No one loves that. You will miss your old body, your old life, even your old expectations. You will miss all those things.
Plus, not all people love every stage of childhood and parenting—and no one ever admits this. For me, the early toddler days with my two-year-old son were wearing me out. I was feeling almost as down as I’d been when my little guy was two months old. The constant vigilance required with high-energy toddlers is so exhausting. But then, invariably, my son changed. Now he’s more steady on his feet, and he can tell me what he wants. I have to continually remind myself that so much of motherhood and raising our kids is actually very temporary, and it does get easier. It shifts and moves sideways sometimes—rather than getting better or worse—but it does become more manageable, especially once you can get a little more sleep.
After all this, the new mom and I hug and part ways. I don’t know her name, and I don’t know where she lives. But I do know it was like talking to myself when my baby was only two months old, and I feel like both of us are a little less alone now.