(This piece originally appeared in the Birthways Newsletter in January of 2008)
When my first daughter was born, nearly 10 years ago, I remember a level of anxiety that I carried with me wherever I was, and whatever I was doing. Was I doing things right? Would my decisions as a parent serve her well? Would she grow up to be a well-adjusted person, at ease and self-confident? Being in the field of mental health, these things were of primary importance to me. I would often ask myself whether I was stimulating her enough, was I providing her with an optimal amount of external stimuli, or was I stimulating her too much, interfering with her ability to soothe herself? The answers from developmental and parenting experts were contradictory and confusing; from, never put your baby in a crib as this is the equivalent to being “put behind bars” to, if you do not teach your baby to soothe herself by the time she is several months of age, she will have difficulty developing a sense of independence and self-reliance.
I was, as many new mothers are, vulnerable to the “shoulds” and “shouldn’ts” that were expressed all around me, both from experts and from other new mothers. Our culture is one which places a lot of pressure on new mothers to parent their infants in a way that both provides a more advanced and fine-tuned form of stimulation than we were parented with, (from Baby Einstein to readings of Ulysses in utero,) while at the same time criticizing them for raising children who are “too needy” and “self- absorbed.”
What I wish I had known at this vulnerable time -- and which sadly seems all too obvious in retrospect -- is that more important than whether I was providing this kind of stimulation or that, or whether I purchased the car seat with the absolute highest safety rating or not, was my ability to be present with my children, and that giving them my presence was more important than any other decision I might make as a parent.
What does it mean to give one’s presence? In short it means to find moments, and more moments, to leave one’s thinking/analyzing/judging brain behind and to just be with one’s baby, staring into their eyes, smelling their scent, trusting one’s intuition, and being available to respond in a spontaneous and loving manner to the cues they inevitably provide us with.
In my work as a psychologist with pregnant and postpartum women, what I have seen repeatedly is women’s lack of ability to trust themselves and their babies to know what is right for this mother-baby dyad, and this particular family. Just like the birthing process itself, which has become so heavily “medicalized,” early motherhood and parenthood have become the domain of scholarly experts rather then living mothers.
So how is a new mother to protect herself from the commercialization and anxiety of motherhood? First and foremost, limiting external input from books, magazines, websites, and professionals, may be important, though perhaps it seems counter-intuitive, at this vulnerable time when your emotional membranes are unusually permeable. Rather than looking outside for generic advice and direction, it may well be better to turn inwards-- allowing yourself to listen to what feels right in this moment, for you, and your particular baby. Making time to sit with your feelings, paying attention to sensation, and making room to name the feeling and to observe how it may change with moments of meditative awareness. Asking yourself the question: “What do I most need in this moment, and what does my baby most need?” Trusting that babies are powerful resilient beings who need spacious mommies to give them the room to learn to communicate their needs, who model self-care, and who allow moments of spaciousness to color their days rather then lists of “shoulds.”
Below is a list of suggestions you may find helpful. What is right for you, however, is different then what will be right for any other new mother. Breath, pay attention to sensation, and …
1. Try to get enough sleep. (Enlist the help of a partner or friend to take over a feeding so that you can get an extended stretch of sleep.)
2. Try to have at least some time for yourself everyday.
3. Try to make time for connecting with your partner.
4. Combat isolation. (Join a mothers’ group, get together with other new mothers and go on outings, invite another new mom to your house for tea and nursing, schedule friends to call you to check in.)
5. Ask for and accept help.
6. Don’t compare your baby or your situation to someone else’s. (Jennifer’s baby sleeps for 6 hours and her husband works at home.) Everyone’s situation is different and comparing yours to someone else’s only sets you up for painful longing, as opposed to being present with what is.
7. Don’t blame yourself for your experience.
8. Be kind to yourself.
9. Allow yourself some luxuries. This is not indulgent, it is necessary.
10. If you experience yourself as overwhelmed by advice, sit still and turn inward. You are more likely to learn what is right for you and your baby by quieting the outside world and looking inside.
11. Identify and make use of constructive stress relievers. For example: exercising with or without your baby, taking a warm bath, reading a book, meditating, relaxation tapes, deep breathing exercises.
12. Seek professional help if you are feeling low or anxious. It doesn’t need to be a crisis. Better to receive some support before a crisis occurs. You can go in for a “well check” if nothing else.
13. Talk with other mothers and don’t assume that just because they look like they are having an easy time, that they actually are. Sometimes it requires persistence to encourage people to open up. While their automatic response may be “everything’s just great” - the answer they may feel they are supposed to give --if you share deeper details of your own experience, they will be more likely do the same.
14. Make sure that you don’t get into a pattern of “over-functioning.” Help facilitate and encourage a bonding relationship between your baby and your partner. Leave the house for an hour to go for a walk, or meet a friend for tea--and let your partner feed and change the baby. It is important to let them discover how to soothe the baby, and how to do things in their own way. You have had more time to learn about what the baby needs, but if you don’t let your partner learn these things for themselves, their confidence will suffer, and so will you. Caretaking is an important part of the bonding experience for both partners.
15. Prioritize what’s really important. Try and let go of the “mess,” etc. and standards of perfection. Don’t use your baby’s naptime solely to accomplish things. You will never get to the bottom of your list, and you will run yourself ragged. If it’s all getting to be too much, ask for help. It is important to use some of your baby’s naptime for restorative relaxation, whether that involves napping, meditating, taking a bath, or reading a novel.
16. If you don’t take time for yourself, you wont have anything left to give. Taking care of yourself will promote a healthier relationship with your baby and with your partner. Healthy partner relationships help grow healthy children.