Tips to Thriving In New Mamaland

Tips to Thriving In New Mamaland

We recently celebrated our daughter's first birthday. Approaching the big anniversary of her turn around the sun, I was all over Pinterest. I prepped and prepped and prepped for a big party, mobilized family and other helpers, planned my daughter's outfit (forgetting mine), and searched recipe upon recipe to find the perfect "healthier" cake. I really went for it!

Along the way, I checked in with myself from time to time to see where in the world all my energy and determination was coming from for this party. What I kept finding over and over again was two-fold:
1. I adore my daughter to the moon and back and was very very excited to be able to give her and our family and friends a great party in celebration of her, and
2. It's been a loooooooong, lesson-filled year of joy and struggle, and I felt a sort of magic buzz inside me, a thrill at having made it through the first year, and to find myself nearly on the other side of it quite happy.

I imagine the first year of the first baby is not a major deal for some moms. I imagine. However, from what I've heard from many I know, and as it was for us, it's a hell of a twelve months for most of us! For us, adding up all the sleep-deprIvation, feeding and baby weight gain issues, negotiations of unwanted advice and the ramifications of deflecting said advice from well-meaning friends & family, being far away from my own family, the wear and tear on my and my partner's relationship over day-to-day and all co-parenting bumps and bruises, all those cloth diapers and no dryer, agonising over every little red spot, cough, teething pain, and off-kilter moment that could be a sign of ill-health, my whack-tastic hormones, my struggles to be PERFECT, wanting my partner to be PERFECT, and so on and so on, well... we've had the time of our lives, a time that any amusement park ride worth its weight in salt would envy (um... can I get a hallelujah?).

BUT subtract from all that neurotic tension all the gorgeous freshly-rested baby morning smiles, darling dear cuddles, hooray-worthy development milestone moments, blessing upon blessing that this being came to us to care for her, hearing her SING, watching her wrinkle her nose at new foods, seeing her have fun with other babies, and chase the cat, and say "mommy" and fall asleep on my chest in her Boba carrier, feeling myself come into my own as a mother, and on and on and on, and the math comes out in our favor, big time! But, still... here's a few thoughts on ways to help make that first year a little easier for new moms, some shared from experience, some shared from the "I wish I had..." perspective:

1. START STRONG (with Help, and then get MORE help...)
We had a homebirth which was a beautiful, low-stress experience. My daughter was born without complication and spent the first hours of her life skin-to-skin with me in the dark, very warm bedroom where we still all sleep. It was quiet, and easy - no place to move from, no forms to sign. I love that we were blessed with a healthy pregnancy and all other factors that made it possible for us to start our daughter's life so peacefully. It was a very strong start! I did not use a medical professional at my homebirth (this is commonly referred to as "unassisted childbirth" even though of course there is some assistance, like from my partner and the doula friend who came to the house for the birth). Also, my partner and I chose to have a strong bedding-in time after the birth (3 - 4 weeks) to help our little one transition slowly into this world and take her time meeting new people. This was a blessing, but also a little bit of a set-up for people to interpret our wish as "we don't need help" - something I would have done and will do differently next time. We'll probably repeat bedding-in, but I'll get some dedicated family help to ease the burden of cooking, cleaning and the like, and to have some other mothers around me to talk to, to share with, to lean on literally. A post-partum doula visiting often for the first month would be a huge help, as well (something I've heard other mothers say in hindsight, too).

This is both from a physical and a mental perspective. Many of us study our tushies off to prepare for birth and baby; we read books and blogs, talk to friends and family, get our plans in place, stock supplies, etc. and with them, a mounting list of expectations. Having a list of wants and needs is helpful, but cultivating the kind of self-love that allows us to relax our definition of "need" and adjust our wants in the face of challenges could save us a lot of frustration. If you are like me and "needed" things a certain way as part of your birth plan, I suggest you find the grooving, flowing goddess inside you and let her come out a little more (as I plan to do better next time around). If you are a very relaxed woman who isn't bothered when things go pear-shaped, you should probably just stop reading this post and go take your daily bubble bath (I salute you with two hands!). Okay, I'm going to say this next part straight and clear: PUT YOUR FEET UP! No kidding. When you are nursing, put your feet up. When you are sitting for any reason, enlist someone to bring you a footstool. When you have a moment to enjoy reclining, take it - that't the point. Make the most of your chances to enjoy and luxuriate, sinking into your bones and the cushions. A lot of those moments last only a few minutes and the more you can enjoy them, the more rested you will feel. We've all heard again and again "Sleep when the baby sleeps" and this is goooooood advice, but hard to take when it feels like that is the only time to "get things done". Well, I was able to do that a little, and just recently started sinking in to other resting moments to reap more benefits (like putting my feet up).

Additionally, contemplative practices that invite relaxation can help. Yoga, meditation, centering prayer and visualization are just a few things you can do to help calm nerves, center and breath deeply into who you are in the context of a big beautiful world. Though (like all of us, I presume) I had little time in the first year with a baby for the hours of contemplative practice I enjoyed each week before I was a mom, I have found that even taking a few moments whenever I could steal them by standing still and breathing deeply, or closing my eyes and sitting cross-legged on the bed, etc. helped to increase my sense of well-being. Also, I used a practice I learned from Buddhism, and later re-enlivened while learning in a group called Balanced View, where I just took moments where I stopped in my tracks and relaxed mind and body whenever I remembered to do so. Just that moment of breaking the momentum of whatever thought train or physical momentum I was caught in helped to ease my tension and remind me that there is something bigger than me and it runs through everything. For me, the experience of this is sometimes profound, but more often it is mundane and simple. I continue to practice this casually throughout my day and it's a big help to me.

In short: accept advice, even "bad" advice. Yes, just do it (well, "accept" is defined loosely here, but...) - go ahead and just accept every word of that well-meaning person's list of things you should (and shouldn't) do. Listen and know that you are loved, even if that person does not know you. Set your little well-studied tooshie know-it-already mindset aside for a few (possibly difficult) moments, and see the sun radiating out of that person's mouth. If you are anything like me, you've got some strong feelings about birth and child rearing (maybe even stronger if you've not yet given birth and had to adjust those feelings). You've read up, listened up, consulted with people and made mental and on-paper lists of what you will and will not (never ever) do. This is no reason to argue with your mother-in-law about the virtues of full-term breastfeeding or insinuate her use of the cry-it-out method was a mistake (ummm, for example). This will in the end only serve to wedge a gap between you and well-meaners. Besides, after birth and as the process unfolds, I promise you you'll find yourself doing a few things you never thought you would (including perhaps listening to someone you thought you never would). You could instead enjoy the love that comes at you, smile for real, thank the giver, and actually resolve to consider it (and say so). Honestly, I wish I would've realized how much more peaceful my life could be if I had this insight when I got pregnant and found myself in umpteen conversations defending my choice to give birth at home and explaining why I wasn't preparing a nursery, and why I didn't need all those plastic baby-helping gifts (bottles, pacifiers, diapers...) with what I'm sure was read as the smugness it sort of was (at least a little). I know better now. Now, I say, "Oh, interesting idea. I'll think about that" and "Oh, maybe. We'll see how it goes!" and I actually mean it. I've grown up a bit in the last year, I guess, too and it's just easier now to take in the contributions. Not many of us like unsolicited advice. But when we can stop seeing it as an attempt to control and patronize us, and start seeing it for the care and contribution it is meant to be to us and our baby, the first year can be A LOT easier.

"Oh my god, what did we talk about before we had kids??" is something I found myself saying a lot the first year. More and more, I make an active effort to search for non-kid things to talk about with my friends, family and partner. When I'm with those people and find myself just staring adoringly at my kid the whole time, I pull my eyes to the adults and inquire about their adult lives. This helps to relieve a bit of tension I feel as a mother always preoccupied with the well-being of my baby - yes, I continue to keep tabs, and enjoy her, but mixing a little adult passion and non-kid problem chatting into my day somehow weaves in a bit of relaxation. It's hard to describe to non-moms, but that ever-present mama tension (of love, of care, of connection, of worry) has for me at times become a great source of stress and tension that I'm happy I've found ways to alleviate creatively. Talking about other things also helps to ease the tension that can build between family members and friends that also have babies and may have differing points of view of child rearing. We parents get a bit attached to our ideas, no? Changing the subject is a good, honest, viable way to give everyone, especially yourself, a break.

Oh, what bliss it was to lay on the bed with my gurgling baby, not watching the clock or thinking about making lunch or whatever else pulled me away even when we were together. Now, as my one-year-old "runs" around and wants to play, play, play, I make sure I take time outs from our task-filled days to just get lost in play land. I've noticed in myself a tendency to spend a lot of time with my daughter while doing other things, and not give myself the sink-in, nothing-else-going-on contact I love so much which feels over-indulgent somehow in the face of trying to keep up a house, work, and take care of her. But it is worth it (to me and to her) and deserved, and it imparts so much health! I feel happy and re-charged after I've spent quality time with her crawling and rolling around the floor, stacking blocks, whatever she wants. It is not easy to make this time, I can attest.

Amen for baby carriers (I trust you're a fan, too, or maybe the Boba Blog wouldn't be on your reading list)! To be able to hold her close, arms-free, and get out the door without any luggable tuggables, is a complete blessing. When I throw on a jacket and our Boba Carrier, our little flower knows it's fresh air time and is happy to settle in for a walk. A day when we don't get outside for a walk or park play is a grey day for us, indeed. Getting fresh air, being together so effortlessly face-to-face, and taking in the ever-changing naturescape of our neighborhood always does wonders for my mood, helps keep my blood flowing, and clears my mind.

As I touched on in Accept Contribution above, it just may be that you find yourself in a situation or two in the first year where you are presented with a parenting method or belief that just isn't working. For us, breastfeeding was a real challenge, and I accepted the medical advice to supplement with formula for a while. It was really hard, but my girl needed more food and that was that. We weaned off of formula a while later, but while we were supplementing, I noticed that my "bad" days were the ones where I just couldn't access my own mental and emotional flexibility. I let my rigid beliefs and thwarted expectations corner me into feeling awful far too often. Other things didn't go exactly as planned, either and I tried things I said I never would (like offering a pacifier at to my frequent waker to help her sleep longer, though she never accepted it - this was something I had been hell-bent against). I thought I'd be 100% diaper free except for long car rides and visits to the in-laws. Instead, we use elimination communication along with cloth diapers. It's all good. There are other things, but I think you get the drift. There will be a mountain of things that won't go the way you thought starting from birth (or before). Cultivating that relaxation, and accepting advice are both wrapped up in being flexible. I promise it's more fun that way, too!

Okay, so yes, relax, yes, accept contribution, yes, get help, yes yes yes - but also, get to know yourself as the mama bear you are meant to be. The more I enjoy the fumbles and foibles of finding my way, being the one to call the big mothering shots, and standing for my child and what I believe, the easier things flow and get this: the happier my girl is! The more I let the guilt or shame of mistakes fall away, the more I release the need for others' approval of my mothering choices, the more I make our time about my unique child and our family, the better things go, the more things sort of magically resolve, and the more juju imbibes my day. I say, take your stands when they are truly important to you, find your own voice, and love the skin you're in, mama. My mama juju is growing more and more each day. I wish all the mama juju in the world to you, too, and hope even one of these little shares helps make your first year extra great, a little less tiring, and perfectly suited to you and your little one.

I'm pretty sure I had certifiable PPD for a bit after my daughter was born. I've been learning since our birth just how common "baby blues" are for a while. The lack of sleep alone socks it to us, but add to that the huge hormone shifts and the sudden realization of life forever changed, and wow! Sometimes those blues are too dark to go at it alone. The pressure to be happy because we "should be" can cause us to keep our struggles quiet, a trap I wish no mom to fall into. I found solace in sharing my sadness with people I knew loved and accepted me. In hindsight, I would have reached out for more professional help. We're doing pretty great now, but I think I could've used a few more professional therapy sessions than I partook. If you think you're having a "doozie" of a first year and your emotional world may be darker than just having "baby blues", check out these posts to help you navigate the sea of resources at your disposal (LOTS):