The Truth about New Motherhood

MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERAOver the past several years, many of the women who I helped midwife emotionally across the threshold of the marriage transition have birthed themselves as new mothers. And just like our culture doesn’t tell the truth about the challenges of intimate relationships, it also fails us when it comes to offering accurate information and effective support so that women and their partners can traverse the terrain of this next transition with consciousness and joy.

We know it’s going to be hard, but we have no idea how hard it’s going to be. We know that we might be sleep-deprived or have trouble breastfeeding, but we have no idea how these challenges will effect the emotional terrain of our experience, how deeply breastfeeding, for example, is linked to self-worth as a mother and how, if it doesn’t happen easily or at all, we feel that we’ve failed.

Because I’m privy to the interior world of these new mothers’ lives, I know that the photos they post on Facebook of their beautiful bundles often represent a tiny sliver of the whole story. I know how many tears are shed alone. I know how exhausted they are as they wake up multiple times a night to feed, burp, change, and soothe back to sleep. I know how much shame many new mothers carry if they’re not bouncing in a bubbles of joy like a kid in a ball pit every moment of every day, and how much guilt they carry if they feel bored, disappointed, resentful, or confused by the disparity between what they thought they should be feeling and what they’re actually feeling. This certainty isn’t the experience of every new mother; I’ve known women who sail through this time on the wings of pure elation. But it’s not the majority. And those who struggle need to know that they are not alone.

A great deal of the emotional pain that new mothers endure is caused, once again, by the expectations for perfection that the culture espouses. While we may not have explicitly read this anywhere, somewhere women absorb the expectation that they’re supposed to: breastfeed for a year, get their baby to sleep through the night by three months old, stay home with their baby as long as possible before going back to work, and, most importantly, revel in joy. The reality often looks quite different, as honestly shared in this email I recently received (shared with grateful permission):

I had my son about 9 months ago. I have found the transition into motherhood as overwhelming, scary, disorienting, and intense as I did my engagement. In a nutshell, I planned to have a homebirth that resulted in a scary transfer to the hospital because of heavy meconium. I wanted a totally natural birth and ended up having several interventions. I hoped to breastfeed and my low supply could not sustain little guy, so I had to let go of that dream, too. Our baby isn’t a huge fan of sleep and never goes for more than 2 hours at a time – and it has to be on me or my husband (so our connection is fraying, too).

I was a teacher and decided to take the year off (and most probably will continue to stay home and not return to teaching). I’m reaching out because I’m really struggling. I wonder – who am I?!? Life is actually pretty boring with an infant and I miss the busy and easy life I had before having a baby. But I don’t want to put him in daycare so it feels daunting. If one more person tells me that this is the best time of my life and to really cherish these moments, I might just burst. I had very romantic visions of motherhood, just like marriage, and it’s really hard. With teething and developmental leaps, I often find that my 2 minute bathroom break is the most relaxing moment of my day. Where did my life go?

Regardless of what parenting model you subscribe to, there’s no doubt that, as a new mother, you’re carrying a template of how you “should” feel and how you “should” be raising your baby. More than that, you’re carrying a belief that you have to do this perfectly, and if you falter in any area – feeding, sleeping, work – you’re failing as a mother. It’s the sense of failure that erodes the joy of this time more than anything else. And it’s the juxtaposition between the societal expectations and the reality that is often at the root of the sense of failure.

But the failure here is more than just false expectations; the entire structure of the culture is a setup for failure. At the root of this setup is that we’re not supposed to raise our babies alone, and the expectation that two people at most are supposed to be able to handle the onslaught of responsibility and erosion of time and freedom that having a baby constellates is unrealistic at best and damaging at worst. We are supposed to be raise our kids in community, and in the absence of the circle of women who should be helping the new mother, women expect their partner to fulfill this role. How can one person fill the spot that an entire community previously held? It’s an impossible situation, a recipe for conflict, disappointment, and resentment in all directions.

The saying “It takes a village to raise a child” took the world by storm several years ago. It hit a chord because it resonated in the deepest chambers of YES: we know we’re not supposed to be doing this alone. Mothers need other mothers. They need aunts, cousins, sisters, and grandmothers. Fathers need other men, the ones they would have talked to during their days out in the field or forest, to know that what they’re experiencing is normal as well. We can’t truly know ourselves in a vacuum. This is true for all transitions, for life itself, but when it comes to the transition of parenthood our cultural disconnect has far-reaching and often detrimental ramifications.

In some other time, in some other place, I would walk over to your house and sit with you on your couch. Perhaps, after we talked a bit, my body close to yours in the ancient bond of motherhood, I would give you a quick sling lesson and we would bundle up your baby and walk the neighborhood. We might talk or not talk; the connection of being in each other’s presence would be enough. My older kids might join us, offering you a window into the future and the increasing spaces of ease that arise as kids grow older and develop more independence. And in the presence of your baby we would all revel in the delicious miracle of a newborn, this precious stage that only lasts a moment in time. The pain of the passage of time to which we, as highly sensitives, are more highly attuned – the awareness that with each new stage we say goodbye to what is no longer – becomes slightly less painful when we witness each other’s stages. When we live in community, we’re held in a common web. The invisible structures that connect all of us become more visible. And in this holding, in this witnessing, we know that we’re okay.

When we returned back to your home, before saying goodbye, I would pull your husband aside and say to him: “I know you’re exhausted and overwhelmed, too. I know how hard you’re working to provide for your family. In some other time, that would be more than enough. But it’s not enough anymore. Your wife needs you to share in this experience with her as much as you can. Ask her two questions when you arrive home from work: How are you feeling? How can I help? It will change your marriage, and possibly even save it.”

Alas, this is not how it goes. This is not the world most people live in. And, sadly, I don’t have a solution. If I could wave a magic wand I would transform our world into neighborhoods connected by walkways and riverways, eco-villages where people are invited to connect with one another in the old ways. In light of this, perhaps it takes a slight edge of pain off to know that, when you enter parenthood, you’re being setup for pain and disappointment, and that there’s nothing wrong with you or your baby or your marriage if you’re struggling with any aspect of this transition. It’s supposed to be hard, but it’s not supposed to be this hard. It’s supposed to rock you to your core but you’re supposed to be rocked in the arms of other women who can soothe you with their hard-earned wisdom. In this absence, all you can do is trust that you will get through, your baby will be fine, and that in the end it’s the love, the commitment to learn, and the desire to grow through these challenges that will be more than enough to get all of you through to the other side in one piece, and perhaps even softer and more compassionate because of it.

13 comments to The Truth about New Motherhood

  • Shelly

    It’s amazing how your posts always speak to me in the most relevant ways. I recently discovered that I am pregnant. My partner and I are not yet married, mainly because of my anxieties about the event and what it means about our relationship – that I should feel amazing and totally in love and that everything should be perfect, and obviously it’s not and there is no such thing, and yet the fear is present.
    We are both very excited about the pregnancy although it’s early days yet and somehow, of course there is the daunting idea of giving birth which may likely be painful and traumatic.
    It’s just so refreshing to hear someone who tells you the truth about what it means to be a new mother or to get married. I live in Israel and society here is very “family oriented” but many are suffering in these frameworks and lie to each other. Strangers ask you when you plan to get married and have kids as if it’s a given and single women are looked upon with pity. I will save your post for the future, but for now I will remember that disappointment, boredom and emptiness are part of the human experience and if I want to relieve it I am the one who will have to find myself interesting, engaging and creative things to do during my life and not expect it to come from my partner or my baby. Thank you!

  • oana

    Hi there…i am an 1 year old boy mother. And yes i am part of anxious/struggling/emotionaly exasted mother. I use to be an anxious person but i manage to find my way. Now it s all back.i have tried to find a lot of answer regarding my feelings, my relationship anxiety, my frustration, my fear that i am not as good and pretty as i was use to be. I do sometimes feel detach. i read this article and i cried. I reread it and i cried again. I have a suportive and wonderful husband, a wonderful son and a sweet dog but i feel sometimes that i can be as happy as i should. Thank you for this great article. It helped a lot to now that is something commun and i m not the only one. Hope to recieved more articles regarding motherhood and relationship anxiety. Thanks a lot again and sorry for my english…i am from Romania.

  • These early times are at once gorgeous and fleeting as well as so difficult that they feel heavy and eternal. When my first child was born (I have two), my instincts told me that I needed to find other mothers who I could talk with and be with and who looked at life and childbearing through a similar perspective: one of love, gentleness, and honesty. It was difficult for me to put myself out there and search out other moms. I’m such an introvert that I had to talk myself into going to various mothers groups over and over. And finally I met one true friend, and that friendship has brought a steady light into my life in ways far beyond my children. It helps when someone else can give you a hug and make a cup of tea when you were up 15 times the night before with a fussy baby. It helps to strategize together about how to find a few minutes (at least at this point it often feels like minutes) alone with your partner to help rekindle and foster the intimacy of that relationship. And it helps to know that here’s someone who can speak a few words to help shift your perspective by offering some of her own experience. Giving these same things back to your friend, and you will, also helps you to remember the storehouse of love and wisdom that resides in your own heart, bolstering confidence in your own instincts for those middle-of-the-night moments when you’re feeling lost.

    I was going to write a sentence and it turned into a paragraph that could easily become an essay. Apparently, I have a lot to say on this topic. But my point comes back to this: find your tribe, even if it’s only one other mother. She’ll likely take work to find, but it’s more than worth the effort.

    • And thank god you put yourself out there, my friend! Your friendship and those of your boys is a beacon of light for all of us. I still remember that first day that you walked into my house wearing a big sunhat, a blue nursing top, and a long skirt. You were so brave to walk into a stranger’s house with your four month old bundle, and we could have never known in that moment the beauty, richness, and lifeline of our friendship that would develop.

      Your advice to new mothers resonates like a clear, strong bell and I will echo it go anyone who is reading and feeling alone in the forest of new motherhood: put yourself out there. Find one true friend. We are not meant to walk this path alone, and even one other mother with whom who can share your thoughts and feelings can make an enormous difference. Even one can be your village.

  • Sheryl, I am i tears for feeling recognised, understood, heard, looked at, all of these in your words. Word sof compassion and truth that bring to light the darkness we try to hid from even ourselves. It is TRUTH that helps us cope and get through in the company of other women who are ready to offer it to us and sustain us in full acceptance in the process. I believe we DO live in global villages, now connected through blogs, facebook and other mediums that did not exist previously. I know this from my experience, right now with 3 kids (6, 2 and 7 months) and having move to another country only 2 months ago. It is proving to be a HUGE transition, after birth the “becoming 5” and now in a new country where we still do not have furniture, let alone friends…who is our community, why does it feel so lonely, are my husband and me and even the kids not enugh?…after a long weekend I can say: NO…I have sailed thru the waters of lonelyness only to find that the sea of connection is always there even if I cannot see the other ships..a call thru Facetime from a dear friend…a whatsapp from another…skype with the grandparents…phone call with an aunt…meeting face t face with other moms and dads at the park (most of them foreigners who do not have long weekend plans yet)… I felt the love energiy all around and it was soothing. As you put it sharing the lonelyness with my husband, being able to cry with him, it is a relief, it goes thru and passes on…feelings come and go, awakening parts that are so wounded…hopefully with love we can let them in our lives and help them transition to a more conscious state…
    Keep on writing and sharing… it is inspiring and really is a company through life´s transitions…
    With love and gratitude…
    Denise

  • You are a beauty Sheryl! Thank you, thank you, thank you for this beautiful article. You know my story, how it took such a long time to conceive our little one. When we finally conceived via IVF…yes, we were elated, but probably more frightened than ever before. This fear carried through beyond her birth for months and months. Only now am I learning how to work with that fear, thanks to you. I longed for those walkways, riverways and eco-villages you speak of – the bond of human compassion to help both my husband & I feel trust in ourselves as new parents. But instead, you just get a barrage of advice that constantly makes you feel you’re doing things wrong. I still feel the pain of those early months Sheryl, so acutely I cry every time I read your post. I feel so sad I wasn’t able to relish what “should” have been such a beautiful and blooming part of our life together as a new family. Once again, I am beyond gratitude for having found your work! Much love, Zoe xxx

    • Thank you, dear Zoe, for your beautiful comment. Women often say to me, “If I had had to try harder for the baby maybe I would be appreciating my pregnancy/new motherhood more”, to which I respond, “Maybe. But that doesn’t mean that you wouldn’t also have had hard times.” The advice, the expectations, the exhaustion, the isolation: it inevitably leads to what we call post-partum depression but, more often than not, is simply the normal cycles of any transition.

  • Rebecca

    I can’t tell you how much I needed to read this! I have twins and have found “postpartum depression” to be a very unhelpful label. In fact, if you’re a remotely sensitive person, I don’t understand how someone could not experience the negative parts of the adjustment. For me, the fear of labels has really hindered me from exploring and accepting my feelings in order to move through them. It’s so nice to have affirmation that, yes, this is common and ok and part of the process for me. I often have felt so horribly painfully guilty for not feeling what I “should” and have to give myself the permission to remember that I can love my children at the same time as not wanting to wake up at 3am and that the conflicting emotions can exist and don’t mean something is terribly wrong. It feels like the engagement/marriage process all over again, which curiously enough is resurfacing, this old anxiety I thought id solved. Anyway I’m completely rambling but wanted to thank you for the two most healing words I ever hear- ‘me too.’

    • Thank you, Rebecca, and I’m so glad the article was helpful. There’s truly nothing as soothing as hearing, “Yes, me too!” Our entire being exhales when we know that we’re not alone in our struggles.

  • Eggz

    Hey Sheryl,

    I am not a mother but my brother is a very young father, still only 18, and his wife is expecting on the 16th this month. They are both the same age. Our whole family is going this simultaneous transition; no one is ready to be great-grandparents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, you name it. And he especially is, i’m sure, not quite ready yet to be a father or she a mother.

    Would you (or one of your readers) happen to have any words of wisdom/calming I could share with the rest of the family? They moved states, back home, just 2 days ago without warning. He has a job lined up, but they are in the process of searching for an apartment, and don’t even have a clear idea of how the birth is going to go; they don’t have any medical coverage at the moment due to the move, but they are planning to have a friend who’s a registered nurse and assists with hospital births help with a home birth. They’ve already applied for medicare and are hoping they are covered effectively by the time the birth comes.

  • Jane Christ

    Excellent article. More women need to be aware of this painful possibility. I recommend “The Mother Dance” by Harriet Lerner and “Life After Birth” by Kate Figes