Everyone seems to forget that this phase is hard -- and not in a comical-movie-montage kind of way.
I will never forget my six-week checkup after my first baby was born. We were in the midst of a horrific battle with thrush, so my beautiful little girl’s mouth was stained perma-purple from gentian violet — as was nearly every blanket, burp cloth, and shirt in both her closet and mine. Aesthetics aside, I was exhausted, in pain, frustrated, confused, and just plain overwhelmed. Nothing in my life had prepared me for the brutal reality of having a baby, and I was barely holding it together.
So when I finally succumbed to my daughter’s increasingly frantic demands in the waiting room and began to nurse her, I was trying desperately to fight back a grimace and/or tears as white-hot pain kicked in. I kept my head low, looking at her and wishing desperately that she would take formula.
At that exact moment, an elderly lady walked across the room, stopped in front of me, and just sighed.
“Isn’t it wonderful?” she asked sweetly.
I was glad the question was clearly rhetorical. I did manage to eke out a smile and a nod, which was mercifully sufficient for the woman to walk back to her seat, but what I was thinking was, “Are you insane? This is not wonderful, this is horrible. This is the worst thing that has ever happened to me, and the worst part about it is that it’s never going to stop happening.”
I vividly remembered that moment when I read this article at The Atlantic about the angst of new motherhood, which is fairly universal among new mothers — yet nearly universally forgotten:
For me, and for many other women, being a new mother is hard. It can be hard in a million different ways: painful physical recovery from a difficult birth, breast-feeding problems, colic, tensions with your partner, sleep problems. It’s also just hard on its own, on top of and in between all these other challenges. As a friend of mine said, “I knew it would be hard, but I didn’t know what ‘hard’ would feel like.” We thought it would be sitcom-style hard — not necessarily with a feel-good resolution at the end of every episode, but at least punctuated by those frequent moments of uplift indicating that, in spite of everything, life really is beautiful, isn’t it? I’m pretty sure it’s like that for some people, but for many of us, it’s not. For many of us, it’s not good hard, as in a “good hard workout”; it’s bad hard, as in, it sometimes feels like something bad is happening to you.
The last sentence is the key. New motherhood does feel bad hard — the fatigue alone is enough to drive women straight into the ground. But I think what makes it feel so alarming is that new mothers have no frame of reference. They can’t imagine a time when their children won’t need them 24 hours a day, because they can’t imagine any child other than this one — and this one is basically in a stage of extended gestation, with blessedly functional vocal cords.
Even as the baby gets older and becomes a toddler, motherhood still feels overwhelming and all-consuming. Ten years ago I could not imagine that I would ever have the freedom to go to Target again, much less work a full-time job and shower alone.
But these days, life looks entirely different. My kids are all in school (for a few more weeks, at least!) and I have time again. Granted, most of that time is poured into work, but it feels good to be able to work again. It feels good to be able to run to Target alone, or put the kids to bed and go meet a friend for an hour. It feels good to have the kind of autonomy I was sure, back on that horrible check-up day, I had lost forever.
So here’s what I want to say to all the brand-new mamas out there who feel overwhelmed and alarmed and even frightened at how bad-hard new motherhood feels sometimes: chin up, sister. This too shall pass, and not in the proverbial sense — the days that are eternal right now will melt into years and one morning you will wake up and choose to go to Starbucks alone, because you can. You will get through this. In the meantime, ask for help, lean on your spouse, cry to a friend, and let people support you through this very difficult period. You can do this.