Seven years ago today, I became a mom. It was as humbling then as it is today. While I strive for a Utopian work-family balance, sometimes I feel like a miserable failure.
Reflecting back on those first days and weeks and months of motherhood, I can't say I enjoyed it much. I felt awful. I had extreme difficulty with breastfeeding; I felt overwhelmed and overly-anxious, lonely, crippled with sleep deprivation, and torn between staying home with my baby or going back to the job I previously loved. I felt plagued with guilt and fear, and suffered from severe postpartum depression. I slept about 8 hours a week for roughly 6 months. I thought I was losing my mind.
How I managed to get myself out of this is a long story, but somehow my husband and I were able to reinvent our lives from two parents with full-time jobs and a (wonderful) nanny, to two parents running home-based businesses and ample time for ourselves and our family.
Though often I feel like my family is totally out of balance (and always feel like it's my "fault" if we are), I endeavor to keep us all on track, and have ample time/space for everything, everyone, and be fully present in every moment.
It's extremely challenging to cultivate balance, and feel happy in all aspects of our lives, but I truly believe it's possible. I have a long, detailed strategy of how I balance family and work, but even with all my lists and systems and strategies, it doesn't always work.
In those moments, when everything comes unraveled, I try to not judge myself, because that's just the way it is with kids sometimes. It's a mess, and it's magic, all at the same time.
So all this is to say, keep striving for balance, people. I believe we CAN enjoy our work and family and ourselves, if we make it our top priority.
As a new parent, you will do anything to shush your baby's tears. You feed and rock and bounce and pat and change your baby, in an effort to comfort and ensure that all of their precious little needs are met. But sometimes, in your rush to instantly stop the crying, you might miss the opportunity to learn your baby's cries, understand their different tones, and respond accordingly.
Around sleep, there's a lot of controversy about whether or not you should let your baby "cry it out" and help them learn to fall asleep independently, or cuddle, nurse and soothe your baby at every opportunity, round the clock. There's a lot of judgment about this, so as best as you can, try to ignore all the theories and opinions that don't work for you and your family. If you want to co-sleep and you're all sleeping well, who cares what your mother-in-law says?!? Alternately, if your 6 month-old baby is waking every hour, and you're becoming suicidal, you shouldn't rule out some form of sleep training because your best friend thinks it's bad.
Now I’m not saying that you should ignore your baby's cries. I’m just saying that crying is a normal and healthy behavior, and though it's excruciating to hear your baby cry, it’s really nothing to panic about. I cried like a baby the other day because I was tired and hormonal and frankly, I just needed to get it out!
Our cultural-adult tendencies are to squelch tears, but sometimes we just need to cry, and so do our kids, despite our attempts to stop them. My kids (4 and 6) still cry when they're hungry or tired, or need to pee but don't want to stop playing, or simply because I won't let them have candy for dinner. Eventually, as our babies grow into kids, we become accustomed to crying and realize that it's just part of parenting, and sometimes, our kids just need to get it out, just like we do!
In our race to build careers, create financial security, and amass material things for our families, many of us have forgotten to strive for happiness. Often we’re so off-track, we don’t even know if we’re happy or not. Busy planning for our futures, we don’t stop to think about how our happiness—or lack thereof—affects our kids. Or maybe we think of it, then push it way down out of our consciousness, because there are more important things to do.
The things is, kids don’t care about money or the size of your home or the brand of your car. They just want unconditional love, undivided attention, and happy parents.
Ask yourself if there’s one thing you can do right now to be a happier person. Not a better parent, or a harder worker or a bigger bread winner, just happier.
Maybe you used to play the guitar but put it aside? Maybe you were a dancer but hung up your dancing shoes when you became a parent; or maybe you know (like me), that if you committed to two yoga classes a week, you would be a completely changed and happier person?
If we prioritize our own happiness, we have a better chance of actually being happy, and passing it onto our kids!
The first time I rode a horse as an adult was with my husband in Prospect Park, shortly after we met. My horse was jumpy, and I was worried I was going to get thrown. My husband, a native Texan and super-calm guy, told me to hold firmly on the reins and take control; otherwise the horse would sense my fear and be nervous. Sure enough, I did what he said, and instantly the horse and I relaxed.
As new parents, we're fearful and under-confident. It takes a while for us to not be scared, and simply get to know our babies. Over time we build confidence and come to really know our children; what makes them laugh or feel secure.
Of course when we have newborns, we respond to them round the clock and there's a lot of guess-work about what they need because they can't talk. There is no routine or structure for weeks or months, (or years), and it's fine for some families indefinitely. But at some point, we can decide to take charge and hold the reins. Our own fears may prevent us from holding firmly, but even if they protest, our kids want us to be in charge, because it makes them feel secure.
My kids (4 and 6) still cry when they're tired or hungry or don't get what they want, but they know we're holding the reins firmly at bedtime, and when we don't let them have candy for dinner.
The question is, at what point do you take the reins?
We’ve probably all heard the flight attendant speech many times. You know, the speech that tells us to put our oxygen mask on first, before our child/ren? Yep, that one. I often think this particular part of the speech is an ironic metaphor for parenting.
As parents, though we know we should care for ourselves first, often we don’t. It feels counter-intuitive, selfish, wrong. If you and your baby are hungry, you should feed your baby first, right? Well, yes and no. I would argue that we simply be more strategic, and feed ourselves before our kids are hungry. We can even take that concept and apply it to other areas of our lives so we nourish ourselves before anything else, thereby having more energy and love to give. If we consistently put our children first, eventually we feel depleted, exhausted, starving on multiple levels, until we have nothing left to give!
Whether you work outside the home, run your own business, or you’re the primary caregiver, you MUST put your oxygen mask on first. Make time to schedule YOURSELF into your busy life. We all have plenty of excuses for why we can’t, or don’t have time, but think about what you REALLY WANT for your family. What kind of example do you want to set for your kids? What do you want to teach them about self-care? Conversely, what are they currently learning from you about self-care, and are you comfortable with that? Is there anything you’d like to change? Try to think of ONE THING you can do right now to take better care of yourself, and go do it. Take the oxygen mask…and breathe.
There’s a problem that I’ve been trying to put my finger on for some time. The status quo isn’t working for most parents, but it’s so deeply ingrained in us, most of us don’t see there’s a problem at all. I think it’s part of an American cultural phenomenon stemming from the disintegration of extended families and tribal communities. We’re so conditioned to do everything ourselves, it’s become increasingly difficult to accept help, especially from strangers. How many times have you answered a well-meaning friend or acquaintance with, “Oh no, I’m fine” when you really could use a hand. We often secretly wish someone would step in and take over, take our kids for a few hours, or cook us a meal when we’re sick, but most of the time, we deny help. Why? What is it about our culture that is so fiercely independent, that we won’t accept help? New parents: Will you accept help when someone offers? If it’s free, or within your means to afford, I encourage you to open your arms and accept it. You only become a parent once in your life, and other parents understand how you’re feeling. So step aside and let us help you!
I’m a control freak and I know it. Many of my women friends are; we simply can’t help it. We’re so used to being in charge of everything, we forget that other people can sit in the driver’s seat if we let them. I realized much later than I’d care to admit, that if I allowed my husband to be completely in charge of our kids, the world didn’t end. And when I managed to restrain myself from micro-managing the details, he did (and still does) an amazing job! I caught myself often grumbling about why I was always the one packing for the kids when we went out of town, and why it was my job to be in charge of knowing when the kids' needed new shoes or coats. But before my feminist feathers got too ruffled, I really thought about it one day, and realized that I had set it up that way myself. So often I see new moms worry when they’re not completely in charge of their babies every detail. As new moms, we may feel compelled to give instructions about how to hold the bottle or change a diaper or put the baby down for a nap. But it’s important to remember that we have to back off and really, truly let dads develop their own parenting style. Moms go through the trial and error of learning to breastfeed, burp, soothe and get our babies to sleep. If you have a partner who really wants to be an active participant in caring for your baby/ies, by all means, don't stand in his way. Not only will you be more relaxed and have more time for yourself, you might just fall in love all over again watching him take charge and give you a much deserved break!
Crazy things happen when you become a mommy. You may experience an excruciatingly painful, unconditional love that brings you to your knees. There will likely be a roller-coaster of hormones, many sleepless nights and tears, breastfeeding challenges, potential postpartum depression; you name it, it’s all happening. And while you may be one of the rare few who (honestly) finds it all very natural and easy, the vast majority of us are scratching our heads thinking, Oh, crap, now what? And we figure it out, one way or another, in a process of trial and error. Usually at about the six week mark, new parents start feeling more confident and in control. The baby starts sleeping longer stretches, you get a few smiles; it all starts to feel somehow more manageable. These are things we can all anticipate on some level, right? But did you know that if you have a baby who sleeps through the night early on (I’ve heard as early as 5 or 6 weeks), that you absolutely must NOT talk about it with other new moms? Trust me on this, just don’t. The rest of the sleep-deprived mommies will hate you. It will make them feel like failures, and they won’t have a sense of humor about it. Believe me, I’ve been on both sides. If your baby sleeps through the night a freakishly early age, be smug in private and lie to the other moms.
I suspect that everyone reading this already knows that breastfeeding is best for babies; that the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends breast milk exclusively for the first six months. No disrespect to La Leche League and other organizations who work to raise awareness about the benefits of breast milk, but enough already! I think we got the point. The pressure to exclusively breastfeed our babies has become so strong, that women who CAN’T breastfeed are shamed into a horrific amount of guilt if they’re unable to nurse their babies. There are hundreds of thousands of new moms worldwide who aren’t able to breastfeed for one reason or another. Adoptive moms. Surrogate moms. Moms who've had medical complications. And then there are regular new moms like me. I personally found breastfeeding so stressful and painful that I struggled with milk supply, and went through ridiculous hurdles including nighttime pumping, gallons of tea, and daily calls to a lactation consultant, to avoid any formula at all. Looking back, I feel silly for being so stressed about it, and realize the stress was likely the biggest problem, but I didn’t know any better. The lactation consultants all wanted to keep me breastfeeding. I seemed to be the only one in my new moms and breastfeeding support groups who was struggling with anything (everyone else looked so perky and happy!), and I didn’t have any veteran mom friends to give me permission to give my baby a bottle of formula so I could loosen up a bit! Instead, I pumped every two hours, often through the night, and made a ritual of calling my lactation consultant daily at 9am, as well as making a pot of special tea that I would then chill and drink throughout the day. And this was all just to keep my milk supply up. A dear friend of mine, after thorough planning for a natural childbirth with a midwife, ended up with an emergency C-section, followed by an infection to the incision, followed by IV antibiotics for the infection, then mastitis, followed by more antibiotics, etc. The result was a crippling case of postpartum depression (PPD) and an inability to produce enough breast milk to feed her baby. Her depression was so bad, that her mom had to come care for her and the baby for six months. On her first excursion out of the house, she actually got scolded by another mom at the food co-op for feeding her baby a bottle of organic soy formula. The woman smugly said over her sling, "Breast milk really IS better for your baby." Can you imagine? The self-righteousness is shocking, but I truly believe this kind of behavior, and the cultural pressure to exclusively breastfeed, is a significant contributing factor to the high levels of PPD in the U.S. So please ladies, give new moms (and yourselves) a break! A bottle of formula every now and then is not going to kill your baby. Why not have a glass of wine with some other new moms once a week, and leave bottles at home with the dads?!? Let them bond, while you loosen up with the girls. That seems far more healthy to me...
There's been a lot of chatter amongst parents about New York Magazine's recent cover story, "I love my children. I hate my life." It was certainly a shock when I saw it on the news stands, and though I rarely purchase print magazines anymore, I bought this one. Numerous studies show that parents are less happy than non-parents. OK, got it. But why? Why are parents so chronically unhappy? Personally, I think it has a lot to do with expectations and new mom guilt. Before we have children, we often dream of having them. We name them in romantic moments with our partners before they're even conceived, and those of us who struggle with fertility romanticize parenthood even more. We don't exactly know what we're getting into when we have children; how it's going to affect our lives, how we will manage the sleep deprivation, roller-coaster hormones, work/family/self balance, how we'll deal with the guilt when we have to go back to work (compounded if we actually enjoy working!). So I would like to post a challenge to all expectant parents: Think about your expectations of parenthood, and ask yourself why you want children. What do YOU expect while you're expecting? How will you maintain your happiness and liberate yourself from feelings of guilt for not loving new parenthood every moment of every day? Being a new parent is hard, more difficult than most people will tell you, but if you manage your expectations, and prioritize yourself even a little bit after you have a baby, you will have a better chance at being a happy parent!