When I first became a mom, I was...overwhelmed. With love. With responsibility. With fear. With incredulity.
I couldn't believe how much becoming a mom had transformed my life in every single way, big and small. On one hand, I marveled how, with the birth of my daughter, it was like my heart had doubled in size, or that a secret chamber in it had finally opened and a rush of love like I'd never known flooded out. On the other, I'd been waiting for nine months to get some semblance of my "former life" back and now I was farther from it than I'd ever been. I was traveling down a one-way street in a car I'd never driven.
Looking back, I laughed at how I thought that all that precious baby gear I compiled during pregnancy meant that I was actually prepared. That I had a tool in the chest for any problem that might need solving. Hell, even all the recon I did on baby basics proved fruitless. I asked myself, "why did no tell me about all this?"
The only way to answer that is to say that your first foray into motherhood is a rite of passage. No one feels your feels, no one lives in your body, no one has carried and birthed your baby. What's yours is yours, and that makes your path your own to forge.
Still, I want to share the ten things I wish I'd been prepared for better or at all before becoming a mom. Some are lighthearted, others weigh a wee bit heavier on the ol' ticker. My mission here is not to scare anyone, or throw motherhood under the bus. Heavens, no! The early stages of motherhood can be scary, and isolating. So I want to share my thoughts for anyone who may be able to relate, and for any mom who values an open and honest perspective on this adventure we call motherhood.
Let's start with an easy one!
1 | The Mesh Panties. You feel me, ladies? Gaaah they're hideous, but dang if you aren't so grateful for them! It goes without saying that after you give birth, you're...shall we say...a tad tender from the waist down. You don't want anything touching you in your bathing suit area, but you need something to hold that giant ice pad (like, actually a huge, cold maxi pad) in place. Mesh panties are where it's at. You better take allll the free pairs you can get your hands on before you head home. Another freebie you should take? The squirt bottle (see point three.) You know, because even Angel Soft feels like sandpaper post-delivery.
2 | Breastfeeding Claustrophobia. Most of my closest girlfriends breastfed their children through their first year, kicking the national average in the booty and subsequently skewing my pre-baby perspective on exactly how fraught an experience it can be. There's physical pain -- anything that sucks on your nipples nine times a day and will eventually do so with a mouth full of teeth is going to cause some discomfort. What I didn't see coming was the isolation. Listening to friends and family cut up over cocktails while I sat alone, solitary and sober.
I also didn't expect my boobs to become the last line of defense. When nothing calmed baby, one option remained: Mrs. Moo Cow. It didn't matter how tired I was, or how harrowingly close I was to a hormonal, emotional break. If baby needed soothing, nothing beat the breast. I knew it, but so did everyone else. Which meant every time baby started fussing, all eyes turned to me and my magic milk dispensers.
Sometimes feeding IS the solution. Other times its the 'control+alt+delete' escape hatch everyone falls back on when they don't really feel like troubleshooting the situation. It's incredibly frustrating.
If only boobs could be zipped on and off to let others experience that level of expectation.
Getting any voice of expertise to speak against breastfeeding in any way, shape, or form was impossible. I had legitimate questions about my breastmilk - was it adequately nourishing Harlow? What if wasn't providing everything she needed, and that's why she was so petite and a terrible sleeper? I couldn't find any authority - not one - who was willing to explore those possibilities with me. I knew friends who managed to "diagnose" breastfeeding challenges, but those resources eluded me.
One time I called the pediatrician's office to ask which formula they'd recommend should I need to supplement Harlow. I never said I was quitting nursing because I wasn't! I was having trouble pumping enough to store bottles for a night away or for me to get a nap, so I wanted a back-up plan. Makes sense, right? No. You would've thought I was asking for admission into the Pentagon. The nurse asked me what was wrong. If I was ill, or depressed, or going back to work. It was like pulling teeth to get them to say, "just go buy the organic formula, here's the brands we recommend." I just wanted help making an informed decision for a hypothetical plan B, and it was like trying to muscle by a beefcake bouncer. Completely unnecessary to put a struggling new mom through that.
3 | The luxury of peeing. I never knew peeing was so self-indulgent until trying to pee alone -- or trying not to pee my pants -- became so rare. First it's peeing after giving birth and using that dang squirt bottle. Then it's having to go as soon as your crying baby falls asleep in your lap. And then it's having to take a squirmy baby into the restroom with you because there's nowhere safe to put them while you tend to potty business. Of course once they start walking it's a totally different ball game. When my inner circle needs a refresher on why mommyhood can be so stressful and hard, I typically reference the fact going to the bathroom took forethought and strategy. Or that leaking during a workout is a regular thing. If you're getting me a gift, all I want is peace, quiet, and private pee time. (Haha not really...but really.)
4 | Expectation vs. experience. "The best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry." Stitch it on a hoop and hang it on the wall, mama friend. In the words of that fiery Ygritte in Game of Thrones, "you know nothing." I mean, you do because you're a mom and nothing trumps motherly intuition and love. Just be sure to write your plans in pencil because they'll likely be rewritten time and time again.
I think what we fail to grasp during pregnancy and the early stages of motherhood is that we can't completely control the behaviors and emotions of another human being. Even when it's tiny. Even when it's inside our bodies.
Our children are their own people, with their own ways of processing the world and living in it. Even how they come into the world is often at odds with how a mom plans for it to go. Birth plans are kind of hilarious in hind sight. Yes, you should definitely have a base-line set of wishes and preferences to share with your doctor and nurses. (That's another thing: your nurses will be with you waaaay more than your doctor, so don't get overly attached to your OB, it doesn't really work that way.) But be prepared for it to amount to a hill of beans once that baby takes control. Just because baby is coming out doesn't mean you know how or when. And trust me when I tell you that nobody gives awards out for hard-core birth stories, or for pushing for 20+ hours with no epidural.
I wrote a whole post, called "Sandcastle By The Sea", to talk about how we as parents need to learn to manage our expectations for our children and for ourselves. After you've had your umpteenth plan/strategy/schedule shattered to pieces by your little one, you learn that while your destination may remain unchanged, how you get there inevitably will. It's a powerful lesson albeit a hard one, but it helps to tame the raging waters of mom guilt. On that subject...
5 | Grief and Guilt. What's hard about bidding adieu to life before baby isn't that you aren't prepared for it. It's how deeply it affects you. Clearly long, leisurely brunches and afternoon naps are a thing of the past, as is the ability to sleep off that mimosa hangover the next day. You see that coming. What's impossible to anticipate is the abdication of autonomy. The ability to singularly pursue personal, or even professional, goals without performing a cost-benefit analysis or agonizing over logistics. That word - "logistics" - starts to run your life. As does the clock. Your days are no longer divided between work and recreational time. They're diced up into feedings, naps, walks, chores, and play time, one activity right into the other. The list of things you need to do takes on a Kudzu-like quality, growing exponentially because you never cross anything off but you always keep adding to it. Anything you do manage to achieve comes at the cost of something else. It's discouraging and exhausting.
You begin to experience Stockholm Syndrome (see number eight). You wonder if you were ready to become a mother. Then you tell yourself you're a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad person for thinking that thought. You're stuck in a purgatory of wanting your old life back and hating yourself for not being blissfully happy for the life you thought you wanted and waited nine months for.
It's easy to succumb to the mental quicksand of mom guilt. When other moms say "it gets better," it doesn't just mean in regards to night wakings or naps. It also applies to the fog occupying our heads and our hearts. You wrestle with this new life because it's just that, a completely new life which you can never, ever prepare for. Is there anything else in life like that, in which the stakes are sky high yet no amount of planning will really prepare you for what's to come? As with all things worth having in life, it just takes time, patience, and experience to get your sea legs and enjoy your new adventure.
It requires letting go of what WAS to make room for what IS.
I set that sentence in bold because that's been a revelation for me. Said another way, it's allowing yourself to grieve for your old life, when you were comfortable, in a routine, and the captain of your own ship. No one talks about grief accompanying motherhood, right? To do so would make you sound uncaring, a glass-half-empty kind of gal. Yet, for those of us who experience it -- and I do think there are more of us than not -- you need to know it's a natural, if unexpected, part of the process. Otherwise you can trick yourself into thinking you're an unfit mother, or doing a bad job, or ungrateful for the tiny blessing bundled up in their bassinet. You're not, believe me. Being mindful of this awkward temporary state, accepting you're in a transition and that you're allowed time to come to terms, is important to steering yourself out of these troubled waters.
6 | Missing the mundane. The simple acts, unconscious decisions you make all day, every day evaporate. The ability to open the front door and go walk the dog. Have a meandering conversation. Watch a show, read a book, listen to a song on max volume. Try a complicated recipe. Go to a movie. You're not beholden to the clock, your boobs, or logistics. You can be flippant, making a decision to do one thing and then immediately change your mind. Or say, 'I need to go to the store.' Then grab your purse, car keys, and hit the road, Jack.
It's alllllll gone, at least in the way it used to be. Errands have to be timed and properly planned. Having the TV on to catch fragments of your favorite early morning show? No good, according to "the latest study." It might make your child a zombie and delay development and you might as well kiss a top 30 college goodbye. Anything to make a mom fear for her kid's future.
Harlow being a December baby, I was terrified to take her outside in the freezing cold during flu season. Which meant I got cabin fever like nobody's business. I would sit there, breastfeeding for the fifth time in as many hours, and look out the window at my neighbors and passersby going about their lives unaware of how blissfully liberated they all looked to me. The girl across the street? She bounded down her stairs, bundled up in cute winter attire, jumped in her car, and drove off. When she came back, shopping bag and coffee in hand, she patiently went back inside until her next destination called her to come out and twist the knife in my heart a little more. I know this sounds strange, maybe even borderline creepy and voyeuristic, but I couldn't help envy her for her freedom to make a decision and then immediately act on it without a strategy or contingency plan.
7 | The mom tribe. Prior to kids, I felt rejected by mom-friends who kept choosing the company of other moms over mine. Probably not consciously excluding me, but nonetheless spending less time with me to do simple things like go on walks or have a glass of wine with mom friends. Things I wanted to do! Mom or not, getting girl time in this season of life is tricky; I didn't care what we did, or who else we did it with, just as long as we hung out!
Now, I get it. Now I see it's less about selectively choosing your company and more about surrounding yourself with other women who understand why you're frazzled, why you're running late or may cancel last minute, and why (despite your best efforts) you end up talking about babies and parenting 99% of the time. It's an "I've walked in her shoes" situation, a silent understanding of just hard it can be. It's not that non-moms don't understand, or don't want to, it's just that motherhood can beat you down and sometimes you frankly need to know from an experience source that you're not blowing it and that she's been pooped on, too.
8 | Stockholm Syndrome. Why, WHY, do we count down the minutes until our day off, our date night, our weekend away, only to whip out our phones and start watching videos of our baby doing "the cutest thing!" Sitting outside, feeling like a proper adult with friends, cocktail in hand, you start texting the sitter like "how's it going?" Tapping out, unplugging, switching out of mom mode -- it's impossible no matter how much you want or need that blessed break.
Your mind never stops running. Or worrying. Your body clock resets to your new normal so even when you can sleep in, you can't. You wonder if whoever's taking care of your child is doing it the way you know they like it done (or the way you like it done!) Are they following the schedule? Are they remembering the sunscreen??
9 | Hair-steria. Many of us are told at one time or another that the luxurious mane of hair we grew while pregnant will fall out once baby arrives. Just as you think your body can't possibly take more of a beating, you start going bald. I mean, Eve only stole the one apple. I'm not sure the punishment fits the crime here. What more can we take, or have taken from us? Babies take our wine, our steak, our daggone turkey sandwiches...now they take our hair.
And guess what? All those hormones raging inside from pregnancy and breastfeeding? Turns out they screw with hair dye, so that beautiful shade of blonde you've been waiting nine months to return to might actually change to brassy copper. I had this one chunk of hair right by my bangs that turned reddish copper about a week after I colored my hair for over a year after I gave birth.
10 | The longest shortest time. Days are long, years are short. It's soooooo true! I lost count of how many times I stared at the clock like "when's your daddy coming home? I'm exHAUSted!" Or had to say a prayer and pull myself up by the boot straps to keep on keepin' on. For someone with a low caffeine tolerance, I couldn't just fuel up on Starbucks and Coca-Cola products all day. Walks helped, and trips to Target, but most days I found myself picking up the phone to see what Dee Dee was doing LOL!
And yet despite those days of watching the minutes slowly tick by with red droopy eyes, I also lost count of how many times I stared at Harlow in disbelief over how big she was getting. How it seemed like yesterday we were playing patty cake in my lap where she fit perfectly, and how her swatting at the spinning toy hanging in her play yard was a major development. Now she's talking, walking, climbing, and picking up new skills left and right -- just the other day she saw a little kid whistle and immediately started trying to herself! I remember a few of those agonizing early days in detail, but not nearly as many as there were. I only recall the happy parts and think of how fast it went by.
...One More For Good Measure...
11 | Mom-somnia. As if I haven't scared you shitless by now, there's yet another cruel joke that early motherhood likes to play on new moms. So everybody knows that new parents are sleep deprived, right? Obviously. What you may not know -- what I didn't know -- is that even in the midst of a massive sleep drought, insomnia can strike. Even if you've never had it before. Even if you're struggling to keep your eyes open wider than three centimeters the whole day. You finally get the baby down, you successfully tip-toe silently to the bed, and just when you think you'll fall asleep before you hit the sheets, your mind cranks up to 100mph and sleep is nowhere to be found. It's brutal. It happened to me for about three to four nights and I just about lost it.
Fortunately, I came out of it pretty quickly by tweaking my nighttime ritual (or what I had of one) a little bit. The two biggest things that helped were A) getting a sleep mask, and B) eliminating every possible source of worry so that I wouldn't lie in bed thinking up gruesome "what if" scenarios. (Because new parents are beat over the head with how many ways your child can suffer harm or worse. No wonder we can't sleep!)
You can see other tricks I learned to fight new mom insomnia in this post here!
...And Three Things They Told Me That Are 100% True
1 | You can't possibly prepare for what it will be like. Nothing anybody tells us about the way it will be, or how your life will change, or how your baby will sleep, eat, play, or crawl will be the way it is. The reason is because no one has met the life you're bringing into the world. A new life, a unique life, a life that nature and nurture will shape but not one that you can predict.
Which is probably why I didn't know all these things I listed out today. Who's gonna sit a pregnant woman down, cankles and all, to tell her she may suddenly get insomnia, or suffer from guilt over missing your old life, or that breastfeeding is isolating and a shit ton of work? You never know how someone's body, mind, and heart are going to respond to their new role as a mom. So you don't plant seeds of doubt and confusion. You tell them that "this, too, shall pass" when the going gets tough...and you show up to watch the baby so she can catch a nap.
2 | The good far outweighs the bad. There will be "bad" so to speak. Days when you just cry, when you haven't slept, when simple acts become monumental tasks. When your baby does something you don't know how to handle and you feel so totally and completely out of your league. But right after you've dirtied every towel left in your linen closet cleaning up the sixth poop-nado of the day, your baby will grasp your finger, look in your eyes, and coo so sweetly that your body will physically feel the warmth of love's embrace wrapping you tightly in its arms. You will witness a life unfolding before your eyes. You'll never, ever be the same, and you wouldn't want to be.
3 | It goes fast. So, so fast. Remember when I said "days are long and the years are short?" That's the best way to describe it. We're already discussing which convertible toddler bed we want to buy Harlow, and how in four months she'll be old enough to turn her car seat around. She starts pre-school next month! The newborn baby I couldn't leave the house with in the middle of the wintry flu season I'm going to start dropping off at school four times a week. It's so hard to wrap my mind around it all!
Moms. If I could leave you with one final thought it's this: try to remember to soak up the simple moments. Absorb all the snuggles, hugs, and story times nestled together in your reading chair that you possibly can. One day, these things you do all the time you won't be doing at all. I'd give anything if Harlow would sleep on my chest like she used to...
But give yourself a break if in between these magic moments you get overwhelmed, fed up, or unsure about what the heck you're doing. We ALL feel that way, I promise. Maybe you wanted us to warn you...but...would you have understood it before you lived it? None of us would have, you can count on that!
Photos by Catrina Earls Photography