I often hear from working mothers that they could never stay home full-time with their children, the implication being that some mothers have that sort of temperament/patience/capacity for diaper-changing and Dinosaur Train-watching and some just don’t. In my opinion, this belief stems in part from the deplorable job our culture does in supporting and nurturing new mothers, which in turn leads to a negative experience of maternity leave in particular and stay-at-home parenting in general.
Typically, new parents bring their new baby home from the hospital, and they may have visitors for several days afterwards, but these visitors are frequently the type to bring a gift for the baby, ask to hold the baby, and do nothing helpful at all while keeping the new mother from resting. After a few days, or a week if he’s really lucky, the father goes back to work. The new mother is reeling from her first week of sleep deprivation, the huge hormonal shift that occurs after birth, and, if she’s among the 1/3 of women in the US who have a C-section, recovering from major abdominal surgery. In this state, she is left alone with her baby for 9 hours a day. Not surprisingly, many mothers, while they enjoy their babies, don’t particularly enjoy their maternity leave. In fact, as many as one in four American women experience postpartum depression and/or anxiety. Happy New Baby!
What’s a pregnant mama to do? Instead of focusing on the STUFF your baby needs (which can be boiled down to about 4 things), focus on the PEOPLE that you are going to need. Spend your pregnancy gathering resources and cultivating relationships with people who have the time and skills you’ll need after baby arrives. The DONA postpartum plan is a great place to start when thinking about your needs and who might be able to fill them. The needs they identify include:
- Support for rest
- Friends with young babies
- Nutritious meals and adequate nutrition
- Knowledgeable, empowering breastfeeding support
- Time to be yourself and/or be BY yourself
- Time to be a couple
You may have heard that new parents are sleep deprived. After my first baby, it really hit home that I was a mother now, like, ALL THE TIME, including all night, every night. I hate to be one of those people who tell pregnant women that they just don’t even know what it will be like, but…you just don’t even KNOW. Now, there are some things you can do to maximize your rest, including exclusively breastfeeding, co-sleeping, and learning to nurse lying down. Another tip you might find helpful is to determine how much sleep you typically need, and then, once baby arrives, remain in bed until you have met that need. So for example, if before baby you slept 8 hours a night, and you are up for 2 hours during the night with baby, you must stay in bed for 10 hours (preferably free of screens and other distractions, so that even if you’re not sleeping, your mind is able to rest).
The most oft-given advice to new mothers is to sleep when the baby sleeps. Some believe this to be extremely unhelpful advice, with one blogger even suggesting that people who tell you this be given a quick punch to the throat. But sleep is really that important, and the rest of the adjustments you are making in your life as a new parent will seem so much more manageable if you make sleep a priority. The other big thing that goes along with this is that you must lower your standards for pretty much all other areas of your life for awhile. House cleaning, meal preparation, work tasks, errand running, laundry, personal grooming, most everything can either wait or be done minimally. It may help to officially declare your household to be in bare minimum mode for six weeks or so.
It is not healthy for anyone to spend 9 hours a day alone with a baby. Unfortunately, for first-time moms who have been working full-time, nearly all of their friends are likely at work during the day. If you get along with your family and they’re helpful and available, see if you can schedule some regular company in the first few weeks. Even if you’re not much of a people person, breaking up the day with a short visit will be good for your mental health. You might even see if grandma can help out during the “grandma hour” (also known as the witching hour or, by a realist I know, the arsenic hour). This is the time at the end of the day where baby is fussiest and mama is most tired and dinner is most not-cooked. Grandma can help with dinner, then hold baby while you take a nap and a quick walk around the block.
If your family is far-flung or you don’t get along well, you may need to step out of your comfort zone and find some new people. Reach out to friends and acquaintances who stay home during the day. Size up the other mamas at your childbirth class and consider starting a weekly coffee date before baby, which can turn into a weekly playdate after babies. Attend a La Leche League meeting while you’re pregnant to meet other expectant and new moms. Check with the hospital about pregnancy and new mother groups. A 2009 survey found that 80% of mothers believed they didn’t have enough friends, and 58% felt lonely, so it’s likely that any request to get together will be met with enthusiasm.
Another option is a postpartum doula, someone specially trained to take care of new moms and babies. That includes running errands, cooking meals, cleaning house, doing laundry, PLUS helping with breastfeeding and answering questions about your postpartum self and new baby care. If you have the funds, having a postpartum doula a few hours a day for the first two weeks can make all the difference between thriving and just surviving.
If you are a breastfeeding mother, you will likely be ravenous most of the day (and night). Here again, keep it simple. First, consider setting up a meal registry at a site like mealbaby.com or mealtrain.com. Friends and family can sign up to bring you a meal on a certain day, and you can even make suggestions about favorite foods/restaurants. (Since there are often leftovers, see if you can have a meal brought to you every other day.) If someone wants to throw you a baby shower, suggest a freezer shower, where everyone brings you a prepared meal to freeze for after baby comes.
When you must feed yourself, think fast, easy, healthy, and able-to-be-eaten-with-one-hand:
- Sandwiches or wraps stuffed with veggies, meat, and cheese
- Pre-sliced veggies and dip
- Easy-to-eat fruit
- Muffins, breads and cookies: if you make them lactation cookies, you will have an excuse to eat a few extra
- Smoothies: add some chia seeds, ground flax seed, or nut butter for protein
- Granola or energy bars
For more good info on what and how to eat after baby, check out the book Feed Yourself, Feed Your Family.
Not so many generations ago, most women breastfed their babies, and families had more children. This meant that girls grew up seeing nursing babies, and when they had their own babies they had knowledgeable support from family and friends. These days, while it’s getting better, breastfeeding is far from normalized enough that you can get good advice and support from just anyone. Your best sources of support are experienced breastfeeding mothers (extra points if they’ve successfully nursed more than one child), certified lactation consultants (IBCLCs), and your local La Leche League leader(s). Get help early and often, and don’t be afraid to contact more than one person if you’re having difficulty – breastfeeding is an art as well as a science, and that third person you talk to may say just the right thing to fix your problem.
Time For Yourself
My sister’s midwife handed out a sheet to each of her clients entitled, “The New Mama’s Guide to the Tender Loving Care of Herself”. It includes the instructions to get a massage once a week for the first four weeks postpartum. This is fantastic advice. Even if massage isn’t your thing, you should make some sort of self-care a priority. One mom I know took a long bath most evenings when her husband got home from work. I liked to hand over the baby as soon as my husband walked in the door and take the dog for a walk. Some moms (including me) get a little twitchy if they’re away from their babies in the early weeks; if that’s you, think about things you can do FOR yourself rather than things to do BY yourself.
A note about fathers: the best way for new fathers to learn how to care for and bond with their new babies is to…actually let them care for their babies. If you can’t help but give pointers on the “correct” way to change a diaper or put on a onesie or give baby a bath, shut your mouth and leave the room. You cannot and should not do everything yourself — let him parent his child.
Time To Be A Couple
Speaking of fathers, staying connected as a couple is also important in the early weeks and months. This does not have to mean a date night out without baby right away, especially if it makes you twitchy (see above). Instead, you might try:
- Movie night – pick up your favorite takeout, and take turns picking a movie to watch together (and it doesn’t count if one of you is on facebook or playing candy crush during the movie). Also, you must sit right next to each other.
- Talk to each other for 15 uninterrupted minutes – it may include discussion of the baby’s inputs and outputs, but it better not be the whole discussion. If you need help coming up with something more interesting to talk about, try here or here.
- Plan a vacation – according to happiness researchers, planning a trip makes people happy. In fact, the planning makes people happier than actually taking the trip. So feel free to think big – a trip you’d like to take for a major anniversary, or when your youngest child leaves home, or when you retire, perhaps?