Can we just say it: After you become a parent, the first few months are brutal, yes?
Well, they were for me, with Ethan (our first son, in 2002):
- NICU for a week
- I had mastitis for a solid, bloody-cracked-painful month
- Trying to figure out every single thing, and feeling like it mattered so very much– pacifier– no? yes? Feed whenever? or on a schedule? or….?
- Nerve-rattling “weight checks” with pediatricians who use a formula-fed weight chart to evaluate breastfed infants with a mom just getting her milk in for the first time after a week-long NICU stay
- A laundry pile that goes from 1-or-2 loads a week to a mountain you’ll never see the bottom of again
- Never feeling “normal”… my chest hurt like the dickens, my nether regions felt like they’d never return to any semblance of normality, and my home looked like a tornado had gone through it
- Extreme mental fog that lasted until he was about 6 months old
- And on and on…
- I was happy with my new baby, but I felt like life had chewed me up one side and down the other.
But you know what the first few months of Luke’s life looked like (our 7th child, in 2015)?
- Me mostly in bed, with Luke, or on the couch, with Luke, for a solid week
- A few-weeks-long break from homeschooling, cause we’d started our “school year” in July when we found out the baby was coming in February, so we had time for a gentle return to school
- Convenience foods and easy crock pot meals for a good while after
- a contended crawl toward finding a “new normal” (I’ve stopped trying to “return to normal”)
It was a whole different ballgame.
There were plenty of differences, of course, but I think the main difference is that, at some point, motherhood stopped being about survival.
I’ve spent the last 13+ years learning how to “play the instrument” of who our family IS, through great changes and upheaval, and each time we face change– like moving, or the change of having a new baby– I am able to handle it better than I did the last time.
So do you wanna know the truth about how it happened?
Motherhood is not something you master the first time around. The first time around I was stressed and figuring out the essentials. Mere survival was the goal.
When I look around, it seems like that’s the way it is for all of us.
A beginning violinist doesn’t walk up to the instrument she’s never studied and expect beautiful music the first time around.
So why do we think we can ace motherhood straight out of the gate?
Is it because we feel like we have to?
Because our society puts all this pressure on us to be amazing? Because Pinterest tells us we should throw celebrity-style parties with perfectly-coifed children? Is this the you-can-do-anything-and-everything message of our childhood echoing into adulthood?
Or, perhaps, is it because we’re degreed and intelligent and, thus, we feel like one eensy-weensy baby shouldn’t reduce us to tears and an inability to procure something as simple as a shower in a 48-hour period? Is it because we’re over-confident about our intelligence and abilities but often lacking in character and practical know-how when it comes to the ongoing need for persevering motherhood?
- Where in modern American mothering is there room for learning and practice?
- Where in modern American mothering is there room for growth over time?
- Where in modern American mothering is there room for grace– while striving for excellence in the things that matter?
Have we crafted our collective mothering in such a way that we only get one or two “cracks” at it and, thus, are constantly guinea-pigging our way through the 20-year journey?
AND– to add a little more neuroticism to ourselves– have we made it so that it all has to look ah-MAZ-ING and Pottery Barn photo-worthy?
Because the truth is, for me, 13 years into mothering, things like:
- how to go through labor WELL (even if it still is the crazy hardest thing you can do that you don’t really want to do — because yes, it is still crazy painful even the 7th time around)
- how to get a good latch while breastfeeding
- how to keep the toddler/preschooler going with discipline while resting with an infant
- how to teach an infant to sleep well, so the rest of us can too (ASAP)
- what to do about pacifiers, vaccines, circumcisions, spankings, formula, tantrums,
- how to feed a hungry crowd, multiple times a day, while mom is recovering from childbirth
don’t make me frantic. Of course, I still *think* about these things. I have to work at them. And yes, I plan for them… but they do not stress me out.
Mere survival is no longer my sole aim for the postpartum time.
- thriving as a family…
- making our “instrument” sing….
- discovering what our new normal looks like as a family in this new stage…
- and enjoying rare days of absolute wonder as we meet a new little person…
THAT’s what consumes our early postpartum days.
But… are you hearing me?
The only way to get to that place of competence as a mother in that postpartum season is TIME and PRACTICE.
(And make no mistake– though I no longer feel like a fish out of water in the postpartum period, it’s still tiring. And though breastfeeding is no longer baffling, I’m now in my own place of putting in TIME and PRACTICE in the preteen and teen years. THAT’s the place where I’m learning and growing and getting kicked around and thinking and praying and in a place of persevering and survival.)
This isn’t probably popular in this have-a-kid-or-two-and-get-back-to-your-life world. But I’m not shooting for popular… I’m shooting for honest.
This is basic stuff, but it could change the way we see motherhood if we embrace it:
The way to get past survival is to keep going and doing something long enough to get to a place where the basic essentials are no longer stressful for you.
Just like the path for proficiency as a violinist, the way to get good at being a mom is lots of practice over time. The way to get good at it is to not give up.
The answer to our stress as a mom is not a mani-pedi, “me time,” a few margaritas, or a bunko night. The way to get good at it is to dive deeper into it when we feel like running away from it.
The answer to your stress is to turn toward the thing that is causing you stress… and get better at it. (And I’m preaching that to myself here in the thick of the new-to-me early teen/pre-teen years!)
8 thoughts on “Mommy Life & Getting Past Survival”
Yes!! The answer to your stress is to turn the thing causing you stress and get better at it. Perfect. When I try to avoid the stress, it doesn’t work. I need to figure out ways to deal with the stress, by figuing out a new plan
Wow. I just can’t say how much I LOVE this post! Thank you!!
P.S. We are a couple of years behind you, with our eldest being 9yo. While I’m finally starting to feel comfortable with the toddler/young child phase, I know that I have some serious re-floundering to do when we get to having our first teen in the house. Youch, I hope it’s not as hard as the toddler stage was! (I know, pipe dreams.)
I had to come back and add one comment – being that I feel that I am in this stage (thrown in at the deep end and floundering) with the issue of sibling relationships. I’ve already been in baby/toddler/young child bootcamp for ten years, and teen bootcamp is right around the corner – the sibling relationship bootcamp is the intermediate step. And I feel like I’m floudering and failing just as badly now, with sibling relationships, as I did back ten years ago with the baby/toddler/young child bit. I think it’s going to take, as you say, longterm faithfulness and learning the lessons of parenting over years of going through it before we feel like we have this part down. It’s just a matter of doing it over and over again, with all of the years of prayers and tears and learning the ropes from scratch.
Thanks again for this awesome article.
So it feels like you are saying the only way to live and grow as a mom is to just keep on having babies until you go through menopause so you can perfect the art of motherhood? Because if you stop at 2, you are trying to “get back to your life”? When is it ok in your book to stop and not press the re-set button on the newborn stage?
I like so much of this (striving to grow over time, pressing into instead of seeking escape, etc), but it also feels laced with a lot of judgment on those who only have 1-2 kids. And I’m not even a 1-2 kid person. My 3rd is an infant, and we are open to more.
I hope I’m not coming across as trying to start a fight. Just playing devil’s advocate and hoping for clarity.
Well I appreciate the pushback. I don’t intend it as a hard “judgment on those who only have 1-2 kids” and yet I definitely see how it may be exactly that.
And, honestly, there’s a sense in which, yes, I’m saying that the way to keep growing is to keep doing it. My mom has shared that there are things she just did her best to muddle through, and didn’t really “master” because she “only” had my brother and I. Things she didn’t really understand, or didn’t have time to really figure out, before the stage was past and she was on to the next thing. She did it. It’s not like we’re permanently scarred for life because of it… not in the least! And yet, she’s said there were things she just “got through.”
I don’t intend this to be some sort of slam against smaller families, but rather, a purposeful examination of this idea of mastery. How can we really expect someone who only does something a couple times to do it with full confidence, success, and pizzazz? We don’t expect that in any other arena… I think we do ourselves and other women a disservice to expect great skill when motherhood is (at least the first time) constant guinea pigging.
I’m also saying this as an observation for myself… see- the thing is?… there are many things I feel like I’m still learning and understanding more and more, the more I pour into motherhood. And maybe I’m just a dipstick and it takes me longer than others, but seriously- there are things that it took me 3-5 children to start to “master”. A couple examples:
(1) understanding labor & how my body works took me 4-5 times of going through it. NOW I know how to lean into it in a way that I don’t think I could have begun to comprehend the first few times. I’d never SEEN it done. Aside from an awkwardly gulped-through video in the hospital, and some screaming-filled “birth” shows on TLC or something, I’d never seen anyone else do it. And reading about it didn’t come *close* to experiencing it a few times.
(2) knowing how to not take tantrums personally probably took me 3-4 babies to really do well. Now I don’t even blink when a 2 year old throws a fit. It doesn’t feel like it’s “against” me… it just is part of the thing of having 2 year olds. But when it was my first few kids throwing tantrums, it still felt very personal. I’m not sure there was a way, for me, to get over the idea that they were tantrumming against me, without actually seeing for myself that this is just the way kids are. Perhaps if I’d grown up in a big family? And the thing is, I did *know* intellectually that kids this age would do it– but it still raised my hackles and there was my own emotional/internal fall-out to deal with. But I babysat like crazy and taught the 2s and 3s classes at church for years, so if anyone could have understood toddlers from those things, I think it’d have been me. And yet it wasn’t until my 3rd or 4th 2 year old that I really started fully dealing with things like tantrums in a way that removed my own emotions from the situation and just dealt with them without my own passions being in the way.
So for me this discussion isn’t only about “those moms with ‘only’ 1-2 kids” but about ME, too.
You asked “When is it ok in your book to stop and not press the re-set button on the newborn stage?” and honestly- other people can stop whenever they please. I don’t have even an ounce of desire to control other people’s decisions in that area. Each person carries their own load.
But I *do* want to contribute to a larger a reckoning where we stop expecting first and second time moms to have nailed it. I see a lot of people say things like, “you’re the expert” to moms, and I guess I want to allow room for a mom who is going through things for the first, second, or even third or fourth times, to admit, “wow, I didn’t really get this at all.” Or, even, “I still don’t.”
Just last week a mom of 3 (who is pregnant with her 4th) shared that my baby food post was an “aha” moment for her about why the texture of baby food matters. That’s the sort of thing I’m talking about… where people might look at her and say, “ah, she’s a pro, she’s got her act together” and instead, she feels freedom to NOT have it all together but instead keep learning and growing and getting better, and not have to dig in her heels and stubbornly justify every decision she made with her first baby or two.
I think motherhood would be a much less high-pressure place if moms of “only” 1-2 (which, let’s be honest– I was tired and overwhelmed with “only” 1-2, so “only” isn’t so very small when that’s what you have)… but motherhood would be a much less pressured place if moms felt free to not act like they have it all figured out, especially when they’re doing these things for the first time.
I’m glad you wrote back; write again if you feel this is still laced with judgment. Honestly, though, is there a way to say some of these things without it coming across as judgmental?
IS there a way for someone who is striving for excellence and skill in photography to talk about excellence and skill in photography without it unintentionally “slamming” those who take pictures from time to time, or still use the Sears photo center or whatever? IS there a way to talk about motherhood without judgment by doing anything other than laughing our way through mothering foibles? I’m honestly asking.
Because I think sometimes we go so far to the extreme of “do whatever’s right for you. You’re the expert. We celebrate YOU.” (and I know you’re not saying that; I’m talking about the larger discussion that happens on the WWW) that it negates the possibility of there being mothering practices that contribute to longevity, fend off depression, make things run better in the home, could be done better, etc.
Interesting discussion! It is true that some things just take time to master, and they could be different for each one. For me the hardest was to be able to take of multiples children with different needs at the same time. The hardest was when the third baby came. It was much easier with babies 4 and 5. But some things I still feel like I do not know how to do well, like potty training. One thing that helped me, I think, is that I was used to babies/younger children from my childhood (I’m the oldest of 6, and my youngest sister is 13 years my junior), so I knew from my mother how to breastfeed, change diapers, feed babies and interact with toddlers. The interesting point is that I did not really know how much I remembered until I was there myself.