Do you remember what you were told being a new parent would be like?
Your childless friends and family said having a baby would be endlessly blissful and constantly life-affirming... as if they really knew or remembered.
Your friends with children said -- maybe with encouraging smiles on their faces -- that sleep derivation is the worst of it. But you pulled your share of all-nighters in college didn't you? (Or so you told yourself in your pre-parent days).
TV and movie stars, sitting cross-legged in comfy talk show chairs, said parenthood was pure joy -- the "best job they ever had." (Well, the best job they, their nannies, baby nurses, and personal assistants ever had).
But they all withheld big a secret, didn't they? A secret about the price many if not most new parents pay by the day... by the hour... by the minute. The secret: In addition to all of the above, being a new parent also really SUCKS.
This is heresy in most corners (just imagine someone saying, "Sometimes I hate being a mommy" in polite company), but nonetheless very true for new mothers and fathers who, in the face of extraordinary stress, are societally compelled to both put up and shut up.
Having personally experienced the down-spiraling cycle of parenthood-related depression myself, and having written often about the condition I call "sudden parenthood," I suggest below ten coping tactics and encouragements for new Moms on the edge, with critical assignments for Dad, too. (Note: none of them include denial.)
1) Have your partner take the newborn(s) for long, sleep-inducing evening car trips to drive-thru destination -- a fast-food restaurant, a donut place, a bank -- anything taking an hour or more in total time that won't wake up the baby. You should take this time to sleep -- not work, not take calls -- to SLEEP. Make it a daily or at least weekly ritual. Don't feel bad for your partner -- all he has to do is drive. I typically targeted a 24-hour drive-thru Dunkin' Donuts 45 minutes away from our home -- and got a jelly donut every time as my prize.
2) My brother, a pediatrician, once pointed out to me that no baby has ever injured itself by screaming or crying in a safe crib. Given that fact, take time-outs whenever you need them, for as long as you need them. But don't just sit there feeling guilty. Indulge yourself -- make a cool drink or order something online. Remember: You're doing nothing wrong. What's more, by walking away when you're mad, you're doing everything right. Taking care of yourself is an absolute prerequisite for taking care of your baby.
3) One of most harrowing parts of new parenthood is the sense that the cycle of exhaustion and frustration will never end -- yesterday goes by too fast, and tomorrow never comes. But millions of women have stood where you stand now, just as tired and frustrated. Somehow, they've made it through. So can you." Picture yourself literally following all these mothers who traveled the path before you but are now too far ahead to be seen. Feel the way they lead you -- as if you're connected by rope. Feel also the weight of the women you're pulling behind you (even taking pleasure in the fact you're further along than they are)..
4) Depression means not having anything to look forward to, so with your partner's help, fill your schedule with regular, personal, only-you appointments -- a manicure, a restaurant run, a workout. The more indulgent, the better. Keep these appointments, look forward to them, even count the hours and minutes until the next one comes. Remember that you're only truly taking care of yourself if you're well out of your baby's earshot.
5) Sometimes, taking a break requires something tangible to mark the transition. Identify a favorite delicious non-alcoholic drink and supply yourself with it in single cans or bottles as if you're expecting a hurricane. Consider these sanity-savers, and imbibe whenever you need a break. They might just refresh your spirit as well as your body. I still keep cases and cases of coveted Pepsi One in my basement -- it honestly does more to change my psychological state of mind than I could ever do through willpower alone.
6) Fill an MP3 player with your favorite songs and play it whenever you're driving, especially with the kid. No baby was ever injured by over-exposure to grownup music, even Lady Gaga and heavy metal. No offense to Dan Zanes, but listening to your own favorite music will remind you who you are (read: more than a parent), and who's in charge.
7) Make date nights with your partner. Yes, you've heard that one before. But even more important than what you do together is that you do it regularly. Oh, and it must be done at least a car drive's away from wherever the baby is. No exceptions.
8) Encourage from friends and family to being meals as gifts. The last thing you want to be doing right now is cooking, and opening your freezer to a nice big lasagna is a lot more satisfying than flowers, books, coffee bar coupons, or yet more cute onesies for the tyke who couldn't care less.
9) Give Dad alone time with the baby. The baby will not shrivel up emotionally if you're not both there at every waking moment. this will give Dad crucial independent fathering time to make his own decisions about what to do, when to do it, and how to get it done. (and let him screw up). Nothing made me prouder than bringing my four-year-old son and car-seated twin daughters into the local diner and having the owner shake my hand firmly and say some Greek version of "You rock, man."
10) I'll leave you with my favorite parenting quote, uttered by Bob Harris (Bill Murray) in "Lost in Translation":
"The most terrifying day of your life is the day the first one is born. Your life, as you know it, is gone. Never to return. But they learn how to walk, and they learn how to talk and you want to be with them. And they turn out to be the most delightful people you will ever meet in your life."