Parents

To The Struggling First-Time Mom: I See You

and I, too, thought postnatal depression was a weakness.
05/04/2017 09:00am ET | Updated May 11, 2017
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You always wanted to be a mother. It will fulfill you, it’s your life’s purpose. A family. You planned your pregnancy perfectly, got through all the hurdles and the birth went as good as it gets. Perhaps there were complications, or it didn’t quite go as you envisioned. Once the baby arrived, pink and screaming ― so much noise! The only way you can calm her is by feeding. And holding. Putting the baby down is harder than it seems. You thought if a baby was fed and clean that they just slept. You’re lucky if you get half an hour without a baby attached to you somehow. The smallest tasks are overwhelming ― the washing up, emptying the trash. If there’s something more taxing than that it’s likely to cause tears. The troubles of the world weigh heavily on your shoulders. You go to baby groups but don’t feel like you belong. These are some of the thoughts running through your head:

Why can’t I calm my baby?

Other people seem to be better at it than me.

I am not a natural mother.

What do I do with my baby?

I’m so tired...

If I could just catch up on sleep, I’d feel better.

Everyone’s doing it better than me.

I’m not strong enough to carry out a strict routine.

My baby doesn’t conform to a routine ― what am I doing wrong?

I don’t feel like a family.

What are we supposed to do as a family?

I’m not enjoying this.

Someone else would do a better job.

I want to go down to the bottom of the garden and sleep.

How do I know all this? Because I’ve been there. I’ve been where you are and I’ve come out the other side. When I had my first child, I was a qualified midwife with about three years clinical experience. I knew how babies behaved over the first 2-3 weeks, how to change and dress a baby and how to breastfeed. Beyond that, I didn’t have a clue ― I’d not had much experience with small babies, I’m the youngest of two, none of my friends had children yet and my parents were living abroad. I felt so isolated, exhausted and like I’d never recover from the black hole I was in. Slowly, once I realized things weren’t 100 percent right, I began to improve. I went to the GP and cried through the appointment how I wasn’t coping. It was only after my husband and parents had told me to go, that I might have postnatal depression.

I thought I was just tired and blamed myself for not being strong enough to cope with a normal life event, and not being happy. I couldn’t see how anything or anyone could help me, after all, I was still going to have a demanding baby to look after, some pills weren’t going to get me any more sleep. I thought postnatal depression was a weakness, that I was stronger than that. Turns out I wasn’t as strong as I thought I was, and that’s OK. It’s alright to ask for help, to admit you can’t do it all. With that realisation alone, comes strength.

I started anti-depressants and at the same time switched to bottle feeding. I felt tied to the baby and no-one else could feed her or calm her, leaving me feeling like there was no way out. Now, I don’t believe that your feeding method is linked to postnatal depression, and I could have carried on with more support, but I didn’t know where to access it, and my family just wanted me to feel better, so they were happy with the choice. I don’t regret it now, I made the right decision for me at the time. Once I started the tablets, the tears that had been flowing dried up overnight, and I began to feel stronger. Medication won’t help everybody, but it saved me. I’ve been on and off them since then, and now I just take a small maintenance dose to keep an even keel. I still have days where I feel overwhelmed and need to take a step back, but I recognise the signs now when I need to take a break.

Let’s address some of the feelings above one by one.

How to Calm the Baby

Firstly, you can calm your baby, but babies will still cry a lot of the time, some more than others. If a baby has reflux or colic (which is basically just long periods of crying) then the crying may be more frequent. If you’re feeling stressed and uptight this can make it feel worse and some women are more bothered by the crying than others. With my first, even the smallest of cries would have me panicking, and getting stressed out. Other people aren’t as affected. If you’re struggling to get dressed, shower, put make up on or do some chores, make sure the baby is fed and comfortable, then put them down somewhere safe close to you and do what you need to do. A few minutes of them being unsettled won’t hurt and you’re not leaving them to cry it out or anything, you’re just going for a wee! Having a portable crib or baby chair can help so you can take it from room to room. Alternatively, wait until the baby naps or is happily awake.

Feeding, especially the sucking action, is particularly calming and secure for a baby. Getting a dummy may help (if they’ll take it) once feeding is established, or letting the baby suck on your clean finger. If the baby will calm whilst breastfeeding and sleeping at the same time, put a film or a box set on, go to the toilet and make sure you have the remote, a drink, a snack and your phone nearby. This time will pass, although it can feel like it’s all stretching before you. I remember thinking it would be years until I could relax, but in reality it’s much sooner. Other ways to calm your baby are wearing the baby in a sling or carrier, and it gives you that bit of freedom to move around. Go for a walk in the buggy, or push the buggy backwards and forwards in the house. When they’re small, don’t worry too much about ‘bad habits’ or ‘self settling,’ just get through the day. If someone else can calm the baby, great! Let them, and then you can go for a nap, or get some things done that will help clear your head a bit.

Everyone else is managing better than me

It’s all about perception. Yes, some other mums might be enjoying it more, or seem more together than you. It might not be their first, they may have had lots more experience than you so they knew more what to expect. More likely, they’re having some of the same feelings, but they, like you, are putting on a brave face. They are probably thinking the same thing about you! I used to feel like no-one could see how bad a job I was doing, because I was dressed, the baby was dressed and we were out and about and she was well fed. What I didn’t give myself credit for was that I’d done just that - you don’t need to do any more in the early days. You shouldn’t trust all you see on social media and in baby groups.

A word about routines and expectations

When my first baby was 3 weeks old I was a mess. Nights blurred into days and I was just feeding on demand and going round like a zombie. I always believed in getting children into a routine and being firm with boundaries. Watching parenting programmes like Supernanny had primed me to think I could just take charge and all would be well. I bought the Gina Ford book The Contented Little Baby, which had routines to follow from 2 weeks. It was very rigid, with timings and schedules. I tried, I really tried. When she didn’t do what she was ‘supposed’ to do, I thought it was a matter of being strict and waiting it out. After a week or more, lots of crying (from her and me), I couldn’t do it anymore. Sometimes we’d go through a whole ‘nap’ time where she was still screaming and then supposed to be awake or feeding, but by then she was exhausted and fell asleep. It just made me feel like more of a failure.

I ended up seeking out more advice, my Mum told me to ignore the books. I did find some helpful advice in The Baby Whisperer, by Tracy Hogg, who sadly died in 2004 from cancer, but I still wouldn’t advise following to the letter. Everyone and his wife will give you advice and tell you what to do, and you’ll find conflicting advice, but take what works for you and your family with the information you have. If your baby is fed and cared for, you can’t go wrong.

Feeling like a Family

With just one child, you can feel like a family. I didn’t feel truly complete as a family until we had our last child, but it’s different for everyone. When you first bring the baby home, you can feel at odds with the reality of being a couple with a small baby compared to your idea of ‘family’ in your head. What I remembered and think of as family is a noisy house with chattering children, holidays, days out and laughing together. A crying baby doesn’t envoke that for me. It’s the start of your family though, and that’s important to remember. You’re doing it your own way, forging your own path.

What to do with a baby and what to do as a family?

Your whole life routine changes once you have a baby. No matter how much you prepare it’s never enough. I’d say as much as possible, gather a support network. This is why so many pregnant women join classes and seek out other pregnant women, they’re building connections. You’ll need them when you have the baby. Before you start a family, if possible, think about your social circle, are they having children? Will you be making yourself isolated? It can’t be planned to perfection of course, and you can make new friends, even if the only thing you have in common is that you both made a baby.

One of the things I most struggled with, was what I was supposed to be doing with the baby. It was why I clung to the routine book, and waved black and white images at her, and stuck her under a play gym at 4 weeks old. Really, babies absorb and learn all the time just from their environment. Talk to them, keep them close. They get over stimulated easily. You can sing to them, or just watch This Morning with them, they’ll be developing either way. Taking them outside regularly will help, but don’t feel pressured to get out of the house every day. Investigate baby groups and classes, but remember they’re for you more than the baby.

A baby massage class is good, because it’s something you can do together that has a calming effect on both of you, and it’s an activity class rather than a mother and baby group where you might feel like an outsider. Other good ones are baby sensory and music groups once you’re past the 6 month mark. Once the baby hits 4 months plus, this tends to be a bit of a turning point, because they start ‘doing more’ and are more interactive. Before that, you may feel like you’re looking after a rather demanding but loveable blob.

Sleep...

Well, there’s a lack of it. It’s all people seem to want to talk to you about. ‘How do they sleep?’ ‘Do they sleep?’ ‘Are they good?’ and other annoying questions. The main thing is, everyone knows babies don’t sleep all night, yet why are they obsessed by this goal? If your baby or toddler isn’t sleeping through, and still seems to need you or someone in the night, that’s normal. Sleeping ‘problems’ are so common because it’s normal for a baby to wake frequently and need to be fed or comforted to sleep. They’ll learn to self settle themselves in time.

Some babies do genuinely do it earlier than others, my middle child Phoebe was a very easy baby for sleeping. I had 2 non-sleepers, or erratic sleepers, and my last child still wakes in the night, creeps in our bed and goes back to sleep. He’s 2, and I know he won’t be doing it forever. It hardly disturbs me anymore, particularly now we’ve night weaned. Again, there’s conflicting advice and you have to pick your own way, and try not to get involved in any debates. Get help and support where you can, if anyone offers any help, accept it - even if it’s just picking up some milk for you, or bringing dinner over, every little helps. It can be difficult to sleep during the day, or when the baby sleeps, but even if you can’t physically sleep, resting or doing something different for a short time can be just as restorative.

One of my most popular sleep posts on my blog that may help with a newborn - How to get your newborn to sleep in their own bed at night. It’s not a strict prescription, more of a guide and again, reassurance that this is normal, and nothing you’re doing wrong.

3 more children later and although you never stop making mistakes and learning, I feel like I’m finally getting it right. Oh I’m still shouty mama at times and I’m not perfect by any means (that’s a myth anyway, the perfect parent), but I’m comfortable with my parenting style and who I am as a mother. I’m not my mother, although I’m heavily influenced by my upbringing. I do some things differently. I don’t subscribe to any particular parenting style or theory, but I like to read up on different ideas, and veer towards gentle parenting, but I am strict when I need to be. Try and agree with your partner on how you will do things, if you’re battling against each other it makes it worse. People comment about how nice and sweet my children are, which gives me great joy - they can behave differently in private though!

Got a question about babies, pregnancy or birth? I’m happy to chat, find me on my blog Midwife and Life, or on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram, Did you suffer from postnatal depression? What got you through?

Jenny is a Midwife with 14 years experience, a blogger and a mum of 3