This is the first of a series exploring the transition to parenthood and the realities of being a new mom.
Experiences don’t always match expectations, something which can make real life profoundly frustrating. On first glance, the transition to becoming a mom seems like a one shot deal - you have the baby, bring him or her home, traverse the steep learning curve of caring for a newborn, and boom - you have transitioned to motherhood. Not exactly. Welcoming a new baby is life-altering and potentially jarring but is only the first stage of a thorough metamorphosis.
The adjustment from being responsible for yourself to being the primary caregiver, role model and ultimate protector of another person is a profound and multi-step process. Motherhood brings a love deeper than anything previously experienced; these intense and at times overwhelming feelings can be breathtakingly positive while simultaneously incredibly, undeniably petrifying. This focus change, from self to baby, takes shape deep within as motherhood approaches.
Regardless of the path to motherhood, life changes drastically and seemingly overnight the realization hits that you are more than an individual; now you are a protector, nurturer, and the tour guide for a new life from inception. You are a mom.
Parents Have to Leave the Nest Too
Fast forward and you are handed a newborn, pink and crying, and then within a day or maybe two or three, you are ushered out the door with little more than a pamphlet, reassurance and congratulations, and perhaps a pat on the back from a nurse.
My husband and I spent the first two days of my son’s life in a naive haze: we held, swaddled and changed our first born; he was soft-skinned, easily consoled, squishy and perfect. He latched easily and nursed every few hours as if there was a schedule pre-established in-utero. Nights were easy. I slept until my newly diapered, hungry baby was rolled in; after I fed him he was magically returned to the nursery. Friends came, family stopped by, and we all marveled at the miracle that was my baby boy. Life in this quiet room with windows looking out onto the world was comfortable and safe, but after two days we were forced out into the scary world.
Reality quickly set in: ‘Just bring your car seat up, and you can take him out of the nursery.’ But, how? We had made our first giant mistake - we had chosen to forgo the recommended infant car seat and instead opted for the larger convertible edition. I began to panic. How would we get him out of the nursery? A calming hand rested on my shoulder; a nurse was there to reassure me as I began to crumple. ‘Just carry him out, and we will check the seat in your car.’
We were wheeled down to the curb in a hospital-regulation wheelchair whereupon my baby was taken from the safety of my arms and placed into the monstrous car seat.
‘Do you have an infant insert?’ asked the nurse charged with ensuring our baby's safe discharge. Strike two. It sat unopened among the many other infant-related items of unclear utility covering seemingly every surface of our house. How could I have forgotten something so vital? ‘He will be fine, just tighten the straps and use the strap cushions provided,’ our nurse assured us as she signed off on our abilities as parents and left us to our own devices. But what should I do next? I wanted to scream that I didn't know what to do if he cried or if he was hungry or wet while my husband drove - I didn't know anything. Strike 3. Help.
As we headed home, I sat fixated on my beautiful baby's head as it bobbed up and down and side to side. With each pothole and turn his head jerked, and I imagined shearing forces damaging his otherwise perfect brain. The honeymoon was over - there was no button to push that would summon a nurse who could solve any issue. We were in the trenches and had missed basic training. I bawled the entire way home.
Parenting Baby Steps
Outside support can be invaluable for new parents. It's far easier to learn how to swaddle a baby from grandpa or an aunt than by reading a technique in What To Expect In Year One or another parenting guide. The ability to Google effective burping techniques at 3am is truly a boon for the new parent but can't replace demonstrations from an experienced grandma. Yet getting the hang of these tricks and techniques only scratches the surface of what the true transition to parenthood is.
This transition isn’t only about getting the hang of nighttime feedings or of getting out of the house with an infant in less than an hour but also encompasses adapting and molding our new identities. This is an internal, unique process that can't be directly taught or learned because it's so individualized. It also happens to be one of the hardest and most important parts of the transition to parenthood: finding yourself within your role as parent. Being a parent means connecting with your baby and yourself on a level previously unimaginable. That's when it gets even more interesting, because that connection leads to fear unlike any other. The anxiety that is part and parcel of a mother’s love is scary and overwhelming and inherently leads to fear of failure as a parent.
Every mom must go through an initiation period after bringing home baby: learning baby's mannerisms, the meanings of various cries, the best burping technique, and so forth. As time passes, most moms develop their baby swagger - the confidence drawn from knowing their baby better than anyone else and reflexively using that knowledge in the toughest of times. That place of comfort doesn't always come easily or quickly and often depends as much on baby as it does on mom.
If baby is a good eater and keeps to a schedule, and if mom had an easy delivery, recovers quickly and has lots of baby experience, perhaps the transition is faster. If baby is colicky or a bad sleeper, if mom had a painful delivery and/or experiences postpartum depression or anxiety, then getting to this point may be far more challenging.
Instead of obsessing about car seats and stroller models, soon-to-be-parents have much bigger issues on their plate, including establishing realistic expectations and sharing responsibilities. The next installment in this four-part series will help new parents minimize resentment, optimize happiness, and maximize parenting enjoyment. Stay tuned, because like parenthood, it just keeps getting better and better!