Being a new mom or dad is beautiful, intense, and life-changing. It also can be so very difficult: Often the world around us is not empathetic but can be brutal, judgmental, and overwhelming. It is often said that only people who have been through it can understand this drama of early parenthood. But why? Why can’t our culture and society be more supportive?
First of all, ignorance of the real experience for new parents is a major cause. Images in pop culture and common knowledge are so often misleading. Idealized moms are portrayed as cheerful, at ease, in control, and handling it all. What?? The reality I’m talking about is not even the mom-with-her-hands-full, juggling children and chores with humorous overwhelm. I want to describe the newborn-mom, as newly born as the baby is, blinking in the strange sunlight, trying to make sense of a new world that seems to lack all familiarity and stable footing.
The birth experience, and/or the task of responsibility for new life, creates a new parent who is as vulnerable and sensitive as a newborn. Not fragile; new parents are as tough and resilient as that baby who muscled her way out of the womb and into the world. But extremely raw and needing to be protected and nurtured in surroundings that are authentic and encouraging.
After the birth of my daughter, I stayed in that trance of labor and it wore off only gradually. I could still sense it even a year later.
When I was pregnant, I was so aware of the chemical changes in my brain. As hormones in my body changed, my brain shifted from left to right. I had been a finance person, an econ major, someone who thrived on details, numbers, specifics, and finding every small mistake in my calculations. As the baby grew, a gray patch of fog settled over my left-side rational brain, as my right-side intuitive brain flexed its muscles. I felt a closeness to my husband and friends that I had forgotten since my teen years, when your best friends are your whole world. And yes, every episode of the TV show ‘Parenthood’ made me teary-eyed. I could focus on the apple blossoms in my backyard for ages, my mind seeming to float away free of thoughts.
During and after the birth I was so deep in the right brain, the land of intuition and emotion. I once read a mom describe it as having a mind that could talk to the angels. Many women feel they go to a place of spirit before and during the birth. As I gradually began to come out of that, I was vulnerable. It was like being in a dim, warm, cozy room when suddenly glaring fluorescent lights are snapped on. I had been on this solo journey to another realm and now had to face the modern world again.
Yikes! The drive home from the hospital with baby in the backseat was harrowing. (It was about 5 blocks of quiet residential streets.) Every turn was a shock; every other car seemed a threat, an obstacle like the first time you get behind the wheel. Or when you dream that you are driving a car but you don’t know how to drive.
It’s hard to describe that feeling . . . leaving the house with a newborn, still in a hormonal trance-like state, straining with every ounce of concentration to remember how to feed, change, hold my baby with all the distractions around me. Colors, noises, people talking. Talking to ME and expecting a response!
The supermarket was terrifying for weeks! All those overwhelming choices on the shelves. Too many brands. They all say “mayonaise” but which one is the right one? What do I need? How do I manage the baby and the stuff? Shopping for baby products — diapers, strollers, bouncers, carriers, clothing — was even worse. I felt like a geek at a middle school dance; everyone else seemed to know exactly how to act, how to dress, what to say, what stuff to buy. I slunk around stores self-consciously, afraid I’d be found out at any moment that I had no idea how to adequately “be” a modern mom.
Driving on the highway continued to terrorize me for months. The cars moved so crazily fast, I could almost anticipate the sound of crushing metal. The billboards and advertisements everywhere were so distracting I strained to keep my eyes on the road ahead. Hands gripped the wheel, so hyper aware of that tiny bundle in the back seat, those tiny fingers and toes . . . I still cringe at the memory! That’s why I didn’t leave my zip code even once for the first 5 weeks (thank you, 94110 — where I always get the highest number of baby-mama-smiles per city block).
Between sleep deprivation, the hormonal transition after pregnancy and birth, and the new hormonal shift plus the physical exhaustion of milk production, I stayed on another plane for months. Functioning in the loud, brutal, modern world was a challenge. I felt distracted or overstimulated at best and under attack at worst. When I saw other new moms out facing the same thing, I felt solidarity and sisterhood, conveyed in a simple glance.
These experiences all wore off, as I gained confidence in taking my baby and myself out into the world. What lasted was the feeling of disconnection and isolation from all those people who didn’t understand what I was going through. Who shoved me by accident as I stood in the store indecisive, or knocked over the diaper bag I had impossibly repacked with baby in one arm. Those friends who socialized casually while I had to focus so hard just to follow the conversation. And who later remarked that my life must be so “easy and relaxing” while I was on maternity leave and “only” had to care for the baby. I felt left out and disregarded. I wished the world could see what a hero I was being, just by braving a world that challenged and scared me.
If only there was a common knowledge in our society of the bravery of new parents. Rather than laughing at their stressed-out antics, I wish we would revere their loving and fierce protectiveness and sympathize with the painful contrast between the babycare cocoon at home and the harsh outside world. Caring for a new baby is a beautiful, intimate, and sacred time. But our modern US society can be so un-sacred and so combative. As we are re-integrated into this world, even parents forget just how vulnerable they may have felt postpartum.
I’d love to build up a critical mass of sympathetic allies, who will give you that smile of solidarity, maybe even a hug, and say: “Good work, tough mama! You are doing an amazing job there! It’s the most important job there is. I know it’s hard. It will get easier!”