Wednesday, April 28, 2010

The Loneliness of New Motherhood

No political prisoner languishing in a gulag ever felt more isolated than the mother of very young children. Your world narrows to a single moment in time: this one; and a single focus: the baby. You start to feel like a dairy animal if you’re nursing, and even if you’re not you spend so much of your time being peed on and spit up on and screamed at and interrupted that your senses are filled to overflowing and you feel as though your nerves have been peeled and left on the surface of your skin.

That thing where your husband tries to hug you and you scream, “Don’t TOUCH me!!” is a direct result of this sensory overload.

It’s important to take care of yourself. I know, I know; you hear that from everyone and you scoff, “Right! Take care of myself! When? Susie is running full-tilt from the time she wakes up in the morning until she drops at 10 p.m., the baby is teething and won’t stop crying, and my husband has been working late every night. I haven’t showered in a week and I can’t remember the last time I got to eat a meal while it was still hot. There is no time left over for ‘taking care of myself.’”

You’re right: there are no blocks of time, so you have to snatch moments for yourself. Right now everything you do is outward-directed and you’re pouring yourself away. You must be aware of things that can re-fill your pitcher and arrange your attitude so that you are more receptive to them. When your children are older – just a little bit older, I promise! – there will be time again to read a magazine article from start to finish, or take a walk that’s faster than a snail’s pace, or shave your legs and wash your hair in the same shower. Meantime:

Listen to music that you like while you’re nursing/ changing/ cleaning/ burping. There’s no rule that children can only listen to children’s music, and most of it is pretty awful.

Swallow your bashfulness and your pride and strike up a conversation with the other moms you see at the playground or in the pediatrician’s waiting room. They are as lonely as you are, and as starved for adult contact, and you automatically have something to talk about: parenting small children.

Get dressed every day. Doesn’t that sound ridiculous? Did you ever imagine pre-baby that it would ever even be an issue? It’s important, though. Get dressed in the morning, brush your hair and brush your teeth, even if you have to do it with a 3 year old hanging off the sink and a screaming newborn in a carseat on the bathroom floor. It will remind you that you’re a person too and make you feel more pulled-together. A slick of lip-gloss or some pretty earrings (studs so the baby won’t grab them) can make you feel as glamorous as a 17 year old in a prom dress.

Don’t forget to eat and drink. Again, would you have believed a year ago that you would have to be reminded of this? A handful of pretzels and the dregs in the coffee pot do not provide enough nutrition for you to recover from the birth and care for your growing family. Of course you don’t have time right now to cook, but try to have some quick-to-prepare things on hand so that you can grab something healthy when you get a moment to eat. Oh, and when people say, “Anything I can do to help?” tell them firmly, “Yes, we’d love a casserole or two for the freezer!”

Go online. Join a support group for new moms or a diary site like LiveJournal or a social networking site like Facebook. You can get support from people who have been where you are and you can do it when it’s convenient for you – with the added bonus being that you can chat with other people without worrying about the bags under your eyes or the sour-milk smell of your t-shirt.

Keep your identity. You are more than a milk cow and a diaper changer. You can’t paint this week but you can notice the colors of the sunrise. You can’t compose right now but you can hum your own compositions to the baby. There’s no one to watch the kids while you go jogging today but you can sure rack up some miles on the ol’ pedometer while you pace with the colicky baby. Remember what it is that makes you YOU, and remind yourself once in a while.

Go out with your husband. I know it’s hard to trust anyone else with your first baby. I know it’s physical agony to be apart from him, however much you want a break. I know you can’t skip a nursing session without wanting to burst or soaking the front of your shirt. I know you won’t talk about anything but the baby even if you DO go out. Leave the kid with your mom or the lady next door and GO, even if it’s just to Baskin-Robbins for a single scoop. You’re partners in this venture, and you need to keep in touch. Nobody but your child’s father will ever love your child as much as you do, but you loved each other before that baby ever came along.

Finally, relax. Make sure your priorities are in the right order and then let the lesser things slide. It really doesn’t matter in the long run if the bookcases need dusted. It does matter that you are gentle with yourself during this high-intensity time. When your baby is sleeping through the night, when you get to watch a TV show from beginning to end, when you can go to the bathroom by yourself – then you can dust the bookcases. Right now you’ve got a baby to cuddle, and that outranks all the rest of it.

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