Beating New-Mom Stress: What the Pros Say
When I was pregnant with my son, I constantly asked my older sister for advice. She’d had her first baby just a few months before and is, like me, a career-oriented woman with a demanding full-time job. Her life was like a peek into my future, and it made me simultaneously more comfortable and more terrified about all that was to come.
Her words of wisdom came with the extra bonus of being backed by the mental health community, since she is a licensed clinical psychologist. Though it’s hard for me to always follow her advice (after all, she’s the girl who made me be “the rock” when we played house, which required me to sit outside while she and her friends drank from invisible tea cups), people pay her for her guidance every day.
I wish that all mothers could have a resource like Dr. Wrenn Carlson, so we decided to collaborate and share healthy responses to the common stressors that working mothers face during those tough first few months of parenthood.
Stressor #1: Feeling Guilty About Work
I anticipated having feelings of guilt when I went back to work, but, when my maternity leave ended, I actually looked forward to rejoining the working world. In fact, during those first few weeks back, when I was happily using the skills I’d spent almost a decade developing, I would be so engrossed in a project that a full half hour would pass without me thinking about my son. And that’s when the guilt set in. I felt guilty about not feeling guilty enough.
A guilty, anxious mother isn’t breaking news, and plenty of other writers have tackled how our unrealistic cultural expectations force mothers to constantly doubt themselves (I recommend Susan J. Douglas’ take on it). But the bottom line is that mothers should consider their career as part of (not antithetical to) being a parent.
Dr. Wrenn Carlson Says
It’s important for mothers to focus on why they are working. Most moms work in order to provide for their families. In other words, working is part of how you take care of your family.
Moms often think that they have to be physically present with their child in order to take care of him or her, but a lot of what we provide for our child happens when we aren’t around—and can't happen when we are present. Allowing children to socialize, problem-solve, deal with frustrations, and gain a sense of autonomy is important and can't happen in the same way if Mom is with them all the time. Children, especially toddlers, need to learn that they are separate individuals from their mothers. Giving them opportunities to figure that out is part of taking care of them, and you have to be away from them for it to happen.
Stressor #2: Maintaining Relationships With Friends Who Don’t Have Kids
While I was prepared for many of motherhood’s mental challenges, I didn’t expect my new role to so drastically affect my existing friendships. I assumed that my friendships would continue to be the same—my baby would just be there, too.
What I found, though, is that in the first months after having my son, he was all I could talk about. A friend would casually ask me how I was doing, and I’d find myself giving a play-by-play of my baby’s last nursing session, followed by a lengthy history of his bowel movements. I saw my non-parent friends either become very bored or absolutely disgusted.
Then, when I was finally capable of discussing extra-parental topics—like how my maternity leave allowed me to watch all six hours of the Today Show and develop jealousy of KLG’s breakfast wine—I realized that my non-parent friends were, with good intention, afraid to ask me about anything but the baby, as if any other question would be insulting. On one hand, I wanted my friends to acknowledge that my life had changed and that certain logistical elements of social life—like going to public places or staying out past 7 PM—would require some accommodation. On the other, hand, I didn’t want to be treated like a completely different person.
Dr. Wrenn Carlson Says
This is a two-way street. Non-parent friends should realize that new moms aren’t exclusively talking about nap schedules because that’s what they want to discuss or what they find stimulating, it’s because child rearing is currently all that they are doing. That will change.
Likewise, new moms should recognize how often they talk about their kids and how little their non-parent friends have to contribute. It can be a lot like showing them slides from a vacation they weren’t on: They have little frame of reference and probably aren’t interested for extended periods of time, even though it’s all you think about.
Try to remember what you and your friends did before you had a child, then do those things. If you can’t bring your baby with you, then make arrangements, and don’t feel bad about it. It’s important for your kids to know that you have a meaningful life outside of them. When kids feel like they are the absolute center of their parents’ universe, it can put a lot of pressure on them to meet spoken or unspoken demands and expectations. And when kids see that their parents have autonomy and a well-rounded life, they are more likely to emulate that when they get older.
Stressor #3: Handling the Barrage of Parenting Advice
When you’re pregnant, your belly is like a neon sign flashing, “Tell me your birth story!” It’s nine months of TMI. And then you have the baby, and the fun really begins. Because people of all different backgrounds can relate to one another through parenthood, and because that new life you’re pushing around in a stroller, bleary-eyed, is so stinking cute, everyone wants to offer their two cents.
But for new mothers, advice can seem aggressive and hurtful. You’re already doubting yourself, and sleep-deprivation combined with a post-partum hormone cocktail compromises your ability to shrug off other people’s remarks. But, as I mentioned earlier, all you can talk about is your newborn love, and so people feel the need to respond. How can you position yourself to receive the reassurance you crave but handle the unhelpful criticism masked as advice?
Dr. Wrenn Carlson Says:
First, figure out why you are receiving advice. There are some relatives and friends you can vent to, but others will see your venting as a request for input. You must be honest with yourself about the difference and identify who you can vent to safely and who will see your conversation as an invitation for advice.
If someone’s advice feels hurtful or judgmental, tell her. You have a free pass here because you’re a new mom, so use it. If you find that relatives or friends are being passive-aggressive about their advice (for example, implying constantly that your baby feels feverish or isn’t sleeping normally), call them out by recognizing their concern and assuring them that you have it under control. If they persist, ask them plainly to stop. If you allow this type of behavior to continue, you’re giving them an invisible green light. Protect your family's interpersonal boundaries early and often.
Don’t get us wrong—my sister and I are not suggesting that new mothers are innately in need of therapy. Pathologizing the normal emotions of mothers is dangerous, and certainly not our point.
I do think, though, that all moms feel pressured to project a sense of constant “togetherness,” because to do otherwise would land them in the “harried, exhausted, crazy mom” camp, so they avoid the very healthy process of venting their feelings or getting an outside perspective. But remember that going to an objective friend, relative, or therapist for some support is never a bad idea—especially during what’s quite possibly the biggest life change you’ll ever experience.
Photo of mom at work courtesy of Shutterstock.
Rikki Rogers is a writer and marketer working outside of our nation’s capitol. When she’s not stuck in traffic, she enjoys writing poetry and running after her son. Since earning her BA from University of Virginia and her MFA from University of Utah, she's served in marketing and communication positions at a number of tech companies in the DC area. You can read more about her obsession with language and culture at www.rikkiwrites.com.More from this Author