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by Carolyn Graham
Finding the ‘Joy’ In Your ‘Bundle of Joy’
I still remember that display at Babies ‘R’ Us in Van Nuys. It marked the location where I kicked off a series of new-mom meltdowns. This one wasn’t a stark-raving-maniac, tear-through-the-aisles insane kind of event. But as I stared at 14 different strollers, trying to decide whether I needed to pay extra for all-sport wheels or the three-cup “parent beverage tray,” the tears just flowed like spilled breast milk.
If I wasn’t stressing about the gear, then I was ripping into my poor spouse who had the misfortune of mistaking the baby’s footie pajamas for her footie day wear. If he was out of range, then I had free time available for worrying about the child’s developmental milestones. I even kept a “poop” diary that first month to make sure in my postpartum haze she was filling her diapers by the book – as if I wouldn’t remember something like that.
Never would I have pictured myself keeping such careful tabs on something so ridiculous (although that book might come in handy on her prom night). Nor is it “normal” for me to bawl at a department store. And couldn’t imagine that I’d ever fret about whether my baby was babbling enough (she was and still is). It’s apparent now that I was lost in the worry, emotions and over-the-top hyperscheduling. It’s a baby, for crying out loud! Isn’t this supposed to be fun?
I vaguely remember my mom and poor beleaguered husband taking me by the hand and trying to convince me to just relax. Thankfully, those reminders – and I needed a few of them – helped me pause long enough to make my baby laugh so hard she hiccupped. Those exhausting midnight feedings also gave me a chance to look deep into her eyes and stock up on peaceful moments – and bond over some David Letterman. When Babies ‘R’ Us did its best to overwhelm me with an ungodly variety of baby-bottle nipples, we’d find a spot in the stuffed animal aisle and chill for a minute.
Despite how it might feel, as moms, we are not alone, says Rachel Bernstein, L.M.F.T., a mom of three who has a private practice in Encino. There are almost 83 million mothers in the United States, according to the 2004 U.S. Census, and most, if not all of them, experience the same major changes.
“We don’t have what women have had throughout the millennium,” says Bernstein. “We don’t have that give and take of community.”
And your new family dynamic, those hormones and that needy little wiggle worm you haven’t even gotten to know yet creates an irrevocable disruption in the universe. The resulting ripples are profound, perplexing and often get in the way of the fun – both simple and grand – that should accompany your new addition to the family.
“You’re making a shift,” Bernstein says. “And that’s hard to do all at once. First of all, you’re severely underslept. So you have to rely on a lot of maternal resilience and fortitude. And that is hard, as strong as we are.”
But a new baby is called a “bundle of joy” for a reason – so where’s the joy?
There are a number of roadblocks that can trip you up on the path to finding joy in new motherhood: the sleep disruptions, strains on your relationships, too much outside “advice,” and nagging self-doubts. Then there’s the worry and stress. And the unending tasks of tending to a helpless new life form are daunting, too.
But the joy is there, Bernstein says, and being aware of and stocking up on those activities and moments that bring you happiness is what will carry you through the tougher times.
“That joy – that love – is circular,” Bernstein says. Babies give back what they receive, and those moments, she says, create a reservoir for you to keep tapping in to.
Following is a smattering of advice on how to find your happy place (hint: for me, it wasn’t the stroller aisle at Babies ‘R’ Us).
Rest is best. Research supports it: A lack of sleep contributes to weight gain, depression and other stuff you’re going to want avoid. “The house doesn’t have to be crystal clean,” says Rallie McAllister, M.D., and coauthor of The Mommy MD Guide To Pregnancy and Birth. “You can only be at your best when you’re rested.” Now go lie down.
Limit the worry. “You want to make sure you’re on top of it, but also say at some point, ‘I’ve now checked every hour to make sure my child is breathing, and each time, everything was OK,’” Bernstein says. Then wean yourself off those habits (I’m down to just once a night with my 10-year-old).
Make fun of the dirty work. “A diaper change doesn’t have to just be a diaper change,” Bernstein says. “It could be tickle time or time to dance around.” And make those moments as noisy or as peaceful as you need it to be, she adds. And if you’re feeling isolated, invite a friend over to help you fold laundry.
Tune out the voices. “They grow up healthy and happy because of us – and in spite of us,” Bernstein says. Those little creatures appear vulnerable to our every move but are, in fact, quite resilient. She adds that she often hears clients who regret taking advice that didn’t mesh with their own instincts – so don’t let those voices become louder than your own.
Change your mind. Make a note (either mentally, verbally or written) of at least three to five things you’re grateful for each week. My baby likes my singing. I got six straight hours of sleep last night. My husband did a load of laundry! Then make up your mind to be happy, McAllister says. You’ll be surprised how well that works once you put yourself in that mindset.
Be a people person. McAllister’s rules for getting help? Ask, be specific about your needs, show gratitude, and, by all means, let them do it.
No pressure! “It’s the quality of time, not quantity,” says Emma Jenner, an L.A. nanny and owner of a childcare consulting business called Emma’s Children. “Take time to read books, sing songs, listen to music, go for walks and get plenty of fresh air. Don’t feel you have to interact with your baby every waking moment. If they’re happy, it’s OK to let them be.” McAllister adds that one of her patients was a career woman before her baby but was under pressure to become a stay-at-home mom. “She was about to chew her own arms off,” she says. In her case, she was a better mother for spending less time at home with the baby.
Breathe. “Let the rest of the world go by for a little while. You don’t have to keep up with everything else,” McAllister says. “You can get back to that. Just focus on your baby.”
Give yourself a round of applause. Did you know that not only did you create a human but you also made a new organ, the placenta? Stand up and take a bow (carefully). So the pressure’s off, Mom. You are learning on the job, Bernstein says, so give yourself some credit where it’s due. “You want to say, ‘Bravo, me!’” she adds. And if you don’t hear the applause, then she suggests finding a family member who won’t mind saying, “Good job.”
Laugh. If you’re having a “moment,” try to think about how funny this will be later, Bernstein says.
Case in point: I was trying to keep my toddler happy and quiet for our best friends’ wedding several years ago. The bride was just about to walk down the aisle when my son very suddenly was in obvious need of an urgent diaper change. It was a quaint, quiet little church. There was no changing table – just a 3-foot-by-3-foot bathroom stall behind the pews. I had ditched the diaper bag for the sake of fashion and had only an emergency diaper in my little “purse.”
On the floor in the tiny stall, I sweated through my cute sleeveless dress as I manically got the job done – and made it down the aisle just ahead of the bridesmaids. This incident was not documented in a “poop journal” but is often retold among family and friends.
Both of my kids are now out of diapers (thank goodness), but I still yearn for those baby years and often wish I’d soaked up more of that new-baby glow.
“It’s so important to have fun with your baby,” says Jenner. “Childhood is fleeting, and every age has something amazing and unique to offer.”
• Be protective of your time and mental energy. Given the choice between taking a much-needed nap or having a coworker read you the minutes from the latest board meeting, take a nap.
• Reframe whatever overwhelms you the most. If you are exhausted and your child needs you repeatedly in the middle of the night, see it as a chance to privately hang out with this new person you love.
• Go outside with your baby. Sunlight is calming.
• Make good choices about the people with whom you surround yourself. It’s OK to decide not to spend a lot of time with people you have to entertain, take care of emotionally, or have to endure in any way.
• Feed your mind. Discuss ideas with people who take your mind temporarily out of baby mode. Challenge yourself with crossword puzzles, read books, discuss politics, read the paper, or whatever you find intellectually satisfying.
• When feeling overwhelmed, take a deep breath before entering your child’s room and say, “I can do this.” Remember that women have done this for millennia and in much tougher situations.
• Follow the 4 S’s:
– Rachel Bernstein
Backyard Travels: Ears To the Sea|
Last spring writer Carolyn Graham sailed to the Mexican Riviera, which took them to Puerta Vallarta and Cabo San Lucas.