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Tips for New Moms: Get Ready to Regress

Prior to our quest to have families, most of us moms were headstrong women in a Western world that prizes independence, self-sufficiency, mastery, productivity, efficiency, and money. Ask a woman what she liked best about herself before she became a wife and mother and you're likely to hear: "I was on my own and made my own way in the world," "I was admired for my work," "I depended on myself for almost everything," or "I was free to pounce on opportunities."

Then plop this independent gal into motherhood and see how she flails. The masculine traits that served women well in career and life immediately clash with the requirements of mothering.

In Women's Moods: What Every Woman Must Know about Hormones, the Brain, and Emotional Health, Deborah Sichel, M.D., and Jeanne Watson Driscoll, M.S., R.N., C.S., say it well: "The postpartum period is an inherently regressive time, when a woman needs to depend on others for care, food and safety. She must be able to relinquish her assertive role and allow others to care for her so she is freed to care for her baby."

Indeed, this is a tall order. Drop that recordbreaking efficiency and your down-to-a-science multi-tasking, because your maximum speed will now be a snail-paced ten miles per hour. You must focus on each infinitesimally tiny miracle of your baby's first months and be present "in the moment," not distracted by the fourteen other tasks you're used to simultaneously managing. For the next year, you will accomplish absolutely nothing except for feeding and diapering. And, despite your usual comprehensive research and thoughtful planning, your child will prove so unpredictable that feeling good about your work, much less that you're on top of it, is out of the question.

In business jargon, Western moms go into parenting with an entirely different "skill set" than that which the job requires. Legend has it we're endowed with the right stuff for motherhood, except that most of us are rusty, having spent the last decade or two working in other arenas than babysitting. The adjustment is so abrupt and so dramatic that it paralyzes many moms, with the exception of a few women I met who had remained especially close to their extended families. These moms had realistic expectations of life with small children because of their longtime exposure to the little menaces.

Why Am I Not Better at This?
Others of us, who expect to conquer motherhood the same way we did the work world or single life, end up asking one painful question: "What the hell is wrong with me?"

Janine, a former elementary school teacher in Oregon, asked this, too. For the first four months of his life, Janine's newborn wailed incessantly from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. every day. She remarks, "When my husband got home from work, he'd get the baby down for a nap very easily, and say to me, 'What's the problem?' And, for weeks, I kept taking the baby to the doctor but they told me the crying was nothing to worry about."

Janine continued, "There was nothing else I could do but hold the baby, try to calm him, and try to calm myself. Meanwhile my three-year-old son watched TV ten hours a day." When she said this, Janine broke down in tears, guilt-ridden about neglecting her oldest.

Janine's littlest one turned out to have a milk allergy, a problem that was easily solved. Once relieved, the baby got much easier to handle, and Janine stopped blaming herself for the enormous strain her family experienced.

A baby's cry pushes an adult's blood pressure up and quickens his or her heart rate, sometimes steeply. Imagine weeks on end in which nervous tension wore at Janine, her baby's screams keeping her shoulders tight to her neck, the pacing and rhythmic jiggling meant to soothe her newborn also making her back and arms ache and the muscles spasm. Then affix a displaced preschooler who wants Mommy to himself, a husband who isn't very empathetic, medical professionals who tell her nothing is wrong, and a claustrophobic house isolating mom from the healing empathy and support she needs. You've got all the ingredients of a deranged, deprived new mommy – someone who loves her family so much that she'll suffer and blame herself for the stresses at hand.

I Don't Recognize My Own Body
Compounding problems, few women realize their bodies will not, and may never be, the same after giving birth. I have the misfortune of permanently retaining a pregnant woman's uncanny sense of smell. Five years after giving birth, a whiff of the bathrooms I share with three males at home – despite frequent cleaning – evokes the aroma of subway stations in most major cities.

Postpartum body changes exceed saggy breasts, rolls of extra stomach skin, or a bigger shoe size. The extreme hair loss a few months after childbirth is maddening. And as sick as you may be of maternity clothes, you may not fit into anything else for some weeks after birth. Over the long term, many moms will be plagued with weight problems and the loss of self-esteem larger sizes can bring.

"I was so excited when I heard that as a new mom, I wouldn't have time to eat," laughs a Las Vegas mother of a six-month-old boy struggling to lose fifteen post-childbirth pounds. "But like all the other phases in life in which I was supposed to be too nervous or too busy to eat, I ate right through it."

As if it hasn't wreaked enough havoc, sleep deprivation also boosts the production of cortisol, a stress hormone that regulates your metabolism of sugar, protein, and fat. Excess cortisol also sends insulin levels soaring, which control blood sugar and fat storage, so that weight loss is more difficult.

Another disappointment? Breast-feeding does not always peel off pounds; sometimes, moms don't shed extra weight till they finish nursing. Other moms can't slim down till they have dedicated hours in which to exercise, hours that are hard to come by during the preschool years.

Am I Dumber Than I Used to Be?
Our brains are not exactly razor sharp in the new mommy stage. Recent findings demonstrate that diminished mental acuity and memory are side effects during, and for several years after, pregnancy. Night after night of interrupted sleep, in which we never achieve the recuperative stage of the rapid eye movement or REM sleep, also make us slow-moving. As more and more mothers of young children continue paid work, our mental function may also be discombobulated by needing to have our heads in two places at once. We mostly say "mommy brain" in jest, but the phenomenon is real: we're not our usual sharp-minded selves.

On Patrick's first visit to my native Kansas City when he was nine months old, my high school friend and I decided enough with Baby van Gogh, it was time for the real thing: a trip to the Nelson Art Gallery. The first setback was a security guard's firm reproach of my baby backpack so that I would quickly develop worn-out arms in addition to museum feet.

Then, after seeing three paintings, tops, Patrick made his chow requirements known, and Diane found a lunch table for us in a lovely fountain-filled courtyard. I remember composing a sentence, getting three words in, readjusting my son so he was comfortable, then realizing I was exposing my breast to the entire metropolitan area. I utterly forgot what I'd been trying to say. Conversation, if you can call it that, went on this way for seven or more disjointed thoughts, before Diane and I settled for quiet admiration of the beautiful room and the mixed greens on our plates. I remember thinking I would never make cogent dialogue again.

Over the long run, though, the ways in which motherhood messes with our brains turns out to be good. Artists with bulging tummies or nursing newborns notice ideas come to them more easily, and that inspiration abounds. A few years into parenthood, moms also become more efficient, and their practice at juggling enormous responsibilities pays off in the end.

Exciting new research studies demonstrate that mothers' brains actually grow, because we're exposed to such enormous new challenges and complexities, and acquire many new talents and skills as a result. The studies suggest that the ways in which our mommy brains stretch, grow, and fire new synapses are eventually a windfall for us. We become bolder, braver, and more efficient in the wake of early motherhood.

Before that recovery occurs, however, many moms feel that a tectonic plate has shifted beneath them. The pressures on mothers have never been more intense, the emotional earthquakes among us never stronger or more numerous. As of yet, only a cadre of medical professionals – often women doctors who have experienced the adjustment themselves – acknowledge the increasing numbers of angry and utterly depleted new mommies. Indeed, the medical community is not yet addressing the fact that postpartum depression and anxiety are the biggest complications of modern birth.

From What No One Tells the Mom by Marg Stark. Copyright © 2005. Used by arrangement with Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

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