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Tips for New Moms: Three Steps for Sanity

How do moms prevent becoming depleted? How do we demand help from our spouses or accept the injustice that things are not going to change? How do we acknowledge the rage we feel without torching our marriages? Here are some of the conclusions that been-there-done-that moms have come to – bread crumbs for your first visit to this perilous forest.

Hurl Pots, and Then Make a Plan
When my sister and I, thirteen months apart, were both under the age of three, my mom took us to see the pediatrician, concerned about our wakefulness during the night and fussiness during the day. She told the kind doctor how frustrated and worried she was that something was amiss with our behavior.

The pediatrician prescribed two very sound treatment options: "First, install a gate outside of the girls' bedroom so they can't automatically bother you when they wake up. Secondly, go out to your garage once a week while the kids are asleep. Take the extra clay flowerpots you have around and one by one, hurl and smash the pots on the wall."

Hurl pots. That's what no one tells a new mom. Rage simply isn't among the traits we expect of cookie-baking, hand-holding mothers. Yet when asked, moms of every age admitted that rage was a defining characteristic of early motherhood.

Time-Outs for Mom
If the tempest erupts in the presence of your child, take a time out. In moments of fury, every parent realizes how capable he or she is becoming violent with a child. Be the best role model you can and show little fireball Devon how to count to ten, take deep breaths, or leave a situation till you can calm down.

If you're seething over your rights being trampled, try not to hiss and spew indiscriminately at your spouse. Ultimately, the paintball game in which you shoot splats of anger at him will only make him defend himself or run off. You won't change him and his loafing ways, unless you have a more strategic plan.

Start taking your livid self out of the house on a regular basis for cool-downs. This in itself will be progress, a decision to put yourself first, say, one night each week. Split a three-hour break in half, one part for pampering or exercise, one part for hard thinking. (If you decide to exercise, work out long or hard enough for endorphins to kick in. That sweet rush of adrenaline is darn near orgasmic for tight-wired moms.)

When you've de-stressed a bit, take some time to consider these valuable lessons from psychologist and author Harriet Lerner, Ph.D., in her book The Dance of Anger: A Woman's Guide to Changing the Patterns of Intimate Relationships:

Change Course
In the sleep-deprived haze of baby care, most couples settle for the easiest solution – Mom's breast and comfort – instead of ensuring that the baby associates Dad with comfort, too. Unless early on you started leaving Chloe with Dad for several hours at a time, neither duckling nor man with ruffled feathers will now be comfortable in a pond without you. In this way, the combo of child dependence and underdeveloped Dad is often the death knell of equal parenting.

Despite how well babyhood trained you, couples can renegotiate and share more responsibilities. Truth is most husbands and fathers are willing to help more but they simply do not know how to carve a role out for themselves. From lack of either nature or nurture, guys don't look at an empty table and perceive it the way women do: that the table needs placemats, napkins, silverware, and glassware for a meal. Nor do they look at a baby's snot-covered face and immediately conjure, "I should get a tissue!" Men's brains don't work that way, and women are cursed with a mind for detail, so experts tell us that wives often have to detail to their mates what needs doing.

Tell Him What You Need Him to Do
You don't have to nag. Just state what you need. All these months, perhaps even years, you thought your spouse was a slug or a jerk, either neglecting or assuming you would set the table or wipe the nose. When cognitively, he really did need you to say, in the same firm but positive voice you'd use to teach your kids: "Honey, please set the table with placemats, napkins, silverware, and cups." Or, "Sweetheart, please get a tissue and wipe the baby's schnozz."

Again the way you would with a three-year-old, remark afterward, "Great job setting the table!" or "Don't you feel good, having met your baby's need for mucous relief?" You're seething that he hasn't lifted a finger for years, but if you want him to start, you have to coddle him.

Tag Teams and Other Methods
Other tried-and-true methods my mommy friends recommend? Prioritize your most pressing household needs and then divvy up duties based on jobs you can stomach, and those that he can bear. Trade off, do together, or hire help for the items neither of you cares to do.

In child care, adopt a tag-team approach, in which he gets to play golf on Saturday mornings if you get Sunday evening for a movie with friends. If you have a couple little darlings, split errands so that each parent has only to tend to one child.

Enlist Your Tike
As early as appropriate, get your child involved with chores or meal preparation. Busy moms often forget to delegate as their charges grow and become more capable. Yet, two-year-olds get a kick out of wiping countertops and spritzing plants, and three-year-olds can be champion wastebasket-emptiers and clean diaper-fetchers. Of course, research demonstrates that kids help out more in families in which fathers chip in on household chores – so there's more grist for the man-helping mill.

Renegotiate with the Help of a Therapist
The floor dropped out from under a friend of mine three years into parenthood. It was the middle of the night, one of several in a series in which Carole Ann had to awaken to strip her daughter's soaked sheets and remake the bed. Carole Ann's husband stayed in bed, rationalizing that he had never felt the rush his wife did to get their toddler out of diapers. "The full weight of my anger and resentment hit that night," Carole Ann remembers. "The marriage I had expected to be a partnership was a farce."

As a result, potty training was put off in favor of marriage therapy. And today, with three daughters and a swing set that keeps the kids occupied while Mom and Dad sneak away for a "quickie" in the bathroom, Carole Ann's marriage is all grown-up and contented again.

Nearly half of the couples I talked to for this book have taken their turn on a counselor's couch, and many of them credit it with saving their marriage from the anger that threatened to consume it. As one mom told me, "Our counselor helped us listen to each other and appreciate that both of us felt aggrieved. She urged us not to resort to fifty-fifty thinking but to acknowledge that both of us were giving 80 percent. With the stresses of early parenthood, way too much was being asked of both of us."

Cultivate a Secret Life
To consistently perform to your ability, however, you must take care of yourself. And that's where most moms falter, because InStyle magazine does not interview a movie-star's nanny nor tell us about the manicure appointments the celeb goes to instead of taking "baby and me" classes at Gymboree.

The same way doctors cover up for celebrity patients, I had to learn to cover up for myself. Based on what society expected of me in what it deemed my most important role in life, I persuaded myself it was shameful to resent motherhood, shameful to want more from life than my beautiful husband and children. In my rush to provide for others the past five years, I denied myself personal pleasures: trips to the library in which I got to choose a book; massages and leisurely museum strolls; walks alone, and window-shopping; writing in my journal in a café, or sitting on a beach by myself.

Yet, I could not imagine embracing a life that openly allowed me these treats, when my kids spent half their weekdays with a caretaker. So I created my "secret life" – tunnels and hideaways into which my soul could duck and cover for a furtive half-hour, three hours, or an entire weekend. I didn't ask permission to spend money or take the time. I didn't tell anyone where I'd been or what I'd done. I just went somewhere my heart desired, took in something that I would appreciate more than anyone, and stashed the pleasure away like a ring from a boyfriend who comes from the wrong side of the tracks. In secret I can feel the weight and giggly expanse of it, the fullest measure of pleasure, without worrying what anyone else will think.

It's really sad that moms feel they must go underground to care for themselves. It's unconscionable that our society should expect us to march our progeny into good citizenship, without regard for our own health and sustenance. But most moms I know don't have the wherewithal to defend their needs at the same time they're working full-time, getting kids to school, supporting their husbands' careers, caring for aging parents, providing snacks for sports and extracurricular activities, volunteering, and fund-raising for their children's schools or organizations.

So we have to have top-quality chocolate stashed somewhere only we know about. A book of sonnets in the bathroom. A massage therapist or make-up counter on speed dial. Or, a list of "favorite places I never get to go" folded and pressed into the glove compartment.

Believe me, you never want to go to the well and hear the bucket scraping rock on the bottom. You never want to feel, as I did once, that you and your family are hanging by this rope, coming up plaited with despair and dry as a bone. You have to find a way to keep your spirit moist and alive, both for yourself and for the sake of your family.

Adopt a "Whatever Works" Mentality
A mother of three once told me how she handled it when her children's pacifiers fell on the floor: "With the first baby, I washed and sterilized it. With the second, I wiped off the 'paci' on my jeans. With the third, I shoved it back in the baby's mouth, usually after the dog had a chance to lick it."

Having subsequent children teaches moms and dads to adopt a "whatever works" mentality. After all, with two or more small children swarming your hive, you may be willing to incur later dentist bills and let your babe take a bottle to bed. A warped adult may be the least of your worries when night after night your toddler climbs into your bed, scared of the monsters in his closet.

A sage mom, one of my mentors, once told me how her father-in-law frowned to see his grandson standing on the coffee table to reach something on a shelf. Given that Mom's attention was so often on her baby daughter, she brushed this disapproval off as if it were lint. "Around here, Dad," she said, "we do whatever works."

Don't wait until a second child or a crisis hits to enjoy the wisdom of "whatever works." What a gift it is to those you love, when you dispense with formalities and make your home a comfortable place to be human. Learn that traditions are meant to be broken and recast, and that love and support for one another always takes precedence.

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

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