I remember my first few nights home from hospital with my new baby boy (who I was obviously completely enraptured with). I jumped out of bed to feed him at the first whimper, waking instantly and singing gently as I tended to all his needs, reflecting on the untold wonders of motherhood. Somewhere after the fourth night I began to have some disconcerting thoughts about the fact that I was still being woken up every two to three hours, but all was still wondrous. It just seemed a bit weird that it was continuing to happen night after night – I somehow thought we would be sleeping through the night after a week or so (naïve I know, but there you go!). Around that same time my husband requested (very politely) that I move the nocturnal proceedings out of the bedroom as it was disturbing his precious sleep (!).
In the weeks and months to come I was beginning to wonder what I had been thinking. I know it seems cliché, but talk to any mother about the ‘early days’ and almost all of the advice they dish out will be about sleep – how to get more and how to survive when you don’t.
Being home with a newborn baby can come as a complete shock, particularly when it is your first baby because however you envisaged the experience to be, it will probably prove to be quite different. Suddenly you find that the centre of your universe has tilted slightly to be wholly consumed by this new person in your life.
How you adjust to this new phase can be influenced quite a bit by what your prior expectations of new motherhood were and your ability to shelve these and go with the flow when baby comes. Whether you are a young new mother, or start a family when you are a little older, the challenges and conflicting emotions will be similar – the unexpected joys and overwhelming emotion and sudden ability to forsake all but your most basic needs for this tiny person with hardly a second thought take over.
When you have been immersed in your job, or study and life with your partner without a baby, this sudden propulsion into motherhood, while life in general marches on without you, can feel a bit like living in a parallel universe. I remember watching the morning TV programs and envying the presenters who were so perky and well dressed and made-up and it seemed so alien in comparison to my dishevelled and sleep-deprived state.
Along with the joys of new motherhood, being so completely consumed by the demands of a baby (from finding the right feeding balance, recognising signals, encouraging sleeping patterns and starting over for each new phase as baby grows), a general feeling of disconnection from the worlds can also eventuate. This feeling of disconnection is greatly increased by fatigue, which can widen the perceived gulf between what is going on in your very small bubble in comparison to the rest of the world.
All mothers experience some unexpected feelings or thoughts about the new practice of motherhood, especially after all those pregnant months daydreaming and imagining…
How easy is it during pregnancy to make judgements about the experiences of others and to make assumptions on behalf of our unborn child? Which isn’t really fair, but our expectations seem entirely reasonable at the time – how hard can it be to sleep through the night?
Expectations of baby bliss, which are dashed to the core by the cold hard light of day (or the harsh lamplight in the middle of the night), are somewhat of an initiation for every new mum. However the wider the gap between our expectations and our experience, the likelihood increases that we will find it hard to adjust to this period and this may limit our ability to be flexible and adapt to the ever-changing challenges of motherhood in a positive way.
To survive this unique period in our lives, it is essential to be flexible, and to suspend fixed beliefs about how things should be. It’s also worth developing a thick skin to the endless advice and opinions of others and remember that this will not last forever. It is a brief, passing phase that will very soon give way to different phases, which will bring with them a different set of joys and dramas.
In being flexible and realistic with ourselves on this journey, the same applies in our relationships. If you and your partner have just become new parents, don’t be surprised if occasionally it appears as though your partner has been replaced by an alien who is residing on a neighbouring, although at times friendly planet. Perhaps not all couples experience this, but I think it is safe to say that many, no matter how long they have been together, or how strong the partnership is, will feel tested by the pressure of the new roles they have assumed. Sleep deprivation alone plays a huge role in the stress a new baby places on a relationship – if you’re anything like me you may wind up in the middle of the night having the most absurd argument about who actually requires or deserves the most sleep to get through their day!
Communicate with your partner as much as you can about what they can do to make things easier. Sometimes men feel a bit redundant in the early days because the baby is so dependent on mum for feeding and care. It may help if you actively involve your partner and let them know the little things they could do which would make a world of difference to you, such as taking baby out of the house for a bit when they get home so you can have some time to yourself, or keeping you company during some of the night-time feeds.
Enjoy this time but be kind to yourself. Remember you can’t meet the needs of your baby or family if you are drowning, so take care to build some spaces in your world for you. Work with your partner to find a time for you to have a little space and time for yourself. Go easy on yourself and your partner as you navigate your way through baby care and sleep deprivation together. Try to stay connected to other dimensions of your life such as family, friends, hobbies and exercise. If you feel overwhelmed, or are experiencing thoughts or feelings that are concerning to you, reach out and seek help. Remember, there is a range of symptoms that can indicate postnatal depression and if there is any possibility you may be experiencing these, a good place to start is by talking to your doctor.
This is the beginning of a journey that continually changes, yet stays just as amazing and captivating, and at times challenging, as you watch a whole new life unfold and expand right before your eyes. If you can summon it to your mind in those hours in the middle of the night when everyone (except you and your baby) is sleeping, this is but a small part of a lifelong journey and this time of complete dependency on you, their mother, will never come again.
Know a new mum? Here’s an essential list of 11 ways to support a new mum.
Feel like you are struggling? See our article on recognising the signs of PND and where to get help.