I wrote this post a while back for people recovering from disordered eating and/or new parenthood. What I have heard in the past few weeks is how many people are struggling with sleep post-election. Insomnia can be a trauma response. It is your body’s way of trying to keep you safe by not shifting into parasympathetic nervous system’s “rest and digest” mode when you may need to “fight or flight” at any moment. There is a lot of fear within and among people right now. It is real. I also know, as a Psychologist and recovering person, how important sleep is in your own healing and in resource-ing your body and mind enough to be able to function and take the next right action(s) in your daily life.
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We all know how easy this was in our former lives. Just hop in! At any time! With no interruptions and for as long as you want! This is no longer the case. However, a shower can make a world of difference. It is actually one of the main action steps I encourage not only new moms, but also clients recovering from depression to take. Cleaning your body helps your mind. It has the capacity to wash away some of the sleep deprivation and frustration. And it has the added benefit of cleaning away stinky-ness having old milk, snot, and poo that your little one may have generously shared. For at least one moment, your body can be clean, and all your own.
Don’t stop reading yet! I know, if one more person tells you “sleep when the baby sleeps,” you are going to punch them. So I’m not going to tell you that. However, I want to encourage you to carve out in whatever way works for you and your family, a good chunk of sleep for yourself. There is a reason why sleep deprivation is used as a form of torture. Sleep deprivation can cause difficulties in concentrating, irritability, problems with reading, speaking, and an increase in appetite. If the deprivation continues, disorientation, visual hallucinations, social withdrawal and/or challenges, memory lapses, and breaks in reality occur.[i] One of the main treatments for moms recovering from perinatal mood disorders (anxiety, depression, psychosis), along with therapy and medication, is sleep. And the sleep needs to be for prolonged period of uninterrupted time. (Disrupted sleep is as bad as no sleep – more on this
in upcoming sleep blog).
Here some ideas: hire a night doula, have your partner or grandma take over night feedings for one night, ask your partner to do the middle-of-the-night feeds, or do modified sleep training. Preserve and protect your sleep, however you can. Don’t succumb to the temptation for late night Facebook/Online shopping/Great-ideas-planning-your-new-business-vnture-as-a-mommypreneur. If these are still appealing when you are rested, you will know they are coming from a true need. Otherwise, it’s adrenaline-fueled exhaustion that would be better fed with restoring your sleep.
Did you know that vitamin D is one of the best antidepressant vitamins? Low vitamin D has been linked not only with postpartum depression for the mother[ii] but also increased risk of eating disorders in female offspring.[iii] Getting out of the house can be one of the best ways to bring new perspective to what can feel like drudgery of new motherhood. So pack up all your new accoutrements – diaper bag, pacifiers, bottles, snacks, diapers, etc.- and get out into the sun. It may just be to walk around the block. It may be an adventure like getting to the playground or the coffee shop. You may even coordinate this adventure with another new mom, which leads to the next tip…
It is a recent cultural phenomenon that moms are trying to care for their babies alone, at home, by themselves without a “village” of support. This used to be the extended family, or way, way back in human experience, the tribe. Humans thrive on attachment. Without it, we wither. There is no wrong way to have support as a new mom, other than to not have support as a new mom. Your support could be a mom’s group. It could be your partner. It could be your therapist. It could be YOUR mom. It could be your non-mom friend. It could be your friend who is also a mom. It could be your doula, lactation consultant, or mother-in-law. It could be all of these or some combination of these. But having none of these is a recipe for trying to be Supermom (who doesn’t exist, and lives in the isolated perfectionist imaginations of moms who have no support), which can to Postpartum Depression. I love this quote from Dr. Sue Johnson, the founder of emotionally focused therapy:
“Being the “best you can be” is really only possible when you are deeply connected to another. Splendid isolation is for planets, not people.”
If you are providing attachment to your new little one, YOU need to be strongly attached.
Trying to hold, provide food, and give emotional sustenance to your baby without support yourself is like being a tree without roots. You will fall over, you will wilt, you will not thrive. An then this will happen to your baby, too… It is not only okay, but also essential that you have support! Put on your oxygen masks first, Mama.
- Spiritual practice
Last but not least, having a mindfulness practice can be a helpful tool for tolerating the distress and practicing acceptance with all the learnings of new parenthood. This may be 5 minutes of meditation per day. Or it may be one bite of mindful eating during a lunch otherwise filled with Cheerios being thrown on the floor. It may be a yoga class or writing 1 page in your journal every day. You could practice deep breathing every time you hear your baby cry and your stomach tenses up with anxiety or discomfort. For new moms, it is important to Keep It Simple. Remember: the Buddha was NOT a parent when he became enlightened. Unlike him, you don’t have seven days to sit under a tree uninterrupted. You may have seven minutes. Take it. A good practice is to breath in the suffering of all new moms all around the earth and breathe out loving-kindness to all the new moms all around the earth. I used this practice when I was a new mom. It made me feel so much less alone at 3am.
You are not alone, Mama. Keep going. Keep practicing any and all of these self-care practices as much as you can for as long as it takes. You are NOT allowed to use this blog to beat up on yourself for what you are not doing. If you are doing that, stop now. Thousands of other moms are struggling right along with you, trying to sleep, shower, get support, see the sunshine, and do spiritual practice! Try, to the best of your ability one moment at a time, to find the kind mother inside yourself for yourself. This kindness is where the real strength of motherhood is: it is this place that is rooted and flexible, fierce and tender. It is the one that defends her right to practice her own self-care as a way to then be able to care for others. It is the mother putting her own oxygen mask on first. In the words of Sue Monk Kidd:
“You have to find a mother inside yourself. We all do. Even if we already have a mother, we still have to find this part of ourselves inside.”
You can do it mama. If you can’t find her, keep looking. You may need to grow your capacity to be a good mom to yourself along with learning to be a good one to your baby. That is okay. She is there, waiting for you to feed, nurture, forgive, and grow her. Oh, and shower her, too!
Linda Shanti McCabe is a Mom and Licensed Clinical Psychologist in San Francisco.As always, this blog is written to provide experience, inspiration, and hope – not to provide psychological treatment. If you are struggling with a perinatal mood disorder, a good resource is Postpartum Support International.
All original art images copyright Linda Shanti McCabe
[i] Bulkeley, Kelly, “Why Sleep Deprivation is Torture” Psychology Today, December 15, 2014.
[ii] Robinson et al. Low maternal serum vitamin D during pregnancy and the risk for postpartum depression symptoms, Archives of Women’s Mental Health, 2014.
[iii] Allen KL, Byrne SM, Kusel MM, Hart PH, Whitehouse AJ. Maternal vitamin D levels during pregnancy and offspring eating disorder risk in adolescence. International Journal of Eating Disorders. Jun 26, 2013.
(Because what new mom has time or brain capacity to read a long blog?)
1. Whoever said “no use crying over spilled milk” clearly never breast fed.
2. “Sleeping like a baby” includes grunting, pooping, dropping the pacifier, crying, and waking every 2-3 hours. This is not something to which to aspire.
3. And for comic relief:
The question, of whether to have a child, followed by of whether to have another child, is a question with which most women (and men) wrestle. As one Mom put it:
“I was newly married and it suddenly became very clear that it was time to try for a baby. The fear that I’d held onto for so long had simply evaporated and I found myself eager to take that path and meet my baby. My husband and I conceived right away…I think I have been waiting for that kind of clarity ever since, and I am starting to realize that it might not come.”
One reason mothers (and fathers) often state to have another is “I had the first one for me and the second one so they would have a sibling.” Research shows there are actually some benefits to having siblings. According to Colin Brazier, author of the book Sticking up for Siblings, having a sibling while growing up can help:
- Resist allergies, obesity, and depression (As an eating disorder therapist, and someone who recovered from disordered eating, I would dispute the reasons stated for resisting obesity, as his research shows that parents are more likely to be aware of kid portions if they have more than one child, and serve adult portions if they have one child. I don’t imagine anyone recovered from an eating disorder would make this mistake.)
- Be the antidote to helicopter parenting. Siblings can teach each other how to take risks, help with language and social skills.
- Make it easier to look after an elderly parent, deal with parental divorce, or cope with death of a parent if shared between siblings. (1)
On the other hand, there are many myths about only children that simply aren’t true. Lauren Sandler, an only child and mom of one and the author of One and Only: The Freedom of Having an Only Child and the Joy of Being One states:
The three biggest myths, she says, turn into one word — lonelyselfishmaladjusted — when people talk about us, despite the hundreds of studies that show only children are no different than people with siblings. She shows how only children are not lonely or maladjusted and actually have some strengths that siblings don’t.
“Only children become generous and respectful people. We put a lot of weight on our relationships. We tend to be very giving friends, and we are no more narcissistic than anyone else. For some reason, researchers cannot believe this, and just keep testing it.” (2)
And all of the data around that shows us that as long as kids go to school they’re socialized. Only children tend to have higher achievement, intelligence and self-esteem. Raised in a “rich verbal environment” they talk a lot — and with depth. (2)
It is interesting to note (as most research is “Me-search”) that the authors of each of these pieces are not only citing research, but sharing from their own family of origin and now parental experiences (of having siblings or being an only). In other words, there is no right answer, only living your way into the question. Here are some interview questions I asked three fellow “Recovering/Recovered Mama’s” and their unique answers to the process of deciding to have a child/children:
1. What made you decide to have one/more than one child?
“We always wanted a big family.”
“We went back and forth with the decision of another after our first was born. Before our first, we were certain we would have more than one but then after we were in the REALITY of what life was like as parent (CRAZY) we were back and forth. When I wanted a second child, my partner said no. When my partner wanted a second child I said no. Ultimately, we had our second child when we somehow both landed in the world of yes.”
“I have been sitting with the question of whether or not to have another child for some time. For a number of reasons, mostly to do with completing graduate school, starting new careers and a couple of inter-state moves, we have chosen to wait until things settled down…My son starts kindergarten in two weeks. Our life is good. And we’ve begun discussing the possibility of trying for another baby. Most of the time, during the day, I am feel positive and excited about the prospect. Then night arrives and my son has fallen asleep and I get my downtime. I generally sleep through the night, but when I wake up I often become anxious and overwhelmed with thoughts of all that could go wrong and by the idea of sleepless nights, breastfeeding challenges, and a few more years away from my career path. I’ve been having a difficult time getting clear about whether to try for another baby, or simply be grateful for the family that I do have and accept that we are enough. We are enough.”
2. What went into the process?
“I interviewed a handful of friends who grew up as single children about their experience. A lot of them shared feeling lonely and wanting a sibling but it also helped them find deeper connections with cousins and friends. Both [my partner] and I grew up with siblings and although there were challenges and frankly still are, we both agreed we wanted our first to have a brother or sister with whom she could connect on having the same parents. We joke about them saying ‘our parents are nuts,’ which will create a bond for them.”
“We were originally planning on having 3, possibly 4 children, but baby #1 took us years to conceive due to (a medical condition). After that resolved, we got pregnant 6 months later. However, it was 3 years after we began trying, so we felt that our time was running short. We started trying when I was 34 and my husband was 36…But our first baby came 3 months before I turned 38 and so the idea of a big family with our ages into consideration was not as strong.”
“My mother’s first child, five years before me, was born with a chromosomal abnormality and only survived for a few hours. The experience was traumatic, her baby girl was instantly whisked away and she was left alone (my father was in the waiting room) to wonder what happened. Her first birth experience had a significant impact on her second birth experience. I was born into the emotional baggage of that earlier trauma. I carried the remnants of that trauma with me well into my 30s. I was terrified of being pregnant, terrified of giving birth, terrified that I would be unable to birth a healthy baby.”
3. Did you do fertility treatment, adopt, have more or less difficulty with pregnancy?
“We did several fertility treatments the first time around, none worked until we found out the true problem, which was [something else]. After we got that fixed, we got pregnant quickly. The second baby was conceived on the first shot, as soon as I thought I was ovulating again, in fact, I never even got a period. ”
“I have had 5 pregnancies and 2 children. I had 2 miscarriages before [my first] and one before [my second]. I used acupuncture to help me in the pregnancies with both.”
4. How was your experience with having one child vs two children? What was the same /different?
“It was and is very difficult. More difficult than I thought. I wanted to bond with my new baby but my 22 month old still very much needed me and it was hard for him to see me with the baby. I had a hard time nursing the baby in front of the toddler because he would cry for my attention and climb all over him. He was very distressed for awhile. I found the newborn stage to be so much easier the second time around, it was my toddler who I found difficult. It was also difficult not to be able to take naps with the baby because when he slept, I still had a toddler to tend to, so I was extremely tired. I also had a harder time healing from my C-section which caused me a lot of pain because I was holding both a 9 pound infant and a 28 pound toddler.”
5. How was food/sleep/sex/self-care/work load/work outside the home/childcare with one vs two?
“I don’t know what any of those things are. I am hopeful though that eventually I will be able to integrate more self-care when my children are a little more independent. Right now they still need so much from me. The one thing that changed a lot was my body image. My body changed a lot after baby, lots of loose skin and dark circles under my eyes and much higher body fat– and I don’t care one bit. I feel in awe to have a body that can make, grow, and nourish two children. The way my body looks is so low down on my list of priorities that it’s felt like a giant relief. Food has been different too, I’m less aware and careful about what I’m putting in my mouth, which has also been a relief. I think that there were times that I was too cautious despite being ED free, I still thought about it. Now, I just eat lots of food whenever I want it to keep my energy up for breastfeeding and toddler chasing and playdates.”
“OMG, it is ALOT of work with two. Not just two times the work, but more like ten times the work. It is intense. The biggest challenges for me right now is competing needs. Whose need do I tend to first? How do I keep my patience when they are both screaming for me? They are in different developmental stages and need to do different things to occupy their day/time. They are starting to play together at moments which is great, hoping that increases as they get older. With a second, we had the stuff we needed with and were seasoned with the car seat, diaper bag, snack bag routine ect… We had adjusted to life with a child, which I think is a bigger transition than adding a second child, as there is so much personal sacrifice in life to be a parent, especially an older parent. Both my husband and I had LIFE experiences before having kids. We knew freedom really well. Our experience of having a child was transformative. When [our second child] came into our lives, there was not as much transformation as the stress of caring for two children vs. one child.
“We were starting to feel some more freedom when I got pregnant with our second, which led to more date nights, connection, some ease. But once the second came, it felt intense for the first year. This second year has been intense due to my Dad’s passing, moving, and buying our house. A lot was on our plates along with having two kids. So my perspective might be different if we had just had two kids without all the external stresses.”
“Sex we are working on. Mostly we are TIRED. But I think regular date nights would help.”
“We keep food simple. I feel like I ate better before kids but I also had more time to experiment and play. AND my kids are picky eaters like most kids. I have food in the house I would not eat prior to kids… ”
“Childcare has been stressful to figure out when it changes, especially balancing our older child going to school, while the younger stays with the nanny. And it is EXPENSIVE!”
“Self-care is always a work in progress.”
“I am still learning to balance it all. But I feel like that will always be the case until they leave home!”
1. Brazier, Colin, (2013), Sticking Up for Siblings
2. Sandler, Lauren (2013) One and Only: The Freedom of Having an Only Child, and the Joy of Being One.
I just bought myself a book light. Yes, I still read actual books. Every night, while lying next to my child (resorted to this- see Confessions of a Failed Sleep Trainer) I read. I have been using a flashlight that is slowly wearing its batteries down and I have to shake it to get it back on. My eyes have begun to strain. Every night, before going to sleep, I have had the thought “I should get a book light.”
Why is it so difficult for Moms to take care of themselves? It is a given that I bring my child to all of his doctor visits, dentist visits, haircuts. I make sure he gets plenty of playtime, fresh air, exercise, organic food, sleep, baths. We have special time during which he gets to decide whatever he wants to do. We play games and make up stories for all of the themes that he is encountering in growth opportunities. The cars learn how to say goodbye and then come back together, share racetrack time, use their words to say when they feel MAD or SAD. The part of me that is just-trying-to-survive-as-a-Mom, however, has no time for being playful, kind, or patient with my own feelings and needs. This part wishes they would “just go away” because I don’t have time! And yet they don’t. We all know what happens when you try to rush a young child to get through feelings quickly because we don’t have time: they get bigger! Time doesn’t exist in the emotional world. Grown-ups need to care for their feelings, too. Or they get bigger. (Or turn into depression, resentment, eating disorders, alcoholism, etc)
I am in a moms-who-are-therapists group in which we spoke about aggressive self-care recently. We shared about our “ideal, but realistic” days as moms. What would we do? The answers weren’t huge changes. They were little shifts internally and externally that made a big difference: getting up ½ hour early in order to write, enjoying cooking instead of trying to just-get-everybody-fed, going OUT to dinner to have a night off from cooking, going for a family hike on the weekend instead of spending so much time on laundry, getting a haircut or a pedicure.
Why the term “aggressive”? I like this because it expresses how much it truly is an opposite action to take care of one’s self first (or at all) for many moms. As moms, we often defend and protect our child/dren’s well-being. How often do we turn this energy toward our own care? It requires attention, intention, and yes, some level of aggression. Because the cultural messages for moms are often about martyrdom and loss of self. And so turning toward, back to the self, honoring and tending to one’s self, requires fierceness. In case you didn’t notice the quote that my new book light is illuminating:
…every day, the world will drag you by the hand, yelling, “This is important! And this is important! And this is important! You need to worry about this! And this! And this!
And each day, it’s up to you to yank your hand back, put it on your heart, and say, “No. This is what’s important.”
PS By the way, just to name the obvious, you don’t have to be a Mom to practice aggressive self-care. It absolutely applies to eating disorder, codependency, and recovery general good self-care as well. Put on your own oxygen mask first.
A colleague of mine is in the process of creating and producing the “Mama Faces Project” – a video art project interviewing mothers. (I will share with her permission when it is complete). In this project, she invites mothers to say TO YOURSELF what you needed to hear in those most difficult moments of motherhood: those moments where you felt alone, overwhelmed, full of rage or failure. The purpose is so any mother out there who may be feeling awful in the moment will know they aren’t alone .
As I prepared for participating in this video project, I thought, hmmmmm…what were those moments for me? I definitely struggled with sleep: sleep “training,” modified sleep training, no sleep training, chucking sleep training out the window, co sleeping with a baby kicking me in the face, etc. (BTW Here is a funny image of what any parent who has attempted co sleeping has experienced: http://www.howtobeadad.com/2011/6452/baby-sleep-positions-“h-hell” )
Here is what I would say to myself:
1. Lots of people have “failed” at this. You are NOT ALONE in struggling with this.
2. It is ok to be angry at your husband during this phase of sleep deprivation. That is normal. Love is under the anger. (You don’t have to feel or remember that right now.)
3. I know you know a lot about psychological conditioning (I was studying this for my licensure exam while in this phase of infant Mommyhood) right now and how “reinforcing” it can be to respond to “negative” cries for attention or respond erratically/inconsistently, but here is what I want you to know from a fierce mother’s heart: Your child is not a dog, rat or pigeon and you are not Pavlov, Skinner, Watson or any other behavioral Psychological researcher! (Here is a frightening example of how the behavioral Psychologist Skinner kept pigeons underweight and living in tiny boxes in order to have them be hungry enough to want to eat food as a reinforcement for the behavior he was trying to condition: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I_ctJqjlrHA )
4. It is ok to be inconsistent because you are human and one of the best lessons you can model for your child is to listen to your intuition on where you are suffering and let that guide you toward the most appropriate response.
You do not have to cut yourself off from that awareness to be a good Mom. Yes, of course it can be helpful to be consistent, but remember the deeper place of consistency is the ability to flow with chaos. This is not a laboratory. This is a real life experience with messiness and failure. And growth comes from failure. AFGO’s (Another F*cking Growth Opportunity) come from failure. Remember how Brenee Brown called TED “the failure conference”? There is a LOT of inspirational growth in failure. Invite failure more! Invite yourself to fail! As it says in the first sentence of the 12 steps:
“WHO cares to admit complete defeat? Practically no one, of course. Every natural instinct cries out against the idea…” *
And yet the foundation of transformative learning (as well as recovery from any addiction such as alcoholism, codependency, eating disorders, etc) comes from admitting “Ok I am having an AFGO here, failing, and I am whole heartedly willing to stop suffering in this way and try something different.”
I invite you to wholeheartedly be willing to stop beating up on yourself for the ways you are “failing” as a mother and embrace messy learning. As Brenee Brown states, one of the greatest gifts we can teach our children is that “You are worthy of love, belonging and joy.” And we model this for our children by modeling self-compassion and embracing our own imperfections.
For a beautiful version of Brenee Brown’s Parenting Manifesto, click here:
* The Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions of Alcoholics Anonymous