It’s been over a year since I recovered from the worst of my postpartum depression and anxiety. I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately – just how much difference a year makes. And yet sometimes I still can’t shake the feeling that I missed something essential in those first few months of my kid’s life.
Like anyone, I had a lot of expectations about becoming a mother. And when reality failed to resemble the picture in my head, I felt like I had failed in some fundamental way. I know that’s not my fault. Society sets us up for disappointment in a lot of ways, providing us with expectations and myths for how things are supposed to be. Even when you know a myth is inaccurate, it can still affect how you act and feel. But I hope by writing this I can help ease some of your worry.
Related: I Survived Postpartum Depression… And So Will You
These are some of the lessons I learned from having postpartum depression and anxiety.
1. There is no time limit on bonding with your baby.
I can’t tell you exactly when I first felt a bond with my baby. I know it wasn’t the moment I first saw her. Or the day we brought her home from the hospital. Or even a month later. It took months, and came on gradually. One day I looked down at her, snuggled in my arms, and realized that it was there. Warm and comforting, the feeling that she belonged with me.
But here’s the point: I did eventually bond with my baby. There isn’t a use-it-or-lose-it expiration date on bonding. You haven’t failed if it takes you days, weeks, months, or even years to bond with your child. You’re not going to run out of time, so take a deep breath and give yourself a break. You can’t force it, but it will come.
Related: Things I Needed To Hear Before Becoming A Mom
2. Self care is absolutely essential to being a parent.
I’ve probably said this a million times: you can’t take care of anyone else if you don’t take care of yourself first. We’re not really taught to take care of ourselves, especially as mothers. As mothers we often get the message that we should sacrifice everything for our children. That we aren’t good mothers unless we are 100% invested in them.
But if you keep pouring yourself into someone else, be that a child or another adult, you’ll eventually run out of energy to give. You’re even more prone to burnout right after you’ve had a baby. Your hormones are still wreaking havoc on your body, you’re likely sleep deprived, and you’re trying to figure out how to actually fit this new person into your family and life.
With everything going on, it’s no wonder new mothers struggle to accomplish even the most basic self care. Eating regular meals, staying hydrated, taking a shower, getting some sleep. It’s hard to prioritize these things when there’s a tiny human screaming at you on a regular basis and demanding your attention every minute of the day and night.
But those things are absolutely essential to your wellness. They help maintain your energy, resilience, and mental health. Self care makes it possible for you to take care of that screaming infant. It isn’t selfish, or a luxury. Self care is what enables you to be a good parent.
3. It really does take a village to raise a child.
People like to throw around facts about how womxn in simple societies would wander off behind a tree, push out a baby, then head right back to work. The implication always seems to be that if they could do it, womxn now should be able to do it, too. That a new mother is weak or somehow deficient if she struggles postpartum.
And yeah, womxn really did operate like that. In some areas of the world they still do. But what’s missing from that story is the fact that those womxn didn’t (and still don’t) do it all by themselves. They relied on their community: their band, tribe, or village. They had help caring for their newborn infant from an entire network of other womxn.
In modern western societies we expect new mothers to do everything largely on their own. Despite many cultural improvements, fathers still aren’t held to the same standard. New mothers should be able to take care of the baby day and night, cook and clean, lose the baby weight, and quite possibly return to work almost immediately. And we’re expected to do all that wearing an effortlessly “flattering” outfit and a smile.
Related: Why I’m NOT Trying to Get My Pre-Baby Body Back
That’s really just not how it works. You literally CAN’T do everything yourself. Parents need help, especially new moms. Whether that means family, friends, neighbors, or hired help, it absolutely takes a village to raise children.
4. You can’t get parenting “right”.
If you ask almost anyone, they’ll have something to say about the “right” way to raise a child. Even if that person doesn’t have any children. We’re a very opinionated species.
But here’s the thing. There’s absolutely no universal agreement about what the “right” way is. You can’t even rely on scientific research, because their findings are changing. All. The. Time.
For example, we’ve long been told that we should limit children’s exposure to screen time. But a recent study found that students who self-regulated their screen time did just as well academically as those who had strict limits placed on their screen time. And students actually did worse academically if their parents limited their screen time specifically to aid in academic success.
When I was pregnant, everything I read said to only use acetaminophen with babies under six months old. A friend who had her third baby three years before that said she was told to use nothing but ibuprofen. In the early 20th century, parents were told not to hug or cuddle their babies because this would spoil them irreparably. And in the 1930’s big city parents used baby cages to hang their children outside apartment windows, so they could get some fresh air and sunshine.
My point here, is that no matter how hard you try, someone somewhere sometime is going to say there was a better way. All you can really do is try to make reasonable choices based on the information you have at the time. You can’t be perfect. And you don’t have to be.
5. Healing is a process, not a goal.
When you’ve experienced any kind of trauma, you never get to a point where it’s “all better”, as if it never happened. You carry that trauma with you for the rest of your life. With time and hard work, you can limit the effect it has over you, but it’s never going to go away completely.
I still go through periods when I can’t watch or read anything that involves children getting hurt or being put in danger. I start to imagine my own kid in whatever situation it is, and my anxiety spikes. So I still tend to avoid possible triggers. During a recent visit to the Washington DC Holocaust Memorial Museum, I skipped the entire section dedicated to the child victims. I already know a lot of the stories. Death and dying is one sociological area I’ve researched and taught classes on. But knowing the stories and being confronted with them are two different things. And I didn’t feel prepared for that confrontation.
Healing is learning what your triggers are, and finding healthy ways to deal with them.
6. Motherhood looks different for everyone.
Sometimes it seems like motherhood is treated like some kind of special club. When you have a baby, you suddenly learn to think, act, and dress like a mother. As if there’s only one way to be a mother. But there’s not. There is no template for what it’s like to be a mother. So for better or worse, you’re going to have to make it up as you go along. Motherhood is about discovering your own unique changing identity. Motherhood is an identity you create for yourself.