Psychiatrist Daniel Stern said that when a mother gives birth, she undergoes an “identity reorganisation” – she begins to shift the idea of herself as an autonomous human being to one that is focused on the care and survival of her child.
Those first weeks and months of your baby’s life can be extremely intense, and not just because you’re not sleeping. They’re intense because you’re finding your feet in an entirely new world. Your body hurts, your brain is groggy, and you’re trying to keep up with this small creature who is now wholly dependent on you.
Yet the modern world doesn’t give women much compassion in this period of their life. People who are parents of older children seem to forget how fragile and vulnerable you can feel as a new mum. Those who don’t have children imagine these women are dramatic and precious.
They’re not. They are, however, living through the most extreme change in their life. Here are just some of what they are dealing with.
1. An extra limb in the form of a baby
I remember falling asleep in another room away from my newborn and feeling very strange. She had become like an extra body part, and she was still so much a part of me.
From the moment our babies leave our bodies we are wired to connect. It’s a mixture of hormones and instinct. We’re programmed to keep our babies alive, and this intense connection is part of the process.
Many of us will leap up when the baby cries, we will cuddle her to sleep, and we will feel strange getting other people to look after her.
Telling a new mum to “leave her baby alone”, “let her cry”, or “not to fuss” misses the point that this is just part of the transition to becoming a mother.
2. Everything breastfeeding
You could say that this is the most basic need for any mammal on earth; to feed their offspring and keep them alive.
In Australia, we are told that “breast is best”. New mums are desperate to do the right thing by their baby and most try their utmost to breastfeed. Even if this means feeling like hot pincers are screwing your nipples off and they end up cracked and bleeding.
Mums might be dealing with low milk supply, or too much. They may be getting weird pains, the dreaded mastitis or thrush.
When breastfeeding goes awry, it can be very confusing, painful and worrying for a new mum.
At this point what a mum needs is understanding an empathy. What they don’t need is to be told the baby can’t be still hungry, or to keep breastfeeding when they are in pain and anxious.
3. Weight gain
Closely entwined with the breastfeeding experience is whether your child is gaining weight, or not. There’s nothing like worrying about your baby’s weight to make a new, sleep-deprived mother lose her hold on reality. Fears over milk supply will make some mums feel like their body is failing them, and that they are in turn failing their baby.
They will try all kinds of teas and foods to increase their milk supply. One friend drank broth exclusively for a month in an attempt to get her milk supply up for her baby.
Telling a mum “not to worry” about this is not helpful.
4. Everything sleep
Some babies come home and sleep like angels. Others are unsettled and take a lot more work to get into a routine. Dr Howard Chilton argues that you can’t get a baby into a routine before six months. That’s six months of broken sleep if you don’t have the angel described above (which most of us don’t).
New mums will ignore text messages, not answer phones and will even be deaf to a doorbell if someone approaches their home when their baby has finally fallen asleep. They will not leave the house, and they will cancel plans to meet people. This is not an overreaction. This is survival. They are probably comatose on the lounge while their baby is asleep in the nursery.
You cannot understand the desperate need for sleep until you have gone without it for many nights and know there is no end in sight.
6. All the advice
The combination of the internet and mobile screens means that advice and information is everywhere at all times. Mums can find conflicting information from reputable sources about all of the issues outlined above. This makes mums really confused about the right path to take.
I think the confusion also comes from what people tell us to do, instead of listening to our instincts. Solving a challenge can take longer than it should.
All the things you think a new mum is unnecessarily obsessing about looks very different from her perspective, and with good reason. This is the most significant transformation of her life. She’s working it out and taking it seriously.
The best thing you can do is hold your advice until it’s asked for, offer compassion and listen to what she’s really saying. Support her choices when she makes them in the best interest of her child.
That way women can make their transition to motherhood in the way they should – with confidence and joy.