Amid a pile of unfolded laundry, a new mum sips her now lukewarm tea with bub in the other arm. She’s about to make an overdue phone call to a dear friend when the little one starts squirming and squawking. With a sigh, she aborts the phone catchup yet again. “When will this get easier?”
Of course, most new mothers expect to face a learning curve. But just how steep that curve is can certainly come as a shock. Spending day after day in the haze of sleep deprivation, you can wonder if new motherhood is meant to be like this. And for how long?
Perhaps six weeks? Three months? Actually, the truth is often closer to a year, says Melbourne psychologist Frances Bilbao, a specialist in supporting mums. “You certainly get better with practice over those first 12 months, just getting to know this little person and all the logistical bits and pieces that need to happen,” she says. “We know that people don't adjust overnight, that's for sure.”
Adapting to motherhood varies greatly. In fact, returning to your pre-baby state in many ways is not possible. Frances emphasises: "Your whole identity and life really has shifted in many fundamental ways. Will you ever feel like you did prior to having a child? No, because everything has changed."
For those who thrive on active preparation, diving into baby books might seem like the path to a smoother transition. However, raising a child is a bit like riding a bike – you can't learn it solely from reading; you also have to try out the pedals for yourself.
In fact, there is such a thing as too much knowledge breeding unrealistic expectations. “There’s definitely a lot of information out there…but babies are not textbooks. They don't come ‘one size fits all’,” says Frances. She points to some common issues that can cause us distress when reality doesn’t match our hopes, including:
- When babies should sleep through the night.
- How long your little one will nap during the day.
- Getting back to your usual routine before baby.
- Doing as much as you used to.
Similarly, Frances points out that a lot of new mums fail to acknowledge their own hard work. “I think women put a lot of pressure on themselves to still be doing everything that they were doing prior to having a baby, and perhaps not factoring in the amount of time needed just for babies to “be”. It feels like you're doing nothing, but actually that's the most important work that you can be doing,” says Frances.
To reduce stress and frustration, aiming for flexibility in your thinking can be a tremendous help with a new bub. We know from research that an attitude of acceptance and flexibility has links to reduced depression and anxiety for new mothers. “Essentially that means not getting too stuck on certain ideas or the way that things “should” be,” explains Frances. “People get caught on what the textbook says, rather than using a lot more of their own intuition and what feels right. What's your baby trying to tell you?”
Ultimately, the number 1 thing for expecting and new mothers to remember is that you’re not alone. Frances says: “This is something that everybody struggles with because it is such a huge transition. It's probably the biggest transition you'll ever go through in your life. So give it that recognition that it is a big deal.” She encourages new parents to share their feelings with others, as chances are, they're experiencing similar difficulties. "Don't think that you're the only one - that's absolutely not true."
As well as sharing with friends, you can chat to your maternal and child health nurse or GP, and access PANDA’s online resources for support. While this early phase of parenthood may bring the most dramatic lifestyle change, it's also a path to personal growth and the most special lifelong relationship.
By Louise Wedgwood
Frances Bilbao is an award-winning perinatal psychologist and founder of Melbourne clinic Mums Matter Psychology.