We Need To Talk About The Emotional Labor Of Being A New Mom
Your discharge instructions probably had some stuff about counting wet diapers, nursing on-demand, giving sitz baths a spin, and, generally, responding to your baby when it cries. There was likely a leaflet on the baby blues, and maybe some coupons for formula, should the whole breastfeeding thing not work out. What I don't remember seeing in my hospital goody bag was anything that could prepare me for the emotional labor of being a new mother.
A lot of moms are quick to share the harrowing details of their birthing experiences, so ahead of my induction last winter, I knew to expect the gore and the pain. Going into labor, you're focused on how you feel, how the contractions feel, how painful things are, or where it feels like the baby is positioned. On the other side of the divide, your attention switches to your baby: nurses train you on the cues to look for; your own body knows to respond to your baby's cries. There is a fundamental shift from responding to cues about your own body to being completely in tune with the cues about someone else's. Your new job is to make this baby feel safe, warm, fed, happy, and it occupies all day every day. This is the very definition of emotional labor.
Even without the emotional consequences of sleep deprivation, there's the absolute absorption of raising a child.
The first 10 months of my daughter's life have been the most difficult of my own. Even if I wasn't someone with a history of anxiety and depression, I get the feeling that this would still be true. I understand the pressure to feel like a modern-day Supermom. When I first found out I was expecting, many of my friends, co-workers, and relatives were quick to tell me that I had this. I was going to be such a cool mom. I'd slay in the office and in the nursery. I was strong. I'd be just fine. I wanted to be just fine — for them, for my baby, and for myself.
In truth, I haven't been just fine. I know a few people whose infants learned to sleep through the night by three or four months old, but my daughter Luna has never managed that feat. The thing about sleep deprivation is that it isn't just your body that grows fatigued and sore. It's your mind, too. Everything becomes more difficult to deal with, even the most mundane of tasks. Going to the grocery store, or filling the car with fuel, or taking a walk down the street, or doing some vacuuming, or catching up on emails become epic tasks.
Even without the emotional consequences of sleep deprivation, there's the absolute absorption of raising a child. A baby cannot do anything for themselves. Anything at all. They are incomparably dependent on their parents. While I don't necessarily struggle to dress my kid, or feed her, or change her diaper, or tuck her in at night, I do struggle with the reality of her unconditional need for me. It's a need that allows me little time for anything else, including time for myself.
Before becoming a mom, I took me-time for granted. Not only that, but I never considered how crucial me-time actually is for my mental health. Setting aside a couple of hours in a day, or in a week, or even in a month in which to regroup alone or with loved ones is a surefire way to stay in tune with your wants and needs. When I used to take a soak or get my hands on a new novel, I could check in with myself. I could catch my breath, setting aside my obligations for a short while. I could chill the f*ck out after a hard day.
If I want to go to the cinema, will I have enough milk pumped to leave her?
These days, however, there is rarely any chilling out. There are many hard days, and through them all, I never get to be selfish, because every decision I make has to take my daughter into consideration. If I want to go to the cinema, will I have enough milk pumped to leave her? If I want to visit a friend, do I take the time to pack all of Luna's essentials, or do I try to gather up the funds to get the sitter in? If I want to take a bath, will she settle with her dad for long enough? Even if all I want to do is take a walk through the moors, can I muster up enough energy — both physical and emotional — to get my jeans on and walk out that front door?
Often, the answer to all of these questions is no. I don't have enough time to pump. I don't have the money for a sitter. I don't have the energy for the walk. On the rare occasions that the answer is yes, I try to savor every moment. I try to relish in the deviation to my day-to-day regimen. More often than not, however, the moments fly by too quickly. Or they're interrupted by the reality that I have a baby who needs something else — usually, something only I can give her.
None of this is to say that it's not worth it. I love my daughter more than I ever dreamed I was capable of loving anything. Even so, the emotional labor of motherhood is trying. What's worse is that it often feels as though we cannot discuss just how difficult it all is for fear of seeming like questionable, if not entirely horrible, parents.
With a baby in the picture, what we often term "selfishness" often has to go — though I'd call it self-care. No one prepared me for that. No book, movie, or great aunt could've told me how difficult the abandonment of self-care, and impulse, and spontaneity would actually be.
I love my daughter, but I don't believe I can be the best mom possible unless I'm taking care of myself, too. The struggle to balance being a new parent with being a human being who has their own needs is all too real, and it's one that I find absolutely draining. The silver lining is that on the rare occasions that I do admit all of this to a fellow parent, they tend to suggest that it'll get easier with time. And perhaps they're right.
In the meantime, however, maybe I'll be more forthcoming about the inner challenges of motherhood: About the self-doubt, the anxiety, the exhaustion, and the emotional whirlwind of it all. I'm not Supermom, and I doubt I ever will be. But maybe no one is. Maybe we shouldn't expect them to be.
Maybe it's that expectation that screws us up in the first place.