When I was pregnant and approaching my due date, it was made pretty clear to me that I was going to be both tired and overwhelmed after my partner and I brought our baby home. It came up so often, that I didn't even notice the one thing no one was talking about after bringing the baby home was the one thing weighing me down the most: the never ending list of small tasks that are required of new parents will be the most exhausting aspect of motherhood. That is why I was so tired. It wasn't the lack of sleep (although, that definitely didn't help) and it wasn't the monumental moments that help create the rollercoaster that is new parenthood. No, it was the small stuff that people rarely mention.
Everyone seems to know about the exhaustion and the sleep deprivation and the anxiety of new motherhood. I mean, I heard it from all my friends, family members, and random well-wishers who struck up conversations about my new-found "condition" in the grocery store, next to the apples and the loitering bananas. It's depicted in nearly every TV show or movie involving new parents that I’ve ever seen. It was discussed in birthing class, in the pregnancy and parenting books I read, and articles I consumed online. Basically, tired and stressed new parents are woven through the fabric of our society like most other commonly accepted truths, including but not limited to, “the sky is blue,” “the grass is green,” “coffee is Earth’s greatest gift,” and “puppy GIFs solve everything.”
Still, the reason for the exhaustion and stress usually hinges on the bigger things, like breastfeeding and sleep-training, with very little discussion of the smaller stuff, like swaddling, or bathing, or burping, or fixing a bottle, or changing diapers or just balancing an endless number of worries throughout the day while simultaneously attempting to function. The things that new babies require aren’t difficult, exactly; there are just a lot of them and they usually all happen at once which require patience and multitasking and an unbelievable amount of determination. I don’t recall ever having a serious talk with anyone about all the new (sometimes, every technical) skills one must not only learn, but master very quickly in those first few days of parenthood. I’m not talking about technical like computers and phones, I mean technical like, "Okay, put one hand here, and the other here, and pat the baby at this particular spot on their back while holding them at a forty-five degree angle over your lap with a burp cloth under their chin, while speaking softly and calmly into their ear.”
I mean, it all sounds so obvious. Of course learning new and sometimes difficult things is part of the parenting process, right? But, I think because it sounds so obvious, we tend to leave it out of otherwise helpful discussions, which makes those small tasks feel like much bigger deals when you’re in the middle of it all. You start to feel like you should know all of this instinctually, because no one has talked about it, so it morphs into this unspoken knowledge that you don't have and, well, then you spiral down the dark hole that is self-doubt.
It’s not unlike showing up to a new job, actually. You probably have an idea of what you need to do, and how to do it, but the little things (like figuring out how to get post-its for your desk, or who to talk to about ordering business cards, or how to set-up your voicemail) can pile up. It feels like, “Okay, I want to do what I came here to do, but I have to figure all this stuff out first? And look, everyone else seems to just know these things and maybe they think I'm not qualified because I, you know, don't.”
And, honestly, it could even be described as something much simpler than starting a new job like, say, making a salad. Most of us are like, “Yep, I can handle that. My kitchen is stocked and I like salad so I’ll put lots of care and attention into assembling it and making it the best salad ever and I will love it for the rest of my life and we will be forever bonded because of how this first attempt at salad-making goes.”
But then, when you actually put everything out on your counter, it’s like, “Oh yeah, there are more parts to this than I expected. Washing, drying, slicing, cutting, measuring, mixing, making sure the dressing isn’t expired because it’s been sitting in the fridge for a while and then not pouring too much of it and then needing bread to soak it up, but actually that would be okay because salad dressing and bread isn’t the worst thing to eat, especially when there’s a newborn at home.” None of these things (on their own) are particularly challenging, but when you’re trying to do them all at once and when someone tiny is crying at you and for you and you’re doing your best to help but you’re sleep-deprived and in legit pain, the littlest things feel insurmountable. Before you know it, you're like, "Forget the tomatoes and carrots, I’m just going to eat wet lettuce and cheese with expired ranch."
I was mentally prepared, as much as one can be, for my life to be turned upside down and inside out. I believed there was no way for me to truly be ready for motherhood, short of having all the things on our checklist checked off (crib assembled, onesies washed and folded, nipple ointment procured). I knew the change I was about to experience would be too major, too dramatic and too all-consuming for me to fully comprehend or call myself prepared. It was like passing by one of those sketchy carnival booths that promise to thrill and amaze, but don’t tell you what’s actually inside. Like, you have an idea, but you can’t really know until you go in. Is it a person? An animal? An illusion of some kind, performed by a master of suspense? These are similar questions to what I asked myself as a new mom, staring at my infant.
However, I was not prepared for the small tasks to be the hurdles that they were.
If I had to do it all over again, I would have sought out more information and resources about the little stuff; the day-to-day stuff that gets in the way when you’d rather be snuggling, or resting, or simply not crying into a burp cloth. There’s no way around the steep learning curve that comes with motherhood, but there are ways to lessen some of the blows.
For example, we can talk about it. We can check in on each other. We can gently share our lessons with other new and soon-to-be moms. We can insist that nothing is off limits. We can save the judgement for, you know, never. We can subtly suggest that moms-to-be figure out how to use their new thermometers and baby tubs and perhaps they practice swaddling on one of the six or so new stuffed animals they now have. We can make sure every new mother knows that it’s not just them, it happens to almost all of us.
And we can take comfort in knowing that once we’re through the initial learning curve, it’s all smooth sailing...right? Right guys? Hello?