To those new parents out there and soon-to-be new parents, I want to say the following:
- This may be really hard right now; it gets better.
- Babies cry; some babies cry a lot. Again, it gets better.
- Don't worry if you don't feel the "baby bliss" or instant bonding you may have heard about; you will.
- Breast-feeding can be especially tricky for some and if you work at it with the help of a lactation consultant or support group, it will soon be effortless and good.
- About 80 percent of U.S. women get “baby blues” in the days after giving birth and roughly 15 percent of women get postpartum depression, with which your doctor may be able to help.
- Did I mention it gets better?
My neighbor, we’ll call her Lena, just had a baby. When I ask her mother-in-law how it’s going, she says “He sure does cry a lot.” Uh-oh.
When I speak with Lena, I tell her how many babies I’ve seen among my friends and family members who scream as much as hers does. She is very relieved. “I thought there was really something wrong with me,” she says. “I mean, how come I see so many women out with their babies and they look so happy—the baby doesn’t even cry?”
“It runs the gamut,” I tell her. “Remember, you only see the mamas of the easier babies out and about. The rest of them are home still in their pajamas, trying to figure out what the heck just hit them.” This seems to soothe her, but as the weeks wear on and I still hear her little one screaming on a walk every night, I know not much I can say will really help—she and her husband just have to get through it, and they will.
On TV, new babies coo and wave their fists about while their parents show them off proudly. After that, they generally nap in sweetly trimmed bassinets while the action of life takes place around them. I can only assume this is because no one finds much interest in watching the true, exhausting, daily trials of bringing home an infant. Mostly, no one wants to hear all that screaming.
Babies cry, it’s what they do. It’s all they have, at first, to tell us what’s up. But some babies cry more than others and some newborns really seem to almost never stop screaming. At least their parents don’t have to worry about strong lungs.
But this isn't what we see in our sanitized modern world. When we see babies, they are usually gurgly and calm. If not, they're quickly being ushered out of shared public spaces to a place where only their caregiver and a select few others can see what it takes to soothe them.
Contrast this with the communal life of the village that our ancestors once knew. This was a place where human functions were shared on a such a close level that it would be hard to imagine in our society today.
Babies were born in front of a community of women who either knew or would need to know all about this process. Breasts of new mothers were constantly exposed because that’s what it took to keep a new baby fed and happy. The exhaustion and distress of becoming a new parent was seen, or at least heard, by all of the extended family and neighbors. There were few who didn’t know to expect some of this when their time came.
We could use a little bit of this visibility today. Then I might not be hearing things from women like, “No one breast-feeds anymore,” (actually 80 percent of U.S. moms do), or, “Why didn’t someone tell me those first few months would be so hard?”
“We didn’t want to scare you,” a well-meaning friend might say. I say, “Scare ’em!” They may thank you for it later.
There is so much preparation in our culture for the parts of new parenthood that are short-lived or barely matter—room décor and layette clothing, for example. Even preparing for a birth, an important influence on your labor outcome, is not as essential as preparing people for what comes next.
Support for women postpartum is just so important and so hard to achieve these days. Everything about having a baby lends itself to isolation: the recovery process, the all-consuming new tasks, and how hard and often ill-advised it is to go out too much with a new baby.
As much as we may want to leave new families alone in peace to bond and recover, I wish there were more ways to let them know they're not alone. Too, if we made the issues surrounding new parenthood more visible, educated each other about what's really normal, it would go a long way for those who feel there’s something wrong with them if they have a hard time or don't bond right away.
In some ways, the notion that things will improve just seems like words. But I know from personal experience and from talking with friends, if we'd known all this beforehand, we may have handled it all with a bit less desperation.
I don’t see us going back to the village way of life anytime soon, though. So it’s up to each of us to spread the word: Life and birth are messy. The good news is, we get through it—we are stronger than we think.
Were you surprised by how hard the first few months of parenthood were? Tell us in comments.