It’s something we take for granted before we have children – that we’ll take to motherhood like the proverbial duck to water. But it doesn’t always work that way, and you know what? …it’s OK for parenting not to come naturally.
I recently overheard a new mum say she thought becoming a parent would be the most natural thing in the world, but she was struggling. She was surprised that breastfeeding hadn’t just ‘happened’ and she’d had to seek out support from our breastfeeding group. She was finding the pressures of parenthood overwhelming and was feeling like a failure.
It sounded familiar.
Parenting didn’t come naturally to me at all
I remember thinking – assuming – I would take to parenting naturally too. After all, there have been billions of babies born in this world and women manage with far less support and fewer resources than me.
But then suddenly, out of nowhere, there was this tiny stranger in my arms. A tiny human who I’d been dreaming of and talking to and singing to for the last few months, but who I’d never met, and who I didn’t know or understand.
And then they sent us home, with no instruction manual, in complete charge of taking care of this tiny, helpless thing.
It was terrifying. I was so overwhelmed, I came home and built a wall in my mind to give myself time and space to come to terms with our new situation.
Those natural parenting instincts I’d assumed would kick in failed me. I was awkward picking her up, her umbilical cord grossed me out, I was getting incredibly frustrated with both of us when desperately trying to get a good latch. I admit, on occasion I wondered with horror if we’d made a huge mistake because I clearly wasn’t up to the job.
Learning on the job
We did the only thing we could do, took it day by day, seeking out support where necessary and slowly piecing the parts of the parenting puzzle together. Learning on the job – to the extreme!
Three years on, and we’re OK now. But I think it took a good four months for me to feel any semblance of being in control, and a good deal longer than that to feel like I knew what I was doing. To be honest, I’m still making most of it up as I go along.
5 reasons why it’s OK for parenting not to come naturally
We don’t have our ‘village’ to learn from and provide support
Back in the day when we all knew our neighbours, and generations of families all lived under one roof, new mums had their ‘village’. The village was their own personal support network to help them in the early days of motherhood. They had experienced mothers on hand to help guide them through breastfeeding, to care for the baby while she slept and to take care of the mother while she tended to her baby. It was a group effort. Mothers didn’t have to seek out support, it was there. Ready and waiting and willing and expected and a natural part of the process.
These days, we’re sent home from hospital (or the midwife packs up and leaves if you’ve had a home birth), and left on our own with maybe one or two family members floating around for support. Other visitors are invite only, desperately wanting to give advice but fearing saying something wrong (or giving it regardless), and your neighbour never even noticed you were pregnant.
We do so much of it alone. The pooled knowledge of your would-be village isn’t there. You rely on faceless avatars on parenting forums to give you the advice you need but they’re strangers who don’t know you or your situation and don’t have your best interests at heart. You have to fend for yourself, keep an eye on the baby at all times, and have all the responsibility on your shoulders. Supportive partners are wonderful, but then work starts again and you’re flying solo for a big chunk of the day.
It’s hard work, it’s lonely work, and it can leave you feeling totally out of your depth.
Inaccurate and glossy portrayals of motherhood in the media
You know those birth scenes where the waters break, the mum screams for 2 mins, and then her partner / mum / friend / random stranger delivers the baby in whichever public place they happen to be in. They wrap up the baby and hand it to her as she and everyone around smiles and laughs at the beauty of the moment. She is positively nonplussed that a bunch of random members of the public have just seen her vagina, and everyone’s forgotten about the umbilical cord being a thing.
I think I’ve met one person in real life who claims to have had their baby that quickly, but it’s amazing how many times you see that scenario play out in films and TV!
What about those celebrity mums who post pictures of their ‘perfect’ post-baby bodies? Love, you had someone to do your hair even when you weren’t a new mum. I’m pretty sure you have a million people helping you with the baby, or at least holding them whilst you work out with your personal trainer or eat your nutritious meal prepared specially by your personal chef. I mean, go for it if you’ve got the resources, but be honest about it so you don’t make other mums feel like they’re failing – that goes for the media sharing the story too.
The rest of us have to sit on a sofa surrounded by a pile of snacks in packets you can open with one hand whilst the other one is busy holding the baby who screams every time you try to put them down. Exercise is going for a walk in a desperate attempt to lull your child into a deep enough slumber that you can down a pot noodle as quickly as possible before trying to get a 10 minute nap in before they wake up.
Wow, that turned ranty! …But leads nicely into point 3…
We’re all different, all babies are different
Basically, lovely mamas, your body is perfect just the way it is. Your birth story is yours and is beautiful in all it’s messy, complicated, gory glory. The media can’t be trusted to portray accurate visions of motherhood and parenting – they are merely caricatures. We’re all different, our stories are all unique, there’s no ‘right’ way, so don’t compare. Embrace your story, embrace your situation, and embrace yourself.
Similarly, take well meaning parenting advice with a pinch of salt. What worked for Aunt Mavis, and Betty next door, and your best friend, and _JsMuM_ on Netmums, might not work for you and your baby. Just because their baby slept through the night from 6 weeks doesn’t mean you’re a failure if your baby doesn’t. It just means…wait for it…that the babies are different. (And I’d put money on the fact that those babies didn’t consistently sleep through the night – they probably did it for a week and old Aunt M has just blacked out the horror of the sleepless nights).
So many people seem to forget this simple fact when dishing out the advice. It’s easy for new mums to feel like they’re doing something wrong when being fed anecdotal information about how other people#s babies behaved, and it’s different to their own experience. Once we start second guessing ourselves and trying to fit our babies into a mould, that’s often when we lose sight of our instincts and feel out of control.
Look for evidence based information and support when you need it, and use that information n a way that works for you and your situation.
Busy lives & societal pressures
We live at such a fast pace these days. People expect next day delivery, pizzas to arrive within the hour, instant replies to texts… Then you have a baby and suddenly you’ve got cold pepperoni stuck to your sock, a late night impulse buy nipple shield arriving a mere 12 hours after you ordered it, you’ve lost two days, and have 6 messages still to reply to.
Babies get in the way of the now, now, now because really, you’re on their schedule. Especially in the early days. It’s like having a tiny boss who you need to do everything for but who refuses to share their schedule with you so you just have to guess.
A friend who had her baby a few months before me, put up a photo of her going out to the pub on a sunny afternoon with their week old baby and sitting in the sunshine having a great time. I thought at the time, “that’s what I want to be like – up and out as quickly as possible, having a great time and making the most of my maternity leave”. I honestly don’t know how she did it. We barely left the house in the first 2 weeks. The only reason I ventured out was to go to an LLL meeting to ask some breastfeeding questions. It made me feel pretty rubbish about struggling so much and being stressed about going out.
Admittedly I put that pressure on myself, but we do don’t we. As a society we expect too much of parents in those early days. We should take care of new mums, let them know that it’s OK to not leave your house for a few weeks unless you need to, and to stay in your pjs all day, and to not wear a bra for 2 months (true story). It’s OK to do nothing but binge on Netflix and take care of your baby. That’s the most important thing and no parent should feel they have to do anything more than that.
Post-natal depression affects 10 – 15% of women
The final reason why it’s OK for parenting not to come naturally, is post-natal depression. Affecting a whopping 10-15% of women, it’s not to be taken lightly.
My friend Wendy at Naptime Natter has written about her experience of PND after having her second child, and it moves me to hear how guilty she felt during her son’s first Christmas, and how she felt like failure.
Depression can strike at any time, and there doesn’t have to be a ‘reason’. PND doesn’t always happen straight after the baby is born – it can crop up later (as Wendy’s did – 2 months later in fact). But PND can make us doubt ourselves, and take some of the joy out of parenting, leaving us with guilt and low self esteem. Not the ideal combination for a smooth parenting journey.
More than 1 in 10 women may suffer from PND – that’s a lot! It’s helpful to recognise the signs so you can help yourself or others get the support they need as early as possible. Mothers for Mothers is a PND support group and provides lots of information as well as a list of places to get help if you think you have PND.
There’s so much more to say about this topic, but I’ll leave that for another post. I’d love to hear your experiences.