The new baby conundrum: why are those early weeks so hard?

Dr Jessamy Hibberd, a clinical psychologist and mum-of-three, has been examining the early days with a new baby, asking why it’s so hard – even if it’s not your first. Here, she offers an explanation and sound advice for coping…

The new baby conundrum

Third child-in, I thought the experience of having a new baby would be fairly straight-forward. I knew what to expect, couldn’t wait to meet the baby and had everything in place to ensure the plan ran smoothly. For the first six weeks it all went as well as I could have hoped. But after the initial high of a beautiful new baby began to fade, the tiredness started to set in… I’d done it before (twice!) was over the moon to finally meet my daughter, but it was still hard. Really hard.

It’s obviously not just about practice (although that definitely helps). There must be something fundamental about early motherhood that is difficult to adjust to.

From my work as a clinical psychologist, there are five aspects to new motherhood that keep recurring as adjustment issues amongst many, many new mothers.

  1. The physical effects of childbirth and having a newborn
  2. The change to your world and your identity
  3. Increased anxiety
  4. Expectations of having a baby and the mismatch between the ideal and the reality
  5. Starting from scratch and the demands we place on ourselves

Starting with the tangible first. Giving birth can be a wonderful experience, but for many it’s an endurance test that can last days. Consider this: if you underwent a two day operation (often without pain relief) and were prevented from sleeping properly afterwards, asked to leave your job and then given multiple chores when you got home it would be seen as a traumatic event (if not illegal). Yet when a baby is involved, it’s seen as straightforward.

Secondly, your world (pretty dramatically) changes. In the past, having a baby was one of the main goals in life for a woman, but modern life pre-children is so much more fulfilled than in previous decades. In general, you have control over your home life and careers. It can come as a shock when you realise that the baby doesn’t fit neatly into the life you’ve created. No matter how hard you try, how organised you are, the baby is now ‘in control’.

You also undergo an abrupt shift away from your normal routine, work and social life. This pulls you away from your established support system – something you desperately need in the first stressful months of a new baby (support systems are proven to reduce the psychological and physiological consequences of stress).

There’s still a ‘disneyesque’ ideal of babies and families, which doesn’t give a realistic picture of motherhood

You become more isolated and the things that used to make you feel good about yourself (work achievement, compliments, hobbies, feeling appreciated or that you’ve done a good job), are no longer there to prop up your self-esteem. What used to make you feel ‘you’ has been taken away.

It also changes the dynamic of your relationship, as you go from two to three and research shows that relationship quality declines in the first year after having a baby. You’re not only working out your new identity, but also how your relationship will function.

With the weight of new responsibility, it’s no wonder that anxiety can increase in the first six month. Is the baby breathing? Are they getting enough milk? Is this a normal weight gain? Recent research has also found that women are more likely to display obsessive-compulsive behaviours once they become a new mum. In evolutionary terms, there’s probably something protective about this, but when anxiety is high, things that didn’t used to bother or worry you seem much bigger. Made worse by the fact that you no longer have a regular escape to give you a chance to gain perspective.

Much of these aspects of motherhood are left unsaid. There’s still a ‘disneyesque’ ideal of babies and families, which doesn’t give a realistic picture of motherhood (though thankfully this is changing). This can mean that the above is completely unexpected. It can also make talking about these things hard, so you may not realise how normal your experiences are and that others are feeling the same way.

My advice would be, go easy on yourself. Having a baby might be natural, but it doesn’t mean it’s easy!

It’s not often in our lives that we have to learn something from scratch, with little to no experience and a director that can’t tell you want they want. Added to which, things that were previously easy and that you probably didn’t even pay attention to, let alone appreciate (like going to the loo, brushing your teeth, or having a shower) become difficult to accomplish.

The demands and expectations we place on ourselves (life won’t change, I’ll be a perfect mother, use eco nappies, breastfeed for six months) can be tough to live up to, leaving you feeling like you’re failing or letting your child down. Although you’re doing a good job, it can be hard to see it.

Yet a look back in history shows that women didn’t used to have these high expectations placed upon them. To be a good mother used to mean getting your child to a functioning adulthood without dying along the way. It is a useful reminder of how the norm has changed and to remember being a “good enough” parent is as a much better and more realistic aim.

My advice would be, go easy on yourself. Having a baby might be natural, but it doesn’t mean it’s easy! As we’ve seen, it’s a huge life-altering event and has physical, emotional and personal consequences. Throw in sleep deprivation (a particularly effective form of torture that deeply affects both body and mind) and it’s amazing that new mums do as well as they do. (Yay to us).

Changing the way you think about motherhood in a few simple ways can really take the pressure off and help you notice the good stuff. (Of which there is lots and lots.)

  • Give yourself time to recover after the birth
  • Find a support group
  • Aim to be a good enough (rather than perfect) parent
  • Get some sleep (try letting someone else give the baby a bottle of expressed or formula milk so you can get a longer stretch of sleep)
  • Be careful of the expectations you place upon yourself
  • Find ways to see the real side of parenting (there are some great Instagram accounts)
  • Remember who you are – try to incorporate the things that made you feel you into your life (even if it’s in a slightly new way to fit with the baby)

To any expectant mothers or those considering taking the plunge, rest assured that this article has focused on the hard bit. The gains of having a new baby are also huge: a new relationship; a new depth of loving, fulfilment and pride like you’ve never felt; personal growth and increased meaning to your life; the list goes on. I think it’s probably the best thing I’ve ever done. Which is why we do it again (and again).

Follow Dr Jessamy on Instagram: @dr.jessamy
And Twitter: @DrJessamy

Picture credit: cot – designspiration, mobile – ‘Trio’ Themis Mobile Designed by Clara von Zweigbergk for Artecnica – Douglas + Bec