I am drowning-in laundry, dirty dishes, sleeplessness, and similarly–in negative self-talk that tells me I should be “further along” than this at 2 months postpartum. I assumed it would be easy to bounce back from a cataclysmic life change like having a baby, but here I am, gasping for breath while my baby cries for me. I wonder where the light has gone.
Where and when will I find relief?
I wanted this new motherhood experience to be all smiles and cheer. It isn’t. My daughter isn’t nursing properly, and every nursing session has me in so much pain, I cry through every feeding.
With dishes piled and laundry looming, I wonder how I will dig myself out. Keeping a tidy house mattered to me before there was a baby–before someone else mattered to me far more than organization and tidiness.
As I processed my new life as a mom, someone said something profound to me. It seems trite now, but at the time it wasn’t.
“You have to put the oxygen mask on yourself first.”
The thought of this made my mind swim. It was true. I had heard it a hundred times on a hundred flights. Before assisting others, put the oxygen mask on yourself first. Pre-baby, it made perfect sense. When I was on the brink of full-blown postpartum depression, the oxygen-mask-first idea seemed to do nothing but choke me and make no sense at all.
How do I put on the oxygen mask so I can breathe?
One afternoon in December, after two months of lactation consultants and supplements and tongue ties and pediatric dentists and blisters and fenugreek and and and…I reached for my own mask. I left my two month old baby with her daddy for one hour (in reality, it may have been only 30 minutes) and went to Trader Joe’s by myself. I left my little, perfect, most beautiful responsibility in order to do some grocery shopping alone. A breath.
I don’t remember much about the shopping trip, only that I did it. A few weeks after that, I left her with my in-laws to go to dinner on New Years Eve with my husband. Another breath. Then my husband bought a bike trailer and would take her for bike rides so I could stay home and nap or be quiet or pay bills. A breath drawn deep. A few months later, we hired a babysitter and went out on our first date night since our daughter arrived. Yet another breath entered my lungs.
Oxygen is essential to living. Did you know that, dear mama? You must breathe. It looks different for each mama, each family, but the truth remains: We cannot pour life-giving investment into our beloved children without first filling the well from which we draw that life.
Here are a few breaths to consider taking if you are feeling suffocated or short of breath.
1. Say yes. There are many people who came around me during those first weeks of motherhood. Many had one single refrain on their lips: “If there’s anything you need, just let me know!” I thought I could do it. I thought I didn’t need others to help me live a normal life. I was categorically wrong. When someone you trust offers to help you, say yes. Ask them to empty your dishwasher. See if they can do a grocery run so you can focus on nursing your baby. Take up all offers of play dates for your older child(ren). Say yes to anything that helps you breathe.
2. Say No. After you have a baby, you are automatically deemed “gate-keeper” for that new bundle and yourself. Being the gate-keeper means that you shield, protect, and guard your mental load and physical output fiercely. “Saying no” may mean saying no to fun things temporarily. It may mean grieving things you “used to do” before you had your baby. It may also mean removing things from your life that no longer fit your priorities. You can say no. Saying no can mean freedom! Be empowered.
3. Take self-care baby steps. Just watching a show without holding the baby? What’s that going to do? Making dinner while hubby takes the baby for a walk? Sure, that’ll solve *all* my problems. Getting a shower without a screaming 3 month old in the Moses basket? Whatever, I’ll just listen to the crying. No. Refuse that cynical, jaded, sleep-deprived voice. Little periods of resting from the constant responsibility of a newborn (or even an older baby or toddler) add up. Figure out who you trust and how you trust someone else to care for your child and use their skills and willingness to rest your mind from the constant baby-responsibility- even if it is only for 10 minutes.
4. Revisit the activities you loved before your baby arrived. When you become a mother, it does not mean you are no longer yourself. If you wrote before baby, write after the baby. If you enjoyed a girls’ night out before baby, do it after the baby too. If you loved taking dates with your husband before you had a baby to care for, figure out how to relentlessly pursue your husband after you have your baby, even if it means a bucket car seat and a sleeping baby on the restaurant table. You do your children a disservice to abandon the woman you were before you became a mother. She is multi-faceted and brave, and each child can behold his mother as such–still multi-faceted and brave–even when she’s hidden at home with a top knot, wearing yoga pants and a spit-up stained sweatshirt.
5. Find your rhythm of rest. A big piece of advice I heard over and over as I brought home my first baby was “sleep when the baby sleeps.” This didn’t always work for me (I wasn’t always ready for a morning nap at 8:30am like my baby was). At times, I resented that I couldn’t necessarily take a nap on a dime. I figured out a rhythm of rest early on. For me, it meant waiting to lay down until the afternoon nap around 1-2pm. That’s when my body was ready to rest naturally. I still look forward to afternoon rest (not always sleep, but definitely sitting down or laying down) even 10+ years and 4 subsequent pregnancies after first becoming a mama. It looks different for each mama, each family, but finding a rhythm of rest can fill the lungs with a welcome deep breath each day at the perfect time.
Place your oxygen mask over your mouth and nose and breathe, dear mama. In, then out. You are worth each life-giving breath.