A love letter to expectant mothers
or, if I knew then, what I know now
Oh, dear woman, on the cusp of the earthquake that upends your life:
Yes, perhaps, motherhood is something you’ve dreamed of, but I know you feel trepidation as well. Who will you be, as a mother? What will it feel like, to have this being that is safely ensconced within you, out in the world? You will no longer be able to go about your day as usual, your child an appendage that silently takes what it needs in the nurturing waters of your belly. Instead, it will be outside of you and demanding, and instead of your body intuiting what is needed, you will be left to interpret its cries.
Motherhood is a most daunting task. No one can fully be prepared for it. There could be one million books on the nuances of motherhood, and even if you somehow had the time to read them all, you would not be fully equipped.
But here is what I wish I knew. Here are some strategies to help you honor this transition, this transformation, this upheaval, and come out the other side with your sense of self intact.
Prepare for the experience of childbirth to be one of the most physically, psychically, and emotionally draining experiences of your life.
I too had visions of an unassisted, “natural” childbirth. But the truth is, you do not have control over how your baby will make its way out of your body. You will not be able to override how your body handles the extreme stress and pain of the contractions. I was all “no epidural” until my contractions were so strong that I vomited all over the bed after learning I was only two centimeters dilated despite having been in labor for nine hours. At that point, I had to admit defeat and submit to assistance. But it was not defeat! I was just recognizing my limitations, which were 100% okay and very human! Did I feel like a failure for a short while? Yes. But once I could recline comfortably on the hospital bed as my husband watched the crest and fall of the contractions and I felt nothing, I recognized that this was how it was meant to be. At least for me.
Childbirth is a massive lesson in surrender. You can resist and try and force things to go your way, or you can just watch it unfold. Either way, it isn’t easy. Surrender just means you stop insisting on your way. You stop feeling like a failure if it doesn’t go according to plan. You resist berating yourself for not being superhuman. Mothers are venerated for a very short while (don’t worry, then they are forgotten) because they do this seemingly impossible task (pushing an eight pound baby out a hole that is 10 centimeters in circumference). But just because we get through it doesn’t mean it was easy.
No matter how your baby exits your body, your body will need to recover. The first few weeks postpartum are a thing. A thing no one really prepares you for.
If you have a C-section, you’ve just undergone surgery. No matter how you gave birth, you may experience postpartum shaking as a reaction to the extreme loss of fluids and hormone shifts. If you had a vaginal birth, your nether regions will be destroyed, bloody, swollen, tender. For weeks, you will place frozen sanitary napkins into your underwear to help with the pain (Jessi Klein humorously calls these “underwear sandwiches” in her new book). You will also be bleeding at the same time. For weeks it will be like an unending period.
You will not be able to use toilet paper but will have to flush that area every time you go to the bathroom with a plastic squeeze bottle of water (they send you home with one from the hospital). If you didn’t struggle with hemorrhoids during pregnancy (lucky girl!), you will now. (Considering ordering post-partum care supplies from Mom Box, a genius solution and severely lacking in any sort of drugstore).
I don’t share all of this to scare you but to implore you to consider yourself a patient. Unfortunately, all focus tends to shift to the infant during this time, but recognize that you need care. Your body needs to recover. Do not cook or clean or do anything other than sleep, rest, and nurse the baby if that is what you choose (more on this choice below). I strongly recommend considering doing something like the Chinese practice of zuo yue zi, or “sitting the month.” If possible, see if your mother can come and stay for a while. In a fascinating op ed called “Whale Mothers Need Their Moms. So Do I,” author Abigail Tucker reports how “the presence of a maternal grandma between the ages of 50 and 75 made a given grandchild 30% more likely to survive early childhood than a kid whose maternal grandmother was deceased.” In fact, “the presence of maternal grandmothers can increase child survival rates more even than the presence of biological dads.” While you can interpret this however you want, I see this as the fact that after birth, and in your transition to motherhood, you need to be mothered as well. You are as weak and as tenuous in inhabiting your life as you likely ever will be. Assemble a team to help you during this transition. Do not feel sheepish asking for help. To survive motherhood with yourself intact, you are going to have to learn to ask for help. You are going to have to admit weakness. You are going to have to do away with the concept that you will never reach the end of your rope and recognize when you have reached it.
If you have a partner, ask them to take family leave.
I almost wrote demand they take leave. And I kind of want you to demand it. You need support during this time, though our society would make you think otherwise. You’ll definitely need more than two weeks to recover. If your partner only takes a few days off from work during this transition, you will feel pressured to do more than you are likely ready for. If your partner is a man and receives paternity leave from his company, encourage him to take all that is offered. He may protest that no one does that, and focus on projects that he cannot abandon. Put on your feminist panties and suggest that he be a leader, an example, of the importance of men taking on the care of offspring in the same way women do. If necessary, share these facts: couples in which the man takes paternity leave are 26% more likely to stay married and that taking leave will increase his bond with his child years later.
This recent article reports that “while almost half of men support the idea of paid paternity leave, fewer than 5% take more than two weeks. In 2004, California began a paid family leave program that provides a portion of a new parent’s salary for up to eight weeks…it increased the leave women took by almost five weeks and the leave that men took by two to three days.”
What happens when a non-birth partner takes family leave is not just that you are able to recover because you have someone on hand to help out, but your partner becomes skilled at taking care of the infant and you can resist becoming the default parent. The default parent often ends up being the mother because she stays at home with the infant during those early days and thus becomes attuned to the schedule, needs, and signals of the child. This carries over into their toddler years and later in childhood even if she returns to work. Being the default parent means carrying a mental load which leads to resentment, burnout, and more.
Demand more care than is offered to you.
Typically a mother is mandated one checkup at six-weeks postpartum. Mostly this is to ensure your stitches are healing okay. This appointment has often corresponded with two things: getting the green light to exercise and getting sign off to have sex.
First of all, let me just say that sex should be off the table until you are ready and my guess is this is going to be nowhere near the six-week checkup time. Not just because your bits are likely still tender or your scar still hurts but also because you haven’t had more than two hours of uninterrupted sleep for six weeks. And your body, even if you aren’t breastfeeding, is still attached to someone else 24 hours a day thus to have another body needing something from you sounds repulsive. You are still in the haze of new motherhood, coming to terms with this new all-encompassing identity. Give yourself permission to take sex off the table. Your psyche and body will tell you when you are ready (more on that later).
Ask your doctor during this check up to assess the strength of your pelvic floor and if it isn’t looking so hot, to refer you to a pelvic physical therapist to help you regain strength. This will help with bladder control for years.
Ask your doctor to check for diastasis recti. If there are signs, have them refer you to a PT. Your body will not just naturally go back to the way it was pre-pregnancy. This is a myth. Just like any injury, it needs to heal and then regain back strength.
Find a friend who you trust to be on the lookout for signs of postpartum depression or anxiety. Unfortunately, the self-assessment screenings given to you during your six-week check up and your infants' well-child checks are not fool-proof (see my excoriation of this practice here). You may be completely detached from your emotions, wants and needs and therefore will not be able to assess yourself appropriately. Having a friend whose sole job during the first six months of your motherhood journey is to evaluate your mood and mental well-being can be a lifeline.
Consider hiring a postpartum doula. They will come and check on you at home to assess moods and how you are healing, provide massage, help with breastfeeding, and be your caretaker in a professional manner. Consider scheduling a Ceremony of the Bones ritual that helps with your physical transition post childbirth (closing the pelvis and the hips that have expanded to accommodate childbirth) as well as your spiritual transition: it “helps a woman to find her own self and center again and allows her to be sealed back into herself.”
Hire a night nurse if you can afford it. I wish I could say that I did this but I’m from the Midwest and we are a practical and prudent bunch. I didn’t think I should need it. I hated the idea of a stranger in my house. I couldn’t fathom the cost of that many hours of childcare every night for how long? Plus, it felt like a privileged ass thing to do. And it is! But guess what? If you have the privilege, use it for your sanity and sleep! Night nurses not only allow you get more sleep but they also help you get your baby to sleep because they are professionals, well-trained into how to accomplish this and not total newbies who have no idea how to get a baby to do anything, let alone sleep.
Breast is not always best.
Listen, I’m not going to deny there are benefits to breastfeeding. We’ve all read the research. Plus at times the experience can be idyllic. Some of my coziest memories with my first child were of her nursing at my breast, a mammalian connection that feels primal in its comfort. But there are also costs. And they are high. These are often barely acknowledged as nurses in the hospital, doctors and pediatricians will assume that you will want to breastfeed, without taking into account what this will require of you, the mother.
One is the extreme demand on your physical body. If you choose to breastfeed, your body will be a milking machine every 90 minutes. That means for the first couple of months of your infant's life, you are primarily sitting on the couch feeding them. If you want to leave for any amount of time, you must ensure there is enough milk to cover the time you plan to be gone. You also have to bring the breast pump to expel milk during the times you would be normally feeding your child otherwise, because breastmilk is supply and demand, you risk having your milk “dry up,” a phenomenon where no matter how much your baby sucks at your breast, you struggle to make enough food. This means freedom is truly elusive while you are solely breastfeeding.
Another cost is the sheer amount of time all this feeding takes. Especially when the infant is young, feeding sessions can take anywhere from 30 minutes to one hour. But the rule that you must feed every 90 minutes? That is from the start of one feeding to the start of the next. So if your feeding session took 60 minutes, you only have 30 minutes until the next one.
Another cost: If you breastfeed, you will likely become the default parent because you are the only one who can feed it. This keeps you tethered to your infant and your house for months. It also sets up a dynamic where you are the keeper of the schedule, the recorder of their likes and dislikes, you are the one who can soothe, feed, and comfort the baby, thus you take on the responsibility of night wakings.
If you breastfeed, you must have your boobs instantly accessible at all hours of the day. This means most of those clothes you were looking forward to wearing again won’t actually work unless they unbutton in the front. When you return to work, if you are pumping, you need to wear something that isn’t impossible to remove so that you can access your boobs during your 2-3 daily pumping sessions. The one time I wore a dress than unzipped in the back, I then had to just sit there with my entire torso exposed as I pumped. Even though I had an office with a door that locked, it was way too close to being naked in my office and it did nothing to help me relax which is necessary to get your milk to “let down,” a very difficult process when not anywhere near your baby. Now, again, your wardrobe should not necessarily be a reason not to breastfeed, but it is a consideration that I don’t feel like enough people acknowledge.
Finally, in addition to all the other things you need to buy in order to do this thing that is supposedly “free,” (nursing bras, nursing shirts, nipple cream, a breastfeeding pillow, a breast pump, bottles) you need breast pads, which you insert into your bra in case your milk lets down at an inopportune time. Anytime I watch a television show where a new mother leaks all over their shirt, I find it unrealistic because many women would have breast pads in place to avoid that embarrassment. (Also, you know when your milk lets down. There is a tingle that is so specific to this experience that nothing would distract you from it).
I’m not even going to go into all the things that can go wrong while breastfeeding (mastitis, plugged duct, a child who has sensitivities to certain foods). These are the costs of breastfeeding when things go well. I know these costs are finally being discussed in the face of the baby formula shortage and women try to counter the ludicrous phrase that “breastfeeding is free.” (Also, please note that once you stop breastfeeding, your milk dries up for good until your next pregnancy. Milk is not some tap that you can turn on and off throughout your child’s life. Maybe some men don’t know this?). Formula, even during normal times, is extremely expensive. But so is your time. Your time is not free. Every hour that you are feeding your baby is an hour you are not doing something else. Working, writing, sleeping, connecting. Yes, it is only for a short amount of time. But know that breastfeeding is not required. It is not the measure of your motherhood.
Figure out your plan to return to work.
Listen, I hope you get paid leave. You probably don’t. So you very well may be returning to work earlier than you would like. I am so sorry. Our country fails mothers every hour of every day.
If you do receive leave, great! Take it so that you can bond with your baby and repair your body and soul. But then, make plans to return to work. If you always thought you would stay home with your baby and now that it is here, you know that is right for you, wonderful. But if you want to return to work, if you do not want to have to give up that part of your identity, stay firm in your desire to keep working, no matter that it will feel next to impossible to find affordable childcare. Even if you will be spending more in childcare than you will be making in salary, consider that this is just for a season. What many women forget to factor in is lost opportunities for wage growth and retirement savings accumulated over these years.
Also, before you give up your career to stay home, remember that not every woman was made to be a stay-at-home mom. It is a skillset just like anything else.
“Caregiving was humiliating and transcendent and unending, and I was unnerved by how quickly it could decimate me.”—Jia Tolentio
When you feel pressured to stay home with your infant, check to ensure it isn’t internal patriarchy that is leading the charge (I share my story of giving in to this patriarchy here). We get so much messaging about what a “good” mother would do, and phrases like “mom guilt,” that make us question our decisions. You deserve to return to work just as much as your partner. Will it be hard to leave your baby? Yes. But staying home is a different kind of hard. Choose the right hard for you.
You are allowed to want to be more than mother.
Before this being existed, you were a person that contained multitudes. Maybe you were a sister, friend, lover, employee, teacher, writer, artist, lawyer, neighbor. Unfortunately, upon your transition to motherhood, people want to see you as just that. Mom. They often assume that this will be your primary identity, the one that supersedes all others. This doesn’t have to be the case. To remember who you were before, you must work hard to give yourself the space and time to access her. Actively create room in your life for pursuits that you love and that light you up with meaning and joy (Eve Rodsky calls this Unicorn Space and wrote an entire book about it). If you allow those parts of your self to go dormant, you will lose touch with the juice of what makes you you.
You deserve to have a life of your own, an identity outside of mothering, even though it will inconvenience others. If you sacrifice yourself, you will lose yourself, and then the marriage that built this very family will start to fall apart, because you, an essential component, have gone missing.
Make focusing on your relationship with your partner (if you have one) a priority.
Ugh, right? Like, do I really need to say this? Of course, of course, regular dates nights, keep the romance alive, blah, blah, blah. Listen, motherhood is hard on a marriage. Everything gets upended in your lives, you are both exhausted, things start to get unbalanced as many heterosexual couples tend to revert into stereotypical gendered roles after the arrival of children. But this relationship is what got you into this whole motherhood thing in the first place. Try, at some point, to reconnect with the self you were before this baby, and reawaken the connection between you and your partner.
“Both parents have to reconstruct their sense of self after having a baby, and between my new body, my leaky boobs, and the lack of bedroom action, I am left feeling grooveless. Frustrated. I can’t remember who I was before I was this person sitting awake in the middle of the night wearing a dirty breast-pumping bra, looking at Twitter while a machine sucks milk out of my nipples.” —I’ll Show Myself Out, Jessi Klein
It is all too easy to become divorced from our sexual selves in the fire hydrant of the infant’s needs, and because nothing about being a mother at home with a child feels sexy. The locus of sexual pleasure is of course also very close to the birth canal and if your childbirth experience wasn’t easy, it can be hard to want to even think about an area of your body that was the source of so much trauma even though it once was a source of pleasure. (Side note: It seems the ultimate betrayal of women to have these two areas forever linked). But if you can allow yourself access to your other selves after the transition to motherhood (your work self, your friend self, your intellectual self), you can eventually regain access to your lover self. There are lots of reasons why this takes some time (an interesting interview about why this is). Also, when mothers feel unsupported and abandoned, by society and by their spouse, it can be hard to access feelings of desire or pleasure. But you deserve to feel good, even in these difficult days. Seek out ways to have fun, to experience sensory pleasure whether it is a massage, a hike, or a yoga class. Get back into your body, even when it doesn’t feel 100% yours. Little by little, you will feel like yourself again.
Finally, motherhood is a crazy ride, full of contradictory emotions; the feeling of wanting to pull your baby close while at the same time desperately wanting to get away; a desire for your old life combined with the horror of never meeting this person you made. This doesn’t mean anything is wrong with you; it means you are human, doing a job that is not supported in the ways it used to be.
One final recommendation: Listen to Dr. Becky and Myleik Teele on What No One Tells You About Parenthood
Elizabeth Marro, who writes the Spark Substack, was kind enough to include me in her Mother’s Day post. One of the things I love most about her newsletter is her closing Moment of Zen on each post, something we all need more of these days. I also really enjoyed this post about sometimes wanting to quit (and what keeps her, and all writers, going).
I wrote a review of The School for Good Mothers by Jessamine Chan in the new issue of Literary Mama.
“While at times painful to read, the conversation it engenders is also necessary. Within the heartbreaking situation that frames the novel, readers will find questions all too relevant to conversations about motherhood today. What makes a good mother? Why is motherhood so hard? How exactly can we succeed at an impossible task?”
“Mom Brain Isn’t a Joke,” Julie Bogen, The Atlantic.