When my first daughter was born — nearly 15 years ago — I remember a level of anxiety that I carried with me wherever I was and whatever I was doing.
Was I doing things right? Would my decisions as a parent serve her well? Would she grow up to be a well-adjusted person, at ease and self-confident?
Being in the mental health field, these things were of primary importance to me. I would often ask myselff: Was I stimulating her enough? Was I providing her with an optimal amount of external stimuli? Was I stimulating her too much, interfering with her ability to soothe herself?
The answers from developmental and parenting experts were contradictory and confusing. They ranged from advice, such as never to put your baby in a crib (the equivalent of being “put behind bars”), to the need to teach your baby to self-soothe by several months of age. (Otherwise she will have difficulty developing a sense of independence and self-reliance.)
I was, as many new mothers are, vulnerable to the “shoulds” and “shouldn’ts” that were expressed all around me, both from experts and from other new mothers.
Our culture is one which places a lot of pressure on new mothers to parent their infants in a way that both provides a more advanced and fine-tuned form of stimulation than we were parented with (from Baby Einstein to readings of Ulysses in utero) while at the same time criticizing them for raising children who are “too needy” and “self-absorbed.”
What I wish I had known at this vulnerable time — and which sadly seems all too obvious in retrospect — is that more important than whether I was providing this kind of stimulation or that, or whether I purchased the car seat with the absolute highest safety rating or not, was my ability to be present with my children, and that giving them my presence was more important than any other decision I might make as a parent.
What does it mean to give one’s presence? In short, it means to find moments, and more moments, to leave one’s thinking/analyzing/judging brain behind and to just be with one’s baby, staring into their eyes, smelling their scent, trusting one’s intuition, and being available to respond in a spontaneous and loving manner to the cues they inevitably provide us with.
In my work as a psychologist with pregnant and postpartum women, what I have seen repeatedly is women’s lack of ability to trust themselves and their babies to know what is right for this mother-baby dyad, and this particular family. Just like the birthing process itself, which has become so heavily “medicalized,” early motherhood and parenthood have become the domain of scholarly experts rather then living mothers.
So how is a new mother to protect herself from the commercialization and anxiety of motherhood?
First and foremost, limiting external input from books, magazines, websites, and professionals may be important. Rather than looking outside for generic advice and direction, it may well be better to turn inward — allowing yourself to listen to what feels right in this moment for you and your baby. Make time to sit with your feelings. Pay attention to sensation. Make room to name the feeling and to observe how it may change with moments of meditative awareness.
And ask yourself the question: “What do I most need in this moment, and what does my baby most need?”
Trust that babies are powerful, resilient beings who need moms to give them the room to learn to communicate their needs, who model self-care, and who allow moments of spaciousness to color their days rather than lists of “shoulds.”
Mindfulness-based Advice for New Mothers
Below is a list of suggestions you may find helpful. What is right for you, however, is different than what will be right for any other new mother. Breathe deeply, pay attention to sensation, and…
- Do your best to get sleep.
- Try to have at least some time for yourself every day.
- Do your best to make time for connecting with your partner each day.
- Combat isolation.
- Ask for and accept help.
- Don’t compare your baby or your situation to someone else’s.
- It is not a helpful strategy to blame yourself for your experience.
- Be kind to yourself.
- Allow yourself some luxuries.
- If you experience yourself as overwhelmed by advice sit still and turn inward.
- Identify and make use of constructive stress relievers.
- Seek professional help if you are feeling low or anxious. You can go in for a “well check” if nothing else.
- Prioritize what’s really important. Try to let go of standards of perfection.