Text and Image published in in collaboration with the Jewish Press
Angry cries pierce the silence of a still house in the dead of night. It’s time for that 3 a.m. feeding again. Or is it? Blearily wiping your eyes, you glance at the clock. Actually it’s 1:52, and the baby has been up three times already since midnight. Sighing, you fumble for a pacifier. It’s going to be a long night.
Becoming a new mother, even for the second, fourth, or tenth time, calls for sometimes unnatural reserves of strength. Your body has just been through the wringer for many long months culminating in a delivery that is, at best, deeply unpredictable, and at worst, highly traumatic. When it’s your first, there’s the frightening newness of it all. You are faced with the staggering responsibility that you’ve just undertaken. You and your spouse are now responsible for this tiny, wailing, squirming creature with no off button and no instruction manual. When you add in older children and/or a transition back to work, you continue to compound the moving parts. Rising to meet the challenge of new motherhood can feel overwhelming.
Tova entered my office looking haggard.
“I’m just not coping,” she explained. “But I don’t know why. My baby is already four months old, plus I have help. But I just can’t seem to get back to myself.”
After exploring a bit, we were able to recognize that Tova’s expectations were intimately connected to her despondency. She hadn’t been aware of how much would change, of how much longer everything would take with a baby in tow, and of how tired she’d continue to feel.
So how can Tova begin to reassert some control over her life, and regain her energy?
In the context of new motherhood, SELF  care is the gold-standard, comprised of several of our most basic needs:
S – Sleep
E – Exercise
L – Laughter
F – Food
SELF care is designed to help new mothers reconnect with themselves and may serve as one component of treatment for a postpartum mood disorder, or as a standalone for dealing with “normal” postpartum stress.
Postpartum mood disorders have a strong physiological, hormonal component to them. Even when engaged in all the right activities, a postpartum illness can still occur and may need to be treated with medication and/or psychotherapy. One in seven mothers will struggle with a postpartum mood/anxiety disorder, many of which begin during pregnancy. A competent therapist should be able to help you differentiate between “normal” feelings of stress and something more serious.
These SELF care activities are new mom essentials, not suggested indulgences, with sleep being priority number one. SELF care is not something that a mother engages in at the expense of her other priorities. SELF care is her way of prioritizing her baby, her family, and their needs. No one benefits when a mother has run out of steam.
When financially feasible, a baby nurse in those first few crucial weeks or following the return to work, can be a wonderful resource. If a baby nurse is not a viable option, consider pumping or giving formula and handing over the responsibility for one of the night feedings to your spouse. In addition to giving you a much needed break, it will enhance your spouse’s bond with the baby. If he can’t wake up at 3 am because of work, give him the midnight or six am feeding instead, ensuring that you get a solid 4-6 hours when possible. You may also need to prioritize sleep over home-cooked meals and sparkling dishes every now and then.
Try to fit exercise into your already established daily routine. Walk instead of taking the car to the grocery and have your items delivered. Wheel the baby to sleep by walking a few times around the block. Put on some upbeat music and dance in the living room together, connecting and reenergizing at the same time. Make use of your gym’s babysitting facilities and have some much needed time for yourself.
Remember, before you were a new mother, you were also a woman – a friend, wife, sister, and daughter. Those identities still matter very much. Make sure to continue to engage in activities you love. Bake. Paint. Read a novel. Socialize. Adult conversation is crucial. Get dressed up and get out whenever possible, sans baby, both with friends and with your spouse, babysitter permitting.
Being a new parent requires proper fuel. Exhaustion doesn’t lend itself well to careful food choices, so a little meal planning can go a long way. If assembling a salad for lunch isn’t going to happen, at least make sure that you have protein bars and fruit on hand. Stay well hydrated. Keep nuts in your diaper bag at all times. When people ask if they can send you dinners, accept, and be specific about your food preferences. You’ll feel better as you eat better.
Don’t be afraid to ask for the help you need. When your mother/sister/best friend comes to visit and asks what she can do, tell her. She can place an order at the grocery, prepare dinner, do the dishes, or move the laundry from the washer to the dryer. Your husband/older children can do those things too, by the way. They can also watch the baby while you nap. When you feel taken care of, you’ll have so much more to lavish on the people who count on you. You can rise to the challenge. It’s not selfish. It’s self-care. And now you know how.
Dr. Sarah J. Miller is a licensed clinical psychologist with a private practice in Brooklyn, NY. She specializes in the treatment of adolescent and adult life transitions (school, dating, marriage, pregnancy, illness, infertility, loss and their associated psychological issues) with a particular focus on the transition to motherhood. Dr. Miller can be reached at 347-541-8578 or firstname.lastname@example.org.