Breaking the silence

January 26, 2011 at 6:18 am

A conversation I had with a friend on Saturday followed by watching this TED Talks video (shared with me by said friend) has got me thinking a lot about what it’s like becoming a mother and adjusting to that new life after giving birth for the first time.

I’ve found it interesting, over the years, to notice a trend among the moms I know.  After having their first babies, these women smile and appear to be weathering things so well (I did it too), but a year or two later they open up and reveal how much they had been struggling with the adjustment to motherhood… the moments of resentment, despair, mourning for the loss of their old life, wondering whether they’ll ever feel themselves again, etc.

It makes me wonder why.  Why do we feel incapable of talking about our feelings honestly while we’re experiencing those difficulties?  Why does it take a year or more before we feel comfortable opening-up about what it was really like?

The TED Talks video delves a bit into this… the “taboos” we encounter as new parents.  How we’re not allowed to say that we didn’t fall in love with our babies instantly or that we aren’t always blissfully happy in our new lives, etc.  It reminds me of a striking experience I had a little over a year after my first baby was born.  We had flown back to Massachusetts to spend Christmas with my Dad, stepmom, and little brothers.  While we were there, I got together with a large group of my old high school friends.  I was the only one married (let alone with a child).  I can remember one of those friends asking me, “So how has it been being a mother?”  Without much hesitation, I replied, “Really, really hard.” My answer stunned every single person in the room to silence.  I’ll never forget all the blank, shocked stares.  Then I said, “But definitely worth it,” and they all sighed in relief and said, “Oh good!”

There really is a sort of unspoken pressure to hide any negative emotions or feelings we might be having toward or about our babies or motherhood.  It’s really too bad.  So many women struggle completely alone, with no idea that they’re NOT alone… that there are countless new mothers out there (maybe even next door) struggling with the very same emotions and difficulties they are experiencing.

Why do we struggle in silence?  Why don’t we speak up and commiserate together more? How can we change this?  How can we encourage new mothers to talk honestly and openly about what they’re feeling?

All of this also has me thinking, with deep gratitude, about my older sister.  I feel so fortunate that I had her for my big sister.  She never held back when it came to speaking openly about motherhood’s many trials and difficulties in all the years before I had children.  Thanks to her honesty, I knew exactly who to call when I was going on two days of almost total sleep-deprivation in the hospital after my oldest was born and felt completely and totally overwhelmed with the intense new responsibilities and challenges I was facing.  I just cried and cried to her on the phone, but it was such a comfort to know that she wasn’t judging me in the least for feeling what I was feeling.  I knew she completely understood.  She has helped me through so many of my darkest times.

So maybe my sister’s the example we should be following?  Will speaking about the hard, tough, less-than-wonderful parts of early motherhood set our friends up to experience more hardship?  I don’t think so.  Let me explain why.  My parents got divorced when I was a toddler, and I had five older siblings (several of whom got married before me, one of them also got divorced). So when I went into marriage, I went in expecting it to be REALLY, REALLY hard (based on my parents’ and siblings’ experiences). Then I spent the first few years of my marriage wondering, “Now when does the hard stuff start?” For me, marriage was a piece of cake. I think that’s partly because I married someone who is very easy to live with, but I also think it’s because I didn’t go into it blind or with a “fairy tale” expectation about what it was going to be like.

I think the same principle can apply to the process of going into motherhood. Yes, it’s wonderful and totally worth it, but it’s a huge (often difficult) adjustment.  For me, it most definitely was.  It took me weeks to really fall in love with my baby. “Love at first sight” doesn’t always happen. Getting breastfeeding figured out was extremely difficult, and I thought many times how much easier it would be to just feed her formula (so glad I stuck it out though, ’cause it was a breeze once the initial latching problems were behind us). The sleep deprivation… I don’t think I slept more than an hour or two in the first 3-4 days, and all I could think about for the next few years was how much I had taken sleep for granted before I had kids.

There were many moments in those first few weeks when I thought to myself… “How do people DO THIS?!” or “What were we THINKING?!” or “I want my old life back!” or “Will I ever be able to sit/sneeze/poop without excruciating pain down below?” and other such loveliness. It was one of (if not THE) most difficult adjustments I’ve ever been through.  But I’m certain it would have been even harder if I had gone into the experience expecting constant baby bliss.  And it would have been even harder still if I hadn’t had my sister’s non-judgmental support and encouragement.

We need to speak honestly and openly with our childless friends about the realities of motherhood.  We can’t send them into the “fray” blindly, with fairy tales, or rose-colored glasses.  Even though nothing anyone can say will prepare them for the actual experiences they will face, we still have to try.  So that when they do find themselves totally distraught or in a moment of darkness, they will know they can call on us, and they will know that we won’t judge them for a moment for feeling what they feel.  They’ll know that they’re not alone.

I’m going to try to do better.  Will you join me?