A big problem with motherhood in today's society is the vast expanse between expectations and reality. Preparing to become a mother is an information-saturated marathon of choices and planning: Will we deliver naturally? Will we breastfeed? Will the baby sleep in a family bed or a crib? Will we carry him in a sling or use a stroller? Will we make our own baby food? The list goes on. We operate under the illusion that we can control a challenging and unfamiliar experience by planning for it.
Contrast those nine months of expectation and preparation with the world of a new mother: two to four days in a hospital (if all goes well), with maybe one quick lesson on breastfeeding before you're back at home. If you're lucky, you have time off work. If you're very lucky, you are being paid during it. Chances are your partner has to be back at the office and you are on the sofa by yourself with a cranky, demanding stranger.
When you combine that kind of cold, hard landing with expectations of joy and perfection, it's a recipe for feeling like a failure. There are so many challenges in those early months of motherhood that it's impossible not to stumble as you learn what works -- and what doesn't -- for you and your child.
Suzanne Barston, a writer for Seleni and the author of Bottled Up: How the Way We Feed Babies Has Come to Define Motherhood and Why It Shouldn't, has written eloquently about how hard it was for her when she was unable to breastfeed, the holy grail of new motherhood.
HuffPost Parents ran her kind-hearted manifesto about how to support formula-feeding and breastfeeding moms by just listening as they learn the ropes of this difficult job.
Her necessary call to action is evidence that there are not many allowances or provisions for new mothers. Without acknowledging the steep learning curve, and without putting in place good support systems, the message is that early motherhood is just another everyday task and that caring for a new baby is a natural skill that will come easily. That may be the case for some. But for many -- especially those whose babies are hard to soothe or colicky -- reality is very different from expectations.
And that divide is a jumping off point to such dark places as postpartum depression, which up to 20 percent of mothers experience. So, how can we support each other? Start by following Suzanne Barston's advice: Listen to what a new mom is going through and try to help out with what she needs. This can be anything from cleaning the bathroom or watching the baby for an hour to researching available mental health resources if necessary.
Once upon a time, most women had extended families living nearby to fill these roles, and it was accepted that new mothers would have a period of time -- a lying in -- to recover from pregnancy and childbirth. Now, we are expected to return to normal life and just fit our new family member into it.
For new mothers, the challenge is to speak up about your struggles and surround yourself with support. Before you leave the hospital, find out if they host groups for new moms. Ask a friend to stop into local kids' shops to see if they facilitate gatherings. Find out if the local library offers story time for babies. And then pull your unwashed hair into a ponytail and go to one. Reach out to another mom there because I guarantee at least one other woman in that room shares similar struggles.
Ask your friends and family to help in very specific ways. You will be surprised at how many people want to help, but don't know what to do. So don't be shy and give them a little direction. Ask them to pick up a few groceries or do a load of laundry, for example.
Every new mother imagines every other mother has it together and believes that her perceived failures are hers alone. That's flat out wrong. We are all working hard, and we are all making mistakes -- that's called learning. Most of us are struggling in little or big ways and deserve to be supported. With time and help, you can bring your expectations and your reality much closer together.
This article originally ran on the Seleni Institute website. Seleni is a nonprofit organization providing clinical care, research funding, and information to transform mental health care and wellness for women.