When I was pregnant with my first child, I knew that many new moms arranged for people to come and help them after the baby was born, but I couldn't really imagine why, or what kind of help it was that I'd really need. After all, from what I knew of newborns (which, granted, wasn't a whole lot), it seemed to me that they slept all the time. And since I'd be nursing, there would be no one else who could really help with feeding. As I imagined it, anyone besides my husband and me around the house would just be someone else to entertain and worry about -- more intrusive than helpful. Couldn't my husband and I just do this by ourselves?
Luckily for me, two good friends with baby experience answered -- actually, insisted -- that no, we could not. And so, I relented -- assuring myself that even though I didn't really need them, it would still be fun -- and they flew out, timing it so one would arrive immediately after the other left. For one week they cooked, cleaned, reassured, listened, and made sure I rested as much as possible. As the second friend departed, I cried at the door. How would my husband and I ever do this by ourselves?
Like many women, my transformation from a confident, I-can-do-it-myself pregnant woman to a scared, overwhelmed new mom happened in about the same amount of time it took to deliver my baby. Despite all my reading and preparation, the physical and emotional demands of new motherhood took me by surprise -- an extremely common experience. "Women have stars-in-their-eyes expectations about what they are going to be capable of after the baby," says St. Louis psychologist Diane Sanford, Ph.D., who specializes in women's health. "I think we focus so much on pregnancy and delivery that we minimize the postpartum adjustment period. I've had women who think they'll finish their scrapbooks and reorganize their closets after the baby's born." Then, when these women end up having to count taking a daily shower as a postpartum accomplishment, they are naturally disappointed with themselves.
A better approach, says Sanford, is to recognize that the first several months after birth -- in particular, the first few weeks -- are going to be challenging physically and emotionally, and to prepare for this reality, rather than some romanticized ideal. "People are scared to talk about how hard this time can be because they think if you give women negative ideas, then it is going to be worse," says Sanford, "but, actually, if you help women prepare, it can be so much better. It takes so much pressure off."