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The 6 Secrets of Happy Moms

Throughout my first pregnancy, I focused on the imaginary baby floating inside me. I drank lots of milk (for the bone-building calcium) and ate lots of fish from unpolluted waters (brain food). I interviewed pediatricians and checked out childcare. I agonized for weeks over the perfect wallpaper for the nursery. I made lists of likely names.

Finally, Henry arrived. And in those first tumultuous weeks after giving birth, I realized that the one aspect of motherhood I hadn't planned ahead for was  -- me! I faced so many changes, from the state of my body to my favorite topics of conversation (which had come to be babies, breastfeeding, and babies). The transition to motherhood was both thrilling and terrifying.

Since then, I've had three more children and commiserated with scores of fellow new mothers. Hindsight has shown us what nobody else has beforehand: A few saving graces can make your role change happen much more smoothly (that is, aside from having a dream baby who never cries or who sleeps through the night from birth  -- no one gets those). Everybody deserves to know these secrets to new-mom happiness:

The Ability to Say "Please" and "Thank You"

We're not talking manners here. Rather, new moms need to feel comfortable asking for assistance  -- and graciously accepting it when offered. When I was pregnant, I was baffled by the sheer amount of help volunteered as my due date neared. My mother, who lives in another state, made plans to stay for three weeks. A friend insisted I take the number of her lactation consultant. Others said they'd bring meals or check up on me. It seemed like too much ado about nothing. Of course, it didn't take many days of round-the-clock feedings to realize that this was no time to go it alone.

Think of pregnancy as being four trimesters long, not three, says Cecelia Cancellaro, author of Pregnancy Stories: Real Women Share the Joys, Fears, Thrills, and Anxieties of Pregnancy From Conception to Birth. You need to extend, not end, the preparing and pampering modes of the previous nine months. Asking for help is a sign of neither weakness nor inept mothering  -- it's vital that you conserve your energy for your physical recovery and your baby's constant tending. Turn to your partner: Most brand-new dads are relieved to be made useful. Even if you're nursing, he can bring the baby to you, or he can handle some bottle-feedings. If you can afford professional services, such as housecleaning and grocery-delivery service, even for a few months, use them. You might want to consider hiring a professional doula, who is trained in postpartum assistance. Lean on friends and relatives to fill in the gaps. New moms who have practical support also lower their risk of severe postpartum depression, research shows.

Contributing editor Paula Spencer is the author of the Parenting Guide to Positive Discipline.

A Chance to Share Your Birth Story

Long after the labor pains subsided, images of each of my deliveries would continue to flash in my mind. If someone chanced to ask how my labor went, the whole epic burbled forth  -- from the first contraction to the moment that my slithery, startled newborn was placed in my arms. It helps women tremendously to share their birth experience. "Whether they're satisfied or disappointed with it, they eventually grow to a point of acknowledgment about it: 'This is the woman I am, the baby I have, the birth I had,'" says Leona VandeVusse, Ph.D., director of the nurse-midwifery program at Marquette University College of Nursing, in Milwaukee. "One way they come to that place is by being able to tell their birth stories."

Unfortunately, in our culture we don't want to hear about the labor pains  -- we just want to see the baby. "We don't honor what the mother has just gone through," says VandeVusse. "There's no real forum for her to tell about it, no storytelling tradition, as in other cultures."

Talking about giving birth is especially useful if your experience wasn't what you'd hoped for or expected  -- for instance, you wound up needing an epidural despite weeks of natural-childbirth classes or you had to have an emergency c-section. Besides recounting your experience for friends and family, relive it with your ob or midwife at your postnatal checkup. As an expert (and a participant in your labor and delivery), your caregiver can help clarify why things happened the way they did and also remind you that for all your disappointment, the birth truly was a success: You got through it and gave life.

An Honest Friend With a Baby

The ideal pal for a new mom is another new mom with a baby who's just a few months older than your own. She'll be happy to listen to you rehash your birth tales, and her appetite for discussing the minutiae of infant care will be as insatiable as yours as well. And because she's a bit further down the road, she can lend useful perspective and tested advice.

Kim Schmidt of Omaha is glad she wasted no time connecting with other mothers after the birth of her daughter, Heather. During her maternity leave, she lined up visits with friends who had kids and joined a Mothers of Preschoolers group. "I can talk to my baby, but I can't have a meaningful conversation with her," she says. "And I have so many questions  -- about nursing, the baby, or things happening to my body. I keep wondering, 'Is this normal? Is that?'"

But not just any maternity-ward grad will do. New mothers need straight talk about postpartum life. "The last thing you want is someone telling you how blissed out she is about changing diapers," says psychologist Harriet Lerner, Ph.D., author of The Mother Dance: How Children Change Your Life. "Trust your gut reactions about what's helpful and what's not." Ditch moms who are competitive or who avoid delving beneath the jolly surface of parenthood.

Another useful resource is a pediatrician you can trust and communicate with. Seek out a doctor who doesn't rush you through your baby's checkups, is supportive, respects your intuition, and believes in the golden rule of new motherhood: There's no such thing as a stupid question.

A Place to Vent

Forget about the contents of the nightly news or even office intrigue. After I gave birth, my universe was reduced to the dimensions of a diaper. My primary interests: my baby, my body, and the roller-coaster emotions I was feeling thanks to both. Luckily for me  -- not to mention the people around me  -- I kept a journal. Getting all those intense new feelings down on paper became an effective method of letting off steam.

New moms need outlets, ways they can mentally stretch and shake off what would otherwise miserably cramp. Maybe it's a close friend you can waltz past the preliminaries with and pour your heart out to. Or a nightly bath by candlelight. Or a weekly dinner date with your spouse. Head-clearing walks and postnatal yoga classes are great because exercise also fires up mood-elevating endorphins.

Peggy Breuer's personal sanity savers were the three or four websites she'd surf, checking out new-mom chat groups. "Emotionally, I'd be going stir-crazy sometimes and just need an escape," says the Cincinnati mom of Kelly, 3, and Erin, 4 months. "Of course, my husband got the brunt of it. But I'd go online late at night after the kids were in bed and I'd finished making bottles, and there were always other moms around." You can even surf during feedings  -- with practice, you can hold your baby with one hand and type with the other!

Satisfaction With Your Work Situation

I held a 9-to-5 job during my firstborn's infancy. With my second child, I tried being an at-home mom. Neither arrangement suited me, so I found a way to work from home about 30 hours a week.

Some new moms believe that it's best to stay home once they become a parent, even if it requires making a financial sacrifice. Others say they can work and still be a good mother; they feel a responsibility to contribute to the family income, see working as healthy and as their right, and feel positive about professional childcare. Or they lean toward caring for their baby full-time but run that desire through a cost-benefit analysis. Some then wind up working, and others don't. Still others, like me, search for new ways to achieve work-family balance, such as splitting shifts with their partner or working from home.

"Your satisfaction depends more on what you think you should be doing than what you're actually doing," says Angela Hattery, Ph.D., assistant professor of sociology at Wake Forest University, in Winston-Salem, NC. "It's important to first decide what you feel is the right way to be a good mom, and then make the best choice you can from there."

Even though two-thirds of women with kids under age 6 work, Hattery notes, employed moms have the roughest road to happiness  -- even if they adore their job. That's because "the dominant image out there of a 'good mother' is the June Cleaver stay-at-home type," she says. "It's difficult to resist that image."

What can help you feel comfortable with your decision: trusting your own instincts about what's right for you and for your family. Remember, there's no "best" way to be a mother.

Patience

Not only does your world shrink when you have a baby, but time also slows down dramatically. Nothing happens as quickly as it did before. Some new mothers get frustrated when the pace of their transformed life is out of sync with what they had imagined it would be like. It can be especially unnerving if you don't fall wildly in love with your newborn instantaneously (many women don't) or if the days and nights seem to blur together endlessly, with seemingly little to show for your effort and exhaustion.

"Nobody tells you to give it time," says Jeannie Earehart of Lawrenceburg, IN, whose daughters, Karlie and Kaila, are 5 months and 3. "Once I reminded myself that everything doesn't fall into place instantly, I was fine."

If you've always been highly organized or accustomed to a fast-paced work life, patience can be a hard skill to master, yet it can also be highly rewarding for parents. "I craved more order in my life, so I observed my newborn microscopically for even a hint of a pattern that I could nurture into a schedule," says Cecelia Cancellaro, whose daughter, Ruby Elizabeth, is now a toddler. "It never happened. But when I was able to lose myself for hours at a time, just holding, cuddling, and feeding my amazing little child  -- and not obsessing about the unwritten thank-you cards, the dust balls under the sofa, or the discomfort of my episiotomy  -- I realized that I was happier than I'd ever been before."

Love takes time. Routines take time. Maternal confidence takes time.

And so do kids. Henry has outgrown his crib and graduated from nursery school to elementary school, and his siblings have all grown out of babyhood as well. When I drink milk now, I think only of my own bones. But I'm still drawing sustenance from the survival secrets I learned as a brand-new mom.

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