How to battle feelings of inadequacy and stress when you’re with a newborn
I wasn’t one of those women who spend their pregnancies freaking out about whether they’ll be good mothers. I knew that being in charge of someone else’s survival would be life-altering, but I didn’t worry about sucking at it. I mean, women have been doing this forever — 90 percent of it is intuitive, right?
Turns out my bliss was ignorant. In the months following the birth of my son, Benjamin, a neighborhood walk was enough to stir major feelings of inadequacy in me. Was my neighbor right about my baby not being dressed warmly enough? Was the stroller bouncing too much when it hit the pavement cracks? Why was that other infant doing stomach crunches in her stroller while my guy was still floppy? And how come that baby’s mom was back in her size 6 jeans already? I hadn’t felt this insecure since my first day of high school.
I’ve since learned that most new moms have moments when they’re filled with more self-doubt than an awkward, pimple-ridden freshman. Here, six ways to ensure that you don’t lose sight of just how great you are.
1. Tune out the voices Never in your life have you been showered with so much unsolicited advice. Everyone has something to say about how you’re raising your kid. “People like to believe they cared for their children well, and they want to pass along their wisdom and insights,” says Susan Newman, Ph.D., a social psychologist and the author of Little Things Long Remembered: Making Your Children Feel Special Every Day.
Sarah Vazquez of Big Bear Lake, California, hated it when people she didn’t know offered advice on how to parent Cameron, her 6-month-old. “When he was crying, strangers would tell me to try a frozen washcloth or to put rum in his bottle at night.” While the comments were just annoying at first, they began to eat away at her confidence. “It made me feel like I didn’t know what I was doing.”
Here’s how: The bad news is there’s nothing you can do to stop the advice from pouring in. The good news is that some of these words of wisdom are actually wise (not the ones about rum, of course). The key is to learn to filter out the useless stuff and keep what can really help you.
A way to do this, says Newman, is to pick one or two people whose advice you’ll consider strongly. “That might be your pediatrician, your sister or even your mother-in-law,” Newman says. When it comes to dealing with everyone else, just smile politely or say, “I’ll think about that,” and grit your teeth. You can also take a moment to remind yourself of your plan. “Reiterating your commitment to take advice only from your inner circle shores up your defenses, helping you to deal with intrusive people.”
2. Stop comparing yourself to everyone Fellow moms can often be a huge source of support — or competition. “When my first daughter, Hailey, was 2 months old, a coworker whose baby was a few months older than Hailey showed me an adorable picture of her son on his belly, pushing up,” says Meredith Kwitkoski, a mom of three from Monroe Township, New Jersey. “When I asked about it, she said he had been doing that for a while. That day, I went home in a panic and tripled the amount of Hailey’s tummy time. She didn’t like it, but I wanted her to be able to push up too!”
If this sounds familiar, it’s because sizing ourselves up against others is human nature. “You compare fruits in the grocery store, so of course you’re going to compare yourself to the mom down the street,” says Paula Spencer, author of Momfidence: An Oreo Never Killed Anybody and Other Secrets of Happier Parenting. That said, fixating on the fact that your best friend’s baby is president of the broccoli fan club while your little guy spits out anything that isn’t a Cheerio is simply not a productive habit.
Here’s how: Instead of just staring at them enviously, talk to other new moms. “Everyone looks perfect from far away,” says Spencer. “But you have to do some further investigating.” You’ll be surprised to learn that the baby behind you in line at the grocery store, who is cooing and giggling as your daughter wails, has never slept through the night, and that her seemingly laid-back mom spent two hours stressing out over what to put into her diaper bag.
So what do you do when the too-skinny-to-have-just-had-a-baby mom at the park claims that being a mom to her perfect kid is the best thing that ever happened to her? Don’t hang out with her so much. Find a friend — even if it’s just one — to whom you can really relate.
3. Minimize the guilt Whether you have to make a big decision (going back to work) or a small one (hitting the replay button on the Baby Einstein video, again), it’s hard not to drown in a wave of guilt. “Guilt goes with mothers like spit-up and shoulders,” Spencer says, pretty much summing it up.
Kristin Swihart knows this all too well. “I used to feel bad because I wasn’t the one caring for Jordan, my 4-year-old, when I was at work, but then I’d also feel guilty because I wanted to work,” says the mom of two from North Ridgeville, Ohio.
Here’s how: While you can’t get rid of your feelings entirely, there is such a thing as productive guilt. “Good guilt is that nagging suspicion that makes you realize something isn’t right, like if you’re worried about your day-care situation,” says Spencer. “That’s when you have to see if it’s your gut trying to tell you something bigger.”
Most of the time, however, guilt is of the confidence-killing variety: You feel it about everything you do, no matter what you do. “So acknowledge the voice and move on,” says Spencer. “The more you practice setting it aside, the easier it becomes to do it regularly.”
4. Take care of yourself As a new mom, there are days when sleeping, eating and showering seem like luxuries you’ll never experience again. But running yourself ragged can leave you with more than a crippling coffee addiction — it can amplify your self-doubt. “I’m more vulnerable to insecurity when I’m sleep-deprived,” says Jennifer Curtis, a mom of two from Whitman, Massachusetts. “I’ll worry that I haven’t eaten enough protein to make healthy breast milk and that I’ll end up on the front page for starving my baby.”
Here’s how: Start sleeping 10 hours every night. Just kidding. But you do need rest — whether it’s a nap or some alone time. “There’s nothing wrong with saying, ‘I’m going to get a babysitter for an hour so I can go for a walk or get my nails done.’ These breaks don’t take that long, and they make a big difference in how you feel,” says Newman.
For Ashley Bryan of Henderson, Nevada, this worked wonders. “Right after having my twins I was a complete wreck: I holed myself up in my house and stayed in my pajamas,” she recalls. “But before my first doctor visit, I had my mom watch the girls while I put on makeup and got dressed. It made me feel competent at a time when I really doubted myself and my abilities as a mother.”
5. Lower your standards “It’s impossible to do everything as well as you did it before you had kids,” Spencer says. “Your job, your relationship with your husband, keeping the house clean, plus being a good mom — it’s a tall order for anyone.”
Housework can be the tipping point for some. “Recently my husband’s family came to meet Madeline, my 8-week-old,” says Curtis, who had decided she’d mop her floors during nap time before the visit. But nap time didn’t pan out that day. “I remember being near tears and saying aloud, ‘All I want to do is mop a damn floor!'” It didn’t matter that she’d be the only one to notice the dirt — not being able to clean drove Curtis nuts.
Here’s how: Acknowledge that you don’t have the time to scrape dried applesauce off the high chair, teach the baby sign language and whip up your famous penne a la vodka. “You have to prioritize and trim your to-do list,” says Diane Dillon, Ph.D., director of the Child Study Team at the School at Columbia University and coauthor of Mommy Mantras: Affirmations and Insights to Keep You From Losing Your Mind.
If you’re too Type-A to eliminate items from your to-do list, do it for your baby. “Research shows that kids are better off if you’re just a ‘good enough’ mother instead of always trying to be perfect,” says Dillon. Your errors will eventually help your children learn to become more adaptable, since everything doesn’t turn out exactly as it should.
6. Have fun with your baby Like many new mothers, Leigh Zinman read a lot of parenting books after she had her daughter, Sahra. All the guides talked about stimulating your child, so she became hyper-focused on educating Sahra, even when she was just 3 months old. “Each morning before her nap I would watch the clock, and every 15 minutes I would change activities,” says the Montreal mom. Playtime started feeling more like class time, and Zinman wondered anxiously if she was doing enough to “teach” her infant.
Here’s how: Instead of wondering whether the stacking cups you’ve researched and ordered online are developmentally appropriate, just have fun stacking the cups and knocking them over with her.
The key is to focus on the task at hand instead of what your baby can get out of it. Since your baby is constantly taking in information and processing it during play and every other activity — her brain is designed to connect the dots — you don’t have to connect the dots for her. That means don’t obsess over dinner-time vocabulary (“Molly’s spoon! Spoon! Can you say spoon?”), just dish up the sweet potato puree and laugh when she blows big orange spit bubbles. “Nothing makes you feel more confident than when your baby is laughing with you,” says Spencer. “The happier your baby seems, the more confident you’ll feel about what you’re doing.”