My infant son wakes up suddenly from a craptastic stroller nap and starts to scream. I’m immediately gripped by panic and embarrassment because I just took a seat on a floor cushion at the mom and baby drop-in. I awkwardly get back up — my body still doesn’t feel like mine — and hurry over to my baby.
My attempts to soothe are unsuccessful. He doesn’t take a pacifier, he doesn’t want his rattle, and I had too recently nursed and I’m empty — figuratively and literally.
I feel my cheeks getting hot as I resign myself to leaving the group even though I just arrived. A few of the other moms look my way with expressions of mixed sympathy and pity. Their babies are cooing and playing nicely, or asleep in a sling.
I desperately wanted the social interaction. I needed that support group today. I wanted to feel like myself again, lighthearted, smiling and cracking jokes. Who is this woman who is constantly stricken with anxiety and confusion, exhausted and full of resentment toward a baby for stealing her social time because he won’t nap?
I don’t recognize myself.
As I head out the door, double-checking that I haven’t dropped a toy or a mitten, I’m just so…angry. It seems ridiculous to be angry at a baby. They’re supposed to be innocent, right?
Now I’m walking back toward home, and he is still crying, and I feel helpless and distraught and like a total failure as a mother. I realize maybe I’m angry at myself. I chose this — I didn’t get pregnant accidentally. I wanted to become a mom. Or so I thought.
Fifteen minutes later, we finally get in the door, and I head straight to our bed to attempt a side-lay nurse that I hope will result in him falling asleep. He nurses for a few minutes while I lay there mute and motionless. When the milk is done — not enough, never enough — he starts to cry again.
“Why don’t you sleep?!” I yell.
In that moment of blind rage, I grab a pillow and smother him.
I burst into tears and immediately pull the pillow away. He continues to wail, and together we cry.
My 3-month-old baby. My undoing.
Looking back now, it’s obvious what I needed: More childcare support so I could nap would have been amazing. A higher dose of domperidone to increase my milk supply probably would have helped too. And I definitely needed more patience and compassion for myself. But I continued to suffer and struggle and supplement and somehow made it through those darks days.
What I really needed was to stop resisting my transformation into a mother. To embrace the new me despite the confusion, anxiety, extra weight, and dark circles under my eyes. By resisting the transformation in my life, body, and identity, I was unwittingly amplifying my postpartum depression.
Let me explain.
As women, we are predisposed to nurture on all levels: physical, emotional, mental, and psychological. The mother archetype is a behavioral pattern that runs deep in our psyches and DNA. It is the strongest instinctual archetype for women. For the survival of the species, we have special hormones that are released so we love these clingy, needy creatures, and our brain chemistry is altered by hormonal changes that scientists have proven are permanent.
“Mommy brain” is real, and we get extra gray matter and an enlarged amygdala for our troubles.
Once you’ve given birth you are forever changed — psychologically and physiologically. By resisting the transformation, we are literally resisting a force of nature — stronger, some could argue, than a hurricane. It’s a battle you won’t win.
As 21st century western women, we have the privilege to enjoy liberties and expressions that were previously discouraged and even condemned. Marriage and motherhood are not our only options, so the modern woman can choose independence, career, creativity, and adventure. These choices develop other feminine archetypes in us, ones that value achievement, travel, acquiring knowledge, or quiet solitude.
Perhaps this “taste of freedom” as 20-somethings, in fact, makes the radical shift into the mother role more difficult. We don’t want to lose who we are. We don’t want to put our careers on hold. We don’t want to stop traveling. Basically, once Artemis is running the show, for example, she doesn’t want to move over for Demeter.
I know many women don’t see it this way. Those women are eager for the change, ready to finally come home to their true self as a mother.
For us whose “home base” isn’t the mother archetype, the transition is painful. The birth of your first child is accompanied by a death — the death of your former self.
So as we are celebrating and grieving simultaneously, through the delirium of sleep deprivation and adapting to being ruled by one tiny mouth, a new identity is born. You may still not recognize yourself in the reflection of shop windows as you walk past with a stroller and diaper bag, but slowly, you will get to know the new you.
And as surely as babies wean and sleep through the night and potty train (as painfully slow as those processes can be), you will reintegrate aspects that you loved about your former self, and the beautiful tapestry that is you will become even more rich and dynamic. Eventually, your inner archetypes will come to a truce (as long as Demeter still allows Artemis some adventure once in awhile!).
In Canada and the UK, moms get 37 and 52 weeks maternity leave respectively. In the US? 12. And people wonder why postpartum depression is so prevalent? We are expected to just pick up where we left off, “Get our bodies back,” and return to work with an infant at home? It goes against all intuition and logic. Like I keep saying, there is no going back.
New mothers need a lot of time to adjust to their new role, and it’s infuriating how the federal systems and societal expectations don’t support this. But what hurts even more is when we are not being patient and kind with ourselves in this major transition. I certainly wasn’t.
My advice to new moms is to simply focus on getting through the day. Ask for help. Accept that you’ve changed, and your life will never be the same. And for at least the first few months, stop trying to accomplish anything besides keeping you and your baby fed and in clean diapers and underwear. You can do it.