I was told over and over again that having a second or third child is much easier than the first, mainly because I would know what to expect. (Though I wondered how I would juggle two boys, when sometimes I feel like I can barely manage one.) When I became a mother of two, I found this to be partially true.

I felt more prepared for the seemingly nonstop feedings, diaper changes, etc. And I wasn’t as devastated by the lack of sleep that comes with caring for a newborn—our two-year-old, Alex, woke me up at least once a night anyway. The dishes that filled the sink and cluttered the countertops made me slightly less crazy than before. I also expected some drama and tears from Alex as he adopted the role of big brother.

But, as I’ve learned many times before, planning and predicting only takes you so far. After the initial euphoria of new life, I was met with two emotions I did not expect.

The first was loneliness.

My husband was preparing to leave for a work trip he had initially planned to cancel since I was 12 days past my due date. I assured him that we would be fine. “I can handle it,” I told him while I held our two-day-old in the hospital bed.

At the time, I was still coming down from the high of having the birth experience that I had hoped and planned for. Had this conversation taken place the day after returning home, though, it would have sounded much different and the words “heck no” would likely have been a part of it.

When I was discharged from the hospital, I felt great, considering the fact that I had birthed a baby in the early hours of the previous morning. Fueled by apple juice from the nurse’s station, a bagel, and some coffee that my mom graciously brought, at that point I naively thought it would be all down-hill from there. I was going home to resume life as I knew it, with the addition of one small brand new baby.

When we walked through our front door, it felt like weeks had passed since being home.

I clutched Connor in my arms while my husband followed close behind with Alex. Something felt different. Not good or bad, just different and strangely unfamiliar. The air even smelled different. I took a deep breath and looked around trying to figure out where to go, and tried not to attach myself to the emotions that were surfacing.

As the weeks progressed, I felt strangely isolated, despite my husband’s presence and the texts and calls from family and friends. The days and nights blurred together, and I remember looking expectantly at my calendar, hoping that I had something different to look forward to.

I needed someone to sit in my kitchen and ask me how I was doing, and then call me out when I responded with my automatic, scripted response, “we’re doing really well!”

It’s not that I wasn’t enjoying my children, or that I hadn’t fallen in love with my new baby. I just needed to talk, to share, to process all of my feelings as a new mom again.

Sometimes I would get a burst of ambitious and restless energy. I would pack up the boys and enough baby supplies to fill a suitcase and drive across town to be around people. Those ventures were rarely satisfying though, and I typically returned home feeling unfulfilled and utterly exhausted.

Second came shame.

My shame was associated with needing help, but feeling like I was supposed to manage on my own. I was unleashing my feelings of inadequacy and frustration on my husband, when deep down I knew he wasn’t the cause. And living for the few precious minutes when our boys’ sleep schedules overlapped made me feel even worse.

I thought that I had prepared myself for this stage of life. I read books and blogs and talked to other moms about how they adjusted to their second or third child.

I had a list of indoor activities to occupy Alex during his early weeks and months as a big brother. My husband and I even had a plan for managing grocery shopping and cooking. But despite everything, I felt completely overwhelmed.

When Connor was 10 days old, I sat down to nurse him in our family room and my eyes moved to the end of the couch and across the floor. There were at least three loads of laundry scattered across there, and the floor was nearly covered with every piece of fake food we owned, along with plastic hammers, battery-operated drills, and at least four large trucks.

When Connor fell asleep nursing, I looked at the clock and wondered if and when Alex would nap. I looked toward the sink. The dishes were stacked almost to the faucet. The countertops were camouflaged with crumpled paper towels, dirty plates, and cereal bowls.

In that moment, I felt paralyzed: I couldn’t relax, I couldn’t clean up, I was hungry, thirsty, and just plain exhausted.

I didn’t have these feelings at first. I actually felt tremendously successful for the five or so days after coming home from the hospital. But at some point toward the end of that first week home, I felt like the hamster wheel I was on suddenly stopped with a jerk, and I was dumped onto the floor face first.

I felt consumed by the vastly different needs of my children and the never-ending mess that was our house.

I felt unremitting guilt that I was not able to meet both of my boys’ needs at the same time.

I felt like I was failing as a mother of two.

I remember craving time alone with Connor, without my two-year-old at my side. I was worried that I wouldn’t bond with him like I did with Alex, or that he wouldn’t feel as loved.

Then I worried about Alex. Would he grow to resent Connor? Would he doubt my love for him if I constantly reject his requests? I found myself counting down the hours until my husband was due home from work.

For weeks, each day ended the same way: exhaustion, guilt, and the feeling of dread that I would never catch up, and that I would never be enough.

My husband and I were frequently angry at each other, full of blame for the mess that we were living in, or the way we felt. And guilt always followed when I made a mental list of the million reasons why we were so tremendously blessed.

I knew I didn’t have time to wallow—I had two sets of eyes always on me, studying me, relying on me. I was hyper-aware of their ability to read me, and I was scared that they would feel my anxiety. The brightness in their eyes inspired my faith that things would get easier, and that I wouldn’t always feel like such a mess. And then a funny thing happened: things began to even out as routines and life got more balanced.

I realized that my expectations had been ruining my life.

The more I changed my perspective, the more I began to notice that the things I was feeling lonely or shameful about fell a little more into place.

I started writing again, without judgment and without worrying about how I was supposed to feel.

I stopped measuring myself against my madly productive and efficient pre-baby self.

I stopped punishing myself every night for all of the things that I couldn’t check off my to-do list, or for the laundry that slept in the washing machine.

I spent more time immersed in Alex’s world of trucks, tools and pretend play, and I spent less time picking up his toys.

I started connecting with other moms again, even when I didn’t feel like I had anything to offer.

I made time for my husband again.

When I accepted the fact that I couldn’t meet the needs of my boys 100% of the time (or even 80%), that our house probably would never look the way I want it to, and that taking a daily shower was an absolute necessity, I was able to let go of what I thought our life could or should look like with another baby, and I just started living it.

I had reached a new normal, and found my joy again.