The most important thing? To remember that this is just one season of your life.
Being a new mom is hard. Demands are coming from all angles and it's easy to feel the strain under increased pressure and anxiety. As if the outside pressure isn't enough, there are things we inadvertently do to ourselves that cause even more stress.
When you're in the thick of new mom life, it can feel hectic, unmanageable and overwhelming. It's hard to see the path you're on, let alone trust that you're actually moving forward.
But you are: Each day you're getting closer to feeling confident in your mom skills. Each day you and your baby are growing together. It's not linear growth. Sometimes it's two steps forward and one step back, but hey, that's still progress!
Learning to let go a bit and trust yourself is key. Trust that you are enough for your baby. Trust that you will feel like yourself again. Trust that you will make it through. Trust that you are a great mom. Trust the process.
Here are 10 things any new mama can do to preserve her mental health and happiness.
1. Ditch social media for real life
Those early days (and nights) of endless feedings, rocking and pacing the halls trying to soothe your newborn set the perfect stage for losing yourself in social media. Before you know it, baby is asleep in your arms and you're still scrolling. While social media absolutely fills an important need for new moms—providing community and support no matter the time or location—it can also have a negative impact.
Over-reliance on social media can make it seem as if there isn't a need for in-person support as well. And while the convenience of online communities can make it easier to reach out for help at times, there is tremendous value in face-to-face social interaction.
Particularly for new moms, having another adult you can spend time with in person can go a long way toward decreasing the sense of isolation that often comes along with this period in life. Whether it's having a friend over for a playdate, or your mom tagging along while you run errands, few things are as good for the mental health of new moms as face-to-face time in the presence of supportive others.
In addition to the risk of decreasing real-life social interaction, social media overloading can also expose moms to harsh, judgmental behavior that can be quite damaging. The anonymity of social media can cause people to say things they would never say to another mom in real life. Responses to a post about ideas for how to help your newborn sleep are often filled with criticisms of the way the poster is raising their child. This is never helpful, but it is particularly damaging for new moms who have not yet developed much confidence in their mothering.
2. Change up your to-do list
To-do lists can be a mom's best friend. With so many things to get done and so much swirling around in your head, combined with a nice dose of sleep-deprivation, it would be easy to forget tasks otherwise. But a traditional to-do list is not always the best fit.
Generally, these lists have tasks assigned to particular days. Tuesday is the grocery store, post office and laundry. Wednesday is an oil change and vacuuming.
The problem is that life for a new mom is not predictable enough to determine ahead of time how much can reasonably get accomplished in a day. A rough night or particularly clingy baby can quickly turn a to-do list into a reminder of how much didn't get done that day. This can cause unnecessary stress, feelings of inadequacy, and frustration.
So what to do instead? Change your conceptualization of the to-do list. Instead of it being one list that contains all of your must-do tasks, break it into two lists:
- One list contains your daily required tasks. Things that absolutely must get done on a specific day—picking someone up from the airport, taking the dog to a vet appointment—go there.
- The other list is a running, prioritized list of other things that need to get done but have some flexibility on when exactly they happen.
On any given day, you will now know what must happen, and then you can make a decision about what to pluck from the second list based on how your day is going.
Some days you may not be able to take anything off that second list, and that's totally fine. Other days you may get more done than you could possibly have imagined you'd have time for, and that's totally fine too.
The main point is your to-do list is now flexible and lines up with the reality of your day, rather than being rigid and causing distress when thing don't happen as planned. New motherhood is all about learning to roll with it.
3. Trust your intuition
Studies have confirmed that intuition is not all in our head, and it is a real thing. Intuition is essentially all of the things we know without knowing how we know them. And for moms, it can be a powerful force in our decision-making process.
When we try to fight it or discount it, telling ourselves to ignore those feelings and concerns, not only do we cause undue stress trying to suppress something that is coming up automatically, but we potentially miss out on valuable information.
Now I'm not saying to trust your intuition over advice or information from medical professionals, but I am saying to start valuing your knowledge of your baby and trust your own mommy expertise.
4. Forget the snap-back
There are so many pressures new moms face, and bouncing back from pregnancy in a matter of weeks is one of the big ones. Rather than spending the postpartum period focusing on rest, recovery and bonding with our new baby, we are told to start the countdown until we fit back in our pre-pregnancy jeans. And when we find that it doesn't happen quickly, we are frustrated and disappointed in ourselves. We view it as a lack of discipline or a sign that we're forever doomed to a “mom bod."
Here's the thing: Pregnancy permanently changes you.
So yes, exercise and eat a balanced diet to keep your body healthy and your energy levels up to meet the physical demands of motherhood. But stop wasting time and energy focused on this unrealistic idea that your new self is inferior to your old one. It's new and different, and that is totally okay.
5. Stop comparing yourself to other moms
Theodore Roosevelt once said, “Comparison is the thief of joy." Oh goodness, he could not have been more correct when it comes to moms. Any time I am feeling pretty good about my mom skills, a quick scroll through Facebook can bring me right back down.
Her house is way cleaner, she's doing a better job than me. Her kids get along so well, she's doing a better job than me. Her hair and makeup are done, she's doing a better job than me.
While we may logically know that most people carefully choose and filter what they share on social media, we still find ourselves engaged in negative comparisons that can result in anxiety, depression, and lots of self-criticism.
Although this happens most frequently on social media, we can easily fall into the comparison trap in real life as well. Other moms at the park that seem to be managing their children better or women who look more put together at Target can all start that comparison cycle going in our heads.
When you notice this happening, I suggest taking a deep breath and telling yourself that you don't know the full story based solely on outward appearances. Things are always more nuanced than they seem. And remember: YOU are the mom your children need. Perceived flaws and all.
6. Stop comparing your baby to other babies
Just like every mom is different and excels in different parts of motherhood, every baby is totally unique. Yes, your friend's baby may be sleeping through the night already, but yours is doing way better with solids.
Or yes, your cousin's 8-month-old is walking but has yet to take an independent nap. Keeping this all in perspective is key. Kids develop at their own rate and in the time that is right for them. But that's hard to remember when you feel like your baby isn't doing what she is “supposed" to be doing.
One of the biggest sources of this anxiety is developmental milestones. Remember that these milestones are broad and no two children will follow the same timeline. They will get there in their own way, and all you can do is support them as they develop.
So rather than comparing your baby to another baby, compare him to himself. Is he learning new things as time goes on? Then he's doing great, and so are you!
7. Appreciate your body (and all it's been through)
Let's take a moment to think about all that your body has just been through. Depending on the specifics of your situation, things that your body may have endured include: Fertility medications and treatment, morning sickness, growing a new organ (yes, the placenta is an actual organ that your body is able to manufacture on demand), growing a human being, managing excruciating pain without medication, spinal injections, major abdominal surgery, and providing all sustenance for a rapidly growing baby.
That's a lot. And it's reasonable to expect it to look a little—or a lot—different than before.
While it's easy to spot the flaws you see in your current body, focusing on them will serve only to increase your dissatisfaction with your body. Instead, try focusing on gratitude. We know that a gratitude practice has tremendous mental health benefits, and making sure to include some body-centric gratitude can go a long way towards making peace with the body you're in.
This doesn't mean you can't have weight loss or fitness goals, it just means that they are well-balanced with an appreciation for what you currently have going. Like strong arms to carry your body. A voice that allows you to express yourself. Eyes that let you take in the beauty of your child. Focus on these things with regularity, and you will notice a shift in your body-related stress and anxiety over time.
8. Leave time in your schedule for “nothing"
Adjusting to life with a new baby is hard in so many respects. One particularly difficult aspect is learning to temper your expectations of yourself and redefine what productivity looks like on a daily basis.
Once you've healed from delivery, it can feel like you're ready to get up and out and going again. You crave interaction with adults and a return to some sense of normalcy and routine. This is a totally normal and understandable desire, but unfortunately, the reality of caring for a newborn is that normalcy and routine are somewhat out the window for a while. If you were used to being on the go and running at full speed at all times, this can be quite the shock.
Over-scheduling and expecting that you'll get too many things done in a day is a setup for disappointment, frustration and distress. Instead, it's a good idea to start exploring what productivity looks like for you now in this phase of life.
Perhaps it's making progress on getting baby down for an independent nap. Or getting a load of laundry washed, dried and put away in the same day. Or figuring out how to get everything together and loaded into the car on your own. Or making a homemade meal once a week. These things may have seemed trivial a year ago, but right now they're big accomplishments that should be honored as such.
Unrealistic expectations will not motivate you to accomplish more. In fact, the resulting unhappiness may actually decrease your motivation and lead to even less being accomplished. Not to mention the emotional toll it takes when we fail to live up to our goals. Right now you cannot change the intensity with which your baby needs you and your time. But you can certainly adapt your expectations to fit your reality.
9. Try talk therapy
With the convenience of e-therapy apps (try BetterHelp or TalkSpace), new moms don't have to try and figure out childcare just to talk to a mental health expert. Text-based or video chats with a licensed therapist can serve as a helpful outlet for you to talk about what you're going through right now—and can be squeezed into a nap time.
While having a set therapy appointment might feel like just another thing on your to-do list, making time to focus on your mental health in this manner can help you gain perspective and get needed support as you navigate your new role as mama.
10. Remember, this season doesn't last forever
I spent a long time trying not to get caught up in the “Can we really have it all?" debate. I felt torn and unsure of the answer. But then I heard the answer that made the most sense to me: Yes you can have it all, but not all at the same time.
Different times of life require that certain aspects of ourselves come to the front and others have to step back a bit. So right now, mothering has moved to the top of the list, which means other things are going to get bumped. You may have to scale back the amount of time you have for socializing or pursuing hobbies or work hours. Now, of course, this will look different for everyone depending on your needs, preferences and resources.
The important part here is to remember that this is just one season in your life. Things will change. You will have more time for yourself again soon. Your baby will get on a schedule, and you'll be able to plan around naps and bedtime. You and your partner will have date nights again.
While you're in this new phase, try to appreciate it. There will come times you'll long for days spent at home with your baby and miss the unscheduled time. Those other parts of you will have their moments again soon. For now, enjoy being mom first.
A version of this post was originally published on August 6, 2018. It has been updated.