Motherhood is all encompassing, for better and for worse.
Fifteen months ago, after our baby joined our family, I wrote about how I was so “in it,” so in the middle of figuring things out, that I had trouble articulating my thoughts in a succinct blog post.
I still feel like that.
Parenthood is a train that keeps moving, no matter how much you want it to slow down, to relish a fun new stage or simply catch up on sleep. It barrels forward while you work and travel and live, and because you don’t want to miss a single smile or cry or milestone, you hang on as tight as you can.
Becoming a mom has been the most joyful transition of my life—and the most challenging. I used to think about my past as a series of stages, often based around where I called home—childhood in upstate New York, college in Maine, working for the newspaper in Houston, traveling in Africa, running my own business from DC, enjoying life as a newly married couple.
Now I see it far more simply, as two distinct stages—before and after my baby was born.
Motherhood is all encompassing, for better and for worse.
I dislike the term “mommy brain” because it makes women sound weak and forgetful, instead of acknowledging the million pieces they juggle every day. But I now, as I struggle to keep up with my tiny human and my full-time job at The Penny Hoarder, I understand why people say it.
Imagine taking your already-full brain and stuffing it with two or three times as many things to understand and remember—oh, and those new things are more important than what you had in there previously, because they involve taking care of a tiny baby you love and adore.
Would all that information fit? Would you remember it all? Hell no.
And yet somehow, your heart is able to accomplish what your brain simply can’t. Having a baby means adding more love than you’ve ever felt before, piling all the new love right on top of the old love, and then piling more love on top of that…and your heart still doesn’t explode or overheat or fail.
You feel something indescribably wonderful when your baby laughs, when he cuddles up to your chest, when he explores grass for the first time with his tiny fingers and you can see the wheels in his head turning. It is a beautiful gift to nurture another human being as they grow.
So how is it possible, with all that love and so much good, that this transition could also be so darn hard?
I sometimes wonder if it would’ve been easier if I’d had kids when I was 25 instead of 35. Would I have been less used to having time to myself, if I hadn’t taken that decade to focus on me? Would I be less ambitious at work, if I hadn’t already seen what I could accomplish when I work hard? Would I be less tired? Less sick? Less grumpy?
Of course, there are positives to having kids later in life, too. My career is more established—my company was acquired just a few month’s before my baby’s birth—which means I have more flexibility and choices at work. My finances are more established, too. I earn enough that I can afford to keep working, which isn’t the case for a lot of mothers because of the crazy-high cost of child care. I know myself well and what I want out of life. My husband and I are more mature in our decisions than we were in our 20s, and I think that makes us better parents than we might’ve been a decade ago.
For the last year, I’ve thought about what I would do if I could do it all over again. How would I prepare myself? And my household? And my career?
Now I have the opportunity to do just that—because we are expecting baby number two—I honestly don’t know how we’ll do it with two young kids, but I’m grateful to grow our family. Both my husband and I have siblings close in age, and we wanted to give our kids that gift of friendship, too. Tons of working parents manage families. We can too, right?
Here’s what I didn’t know when I first became a (working) mom—and what I’ll remind myself the second time around.
1. It will be harder than you expect
Lots of little pieces will be hard, but the hardest part is something that’s difficult to truly understand until you experience it—not getting enough sleep.
I’m not talking about the I-couldn’t-fall-asleep-last-night tired. I mean the kind of tired where you’re only getting a few hours night after night after night and it all adds up and you’re constantly trying to claw yourself back to feeling “normal,” and you tell yourself everything will be fine as soon as you catch up…except you never do.
While I figured we’d be tired during the first few months, I didn’t expect that zombie-like phase to last for as long as it did. It took us until month 14 to get our baby to sleep through the night, and many parents deal with sleep issues that last even longer.
That tiredness bleeds into everything. It makes it difficult to focus on work. It makes it difficult to exercise. It makes it difficult to not snap at your partner when tiny things go wrong. When you are that tired, it’s simply impossible to do all the things you did before at the level you’re used to doing them.
I remember a long run I took maybe 10 years ago. It was a 12-mile run through the woods—I was training for a marathon. Around mile eight, I got a rush where I felt like I was flying. I ran effortlessly, fast and smooth for at least two miles before starting to feel human again.
That run always sticks with me as a reminder of what’s possible when I’m in fabulous shape, when I’m rested, when my head is in the game. And it feels so far away now. So unattainable.
But each day I inch closer to feeling like me again. Of course, we’ll hit the reset button when baby number two arrives, but here’s what I keep reminding myself—the exhaustion is only temporary. The awake-all-night stage is temporary and the up-every-day-at-4:30 a.m. stage is temporary (and hopefully shorter this time around.)
The cuddles and baby squeals and peek-a-boos are all temporary, too. While I want to wish away the tiredness, I want to hold onto the good bits as long as possible. And those moments? They are worth all the exhaustion.
2. You won’t be able to do it all
Did I mention you’ll be tired?
Scale back now, before the baby arrives, instead of later.
Be OK with letting go. You’re making room for something wonderful.
3. Breastfeeding is hard
Really hard. And even harder when you work full time.
I could write an entire post about this one topic, how badly I wanted to breastfeed and how short I fell of my own goals and how many things our society could do to make this easier for women. Just know that every mother and baby has their own challenges, and what you envision might not become reality. And it will all turn out OK anyhow.
4. Taking care of yourself will help you better take care of your family
It will also help you maintain a happy and healthy relationship with your spouse when you’re stressed and exhausted.
For me, taking care of myself means exercising. I don’t exercise nearly as much as I used to or as much as I’d like, but I always feel better when I manage to get out for a bike ride or yoga class or simply a walk.
While you probably won’t be able to immediately get back to whatever that thing is that keeps you sane, get back to it as soon as you can.
Which brings me to…
5. You are doing the best you can
I suspect I’m not the only working mom who feels like I’m not doing as much or as well as I’d like, both with my career and with my family.
I feel guilty every time I leave my family to travel to Florida for work, and I feel guilty when I leave work to spend time with my family. I wish I could do more in both camps. Not to mention all the other things I would like to make time for. Things like blogging and cooking and biking and relaxing that used to be daily priorities and now rarely get done.
That’s why at the end of every yoga class, when I lay on my side after Shavasana (the resting pose at the end of practice), I say to myself—You are doing the best you can.
If that’s completely true, if I’m being honest with myself that I’m truly giving it my all, if I am doing the best I can, that is enough. No one can do better than their best.
When I answer that question honestly, I feel relief. I am doing my best, and while some things are challenging in this new phase of life, so many things are good.
Having a healthy baby after a scary pregnancy is good. Waking up in the morning to a huge grin from my child is good. Watching my husband laugh with our baby is good. Seeing our baby do things for the first time is good. No matter how exhausted my husband and I feel, life is good.
This article was originally published on AlexisGrant.com.