Saturday, January 21, 2012

The Awesome-Crazy-Hard Plunge into Becoming a New Mother

I’m getting excited to facilitate my first PEPS meeting next week. To welcome this group of mothers and babies into my home, to drink in their tender new beginnings.

As a new mom, PEPS was extremely helpful to me. Although I had other moms and drop-in parenting groups I gathered with on occasion, PEPS was one thing I could count on each week, my one structured commitment in what was otherwise a blur of feedings and naps. Coming together with a group of women who knew me through my emerging identity as a mother and who understood on some silent level what I was going through, helped me to better process this intensely transformative time. It helped me give voice to concerns I had and to articulate what was going on for me and my baby.

The format was simple. Each week we met for two hours in one of our homes. We all lived in the same part of town and we all had babies within a few months of age of each other (PEPS creates groups based on your zip code and due date). A volunteer (also a mother and PEPS alum) facilitated. Each week we would begin by sharing our high and low points of the week, and then go on to discuss some pre-determined topic, like sleep, feeding, or shifting identities. Babies would cry, feed, and sleep during meetings, and moms learned to grow more comfortable tending to a fussy baby in a space outside their own homes. Resources were shared and sympathy given, yet PEPS is not a therapy group nor a parenting class. Mostly, it’s a place to form community and feel more supported as a new mom. It can help normalize what otherwise can be an incredibly overwhelming and isolating experience.

Some PEPS groups continue to meet for years after their formal group has ended. Others, like mine, gradually disband, because women go back to work, schedules conflict, and everyone become more busy. Regardless of the group’s future, however, I believe that the value of belonging to a group like this for even just three months can be enormous.

Motherhood has been such a profound, transforming experience for me, and I’ve spent so much time over the last three years reading, writing, and learning about so many facets of the experience, that I like the idea of sharing some of the resources that I’ve garnered. But more than this, I like the idea of helping other moms to process and talk about the joys and challenges they are going through. My role as a facilitator is not to be a ‘teacher’ (especially since I can’t remember a fraction of what I once knew about each particular stage of development), but rather to be a conduit to help the group form their own strong connections.

PEPS philosophy, as well as my own, advocates that there is no one ‘right’ way to parent. In a culture which inundates pregnant women and new mothers with well-meaning but often unwelcome not to mention judgment-ridden advice, sometimes what we most need is just for somebody to listen. And it is often through feeling heard by another that we can actually begin to hear for ourselves the precise nature of what is actually going on inside. Have you ever had someone say to you something like, “That sounds hard,” after you’ve relayed a story, and then, for the first time, you feel tears brimming in your eyes, tears that key you in on just how hard it actually has been? That’s what I’m talking about.

The other day I went through my roster and called each woman to welcome her to the group and see if they had any questions. In the background, I could hear babies crying, breast pumps wheezing, and the muffled voices of the women themselves that suggested they might be holding a sleeping baby or simply existing in that slightly altered time-space of being holed up with an infant for days, weeks on end.

I try to remember those first days and what they were like for me, still coming off of the drugs from the cesarean, lying down or sitting in the recliner, my breasts heavy with milk, my hair uncombed, the heat turned up high. Visitors would come now and then bearing food that was greatly appreciated, taking their turns holding our newborn, but mostly we kept to ourselves, venturing outside for a walk to the neighborhood pond only after the first three weeks were spent solely indoors, save for a few steps out into the yard.

I also remember how nervous I was when I had to drive the baby alone for the first time, and what a relief it was to arrive. When you are caring for a newborn, there are a million little hurdles like this to get over—first night, first bath, first day caring for him alone, first time away from his side. Actually, I think this statement could probably be said for caring for any aged child: parenthood is a continual succession of ‘firsts’, and although it may not feel as daunting and I may not feel as raw as I did during those first months, parenting continues to grow more challenging and complex in other ways. Although some of the early demands (sore nipples, woken all night, fears of suffocating your baby, seismic identity shifts) might have diminished, there are always new stages and concerns to worry about, and new joys and milestones to celebrate, as well.

Let’s just say it: parenting is really fucking hard. (Only the f word seems to do justice to the gravity of this sentence). If anyone claims otherwise, they are employing a selective memory. It’s tiring, all-consuming, non-stop. It is a constant challenge to carve out enough time alone with your partner; to carve out enough time alone with yourself; to negotiate a sense of equity with regards to how you divide childcare, respites from childcare, and chores; to maintain your friendships, especially with those who do not also have kids. For those who go back to work, it can be hard to be away from your baby for so much of the week. And for those who decide not to go back, it can be hard to leave behind huge chunks of your identity that were tied to the work that you once did out in the world of adult interactions.

Parenting, and motherhood in particular, is challenging on so many levels. But it’s also filled with so many transcendent moments that are equally piercing when they come over you. Beyond the exhaustion and tedium that parenting can bring on, each day we are also privileged to witness a new being coming alive, discovering the world for the first time. Discovering its hands, toes, tongue, voice. Discovering lights, sounds, textures, tastes. And this discovery keeps going, never ends. It is amazing to witness and realize all the stages of discovery  that go into becoming a person, all the skills and ordinary miracles around us all the time that we adults take for granted in our daily lives.  Holding and witnessing a newborn, a being so new, so tied still to some other world, we are reminded of the pure awesomeness of life, of how each and every one of us was born and came into this world.

Together, new mothers and babies are an inseparable unit, existing in this vulnerable, other worldly state. New mothers have just gone through the exhausting and traumatic feat of giving birth, only to then plunge into a blur of days and nights spent caring for their newborn. Their hormones are careening, their bodies healing, their emotions reeling, their former world and life turned inside out, and they don’t get time to rest to recover-- they just have to dive in.

Mother and baby both recognize each other on some level—recognize each other’s presence, experienced now from a different perspective—yet they are understandably also in a state of inexpressible awe about where and who they now are. This is a magical time; this is a crazy time. This is a fragile time, a painful time. This period of brand new motherhood can be so many things; everyone experiences it slightly differently, but no one can deny how intense it is-- and how precious it is—because it is also so fleeting. One stage, one age, one crisis, one delight, one day merges into the next. And although you may still feel like you are in survival mode for many months or even years, where it feels like enough just to manage to eat, to sleep, and shower (if that), somewhere along the way it can be so important and illuminating to carve out the time to step back from “total immersion parenting” and give voice to your experiences. Whether this voice comes forth through talking to a friend, writing in a journal, or joining a support group, it can be so valuable to find the words to express what you are going through, what we all go through albeit in different ways, as mothers. For it is through this process of reckoning-- of mourning our losses, proclaiming our discoveries, and speaking our truths (and yes, even garbled, sleep-deprived, grasping for truths)-- that we can begin to step more gracefully into the demands of motherhood. In naming and honoring all that we have gone through and are going through, we can learn to see our experiences through a clearer lens, with more perspective, and hopefully with more acceptance, self-compassion, and trust.

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