Let me preface this by admitting that I might be in a sweet spot—the baby years behind me and still a safe distance from teenagers. Maybe I’ll look back at this in 6 years (essentially, tomorrow) and laugh at my naïve self.
There’s a story my mom tells about feeling really proud of herself after she’d potty-trained all four of her kids and saying something to her mother-in-law about how she had essentially done her job. My grandmother—mother of 7!—just laughed.
So, maybe it never ends, but that doesn’t mean you can’t be relieved to get past potty-training.
There’s something I want to say to new moms—moms lost in the fog of infancy, in the middle of the sleepless and thankless era, struggling through those first overwhelming months of motherhood. There’s something I need you to know… It gets better.
Have you heard of the It Gets Better Project? In September 2010, the writer Dan Savage and his partner created a video for YouTube in an effort to reach out to LGBT youth after a string of suicides hit the front pages. It’s pure, concentrated Storytelling Saves Lives. Simply saying, “It gets better.” It’s such a big little thing to do.
Well, I’m no Dan Savage. Or President Obama or Ellen or Ke$ha or Sarah Silverman. Or any one of the other heavyweights that have recorded messages for that campaign, but I think we need something like this for moms. Struggling new moms need to hear that it does, really and truly, get better.
And it’s up to moms who have been there to let them know. Maybe we could recruit Jennifer Garner? Beyonce, for sure! And Angelina, of course. Not sure if Gwyneth is quite right for this.
I remember when I was a young new mom, turning to other moms with older kids in a desperate haze with that question, “Does it get better?”
Most of the time, they didn’t say what I wanted them to say (what I needed them to say). But even as I was told, “No,” by mom after mom, I could tell they were lying.
I was a puddle-y mess of greasy hair and spit-up and tears, and there they were: Standing around as if the world just keeps turning around and around and they are going to live through it.
Seems to me the worst thing you could say to a new mom is, “I never gets any easier.”
My kids are 4 and 7 now, so now I can say from experience what I needed to hear when I was new at this. It. Gets. Better. Anyone who tells you differently is lying. Or probably not lying so much as suffering from amnesia.
I’m not saying that it’s smooth sailing as soon as you exit the baby phase. But that’s not what new moms are asking, and it’s cruel to pretend it is. It’s cruel to pretend that being a parent stays as hard as it is in the beginning.
Like a brand new spring chicken being born, becoming a mom is like cracking through the hard shell of what your world has always been, and suddenly, you are new at everything and everything is upside down. Parenting has the steepest learning curve of anything I’ve ever done. Day one: you know nothing. Day two: no one knows your baby better than you.
When my first baby was born, our pediatrician came to check out our daughter. She was crying when he walked into the room. He walked up confidently, took her from our novice arms and did this magical thing with his finger on the roof of her mouth. Instantly, of course, she stopped crying. We were like, “What just happened? You know everything! We need you to come home with us now!”
He said something like, “I know more about your baby right now because I’ve been doing this for a long time. But if I were to see you 24-hours from now, you would be the expert.” Basically, you are learning something new about your child, yourself as a parent and how to parent your child (three totally different things!) all the time.
It gets better because you get better. Problems may become more complicated, but you become so much smarter all the time. With every passing moment, you are building a foundation—a solid relationship with your child, a strong sense of who you are as a parent, and the confidence that comes only with time.
It’s so intense in the beginning. So all-consuming. So bewildering.
Just think about this one thing—when was the last time you drove in a car with a child screaming and crying for no apparent reason other than they don’t like being in cars? I remember the moment in which I realized that I was no longer bracing myself, every time I drove somewhere, for the possibility of a total meltdown that I couldn’t control and just had to live (and drive!) through.
Or this. When is the last time you went to sleep at night absolutely certain that it would not be morning yet when you were awake again? The fact that you get to sleep through the night after babyhood is reason enough to prove it gets better. Anything is better when you’ve had a full night’s sleep. And not the occasional surprise, but on the regular. Of course, older kids get stomach viruses and need to come home from sleepovers and have nightmares. But most nights, you get to sleep.
And this. Babies can’t talk about it. There is nothing you can say to make it better. They can’t explain themselves. You will never ever know why they wouldn’t stop crying for five hours straight in the middle of that one night you will never forget.
You get to sleep, you can drive un-traumatized, and they understand the words coming out of your mouth. Easier.
And yet moms of teenagers are still trying to tell me the same thing—actually, now, they’ve raised the bar to, “It gets harder.” The stakes are higher, they say. If you mess up with a baby, the consequences are short-lived and not serious. When you mess up with a teenager, there can be life-long impact.
I won’t deny any of it—if only because it’s terrifying and I don’t want to set off some kind of karmic wave that will crash down on me as the clock ticks past 12. But it’s just not the same.
There is nothing like the early days of parenthood. It’s so intense and anxiety-filled. Like chalk and cheese.
I remember, when I was pregnant, talking to a mom with sleepless babies. I was complaining about being tired, and then suddenly felt like a total jerk! Who was I to complain? At least I could sleep! She must have been more exhausted than me! But instead, she said something surprising, “There’s nothing like the exhaustion of pregnancy.”
Not even babies who wake up multiple times a night. The exhaustion of pregnancy is so complete. New baby tired is real (I remember my arms being so weak from exhaustion that I was afraid I’d drop my baby!). But pregnant tired is a full body experience that you can’t escape, no matter how much you sleep. You cannot leave your body and your body is climbing a mountain even while you are sitting still. You are tired deep down to the bone.
I was grateful to that mom for saying that. And it even made me feel less dread for the coming sleepless nights. I had been thinking that I was going to be going from one kind of total exhaustion to another—and in some ways, that’s true. But it’s not the same.
The hardest part of new parenthood is that same feeling of being unable to escape. But it’s emotional, not physical. And when that adjustment settles, when you realize that this parenting thing is going to be hard for the rest of your life, the burden suddenly somehow becomes lighter. You no longer feel—every moment of every day—like you can’t escape from it. It settles down into who you are and then you’re just doing it. A person cannot function at peak stress level forever. At some point, it normalizes.
I think pregnancy exhaustion prepares you, body and mind, for new baby exhaustion. And I think new motherhood prepares you for what’s to come in the same way—eventually you adjust to the new normal and it’s not impossible anymore. Not easy, but nothing like those early days. I think new moms need to know that, and we need to stop telling them that it’s always just as hard forever.
Remember back to those early days. For the sake of other moms, remember that it gets better. And say so.