While the thing that books and friends dwell on when you are pregnant is how painful labor and childbirth will be, those are relatively easy parts of motherhood. My list of things that are much more challenging to a first-time mother:
1) Sleep deprivation. Prior to having a baby, most of us sleep the average of 7-8 hours per night. After having a baby, we all undergo some serious sleep deprivation. Especially in the beginning, we often don’t get more than 2-3 hours of sleep in a row for days. In academia, where people like to brag about pulling all-nighters for their lab work, completing papers/thesis/grants, doing clinical work, etc, having to lose a bit of sleep for a baby doesn’t sound like a big deal. However, the sleep deprivation that comes from work pales in comparison to the sleep deprivation as a new mom. Why? Because one gets to recover after periods of sleep deprivation related to work. Sure, you may pull all-nighters and not sleep for a couple of days or even weeks, but then you get to recover. As a new mom, there is no recovery period – at least not in the foreseeable future. During maternity leave, there certainly is the opportunity to take naps during the day, but these naps are ineffective towards reproducing the effects of a long stretch of relaxed sleep. The other big factor that exacerbates sleep deprivation is 3) below.
2) Breastfeeding. For most new moms, breastfeeding is extremely painful – physically and emotionally. There is extensive literature out there to help with the challenges of breastfeeding so I won’t recreate it. Just be aware if you are pregnant for the first time that you should learn as much as you can about breastfeeding before giving birth so that you aren’t shocked to realize that it doesn’t just happen naturally. The emotional pain has to do with the fact that you may be scared to death not knowing whether you are able to provide adequate nourishment for your new baby. If you are unable to breastfeed for whatever reason, you may feel guilty about not doing it. (I don’t have any friends who chose not to breastfeed outright, but there are many such moms out there. If you are among them, I don’t judge you. I felt the need to breastfeed my babies at all costs, so I did).
3) Your life is no longer under your control. Loosing complete control over your schedule, to the point of not being able to eat, sleep, or even use the restroom when you’d like is devastating. I know that it sounds crazy that things could get to that point, but they do! You may also feel like you are never going to be able to leave the house again. Part of the challenge of adjusting to motherhood is to learn how to get your life back in order. During the first few weeks of maternity leave, don’t even think about getting back to work. Thinking of work will just stress you out because it will seem like an impossible thing accomodate in your new life. Your job during this time is to get to know your baby.
4) Feeling that no one understands what you are going through. Despite the fact that you may have a supportive partner, family and friends, you are still likely to feel that none of them understand the issues you are dealing with. For example, there can be a lack of sympathy for how sleep deprived you are because others think that maternity leave is a vacation when you get to nap whenever you feel like it. If anything, co-workers/bosses are known to assume that you will be very productive during maternity leave because you’ll have so much spare time (ha!). While during the day others are “there” for you, when you are up all alone in the middle of the night with the baby, you may feel lonesome. The best thing you can do in the beginning is to join a new mothers group. I can’t emphasize enough the importance of finding a group of supportive moms: these strangers will become your close allies who want to hear all about your baby’s feed/sleep/bowel schedule.
Nothing I say can really convey the difficulty of being a first time mom, and I have a hard time remembering the blur that were the first few weeks of my babies’ lives. The challenges certainly pass as one adjusts to motherhood, in most cases to the point that one is willing to repeat the process and have a second baby.