My sainted mother is driving across the Midwest today, returning home after helping us for nearly three weeks since T arrived. We miss her already: her calm and peaceful presence, her willingness to help in any capacity, and her amazing culinary skills. The pizza man is now on speed dial, and my sanity fears for the shreds it will become as I jump into the messy boot camp of learning to parent two.
But today, in her absence, I simply feel grateful that she was able to be with us and help us in so many ways while we started our new chapter of life as a family of four.
As she folded piles of laundry, sang endless choruses of S’s favorite songs, changed diapers, cooked dinners, and kept us all sane, I found the same thought returning to me day after day: I am so dang lucky. To have full-time help with child care and housework and cooking and cleaning for weeks after a new baby’s arrival – it’s an utter luxury, and I recognize that we are so blessed to have her generosity showered on us.
But at the same time, I felt myself wondering what it would be like if she hadn’t been here. She came to help us in the same way after S was born, so I’ve never known a postpartum time without her help. I shudder to think of the self I encounter in my vision of Newbornhood Without Gramma: exhausted, poorly nourished, weepy, irritable, stressed and probably depressed. Yet I know it is the reality for the first few weeks of life with a new baby that many women face. (And frankly, the version of myself that I’ll encounter in the next few weeks of maternity leave will probably more closely resemble this than I’d like to admit…)
At a La Leche League meeting we attended last week, a group of new mothers shared a common complaint: the lack of community to help young families when in-laws live across the country and we don’t know our neighbors as in generations past. I’ve heard this lament over and over from new parents ever since I had S: I need help, but I don’t know where to turn to find it.
It saddens me to think how much harder and lonelier the early years of parenting have become since most of us don’t have our mothers down the street or our best friends from grade school across town to help us get through the difficult days. As we’ve spread out geographically, we’re connected by phone or Skype, email or text, but we aren’t physically present to each other in the ways that parents – especially mothers – need in those first weeks of life with baby.
If we’re determined – and lucky – we learn to create our own support networks. We join classes and groups to meet others in our same situation. We reach out and connect to people who share our values. We build up a community to replace the tribe that nature intended us to have as we’re raising our children.
It’s not easy. It takes time. And it sometimes means shelling out for a babysitter or a cleaning lady. But I firmly believe we need to do this not just for the good of our families, but for our own well-being as parents.
Our mothering spirits need to be mothered. We need someone to bring us healthy food for our hungry bellies and cool washcloths for our feverish foreheads. We need shoulders to cry on and arms to hold us tight. We need wise women to teach us how to nurse, how to soothe a colicky baby, how to juggle the demands of two or three or more.
If we want to care for our children, we need others to care for us as well. Sometimes it’s our spouse, sometimes a good friend. Sometimes, if we’re lucky, it’s our own mom. But we can’t do it alone. And when we try – because we all inevitably try – to tell ourselves that we don’t need help, that we’re strong enough to make it on our own – we stress out, we lash out, we burn out. I’ve been there; you’ve been there; it isn’t pretty. We’re created for community, made to lean on each other, and admitting this is a strength, not a weakness.
As I hugged my mom last night before she set out at the crack of dawn to journey home, I tried to find the words to tell her how invaluable her help and presence had been to us over the past three weeks. She simply replied, “It was done for me in my time. It’s a joy to be able to do it for you in turn.”
Once again proving that she is one of the wisest mothering spirits I’ll ever be blessed to know.