"New motherhood is more difficult than any type of hazing I've ever heard about," my friend Holly commented the other night on the telephone.
She's right. There is a certain amount of shock, determination, and honor in becoming a mother. There is endless laundry, exercises of trust and judgment, and a dogged hope that it will be worth it in the end. What else can you do but throw yourself into the ring and hope for the best?
Incidentally, Holly was one of the friends who held my hand and helped me survive the haze of new motherhood. In the beginning, she gave me pep talks when breastfeeding was much harder than I expected it to be. She helped me diagnose fevers and colds as I worried about the health of my child. Later, she showed me how to be patient with a challenging two-year-old and taught me to embody a calm that I didn't before realize I was capable of.
She and I were part of a devoted group of new moms who met weekly in support of the work each of us was doing. Every Tuesday for over three years, I met with other women who had just become mothers and together we marveled at the radical life change. When a new mom joined us, we cooed over her new baby and then did what we could to soften the initiation and prepare her for the journey. Sometimes this meant clipping Pampers coupons, even though your child had graduated from diapers. Sometimes this meant doubling recipes and delivering dinner to a sleep-deprived family. And sometimes it meant meeting for coffee and making a pact to talk about something other than mothering.
Recently, I missed an opportunity to help a new pledge. I was in a bookstore with my husband on one of those rare trips without children. As I sat in the café flipping through magazines, there was a woman at a table next to us pouring over books as if she was a freshman history major with a midterm in an hour. The titles? Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child (Weissbluth), Solve Your Child's Sleep Problems (Ferber), and Sleeping Through the Night (Mindell).
It was clear what she was going through. These were names that just a few years ago had been thrown around in our circle like the latest celebrities. As I stole glances, I recognized myself and thought of a long walk I myself had taken to the bookstore when Oliver was seven months old. I had stuffed him in the Baby Bjourn and even though his twenty pounds pained my back, I trekked over a mile to my destination. At seven months, my earnest son decided that he did not believe in naps.
What he did believe in, however, was getting up every two hours at night to nurse. He also believed in the Bjourn, which had become a permanent fixture. Nestled close to me on a crisp fall morning he slept as I walked on, determined to make a change. I was quite sure that I would show up in the parenting section and find the perfect book glistening in gold and ready to reveal the magic of a good night's sleep. I am sure I wore that same crazed expression in my eyes as the woman who sat near us as I frantically searched indices for a chapter entitled "How to Make Your Seven-Month-Old Sleep Through the Night Without Having to Listen to His Small, Helpless Voice Cry Out in Frustration and Abandonment."
Of course, that exact chapter never did appear, but in time we did manage to sleep train Oliver. And today I realize that I should have said something to my struggling sister in the bookstore. Something like, "You'll be fine." Or, "It really does get easier." She might not have believed me, but at least she would have known that she wasn't laboring alone.
New mothers need not only prepare themselves with diaper bags and an arsenal of pacifiers; new mothers must arm themselves with other mothers. According to the latest census report, there are over eighty million of us in the United States alone. This does not include the millions of mamas internationally who walk the planet. Find one or two. Pick up the phone. Ask them a question and consider her answer money in the bank. Know of a new mother? Call her. Ask her how she's doing-everyone else will be asking about the baby.
Be brave and talk to struggling women lingering in parenting sections. Hold the door for the double stroller at the museum. As pregnant women we enjoy "Expectant Mother Parking" and signs on the bus that order people to give up their seat for us. This is nice, but it's after giving birth that the real work begins and the sisterhood becomes essential.