Thursday, December 28, 2006

"Nothing prepares you"

"Nothing prepares you" is the title of one of the chapters in the new book "What Mothers Do, especially when it looks like nothing" by Naomi Stadlen.
This is the phrase she most often hears from new mothers when they discuss how they feel about becoming a mother. They often say that it was " a shock" to find out what mothering really entailed. Another article called "The reality of motherhood: What Nobody Tells you discusses how we usually underestimate how much our lives will change when the baby arrives. We have read the books, taken the classes, watched the videos, yet there is an underlying feeling that perhaps there was something missing in our preparations...surely it wasn't meant to be quite like this???

Recently Setagaya ward's volunteer bureau in Tokyo held a seminar where the speakers discussed their experiences of being mothers in a foreign country. Many of the Japanese women in the audience reported similar experiences when their families were posted overseas. The consensus was that in addition to culture shock, there should be a whole separate category called "new mother shock". Compounded with some degree of pre-existing culture shock, it can leave a new (foreign) mother feeling quite overwhelmed. Even if you expected your baby to bring some degree of change to your life, the extent of the real impact of baby's arrival on your life and your emotions can far outstrip what you anticipated. You may indeed feel that "nothing prepares you".

The first newborn baby you ever held may have been your own baby. Few of us have spent time with newborn babies, so we may not know instinctively what is normal. We may not have family or friends nearby to support us. So that is when we turn to the books or the internet to get some perspective. There is a huge market in writing for new parents, because everyone is worried, and lots of unqualified "experts" are cashing in on these vulnerabilities, telling us that they have the answers, their methods are the secret to unlocking the mysteries of parenthood.

How do you know your baby is doing OK? Is it normal to have a baby feeding frequently every evening? How can it be normal to poop so much? When is spitting up too much? What will I do if there is an emergency? Will I even recognise there is actually an emergency? What if I don't speak Japanese well (or at all)? Where can I find the help I need? How long before life returns to "normal" and I can "get things done" again? Why am I so forgetful now, even though before the baby arrived I was a highly competent and organised business professional? These are just a some of the things that might run through your mind.

And to top it off, all this occurs while you are recovering physically, emotionally and mentally from your birth, possibly replaying the experience over and over in your mind, adjusting to living with interrupted sleep and hormones that are in flux, and being totally responsible for this new little person, 24/7. Learning to breastfeed, learning to recognise your baby's signals, getting to know your baby's needs and how to satisfy them, dealing with the nights, coordinating feeding, changing, sleeping, eating meals yourself, maintaining yourself, your relationship with your partner, your home...this intense on-the-job training happens when you may feel at your most vulnerable, and at times it is hard to pick out the exact bit of information you need from all the things you have heard, read and stored for future reference.

If we were all parenting our new babies in extended communities, we would probably have been exposed to little babies and the things they do while we were growing up. We might have some inner sense of "this is what babies do". In an extended family or community, other women may
be able to share their wisdom and experience when our babies are born, help us out with the myriad of tasks we are learning, and support us in a positive way as we learn to become mothers. But being in Japan, you may find yourself more isolated than if you were in your home country.

During pregnancy, most first-time mothers are focussed on the birth. It can be so all-consuming that we tend not to think about what comes after: we trust the next part will all come naturally, and look after itself. Compared to the birth, how hard could it be???

Before the baby arrives, many women say they are determined to keep some sense of routine and order after the baby is born (which explains the appeal of those books with carefully planned daily schedules). They start from the premise that being in control is essential to being a parent. "No baby is going to run my life!" Having a baby is the beginning of a life-long relationship. What other relationship in your life is based on "control"? Each baby is an individual, each wired differently, and a control-based one-size-fits-all approach to parenting can make life very stressful for a new mum. It is easy to think that because your baby doesn't do everything that the book says, or doesn't respond to the methods in a particular book, there is something wrong with your baby. Maybe there is something wrong with the book???

By not anticipating and preparing for the reality of life with a newborn and the changes that will arrive in your life, new motherhood can come as a massive shock. Before your baby arrives, read some books on gentle parenting, attend La Leche League meetings or join a new mothers group in your area where you can see mothers and babies in action and hear their stories, join online discussion forums where you can have your questions answered sensitively. Do this at a time when you are still able to think straight, and be open to different never know what might work for you in the future! These links are just somewhere to start to help lessen the new mother shock, and then after the birth these same places may be able to offer you support as you adjust to your new life as a mother.

Our babies truly benefit from us being flexible, spontaneous and open to new ideas as we learn to be their parents. If we listen to our babies, and watch them, and grow and learn with them, our lives can be so enriched, and sometimes just a little less stressful!

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