by Sarah Werthan Buttenwieser
The other day, a friend of mine with a three month-old son said, “I know people told me that parenting goes on all the time, and I thought I was prepared. I didn’t realize, not really, that the baby does not go away, ever.” I nodded. I was one of the people who’d mentioned parenting goes on all the time to her. “It’s so much more intense than I imagined,” she added.
She’s a besotted mom, with a sweet little boy who sleeps pretty well and a very supportive husband. Their support network is bountiful. Even with every single thing in your favor, this conversation reminded me about how parenthood reshapes not only your daily routine, but also your sense of self. While there are many tutorials on all things baby, there is not necessarily a ready space or forum with support available for the seismic shift that is to go from caring primarily for one’s self to obtaining complete responsibility for a helpless, small and cute and always needy infant. As my friend reflected, “I thought babies sleep 20 hours a day at first, so really I’d have eight to work without a hitch. I was so wrong.”
She added, “It’s really helpful to talk to other moms.”
How can new parents help themselves and each other? That’s the question I set out to ask, one that really cannot be posed without a stop-take-deep-breath acknowledgement of how profound a transition it is to become a parent.
“What you thought about yourself and even what you knew about yourself ... it’s all different than you knew or you imagined. Adjustment to parenthood is one big practice in embracing this giant change.”
In her psychotherapy practice, Hilary Callan has worked with new moms, individually and in groups. She frames becoming a parent as a life-changing moment because a profound identity shift takes place. She explains, “What you thought about yourself and even what you knew about yourself—who you were before you had a baby, what kind of parent you thought you’d be, what your baby might be like—it’s all different than you knew or you imagined. Adjustment to parenthood is one big practice in embracing this giant change.”
She explains that friendship, too, is different in the early parenting era. “This common interest—babies, parenthood—trumps what you had in common with other people. You want to talk about diapers and sleep and teething. The other things that were important aren’t always quite so critical during this period. So, you may be surprised about those new friendships.”
Despite a rosy ideal of new babies bringing joy, Callan is quick to point out that the reality is never solely rosy. From a place that includes exhaustion and stress, with new friends experiencing the same, it’s possible that no one has huge amounts of energy to offer up. She says, “You are so tired and so preoccupied and so challenged by this new responsibility that you do want to lower expectations about what friendship looks like. You’re looking for people that nourish you as you adjust to the most major life change you will likely ever experience.” She adds, “When you are tired and stretched thin, it’s hard to take the time and the energy to notice what feels good in your friendships and what doesn’t. It’s a very vulnerable time.”
Author Elizabeth Mosier looked at the critical role friendship plays for new mothers in her novella, The Playgroup. Here’s an excerpt from her novella:
"Motherhood is like a second adolescence, a time when the self a woman thinks she owns is repossessed by so-called authorities ... At times we seemed less like mothers than like insecure teenagers at a beer keg tapping liquid courage, though at playgroup we swilled coffee while we sought each other's advice."
Mosier says, “My experience was that motherhood breaks you; you have to put yourself back together in a new, more adaptive, form.” She recalls, “Before I had kids, I would see this group of women gathering with their babies and toddlers in my neighbor's backyard every Thursday morning; I studied them from my kitchen window like an anthropologist would, wondering Why do they get together when their children aren't really old enough to play? Then, when I had my first child, I suddenly understood.” She also joined a playgroup.
She says, “Perhaps it was the startling realization that I would never again be a singular being that made me more aware of how we are connected to each other as women, as community members, as humans. I dedicated my book to my compadres in my real-life playgroup because they were essential to me while I rebuilt myself without losing my mind. These women taught me, learned with me, and (most important of all) helped me to laugh at myself.”
"Motherhood is like a second adolescence, a time when the self a woman thinks she owns is repossessed by so-called authorities"
Finding fellow parents sometimes is as simple as a babies’ group run through the local hospital or Parents’ Center.
Swansea Benham Bleicher runs such a drop-in center for parents. She’s been the director for seven years. There, small kids have a safe place to play together and parents have a safe place, too, to talk. It’s work that she finds exceedingly meaningful, in large part because new parent friends meant so much to her when she became a parent. She says, “When my kids were babies, my friendships to other moms going through the same thing at the same time were critical to my getting a handle on parenthood. My oldest is a teenager and my moms’ group still gets together without the kids every couple of weeks for dinner. These are key relationships for me. The relationships happened to begin because we all cared about diapers leaking.”
Her identity shift felt dramatic, as so many externals had changed around the time her first child arrived. She’d moved to a new place and she’d decided to let go of her career, in order to be home with her new baby. She was primarily at home for nine years.
She says, “Our parents center has always had some dads attend, it being a college town and a pretty progressive place, but these days, with the weak economy, there are more dads serving the primary caregiver role with babies and toddlers. It’s important for them to have the chance to find other dads also serving as primary caregiver.” She continues, “Everyone comes here, the dads, the moms, with a great range of circumstances economically and in terms of age and religion, race and class. Parenthood really is the common denominator here. These conversations and the space to have conversations is a lifesaver for so many people, and it’s a sanity saver most especially in the winter when it’s much harder to connect to other parents with small kids casually.”
Sarah Werthan Buttenwieser is a graduate of Hampshire College and the MFA for Writers Program at Warren Wilson College. Along with a personal blog Standing in the Shadows, she writes for such publications as Babble, Huffington Post, Brain Child magazine, Literary Mama, and Preview Massachusetts magazine. As a writer and mama to four, she is pretty constantly busy. http://standshadows.tumblr.com/