[An audio version of this article is available as episode 10 of my podcast.]
Let’s talk about the early months of parenthood and adjusting to life with baby. Of course, a top priority is keeping baby safe, happy, and fed, so look here for the basic newborn care skills. On this page, I’ll cover everything else!
Our topics will be:
- A Day in the Life of a New Family
- Changing Relationships
- Managing Daily Tasks
- Returning to Work
- Finding a New Normal
A Hierarchy of Priorities
The order of topics in this episode reflects what I think of as a new parent’s hierarchy of priorities. All of these things are important, but where do we start?
The baby comes first.
After the baby’s needs are met, then make sure you’re taking care of your own basic needs. A metaphor I use for self care is ‘the oxygen mask.’ On a plane, they say if the oxygen mask drops, you should put on your own, and then help small children… this reflects the fact we have to take good care of ourselves, in order to have enough energy left to properly care for our babies and everything else that’s asked of us.
The next step is to think about relationships and the other people in your “village”: connecting, maintaining connections, communicating with them, and asking for support when you need it.
Then, you think about external tasks like getting the house clean and meeting obligations at work.
Finally, once you’re feeling like everything’s reasonably under control, you’ll have a chance to really grow as a family and decide what kind of parent you want to be – you’ll work on finding “a new normal” and Becoming the Parent You Want to Be.
A Day in The Life of a New Family
The early weeks of life with a baby can feel like you’re lost in a fog: a never-ending cycle of feed the baby, change the baby, set the baby down for a nap, start to do something, baby wakes up, feed the baby, try to eat a meal while holding a newborn, give up, change the baby, feed the baby, lay down for a nap, get woken up, feed the baby, change the baby… and it goes on in that never-ending cycle through the day and through the night till it’s hard to keep track of whether it IS day or night.
With my first baby, it was especially hard. It was so hard for me to figure out what he needed. Sometimes he would cry and cry while my partner and I randomly guessed what to try.
With my second and third child, I knew so much more! I’d learned how to recognize and interpret their communication cues and I’d learned how to tell the difference between light sleep and deep sleep and how to help settle them to sleep (you can learn all these things in episode 9 of this podcast). It was so much easier!
But that doesn’t mean it was easy. Even if you were the perfect parent, there would still be times where your baby would cry – especially around 6 weeks because a newborn baby has an immature brain, and when they overload, they cry.
And babies have crazy sleep cycles. They are growing rapidly and need to eat frequently all day and night. A newborn’s sleep cycle lasts 45 – 55 minutes vs. 90 minutes for adults. In episode 9 of my podcast (transcript), I talked about ways to help your baby sleep longer, but even with those, you’re guaranteed to have disrupted sleep in those early weeks of parenting.
And sleep deprivation is hard. When you’re tired, you can’t think as well, you can’t problem-solve as well, all the emotions run really high, and you’re cranky and likely to vent at the people you most count on for support, who may be sleep deprived themselves!
Some things you can do to help: get some fresh air and exercise every day – I know it’s hard to want to exercise when you’re tired, but it will help you sleep better! Eat as healthy as you can, reduce stress as much as you can, prioritize sleep over housekeeping and other tasks, and ask for help from others. Could anyone help with overnight care for a night or two? Could anyone take care of the baby for a few hours some day so you can nap?
Sleep is just the first step in self care. Lots of other basic self care may be a lot harder with a newborn than you imagined. Many new parents feel like it’s hard to even do the basics like eat, shower, and go to the bathroom. Get advice from parents of multiple children – they’ve had to figure this stuff out!
A couple tips to start with: it may help to have a bouncer seat or other place in the bathroom where you feel comfortable setting your baby down… personally, I just throw a towel on the floor to lay them on. But I’ve talked to so many new parents who don’t feel like they can set the baby down long enough to go to the bathroom, so they hold it for hours. Or, they worry that if they take a shower, baby will start screaming halfway through – in my experience, if you feed the baby, then set them down while you shower, pretty soon the white noise of the bathroom fan and the water puts them right to sleep.
For eating, plan to have lots of simple foods in the house that you can eat with one hand, and that taste good at room temperature and don’t get icky if left for a few minutes. I once came to a new mom’s house in the later afternoon and asked her what she’d eaten that day, and she said she’d poured herself a bowl of cereal in the morning, but never ate it, and then it got soggy, and she felt bad throwing it out, but couldn’t bring herself to eat it. Eat whatever you can make work for you – if it’s not perfect nutrition for a few weeks, don’t worry about it – you’ll still make great milk for the baby.
I love having a warm cup of tea, but if I put it in a regular cup, it’s virtually guaranteed that I’d end up taking care of baby and my tea would cool down. I love my insulated cup which will keep it warm for hours, and doesn’t spill when it’s knocked over. I also like having a water bottle that’s easy to carry while carrying a baby, and that I can drink out of even when I’m laying down with a sleeping baby on my chest.
On top of physical self-care, there’s also emotional self-care. Having a new baby is HARD. You’re not sleeping well, you’re learning new skills on the job, and not feeling successful at them yet (especially when your baby is crying), all of your normal routines are disrupted, and if you just gave birth, your hormones are going wild and your body is recovering from a big event.
It is normal and expected for this to put you on an emotional roller coaster. There are the highs – the things we expected would surround our new baby – love, joy, excitement. But there are also lows – the anxiety, the grief for our old life or for unmet goals, the regrets, the feelings of inadequacy. I once led a childbirth class reunion, and all the parents were talking about how great everything was going, then one dad told his truth. He said “I love love love this little girl. More than I ever imagined it was possible to love someone. And I hate hate hate being a dad. I miss my old life and I miss feeling like I knew what I was doing.” And then all the other parents breathed out a YES of agreement and talked honestly about all the highs and lows of this new life.
In those early weeks, you’ll flow from one feeling to another from one moment to the next.
With my third baby, during my late pregnancy, instead of listening to news that was stressful, I listened to music that made me happy. After he was born, the first time I left him at home with dad and was driving to a work meeting. I was feeling really great when I left the house, and then I was driving along, listening to the news since he wasn’t with me… and then suddenly sobbing because for the first time after all those months of pregnancy, he wasn’t with me!
That emotional chaos is called the Baby Blues. The statistic you’ll see is that 70 – 90% of new parents get it, but I’ve never met a parent who hasn’t had at least moments of it. For Baby Blues, seek out support from friends, family, and other parents. Don’t be afraid to talk about the hard parts – acknowledging the challenges doesn’t make you a bad parent!! Some parents feel guilty about it, saying “I shouldn’t complain… I’m the one who decided to have this baby… I need to just be happy.” It’s healthier to just acknowledge that parenting is hard, and that we can desperately love our babies and also have hard times with them, and that’s OK!
Some parents will experience more than the Baby Blues. They will experience what’s called a Perinatal Mood and Anxiety Disorder (PMAD): this might be postpartum depression, or anxiety, or obsessive-compulsive disorder. Again, this doesn’t make you a bad parent, and it’s not unusual. Up to 20% of new moms and 5% of new dads experience this.
How would you know you were experiencing this? There’s a full list of symptoms here. An easy summary is that if you’re crying more than the baby cries or sleeping less than the baby sleeps. So, if the baby is asleep but you can’t fall asleep because you’re just too anxious. Or if you’re crying a lot and your energy is dragged down so much that even if you could take a shower or eat a meal, you don’t care enough to do so. Those are signs that you need more help. You can also check yourself on the Edinburgh postnatal depression scale.
If you think you might have a perinatal mood disorder, there’s help! Postpartum Support International has a helpline you can call – 1-800-944-4773 – or you can go to their website at https://www.postpartum.net/ to learn about resources for support, including support groups, therapists and medications. The sooner you seek help for yourself, the sooner you can feel better.
Note: after recording the podcast, I created a new handout about protective factors and skills to reduce the risk of PMAD’s. You may find it helpful.
Taking Care of You
Beyond basic physical care, and emotional health, new parents also deserve the right to have fun and to do things they like to do just because it makes them happy! Make sure you prioritize this too. And it’s OK to ask others to support you with these goals as well.
I try to encourage all parents to think of what’s the thing they most love to do, and how will they make the time and space for that after the baby is born – whether it’s seeing movies, or playing on a soccer team, or practicing piano, or going to book group, or hunting, or whatever! Ask someone to watch your baby from time to time so you can keep pursuing the hobbies that are important to you. It will help you feel happier and more relaxed (remember that oxygen mask metaphor?), and it also sets an example for your child of a well-balanced life.
When you have your first baby, it may seem like all your relationships change.
If you are parenting with a partner, that relationship will change the most drastically, as you figure out how to add in baby care on top of your already busy schedule and shared household tasks and still somehow find time and energy to be a couple.
With friends who are parents themselves, you may find you have more in common now, but with friends who are not parents, it may be hard to relate to each other’s lives. Your own parents are now grandparents, and they can sometimes be the best source of support, but sometimes they may let you down, or you may find yourself in more conflict with them than before. And your co-workers likely want to be supportive of you but may feel frustrated if you are not able to work as effectively as before for a while as you adapt to your new life.
To maintain and strengthen all the relationships, there are a few things that help. First, communicate: let the person know that they are still important to you and you do still want a connection with them, and you’re sorry if that’s hard for now.
The next thing is to try to figure out how to spend time with people who are important to you. Sometimes you have to be creative! Instead of going out to a nice restaurant on a Friday night, it might be Sunday brunch at a family restaurant. I had one friend where what we ended up working out is that once a week at my baby’s naptime I’d pop the baby in the carseat, drive to pick up my friend, and then we’d go through a drive-thru and sit and eat in the parking lot for an hour while the baby slept. I know two moms who felt like they could never get together because they always had house chores they felt like they should be doing. So, they took turns hanging out at each other’s messy houses – one would clean while the other tended the babies. Or if both the babies were happy, they’d both clean while they talked! Your new social life may look different than your old one, but that doesn’t mean you can’t have one!
If you have limited time to spend with someone and little energy to give, then it helps to give priority to the activities and interactions that will best connect you. There’s a book called The Five Love Languages which I think has very helpful tips for understanding how each of you best communicates love and best hears love from someone else. I’ve got information on this and lots of other relationship skills on my blog Good Days With Kids.
One of the other ideas there is about conflict resolution. If we come at someone venting “you never ____” or “you always_____” the conversation doesn’t tend to go well from there! Suddenly, you’re in a battle for who is the greatest martyr in the relationship. Instead, start the conversation with the approach of “we’re allies and we want to work together to make things work well.” Use the structure of “When you _____, I feel _____, I need _____, I wish _____.” You’re beginning with “when you” and then describing really specifically what behavior is troubling you. Try to describe it objectively without judgment or without making assumptions about their intentions. So instead of saying “when you leave your crap laying around”, try saying “when I come in the living room and see your laundry basket on the coffee table and your shoes in the middle of the floor….” Then say how that makes you feel – just what emotion you’re feeling. “I feel frustrated.” Tell them what you need: “I need the living room to feel less chaotic because I spend so much time in there with the baby and the clutter stresses me out.” Then tell them what you wish was happening instead: “I wish you could help me keep the house tidy.” And then talk about how you can work together to improve things to benefit both of you.
One study said one of the biggest indicators of relationship health is a couple who refers to Us and Our Goals more often than they talk about Me, and You, and My Goals and What You Need to Do. All relationships can benefit by remembering the mutual goals.
In addition to maintaining old relationships, you’ll want to also build new relationships with other parents of young kids. Having peer support is so incredibly helpful. In these early days, you’ll commiserate over crying and night waking. Before you know it, those other parents will be a source of support and advice as you work your way through toddler tantrums, then potty training, then starting kindergarten, then driver’s ed, and sending your child off to college! I so value the people who have been side-by-side with me through my parenting journey.
To meet other parents, seek out parent education programs in your area, parent support groups, mommy and me classes, and postpartum fitness classes like stroller strides, or find a church with other young families, or spend time at a playground. When you meet other parents in classes, you’ll start those connections, but to really build long-term friendships, it helps to have time one-on-one or in small groups. So, ask someone out to coffee after class, or see if they want to join you and your baby for a walk, or a playdate. You may discover you don’t hit it off – that’s OK. Keep looking.
There may also be old friends or family who you no longer “hit it off” with. It’s OK. Focus on maintaining the best relationships in your life – the people you can laugh with, and cry with, and count on for support. Having them in your life will make you happier, and will also enrich your baby’s life.
OK, so the priorities we’ve talked about so far are taking care of the baby, taking care of yourself, and tending to the important relationships in your life. I guess now it’s time to think about cleaning the house…
Juggling Daily Tasks
One of the hard things about parenting is the drudgery – the never-ending cycle of laundry and dishes and other household tasks. You feel like you’re busy all day long and then have nothing to show for it at the end of the day other than that most of the clothes are clean – for the moment. People who are breastfeeding release a hormone called prolactin which helps with milk production – it also helps increase their tolerance for drudgery!
I’ve heard of two successful approaches to getting through tasks. One is to never let anything sit… for example, always washing the dishes immediately after a meal. Yes, you’re tired then and don’t want to do that. But, it’s better to do it right away then look at a sink full of dirty dishes all day.
The other approach is to let things sit until their designated time, and then always deal with them at their designated time. For me, when my older kids were little, it really helped to think that “Tuesday is laundry day. On all other days of the week, I don’t have to think about laundry and I don’t have to worry that the baskets are getting full, because it’s not laundry day. I know they’ll get taken care of on Tuesday.” (And yes, of course, there are emergency laundry needs that insert themselves in your week, and you deal with those when they come.) But the policy really helped me breathe a sigh of relief on those other days. It lightened my mental load.
“Mental load” is a way of describing that managing a household is about more than just doing the work, it’s also about remembering what all work needs to be done! Scheduling the appointments, buying toilet paper before you run out, doing laundry so the soccer jersey is clean in time for the game… That mental to-do list can be a heavy load! If you’re parenting with a partner, make sure you share the load fairly.
Unlike the dads of the 50’s and 60’s, most modern dads do a big chunk of the actual physical chores. However, in the U.S., the majority of the mental load is carried by moms. Dads often say “I’ll help out anytime she asks”, but it’s better to notice the tasks before she asks, and make a plan in advance for who carries which mental loads as well as which person is responsible for each physical task. (Read this comic: You Should’ve Asked.)
All tasks are harder to do with a baby than without them. Even running a simple errand becomes amazingly complex. Again, ask experienced parents of multiple children how they juggle everything. They’ll have lots of tips for you, from give your kid a snack in the grocery cart to do all your grocery shopping online from have your partner watch the baby once a week while you shop to just do little shopping trips every day as part of your routine. You can also search the internet for “Newborn Hacks” and “Parenting Hacks” to get lots of ideas – some incredibly helpful… some not so much…
Here are a few tips from me:
- Have nursing stations with all the supplies you need for a long nursing session (comfortable chair, reading materials, water bottle, remote control….)
- Always re-pack your diaper bag, when you get home, even if you’re tired, so it’s always ready to go.
- Get a good baby sling or front pack. Wearing your baby can keep him happier and leave you with free hands to get work done.
- Ask family & friends for help with meals, cleaning, etc.
- Hire a postpartum doula to consult prenatally on things you can do to get the house set up to run smoothly after baby is born. Then have them come back for a few visits after the birth.
- Remember that parenting a newborn is a full-time job. It can help to lower your expectations of your ability to get other things done. Lower your standards for doing things “right” and just do the best you can. Focus on your priorities first, and don’t sweat the small stuff.
- Make a plan before the birth on how you’ll share responsibilities. (Worksheet.)
Return to Work Outside the Home
As you’re trying to get your house in order, you also have to juggle in work outside the home. For many of us, that involves finding child care. There are lots of helpful articles online about choosing childcare. (My recommendations for choosing child care.) You can also ask local friends, family, and co-workers for advice and referrals to good options.
The practical details of juggling work and baby can depend on a lot of things: how many hours you work and on what shift, whether your work is mentally taxing, physically tiring or both, whether your work is something you only do to pay the bills or something that you take joy in, how long your commute is, and much more. Your best source of advice for return to work issues is to talk to experienced parents who work in the same field or the same circumstances you do, and learn from their experience.
Work is not just a practical issue, there’s also lots of emotional stuff and identity that gets tied up in our work. Parents who go back to work often feel sad about being away from the baby and missing out on “firsts”. They may feel like they’re not doing their best job at work and that they’re not being the best parent they can be, so there can be a lot of guilt and stress. On the upside, they may appreciate returning to a job that they have lots of experience in and are good at, and they may like the opportunity to be out in the world and socializing with other adults vs. being home with a demanding baby all day. For parents who don’t work outside the home, they may have days of resenting that baby-free time that working parents get, and they may feel stressed by being financially dependent on others. All these feelings are normal, and it’s helpful to talk them over with others who have been in similar circumstances.
Finding a New Normal
New parents often ask “When will things get back to normal??” The reality is that things will never again return to your pre-baby definition of normal.
But there will come a time when you can find “a new normal.” Maybe around 4 months, maybe around 6 months, you’ll have a time where you feel like you’re starting to master this parenting thing, and it’s become a part of who you are and how your life works.
As you get to this point, you start to relax and enjoy your new role, and watching your child learn and grow. It won’t be easy every day, for sure. You’ll have times where things are going well, and you’re feeling pretty together. And you’ll have times where everything is hard. These are called “periods of disequilibrium” where your child is on the cusp of some new developmental stage, but they’re hard to live with in the moment. Look for books and classes, and seek out advice for making it through this hard stretch, and trust all those experienced parents who say “don’t worry, it’s just a phase.”
Several times, I’ve recommended “get advice from other parents” because I do believe that’s one of the best sources for help and support. But not everything that people advise will feel right to you and your situation. As you get advice from others, take it all in, do what feels best to you, and let go of the things that don’t work for you. Find your own way of being the best parent you can be. There is no one right way to parent, but each of us can evolve to become the unique parent our unique child needs us to be. You’ll have bad days now and then, but in the long run, with lots of love, you’ll have more good days than bad. And that’s the best any parent can hope for.
To learn more:
- Seek out parenting classes (try checking through your local hospital, schools, or social service agencies.)
- Check out my blog www.GoodDaysWithKids.com to learn about parenting skills for kids up to age 8.
- Information on child safety and injury prevention
- Coping with and Calming Infant Crying
- What equipment do you actually need for life with baby?