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I should have been prepared. As a family doctor specializing in normal labour and delivery, I follow women during their pregnancies and then deliver their babies. And yet, the birth of my first child threw me for such a loop that by the six-week mark I felt as drained as I did after four years of medical school.
Before kids I was an independent wife and physician. I dealt with patients' physical and mental health issues by day and juggled house chores and volunteer work by night. I was very organized and had little patience for people who were not. I was not sympathetic to patients' tardiness, regardless of the excuse, which usually involved their kids.
I never imagined that my level of efficiency would fall drastically once I had a child. But suddenly, my understanding of and respect for the delicate balance parents manage every day became much more salient. As it turns out, that was only one of the important lessons I learned once I entered the mysterious realm of motherhood.
My pregnancy and delivery were as expected, and I became a mother to a beautiful baby girl. The unexpectedness came three weeks later when my mother, who had moved in to help with the baby, returned home. I was suddenly so profoundly overwhelmed that I questioned if I had made an enormous mistake by having a child.
Outwardly, I was coping. I greeted my husband with a smile when he came home from work. I took the baby to check-ups and playgroups. Inwardly, I was screaming but nobody could hear me. I kept lists of all the things that I had to do, but never had the energy to get anything done. I would frantically walk up and down the aisles of the grocery store grabbing necessities and willing my daughter not to cry. Showering was sometimes my biggest accomplishment of the day. If I managed to empty the dishwasher, too – I felt like I had climbed Mount Everest! All mothers feel overwhelmed to some extent by the birth of their first child. But it took me many months to recover. How could I admit that I was drowning when I was supposed to guide other mothers through this difficult transition? To be clear, I was not suffering from postpartum depression. I was, however, having significant trouble adjusting to my new role as a mother and caregiver.
What surprised me the most, though, was that no one else seemed to be having the same problems: All my girlfriends seemed happy and well adjusted after the birth of their babies. Occasionally, I would hear a mother whisper at the park that she was having trouble, such as getting the baby to latch easily. And there always seemed to be an apology: "We just moved," or "My husband just got a new job." It was not enough that she just entered a significant new stage in her life – she had to invent excuses for why things were not going smoothly.
Many months later, when I finally had the courage to admit to a friend that I was having difficulty (and even then I minimized how I truly felt), she responded: "If I had told you in advance what motherhood was really like, would you have believed me?"
My friend was right. And that to me is the crux of it all: Why do we not embrace the new mother and give her all the support she needs to make the leap as gentle as possible? Instead we heap more and more responsibilities upon her and ignore the consequences both short-term (e.g., postpartum depression) and long-term (e.g., discipline issues). When you go over to visit a new mother do you expect to chit-chat over coffee or do her laundry? Which do you think she would truly prefer?
As the proverb goes: It takes a village to raise a child. It does not take a lone, exhausted, anxiety-struck woman to raise that child while vacuuming with one hand and preparing supper with the other. We must talk more openly about the challenges that new mothers face so that they will feel empowered to ask for assistance whenever they need it. The consequences of not supporting these women trickle down to include significant physical- and mental-health problems in the entire family, for years to come.
The silver lining is that I am now able to anticipate this adjustment difficulty in my patients. Before they even get discharged from the hospital I encourage new mothers to avoid the visitor who expects to be entertained. Instead, I tell them to turn away anyone who is not carrying either a casserole or a mop.
Occasionally, I will see a woman who was previously well organized and efficient walk into my office for her postpartum visit looking unkempt and dishevelled. Gentle probing opens up the floodgate of tears. I comfort the woman and offer some coping techniques. Sometimes I am even holding back my own tears while I have flashbacks of my distress of 16 years ago.
My personal transition was much smoother with my second daughter, and then my son. I knew what to expect and was bolder in asking for help. With my support systems all firmly in place, motherhood is finally more in line with what I expected it would be. Except that I now have two teenaged daughters and am beginning to experience hot flashes.
Judy Hagshi lives in Côte Saint-Luc, Que.