Becoming a mother is hard. It is demanding on both our body and our emotions and the societal “norms” present in Western culture do us no favors, adding heaps of stress and worry to our already frazzled minds. Is the baby sleeping too much? Do I need to feed them at spaced time intervals? Should I wake them up from their nap? What should their schedule look like at 6 weeks old? They aren’t sleeping through the night yet, what am I doing wrong? I’m not supposed to hold the baby for too long. I shouldn’t be nursing the baby to sleep. And so on and so on.
As a parenting coach and educator, the number 1 thing that comes up with parents with children of all ages is the importance of adjusting our expectations for stress-free mothering. I cannot tell you how much relief I see parents feel when they learn to adjust their expectations rather than fretting over what they, or their child, should or shouldn’t be doing, or how things are going for them.
Let’s take a look at the 3 top expectations that I find parents holding onto which causes stress when there doesn’t need to be.
1) Breastfeeding is easy because it is natural.
This is just simply not true. Breastfeeding can be easy, but it can also be very challenging and for a variety of reasons. I cannot count the number of mothers who are stressed out and feel like biology has failed them because breastfeeding was not something that came easily to them. Breastfeeding is a learned skill. For thousands of years humans lived communally and had generations of mothers surrounding a new mother as she and her infant learned the art of breastfeeding. They had support and knowledge being passed down to them. Today many of us must seek out our own education and support. There is a good chance that the last generation or two in our families were utilizing formula and bottles because it was being promoted as what was best for baby so the generational information about how to breastfeed may have gotten lost. Today we have to seek out our own education, taking breastfeeding classes and reading books or internet resources. We seek out our own support in the form of lactation consultants, postpartum doulas, support groups like La Leche League, or even turning to the sage advise of fellow moms on Facebook. There is this assumption that because breastfeeding is what is natural, well then it must be easy. And when it turns out that actually, it can be really hard, we blame ourselves. We need to adjust the expectation so that instead of getting down on ourselves when we face a breastfeeding challenge, we are able to accept it as part of the mothering journey.
Adjusted Expectation: Breastfeeding, while a natural part of infant feeding, presents many challenges and with support and education I can be successful with it.
2) Don’t hold your baby too much, you will make them “clingy.”
When a baby is born it enters what is called the 4th trimester. Unlike some mammals such as deer, human babies continue to do an enormous amount of growing and developing outside of the womb. In fact, your baby’s biological survival instincts require it to be held and attended to constantly. Just because society has progressed does not mean that our biological instincts have. Infants have a desire to be held constantly because they are literally helpless and defenseless without us. Holding them does not make them “clingy,” they are born that way. Some babies have a greater desire for physical touch than others, that doesn’t mean that you as a parent did anything “wrong” to cause that, it is just their personality. Just like adults have different personalities and needs, so do babies. But so many mothers feel guilt because they hold their babies all the time, feel shame because their baby does not want to be put down, and feel chagrin because they just want to hold their baby, but society tells them not to. The reality is that research shows that holding your baby is what they need for healthy brain development. When we respond to their need for closeness, we actually prompt the development of trust and a healthy sense of self which leads to greater independence later on. We just have to stop expecting our babies to not act like babies and accept that independence is a skill that isn’t developed until later in childhood.
Adjusted Expectation: My baby has a need for closeness, and it is important for me to meet that need, both day and night.
3) Infants should be able to sleep through the night.
This is a very hot topic these days and one that has people feeling very torn. Emotions run high when you discuss infant sleep, in part because being the mother of an infant is exhausting! Again, thousands of years have gone by where humans lived communally, often with multiple generations of help being given to a new mother. Grandmothers, aunts, sisters, older children, even great-grandparents could be called upon to lend a hand so that Mama could get some much needed rest. In our Western culture mothers are often left unsupported in the area of sleep. We are often raising babies in isolation which means that we are not getting the restorative sleep that we desperately crave. Those who have family or close friends nearby may find themselves lucky enough to nap while someone else tends to the baby but when nighttime rolls around it is usually just the parents and the baby. There is a reason postpartum doulas and nighttime nurses exist and that is because it is biologically normal for babies to wake frequently throughout the night. Now there are the lucky select few who have champion baby sleepers but for the majority of us, this is not the case. We have babies who wake multiple times a night and just when you think you’ve got their sleep schedule figured out, they have a sleep regression, start teething, or develop a new skill which must only be practiced between the hours of 11pm and 2am. The immense stress mothers feel when their baby is not sleeping straight through the night is unnecessary and we place it on our own shoulders. Well-intentioned family members ask “how’s the baby sleeping?” and mother’s feel ashamed to report that they are frequently waking (as a baby should). We seem to have this expectation that babies should sleep through the night when the fact is that most adults do not sleep through the night. We get up to use the bathroom, drink water, shift positions, kick the covers off only to pull them back on again later. The difference is that we have had a lifetime of learning how fall back asleep, yet we expect the baby who has been in this world only 3 months to “get with it” and learn how to fall asleep on their own. This unrealistic expectation leaves mothers more stressed than any other expectation I have encountered. Society needs to do better for our mothers because they are tired and need our support, not our judgement or our false “should’s.”
Adjusted Expectation: Babies are not biologically designed to sleep through the night, and most will not do so on their own until around 3 or 4 years old.
By adjusting our expectations to be more realistic we can reduce the amount of guilt, shame, embarrassment, disappointment and frustration that we feel. This in turn will reduce our stress levels and allow us to more thoroughly enjoy our journeys through motherhood. While these are just a small sample of the expectations that we can work on altering, it is a good start.