Matrescence and feeling like you’re falling short

You’re in a battle with time — and yourself — that you can’t win.

It’s frustrating when basic goals become out of reach…

As an independent adult, you’ve probably become used to some level of control over your schedule and pace of your day. But during the first few months of motherhood, your baby’s urgent and unpredictable needs are going to be so powerful that it may feel like they command the rising and setting of the sun. There will be many moments when you feel as helpless as if you were a child yourself — except, instead of your parents being in charge, you’re now the parent, which is its own claustrophobic, mind-warp.

Routine tasks will often fall to the wayside due to the unpredictability of your newborn’s demands and your physical and psychological recovery. No matter how much you love your baby, there will probably be times when you’ll feel a little bit like you’re her slave. It may feel like you’ve lost control of your life. You’re not wrong — for a while, you have. Almost every new mother I know has said to me, at least once,“I don’t know where the day goes.”

For many mothers, it’s frustrating when basic goals like making the bed become out of reach. For others, it’s demoralizing when heroic tasks like sorting through the closets for spring cleaning are also unattainable. If you’re a mom who is trying to squeeze in an early morning workout before your baby wakes up, to finish every thank you note within 24 hours of receiving a gift, to never order take-out or let dishes pile up in the sink, the odds are you’re in a battle with time — and yourself — that you can’t win.

I am because I do.

I’ve known mothers who planned to use their “time off” during maternity leave to accomplish a dream project like learning Italian or finishing their dissertation, and they’ve been frustrated when those plans didn’t pan out. Many women come to me feeling exhausted as if they’ve been in a battle, and I realize they’ve been fighting with themselves: setting lofty goals in the morning and then berating themselves at night for not living up to their ambitious plans. In my experience, so much of the critical self-talk that is the hallmark of the epidemic of guilt and shame that I see in new mothers (“You’re so lazy for not doing ____”) is caused by unrealistic expectations and pressure.

Mastery — that’s the feeling of having accomplished something — is for many people an important component of self esteem: I am because I do. But caring for a baby is the opposite of mastery. It’s hard to find a sense of accomplishment when every clean onesie gets dirty with spit up, poop, or pureed food within a few minutes, or when a fed baby is just hungry again in two hours. I recommend that you look for small, discrete tasks that you can accomplish to imperfect completion with little struggle. Think small: take a shower, make yourself some lunch, return one phone-call, get the baby bathed, not bathed perfectly. If you can find a feeling of accomplishment in the good-enough, it will help your self esteem during your first year of parenthood.

When moms hold tight to an idealized vision of what they can accomplish in a day, they may project their disappointment and anger at themselves onto their babies. One woman told me that she yelled at her baby for throwing up right after they left the house because “we didn’t have time to go back home and start all over again.” But when she caught herself blaming her baby for, well, being a baby, she not only felt disappointed for the hours lost, she felt ashamed of her own misdirected frustration.

Clean-ish, not clean.

One woman gave this wise advice: “Learn how to tolerate that you can’t do it all. If you finish a day and think, ‘What have I accomplished?’ remember you’ve accomplished a lot if you kept your baby alive, fed, and clean-ish.”

Clean-ish, not clean. Experienced mothers will tell you: you’re going to have to get comfortable with things being a little messy. And when we say messy, we’re talking figuratively and literally. Babies go through diapers, wipes, clothes, bottles, pump-parts, bedding, and more at a dizzying rate. No matter how big your house is, or how much of a minimalist you are, it may seem like a baby’s “stuff” takes over, well before she’s even old enough to play with toys.

One of the greatest regrets I hear from mothers looking back on their fourth trimester with their babies is they were so preoccupied with what they “should” have been doing that they weren’t able to enjoy the time as it was. As one of my patients described: “I wish I had taken more time to sit with my baby and just enjoy him, but I felt like I had to be so productive all the time. It took me a long time to learn that I couldn’t do everything, and trying to do everything just wasn’t worth it.”

Another patient who is a mother of three shared this wisdom: “I know how quickly this newborn phase passes, and this is my last baby for sure, so I’m trying not to beat myself up for being such a mess, I am trying to be less strict with myself. I am trying to be more present.”

Whether your child is a newborn or a teenager, time in parenting will likely pass more quickly than you will be able to emotionally appreciate. If you can tolerate that some days of parenting will pass over you like a wave — intense, all consuming, and overpowering — you may one day surprise yourself to look back and remember those moments as some of your most special times together as a family.

Remember you’ve accomplished a lot if you kept your baby alive, fed, and clean-ish.

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