“Enjoy it” is a command. Let’s find better ways to talk to new parents.

There’s a phrase I hear a lot. It’s said to new families, in person and all over social media. It largely comes from well meaning parents. Parents whose kids are older now, parents whose kids are all grown up, grandparents of grown up kids. Parents who look back with rose tinted glasses and prickly eyes remembering the oxytocin swell they felt when their seemingly enormous “babies” were little dots too. It rolls off the tongue as easily as “hello” when they see your newborn baby. “ENJOY THIS SPECIAL TIME. THEY GROW UP SO FAST”. I remember people saying this to me after my first baby. I remember the forced smile I put on when they asked if I was “LOVING IT?”, the nod of my head as I wondered what they meant. Was I doing it wrong? When would I sleep? It didn’t feel special. What was I supposed to be enjoying? 
When I work with families in the postpartum period there’s a lot of listening and hand holding. The range of emotions that flood the new mother’s brain can be overwhelming. Among the intense feelings of love, joy and wonder, there are often much darker thoughts. There’s a flicker of guilt in a mother’s eyes when she turns to me, eyes filled with tears and says “I’m really not enjoying this”.

There’s a level of surprise and relief when I inform them that I hear this from most of the families I work with.

I often liken the postpartum period to becoming a sponge. Just as newborns have thin skin, so do mothers. I burst into tears in the hospital when a paediatrician commented that the way my son’s babygro was designed was “unusual”. The slightest comment or raised eyebrow can be devastating and unravel our self esteem in a matter of minutes. The presupposition that we are definitely enjoying ourselves can do the same thing. If we aren’t, are we allowed to say? 

The thing is, having a newborn baby is almost never the blissful haze you expect it to be. After the initial rush, the excitement and the joy; after the hormones wear off, comes the hard part. The long long feeds, seeing your partner in shifts, the endless nappy changes, the one handed meals and cold cups of tea, wondering “will I ever get a proper sleep again?” No matter how many times people tell you parenthood is tiring, nothing really prepares us for the kind of exhaustion and emotional rollercoaster that our first baby brings.

This doesn’t mean we don’t enjoy our babies. Quite the contrary. Most new parents will tell us that they spend hours watching them sleep, noting every wriggle and every frown, feeling that intense love and protective instinct and in awe of how perfect they are. But everything that comes with our bundles of joy? It’s usually a mixed bag.

Research shows that a mother’s brain rewires itself during pregnancy (https://www.popsci.com/pregnancy-re-wires-brains-moms-to-be/) It stays like that for two years after she gives birth. Not only has she just made a human being,she has a new brain to deal with! Things that didn’t upset her before can have her in floods of tears. Having children shakes us to the very core, and we need to feel safer to talk about this.

As our children grow up, and we look at others with little ones, we mourn that simpler time. That same oxytocin that made us fall in love with them, kicks in during the rare times we get hold them again. We feel wistful about their early years, when we were their everything and our everything was them. The temptation to urge our friends to freeze time and remember is strong. Please understand that these families are still finding their way. Freezing time is the last thing you want when you’re hanging on for your next nap or hot meal. The days are rolling into one another and just having a shower requires a level of planning that even a board meeting might never achieve. Aside from the practical, they are likely scared and overwhelmed. She questions whether she can do this everyday forever and sometimes wonders whether she should have had the baby at all. She is bored and confused. The days are long and the weeks are short. They have become something new and adjusting to that takes time.

We don’t often remember these bits. I guess it was nature’s way of getting us to keep on making babies. The way we hold experience in our memory contains distortions, deletions and generalisations. But I’m pretty sure the dark days were there for all of us. Let’s try to remember that when we hold space for postpartum families. Let’s meet them where they are, instead of where we think they should be. Instead of “are you loving it?” ask them, “How are you?” and have no expectations about the answers. Instead of “enjoy it while you can” ask them what you can do for them while they navigate this new journey. Perhaps then, they’ll start to enjoy it more.

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