Before I begin with the material and ideas I’d like to share, I want to tell you a little bit about where I am positioned inside of them-- I have always wanted to gather moms together to talk about our ideas of how to feel more engaged, uplifted and present with the tremendous work of moming others.
I am a mother of two children.
I am also a psychologist in private practice. My curiosity about people led me to study Psychology here at Cal as an undergrad and after a stint in LA, Asia and New York I ended up back in Berkeley for grad school.
I developed an interest in Women’s health and specifically peri-natal issues after working in a prenatal clinic in LA right out of college. Because I spoke Spanish I got this amazing opportunity to work with pregnant and post-partum women.
The strength and determination I saw women display around giving birth and taking care of young children inspired me. The positive identification with being a women held me while being in LA where the female role models weren’t always so positive.
What I particularly noticed was that the women who became invested in their prenatal care had better birth outcomes and also an easier time post partum.
This rich experience led to an interest in preventative health care and feminist issues, which paved the way for a lot of Grad school. First I gave myself the gift of travels in Asia where I pursued a rigorous yoga and meditation practice.
This thread of studying alternating with practices around the body and mind has lead to an awareness of how the mind body connection can lead to deeper contentment and presence. It has helped me to be more in the Now.
In my talk I will look at what I believe fosters a better parenting experience and an ability to be more in the now.
The name Nowstalgia came from an interaction with a mom at an exercise class where child care was provided. I saw her bonding with her baby after class and I said something to her about how precious this time feels and how quickly it passes. She mentioned that she had been bumping up against the bittersweet feeling of loving being in the moment with her child but also knowing how fleeting this phase actually is. I told her that I had been thinking a lot about this in my work-- that I’d like to know how to help women try and enjoy this phase more. I told her my idea for a new mom’s blog that would examine these ideas that can feel so abstract while being in the middle of mundane, daily work. I believe that being able to be with these more expansive states can help us to enjoy the time more.
It is the age old be in the moment nowwhich as hard as it is to do is the best parenting strategy I’ve seen out there.
How great would it be if instead of having nostalgia for times gone by we could actually have nowstalgia-where we feel more empowered to claim the now as what we want. The word nostalgia has a greek orgin, combining nostos- to return home, and alogos- pain. The combination translates to... homesickness. But what if we could stay inside our home- our sense of self in this very moment. Knowing that being in the now--really appreciating what is happening right in front of us is what will lead to good memories and that we don’t have to be afraid of all the good being behind us. At times of big transition we all go into thinking about the past which then also makes us volley into the future. Ping ponging can be very hard on our mood, creating a restlessness. Being in the now allows us to rest in what actually is and this is the best place to parent from.
So, NOW is the time to enjoy your young child. It is so easy to let this precious time with your young child pass by in the swirl of adjusting to becoming a new parent. How can we be more present to our children and ourselves and claim this moment?
I am reminded of some lines from a Leonard Cohen song-
“Ring the bells that can still ring.
Forget your perfect offering.
There is a crack in everything.
That’s how the light gets in.”
What I have noticed in my practice over the years is how hard new Moms are on themselves. We all want to feel that becoming a Mom should come to us naturally. But what if it doesn’t? I am impressed by how many stories I hear of women becoming the kind of mom they want to be even if it is not exactly what they see around them or the kind of mothering they’ve had.
What I also see is how much stereotypes get in the way of many women becoming the kind of Mom they really want to be. I see that some women are great at being stay at home mothers while others are not. For some women even though it is the hardest thing they have ever done, going back to work is what allows them to feel like themselves again and thus allows them to be a better parent. There are also those women who begin to realize that if they are going to go back to work the work needs to be something they actually really like and believe in and this can be a hard process to negotiate when you have just had a baby.
Being a mom requires that we get in touch with who we really are not some idealized, sensationalized version of being a mother. This is how we can claim being happy while being a Mom.
Why is it that our children want to hear fairy tales again and again? It is because they are grappling with the fact that we have to deal with the hard, the difficult, the bad in order to have the good. We need to mentor for them being present in the good, bad and the ugly- we need to show that happily ever after is something within our reach.
I believe that taking better care of ourselves as mothers leads to a better experience for our entire family. We want this to be a connective time for both our children and ourselves and so how do we navigate the huge transition into parenthood?
I have some ideas:
In our culture it has become very common to feel that something is really wrong if we are not happy all the time. The paradox is that when we learn to actually be with some of the harder, darker emotions we actually have more capacity to feel the lighter happier emotions. In a book that I suggest called Healing through the Dark Emotions- Miriam Greenspan discusses our fear of the darker emotions, especially grief, and how that fear can actually exacerbate depression and anxiety.
“I think it’s important for us to pay attention to our emotions, in general. Too many people have never learned to do this, because they’ve never been encouraged to do it. We have the notion that our emotions are not worthy of serious attention.
Naturally we have less difficulty with the so-called positive emotions. People don’t mind feeling joy and happiness. The dark emotions are much harder. Fear, grief, and despair are uncomfortable and are seen as signs of personal failure. In our culture, we call them “negative” and think of them as “bad.” I prefer to call these emotions “dark,” because I like the image of a rich, fertile, dark soil from which something unexpected can bloom. Also we keep them “in the dark” and tend not to speak about them. We privatize them and don’t see the ways in which they are connected to the world. But the dark emotions are inevitable. They are part of the universal human experience and are certainly worthy of our attention. They bring us important information about ourselves and the world and can be vehicles of profound transformation.”
So obviously there is a difference between dark emotions which allow us to feel more deeply, and depression- and it can be hard to differentiate. What I want to address here is how to handle the general sluggishness we can all feel around taking care of our children– it is hard work. It can feel depressing.
Part of why I wanted to give this talk is that in working with many women during this post-partum phase, what I see pretty consistently is that mood is improved by taking care of the basics. Therapy can be an important support for many women who find it very difficult to do these things despite their best intentions. The psychological reasons that we don’t take good care of ourselves often run deep but sometimes having a little bit of insight into these things can make all the difference. Knowing the whyoften leads to being more conscious which can then lead to making links,a key to our wellbeing. An example of making a link is- when I am angry I overeat- when I talk to my dad I notice I get more irritable with my husband later, etc. Knowing these links for yourself can help you to untangle them and thus act from a more conscious place.
The fact that women allow their physical, emotional and psychic being to be taken over in the post-partum phase is no small feat. There are many identity issues that need to be negotiated in order to handle being taken over like this. As mothers we are encouraged to be selfless- there is a righteousness about how much we can give that is supported in our culture. A good mom is often seen as a selfless mom but selflessness does not actually equate to good. Creating balance around parenting and self-care is a tricky dance to learn in the beginning. We are hard-wired to take care of our children and to put them first. There is a reason that every time we fly we are reminded to put on our own oxygen first before putting on our child’s oxygen- it goes against instinct. Luckily, this part of parenting does get easier with time because your child is less dependent on you as they age and it becomes less terrifying to keep this child alive.
On top of all the societal and internal pressures that come with new motherhood, hormonal fluctuations can make things feel wobbly and disorienting. The intensity of feelings is overwhelming and it can be helpful to remember that some of this flood is powered by hormonal shifts. None of us like it when our partners ask if we are PMSing but usually we can admit it when we are. Often in the post-partum phase there aren’t the normal markers of mood that we can gage our emotions against (like our period). This coupled with the intense bonding that we are doing can literally make us feel at sea and not even recognizing ourselves in the tides.
I have found that to really assess mood you need to...sleep! Sleep deprivation is truly crazy making. It is hard to do- but the saying sleep when your baby sleeps- is so true. If you can work towards getting 4 hour stretches at a time you will feel so much better. One of the patterns that I see women getting into (myself included) is staying up late to get some me time. And while we all need to do it once in a while, if it becomes a pattern and you’re not sleeping enough, the benefit will not outweigh the deficit. In the early phase of parenting I like to tell moms to try to find extrasleep- at either the beginning of the night-- like going to bed at 8pm to get that first stretch- or getting more sleep in the morning by giving your partner the first AM shift.
A clinical example I really liked hearing was a pediatrician saying to a mother I was working with to get in bed with her baby for 24 hours-- to just literally just surrender to the bed. Sometimes the attachment we need to build is not just for our babies but also for our own soothing. Creating a cocoon, especially in the early stages, can help you to feel the connection to your baby that you may need to feel. This cocoon is something we will return to again and again as our children grow. We need a place to come back to ourselves both internally and and also externally-- like the bed. Just as in the stage of raproachment-where the child goes forward and then looks back to make sure we are there- so too we need room to figure out how to be our best selves as parents by taking steps forward and then giving ourselves time to retreat back, resting and integrating all that we learn.
Support from community and in therapy
If community supported better self-care for young families everyone could enjoy this time more, which would greatly benefit our children. Having a baby can be such a lovely time when the world reaches out to us. How can we slow down enough to take in this contact and let it nurture us? We are giving so much to our babies we need to let the
ways that we can nurture be reciprocated. Just as the mother is doing a lot of mirroring the child, she also needs to be mirrored by others. I find that getting some kind of support so that the mother has the ability to reflect on all this transition can make a huge difference. I think therapy even in short stints can make this transition much smoother.
I find that when we are in transitional or liminal phases there is a lot of potential for transformation where we can often stretch beyond what we have thought ourselves capable of. I really like working with people who are engaged in this process and hopefully supporting them in landing in a better place.
Many women are greatly buoyed by being in community and being around other new moms. Getting to be around other moms whom you feel comfortable with is important.
Many new moms can feel judged by how their birth went or how breastfeeding is going or not going and it is important to remember it is not for others to judge what is right for you. How can you find a circle of like-minded Mom’s that you can do things with in this early time so as not to isolate.
Are you getting enough good quality food and water? Whether or not you are breastfeeding eating well will make a huge difference in your mood. Keeping on going with prenatal or a good women’s vitamin can also make a big difference. If you are taking care of these basic needs you will feel better physically which is such a big part of feeling better emotionally.
How can you make little steps towards eating better and more consistently? What I hear a lot of is I can’t find the time to eat. And I know it is hard but looking at where your time is going and learning to be disciplined about taking care of the basics can make a huge difference. I also find that harnessing this discipline in these seemingly basic areas really builds a confidence that is essential to taking care of a baby. I see that for some women a kind of regression can happen where it becomes so hard to give oneself that which you are having to put out for another but the real trick is giving it to yourself so that you have the gas to give it to baby.
How can we be gentle on our bodies during this time? How can we be gentle on how we view them? I find that for some women it is second nature to be hard on themselves about physical appearance but actually, this may be easier than sitting with even more dark feelings. It is bringing these dark feelings to light that usually allows things to come into better perspective. The weight is often a symbol for deeper pain. This dynamic experience between weight and pain is something so rich to explore with a therapist who can hold the depth.
In my practice I always ask people to consider how they are taking care of themselves physically. It is just so basic to feeling good but it can be hard psychologically to motivate for all kinds of reasons. This is not one of those times to put it on the back burner though. The hormones shifting in this time are so intense and we need to allow room for moving our bodies and not just resisting it. Exercising will decrease anxiety and literally allow you to see things more clearly. If you want to feel better mood-wise so that you can be there for your baby and enjoy the intense bonding that is happening make sure to get some exercise in wherever you can. In addition, getting stronger physically can lead to feeling more empowered and having more agency. This is what we need to navigate the transition into motherhood. Literally an “I can do it attitude.”
If you are in a partnership when you have a baby, the transition is hard for everyone, in all different ways. We are trying to figure out how to be the best Mom we can be and so are our partners. I have heard the analogy that having a baby with someone is like going into business with them. We all have our own ways of wanting to do things but when you have to negotiate this new terrain about how best to care for baby with your partner it can bring a lot of conflict. I find that learning to connect with each other again can be such a huge needed support for both parents. This can look very simple like remembering to take quality time with each other and remembering to keep communications positive. I find that because there is a build up of resentment with how much added work there is with baby that this can inadvertently be directed at one’s partner. Taking time to remember the good between you is essential in this hugely transformative time. Another important piece is knowing that this is a phase and although the stages keep shifting it is quite a huge adjustment for many couples to have baby in the middle.
Prompted by my daughter being on a nostalgia kick of her own where I will often find her pouring over her baby pictures on the computer, I am reminded of how I would say to myself “make it work” and it was this attitude that carried me through a lot of stress and exasperation. It is so important to remember to go towards the good and not feed the bad as we can all easily get into doing. I have realized that for better or worse, what my daughter is looking for is a story and what every child wants is a story of a happy Mom.
Gate C22 by Ellen Bass
At gate C22 in the Portland airport
a man in a broad-band leather hat kissed
a woman arriving from Orange County.
They kissed and kissed and kissed. Long after
the other passengers clicked the handles of their carry-ons
and wheeled briskly toward short-term parking,
the couple stood there, arms wrapped around each other
like he'd just staggered off the boat at Ellis Island,
like she'd been released at last from ICU, snapped
out of a coma, survived bone cancer, made it down
from Annapurna in only the clothes she was wearing.
Neither of them was young. His beard was gray.
She carried a few extra pounds you could imagine
her saying she had to lose. But they kissed lavish
kisses like the ocean in the early morning,
the way it gathers and swells, sucking
each rock under, swallowing it
again and again. We were all watching —
passengers waiting for the delayed flight
to San Jose, the stewardesses, the pilots,
the aproned woman icing Cinnabons, the man selling
sunglasses. We couldn't look away. We could
taste the kisses crushed in our mouths.
But the best part was his face. When he drew back
and looked at her, his smile soft with wonder, almost
as though he were a mother still open from giving birth,
as your mother must have looked at you, no matter
what happened after — if she beat you or left you or
you're lonely now — you once lay there, the vernix
not yet wiped off, and someone gazed at you
as if you were the first sunrise seen from the Earth.
The whole wing of the airport hushed,
all of us trying to slip into that woman's middle-aged body,
her plaid Bermuda shorts, sleeveless blouse, glasses,
little gold hoop earrings, tilting our heads up.