Have you seen this ad?
For me, it was an epiphany.
On my first viewing, I recognized each and every gang in the fight as one of the voices in my head during my pregnancy and in the months that followed. That playground was the perfect metaphor for my postpartum prefrontal cortex.
I was surprised to find myself unmoored in early parenthood. Up until the day my son was born, I was a capable, decisive professional who made lists and got things done. But from the moment of his birth, I was navigating without a map, and my anxiety found its outlet in doing everything “right.” What was “right” was often rigid, time-consuming, and far more complicated than it needed to be for an exhausted mama. When breastfeeding proved to be so painful that I stumped a succession of lactation consultants, I continued on, digging my nails into the arm of the chair and berating myself for not enjoying the experience. When my bewildered but well-intentioned husband made a spreadsheet for us to meticulously track our son’s every nap, meal, and wet diaper, I gamely tried to adhere to its structure. I boxed myself in with labels and ideas about the kind of parent I should be, instead of allowing myself the grace to just be the parent that I was at that moment.
There were very few people actually putting explicit pressure on me to use cloth diapers or make my own organic, locally-sourced purees, although occasionally I would encounter them. But there were many more subtle, societal ideas that I internalized, giving myself an wholly unrealistic, idealized notion of what motherhood should be like. I thought the role of life-giver should come naturally to me; I thought that the process of gestating and birthing this tiny creature would imbue me with the calm, wise confidence to overcome any challenge. But I didn’t feel wise, and I was completely flummoxed when my son cried inconsolably or pooped explosively mid-diaper change. The very idea of leaving the house with this helpless human and the 100 pounds of gear that accompanied him was so overwhelming that most days, I just stayed within an arm’s length of the sofa.
When, at the end of each day, a nameless dread would descend upon me with the dusk, I would wonder anew: what was wrong with me? Other moms seemed so confident, so capable, so naturally at ease. Why was I struggling so hard to keep my head above water?
The list of unreasonable expectations I developed for myself nearly broke me. Often, they cancelled each other out, rendering my efforts in one direction completely counterproductive in another. I would tell myself to “sleep when the baby sleeps” and then spend his precious nap hours washing diapers and watching infant massage tutorials on YouTube. I was weepy, hormonal, and deeply disappointed in my inability to fulfill my own vision of motherhood. In my quest to do it all perfectly, I wasn’t doing anything very well, unless you count watching The Twilight Saga obsessively. (Remember, folks, Ballast & Buoy is a judgment-free zone.)
Then a good friend dropped by to shore me up with a hot meal and the mantra she had used during her own fourth trimester: “Do whatever you need to do to survive the first 8 weeks. You can’t spoil a baby at this age.”
This was a revelation. With her gentle encouragement, I began to shed the notion of perfect parenting, and tried to embrace the knowledge that this epoch of family life would, soon enough, evolve into something resembling a manageable rhythm, however improbable it felt in the long moments of each day. Parenting didn’t get easier, exactly — I was still so. damned. tired. — but living with myself did.
Whether it’s babywearing or sleep training or circumcision, you will inevitably encounter those who feel strongly that there is one correct way to do things. For your own survival, surrender the urge to judge yourself. Banish the word “should” from your vocabulary. Silence your chorus of inner critics: remind them that you are the best mother for your baby, and trust that you will make the best decisions you can with the information and energy that you have.
Not everyone will agree with your choices, or like them. But that’s irrelevant. This is your family. This is your life. You’ve got this.