It’s a familiar scenario for new mums: you’ve invited all your mummy friends around for a much-needed caffeine hit and a catch-up, but it’s already 10am and you’re still in your pyjamas with a serious case of brain fog, thanks to the not-too-generous two hours’ sleep you got last night. There’s a bin full of stinky nappies in the bathroom, baby vomit on the rug and the floor tiles are in dire need of a mop. Instead of calling around to rearrange, the vast majority of us would simply push ahead and deal with the extra stress.
The pressure we place on ourselves to be a ‘supernewmum’ – from hosting coffee mornings to signing up for a zillion baby activity classes and looking ‘normal’ when we feel anything but – can be draining at the best of times. While whizzing along Shaikh Zayed Road with a screaming baby in the back is fine if you really want to go somewhere, when you’re feeling especially frazzled or simply can’t muster the energy to change out of your vomit-ridden sweats, then why push it?
"It takes at least six to eight weeks just to recover from the birth or caesarean surgery, the strain on your body from pregnancy and the struggles of establishing breastfeeding," says Amy Vogelaar, lactation consultant, and antenatal and parenting educator at Love Parenting UAE (loveparentinguae.com). "Birth hormones are designed to aid in this transition, as are breastfeeding hormones, but they are only sustainable with lots of skin-to-skin time between mother and baby. Mums also need plenty of physical rest, as sleep deprivation is going to take its toll, and you’re not able to catch up on lost sleep if you’re running around being social or working out or trying to act as if you don’t have a new baby."
Although it sounds old fashioned, when you’re in the thick of new motherhood, it’s easy to understand why many cultures have the tradition of 40 days of postpartum ‘lying in’ time when the new mother is looked after by her mother and other female relatives, is pampered and cared for and supported to look after only her baby.
"In a world where a woman’s work was never finished, this was obviously essential for survival of the next generation, to allow mothers to recover from birth and transition to caring for their babies," says Amy. "Modern Western culture has completely forgotten this practice and, after a couple days at hospital, you are sent home with baby and expected to just get on with it all by yourself."
Peace out, frenemies
If you’re feeling overwhelmed, there’s absolutely no shame in dialing down the pace of life. Good friends will understand that if you need to cancel a get-together at the last minute, it’s par for the course. For once in your life, being a bit of a flake is something that’s completely justified. If you feel judged or unsupported as a result, it may be wise to take a step back from those friendships.
"It takes a lot of energy to keep up a facade and, when you’re a new mum, the last thing you need is to be directing the limited energy you have to the wrong places," says Carmen Benton, parenting educator at Mindful Ed (mindfuledconsulting.com). "Trying to live up to the expectations of others for fear of being judged can lead us into a habitual trap of pretending we are fine when we’re not. Breastfeeding and interrupted nights take a lot out of us and building a bond with a new baby takes time, so give yourself that."
The sticking point for many women is that they fear falling into a pattern of ‘mum behaviour’ they thought they’d avoid when, in reality, the experience compels us to embrace a change in lifestyle. "I have heard from hundreds of new mothers over the years that before their baby arrived they swore not to become ‘one of those mums’ whose life revolves around her baby, or who only talk about poop, or who no longer go out and party like they used to," says Amy. "But becoming a mother changes you on a chemical and even a cellular level, so that most of those women report feeling completely surprised at how happy they are to engross themselves in motherhood and actually become addicted to their babies, which is a natural hormonal phenomena."
This is something that can be extremely difficult to understand until you are experiencing it first hand. As Amy points out, an underlying problem is that society doesn’t value the work that mothers do in the home. "We all celebrate Mother’s Day and lip service is paid to the importance of mothers, but really it is unpaid work that’s considered lowly and
boring and even demeaning," says Amy. "Mums are considered unintelligent and dowdy and dependent, as opposed to the powerful, essential, multitasking people who hold the future of the human race in their hands. In some cultures and religions, mothers were seen as creators and all powerful, but those aren’t the belief systems that currently rule the world."
A new you
If you need time to adjust, putting on a very honest display of where you’re at both physically and emotionally can help you get your point across. "I also always recommend that mums greet any visitors to their home while wearing their pyjamas so they look like they are in recovery mode, not entertaining mode," says Amy. "I also encourage people to make a list of chores that need doing in case visitors are not savvy enough to identify them. Running or folding laundry, making and freezing food, giving attention to the toddler and getting groceries all are important things to farm out to eager visitors. Holding the baby and giving bottles are less helpful, especially as mum is trying to
get breastfeeding established although, of course, there is a time for that as well if mum needs a shower or a break."
An extra pressure many new mums face is the expectation to snap back into shape."Our modern culture has such unrealistic expectations and negative associations with mum bodies," says Amy. "Pregnant bodies are considered beautiful by many, but once the baby is out then nobody seems to celebrate soft, bulgy bellies, stretch marks and engorged, leaking breasts – not to mention any extra padding, which is designed to become breast milk. Celebrity culture and social media has set the expectation that, if you just work hard enough at it, you too can look like you never had a baby at six weeks postpartum. It’s unfair, unrealistic and dangerous, as rather than working out and starving themselves, new mums should be recovering from pregnancy and birth, bonding with and getting to know their baby, building up their breast milk supply to last the duration, and gently experiencing this major life transition to becoming a mother or a mum of two or more."
If you’re still wearing your maternity clothes on your baby’s three-month birthday, don’t sweat it. You just grew a tiny human, for goodness sake! Some mums will thrive on the buzz of exercise while others simply aren’t fussed. As long as you’re taking care of your wellbeing, it all comes down to setting a pace that you feel comfortable with.
At home with the in-laws
A unique scenario for expats is that, when a new addition makes his or her entrance, family from home will descend for weeks or even months. While this support can be incredibly helpful, living in close quarters with parents – especially the in-laws – for extended periods of time can give rise to its own set of challenges.
"As a new mum, you want to be the decision maker," says Carmen. "If the in-laws are interfering, you need to be able to explain with confidence that you are going to be doing things your way. No one knows your child better than you so you can stand up for your parenting style. Just bear in mind that whatever advice or criticism they are giving you, it is coming from a place of love. If conflict keeps cropping up, just ask for what you need, whether it’s space or help with something specific like entertaining the kids while you cook."
If culture clashes are playing a part and your husband is stuck in the middle, it’s important to try to keep the lines of communication open. "Start with ‘I’ statements such as ‘I would like a little bit of space’, as ‘you’ statements are very blameful," advises Carmen.
There are lots of practical strategies you can adopt to smooth over relations. "If they are not the most helpful of visitors, send them out with a tour operator or registered with Careem or Uber so they can explore the city without you," says Amy. "If they are escaping cold weather back home, find a way to get them to the beach or pool for the day to limit the hours that you will feel pressured to entertain."
For particularly difficult customers, try to manage their expectations from the outset, by pointing out that you may not be able to run around and tour the city, eat out or entertain them like you usually would, for instance. "Blame your doctor or your midwife if they won’t accept that this is your best judgement and your personal wishes," says Amy. "Tell them that your baby is learning to breastfeed and you want to make sure that nothing interferes with that. Or tell them that until baby gets his or her eight-week vaccinations you want to limit exposure to all the germs that circulate in this place with travellers from every corner of the world.
"Remember that you are the mum now and it’s totally legitimate to say: ‘Because this is what I think is best’. This is your job and you owe it to your baby and yourself to trust your own instincts and knowledge. This won’t be the last time people expect you to do things that are not right for your family, so put your foot down early and firmly and don’t be afraid to stand up for your baby and yourself."
Once you’ve connected with your inner mama bear, don’t be afraid to roar a little when it’s necessary. Above all, even if you feel great, take it slowly and give yourself time to heal. It’s the least you deserve.
What kind of mum are you?
Understanding the difference between introverts and extroverts can be helpful when it comes to managing this new stage of life. Extroverts gain energy from being around others and being social, while introverts gain energy and recharge their batteries with downtime. It follows, then, that being an introverted mother can be challenging as your child, or children, need you all the time, which means you’ll hardly have any time alone. Extroverted mothers, on the other hand, can also find it difficult as raising a baby can feel quite isolating and reduce the time you have with friends. This is why staying home on the couch with hubby and baby may seem painfully boring and depressing to one mum, but feel amazing to another. Make sure you follow the path that best suits your personality type,
and things may feel a lot easier.