For anyone who becomes a mother within nine months of a major holiday season (and, taking into account all of the holidays within every faith and cultural tradition, that means almost everybody!) I have a radical idea for you: Simplify your idea of how the holidays will look this year. Better yet, let yourself let someone ELSE handle everything. That way, your holidays with a new baby can be marked by joy, connection and peace -- just as they're meant to be!
This doesn’t mean that I don’t think you are up to the task of balancing the needs of your infant with brining the tenderest turkey, setting an exquisite table and hostessing with the mostest-ing. Far from it -- many new moms I meet are awesomely equipped to perform impressive feats of multi-tasking magic while bouncing baby on their hips.
But the early months of motherhood (and babyhood) represent a special window of time that will never come again. The early months lay a foundation, set a tone that will shape and resound through your relationship with your child for life. This window of the early months is precious and irreplaceable, and yet it is so easy to blow through it and miss its profoundly quiet -- and quietly profound -- gifts. Regret is a guest nobody wants at their holiday table eighteen years from now.
My friend Tamara Donn works with women on what she calls the “maiden-to-mother” transformation. She helps them re-awaken their inner wisdom, truly trust themselves, listen to their hearts and honor the rite of passage into motherhood however it unfolds. London’s Daily Mail newspaper published a letter Tamara wrote about a show called Bringing Up Baby, which had aired on the telly (in England). It included among its three featured parenting styles (along with Dr. Spock and the “Continuum Concept”) the disturbingly regimented Truby King approach (“cuddling limited to 10 minutes per day”!).
I share Tamara’s letter as a Thanksgiving blessing on the transition to motherhood, which can be particularly challenging in when it includes holidays with a new baby:
First I would like to explain a little understood concept – the birth of the mother. When a baby is born, 2 births occur – the birth of the baby, and the lesser known birth of the mother. The rite of passage from maiden to mother is forgotten in our culture. In all rites of passage, time for integrating life-changing transition is necessary. So instead of having competition to see who can get back to normal as soon as possible (which is what is encouraged in our society and was a focus of some of the women in the program), it would be more beneficial to support mothers (and fathers) in being at that point of transition... being in no-man’s land (and “no-woman’s land”)... by acknowledging that it is okay not to know what to do and accepting temporary loss of identity.
The back-to-normal race is exacerbated by the fact that at six weeks, new mums go to the doctors, get checked and are told they are back to normal and can have sex again. If a woman is fit and healthy she may feel back to normal but more likely, particularly if the birth has been difficult, the physical recovery will be harder. Integrating the transition takes place on all levels – physical, emotional, mental, social and spiritual. Instead of looking for strategies to get back to normal, look for ways of getting support from mums, sisters, friends and paid help. Instead of fighting the situation, embrace and accept it. These are foreign concepts in our society where getting back to normal is seen as success.
Rather than thinking in terms of “back to normal,” I encourage couples to think instead of “forward to a new normal.” This normal takes time to develop – up to 2 years is a more realistic period of time. Spock did this to some extent by saying “do what feels right,” but nowadays new mothers have rarely had child-rearing experience so are not able to connect easily with their natural instincts.
Another issue that was only addressed with the Continuum Concept is that of support. Some new mothers who have no experience in mothering need to be looked after, need to be nurtured, supported and guided until they can fend for themselves and their babies. But our culture ignores this. Babies need 24-7 care. Once the dad (if there is one) is back at work, parenting is a very intensive job. It is unreasonable to expect one mother to handle this intense, demanding and exhausting job single-handed. Unless forced, babies do not usually sleep through the night. Mums will be tired from interrupted sleep and they are expected to portray, and are themselves enticed by, the happy and have-it-all image of new mothers as portrayed in the media. If their mother lived next door or round the corner or with them, they could sleep during the day while Granny holds the baby, cooks a wholesome meal for dinner and puts an extra one in the freezer for later.
The pressure of the image of this fit, healthy, have-it-all mum is so strong that it often contributes to postpartum depression. Repression of feelings of inadequacy and other confusing emotions that are normal in times of transition can surface and with no support are hard to deal with. According to psychotherapist Robin Grille in his book Parenting For A Peaceful World, the emotional needs during the first 18 months of life are: to be held, to have her oral needs gratified, to receive loving eye contact, to receive a timely response to her needs and to sleep near one’s parents. Grille goes on to say that denying these needs (which the Truby King parenting method does) can create the following negative core beliefs: “I must do it alone,” “I am not lovable”, “When I am needy, I am loathsome,” “Others’ needs are more important than mine,” and “My happiness depends on being liked by others,” to mention but a few, which affects behaviour in adults. I would suggest another programme in 30 years time to see how these babies got on by measuring their emotional intelligence!
The Holiday Gift of Gratitude
Consider foregoing lavish holiday projects as you grow into your “new normal.” Maybe during this holidays with a new baby, undertake instead a subtle yet profound project to match the import of your rite of passage: mindful gratitude. The field of positive psychology finds that the single most potent means of amping up our joy -- and also our physical energy and well-being -- is to cultivate gratitude. Researchers talk about keeping a gratitude journal, writing gratitude letters, and an exercise one expert calls “three blessings,” in which you take time each day to write about three things that went well, and why. (Great dinner table conversation starter with older kids!)
But it doesn't even have to be that structured. Mindful gratitude can also take the form of simply noticing more fully some of the myriad things we normally take for granted in daily life. For example, the ordinary miracle of a hot shower! Or the small act of eating a piece of fruit, which can take on a whole new dimension when we turn our attention to what is embodied in that apple -- seasons of nurturance by rains, sun, and those who cared for its tree -- and the amazing fact that the flesh of that fruit will be transformed into us in the coming hours and days!
This is a powerful inner way to mark these holidays with your new baby, as you begin to embody more deeply, and later model, values that most parents for peace hope their children will come to embrace and express: self-compassion, simplicity, gratitude and sustainability.
Read more about Tamara Donn’s transformative work with new mothers at www.womantomother.co.uk.
I'm the author of Parenting for Peace: Raising the Next Generation of Peacemakers, and also the adoption expert on Mothering's expert panel. I write and speak around the world on prenatal, child and parent development, and I have a private practice coaching parents-in-progress. I raised two humans, earned a doctorate, and lived to report back. On the wings of my new book I'm delighted to be speaking at many wonderful conferences all over the world in the coming months, and I'm happy to be sharing dispatches and inside glimpses with you here on Mothering.com! As a special gift to Mothering readers I'm offering "A Unique 7-Step Parenting Tool."