The Truth About Why New Motherhood is So Hard

New Motherhood is so hard

They say there’s nothing like being a mother, and we agree. There isn’t. But something we don’t often share about motherhood is how hard it is. More, we don’t share why new motherhood is so hard, and we think now’s a good time to remind mamas everywhere that they’re not alone.

I spent over a decade dreaming of being a mother. I was a teacher, and spent most of my adult life raising other people’s children. I’d be good at it, I’d love it and my children would be model citizens.

And much like most everything else–life had other plans. It took me over 13 years to conceive, my first son died of a fluke labor complication and my living son? He’s amazing, and he’s my breath. But I’d be lying if I said motherhood was a walk in the park.

I think that for many, particularly those who may have rocky roads to motherhood, admitting that it’s not all sunshine and roses makes you feel less than. Less than that mom who had a perfect and beautiful home birth while you had to have an emergency c-section just to live. Less than that mom whose baby latched instantly and beautifully, while you spent countless hours crying with your lactation consultant about how.hard.nursing.your.human.was. Less than that mom whose child has the civil manners (and filter) to ooze charm while yours is so blunt you cringe when he opens his mouth sometimes.

So many things to feel less than in.

But we want you to take heart, mamas. Especially now, in these times, where mothering is SO HARD and it’s NOTHING like any of us have ever faced in this lifetime. We want you to know that we understand mothering is hard, and beautiful.

And we want you to know that too. It’s okay for something to be difficult and incredibly amazing. You can love your child with all you have and still wonder why you have to work so hard just to get them to eat something. We know you don’t love your children any less if you wished you could just get 20 minutes of straight sleep, and we won’t revoke your gentle parenting card if you admit that this gig–though the best one ever–is hard. We get it, mama. We do.

That’s is why we went through our archives to look for some pieces that would speak to you, in these times and in others, to let you know you’re not alone. New motherhood is hard, but if we’re open and honest about it, we can carry each other through the hard and rejoice with each other in all the beautiful. Together.

Over the past several years, many of the women who I helped midwife emotionally across the threshold of the marriage transition have birthed themselves as new mothers. And just like our culture doesn’t tell the truth about the challenges of intimate relationships, it also fails us when it comes to offering accurate information and effective support so that women and their partners can traverse the terrain of this next transition with consciousness and joy.

Related: Touched Out? 5 Tips to Help You Reclaim Intimacy

We know it’s going to be hard, but we have no idea how hard it’s going to be. We know that we might be sleep-deprived or have trouble breastfeeding, but we have no idea how these challenges will affect the emotional terrain of our experience, how deeply breastfeeding, for example, is linked to self-worth as a mother and how, if it doesn’t happen easily or at all, we feel that we’ve failed.

Because I’m privy to the interior world of these new mothers’ lives, I know that the photos they post on Facebook of their beautiful bundles often represent a tiny sliver of the whole story. I know how many tears are shed alone. I know how exhausted they are as they wake up multiple times a night to feed, burp, change, and soothe back to sleep. I know how much shame many new mothers carry if they’re not bouncing in bubbles of joy like a kid in a ball pit every moment of every day, and how much guilt they carry if they feel bored, disappointed, resentful, or confused by the disparity between what they thought they should be feeling and what they’re actually feeling. This certainty isn’t the experience of every new mother; I’ve known women who sail through this time on the wings of pure elation. But it’s not the majority. And those who struggle need to know that they are not alone.

A great deal of the emotional pain that new mothers endure is caused, once again, by the expectations for perfection that the culture espouses. While we may not have explicitly read this anywhere, somewhere women absorb the expectation that they’re supposed to: breastfeed for a year, get their baby to sleep through the night by three months old, stay home with their baby as long as possible before going back to work, and, most importantly, revel in joy. The reality often looks quite different, as honestly shared in this email I recently received (shared with grateful permission):

I had my son about 9 months ago. I have found the transition into motherhood as overwhelming, scary, disorienting, and intense as I did my engagement. In a nutshell, I planned to have a homebirth that resulted in a scary transfer to the hospital because of heavy meconium. I wanted a totally natural birth and ended up having several interventions. I hoped to breastfeed and my low supply could not sustain little guy, so I had to let go of that dream, too. Our baby isn’t a huge fan of sleep and never goes for more than 2 hours at a time – and it has to be on me or my husband (so our connection is fraying, too). 

I was a teacher and decided to take the year off (and most probably will continue to stay home and not return to teaching). I’m reaching out because I’m really struggling. I wonder – who am I?!? Life is actually pretty boring with an infant and I miss the busy and easy life I had before having a baby. But I don’t want to put him in daycare so it feels daunting. If one more person tells me that this is the best time of my life and to really cherish these moments, I might just burst. I had very romantic visions of motherhood, just like marriage, and it’s really hard. With teething and developmental leaps, I often find that my 2 minute bathroom break is the most relaxing moment of my day. Where did my life go?

Regardless of what parenting model you subscribe to, there’s no doubt that, as a new mother, you’re carrying a template of how you “should” feel and how you “should” be raising your baby. More than that, you’re carrying a belief that you have to do this perfectly, and if you falter in any area – feeding, sleeping, work – you’re failing as a mother. It’s the sense of failure that erodes the joy of this time more than anything else. And it’s the juxtaposition between the societal expectations and the reality that is often at the root of the sense of failure.

But the failure here is more than just false expectations; the entire structure of the culture is a setup for failure. At the root of this setup is that we’re not supposed to raise our babies alone, and the expectation that two people at most are supposed to be able to handle the onslaught of responsibility and erosion of time and freedom that having a baby means is unrealistic at best and damaging at worst. We are supposed to be raise our kids in community, and in the absence of the circle of women who should be helping the new mother, women expect their partner to fulfill this role. How can one person fill the spot that an entire community previously held? It’s an impossible situation, a recipe for conflict, disappointment, and resentment in all directions.

The saying “It takes a village to raise a child” took the world by storm several years ago. It hit a chord because it resonated in the deepest chambers of YES: we know we’re not supposed to be doing this alone. Mothers need other mothers. They need aunts, cousins, sisters, and grandmothers. Fathers need other men, the ones they would have talked to during their days out in the field or forest, to know that what they’re experiencing is normal as well. We can’t truly know ourselves in a vacuum. This is true for all transitions, for life itself, but when it comes to the transition of parenthood our cultural disconnect has far-reaching and often detrimental ramifications.

In some other time, in some other place, I would walk over to your house and sit with you on your couch. Perhaps, after we talked a bit, my body close to yours in the ancient bond of motherhood, I would give you a quick sling lesson and we would bundle up your baby and walk the neighborhood. We might talk or not talk; the connection of being in each other’s presence would be enough. My older kids might join us, offering you a window into the future and the increasing spaces of ease that arise as kids grow older and develop more independence. And in the presence of your baby we would all revel in the delicious miracle of a newborn, this precious stage that only lasts a moment in time. The pain of the passage of time to which we, as highly sensitives, are more highly attuned – the awareness that with each new stage we say goodbye to what is no longer – becomes slightly less painful when we witness each other’s stages. When we live in community, we’re held in a common web. The invisible structures that connect all of us become more visible. And in this holding, in this witnessing, we know that we’re okay.

Related: (Don’t) Ditch Day: 99 Walks Encourages Better Health And Community

When we returned back to your home, before saying goodbye, I would pull your husband aside and say to him: “I know you’re exhausted and overwhelmed, too. I know how hard you’re working to provide for your family. In some other time, that would be more than enough. But it’s not enough anymore. Your wife needs you to share in this experience with her as much as you can. Ask her two questions when you arrive home from work: How are you feeling? How can I help? It will change your marriage, and possibly even save it.”

Alas, this is not how it goes. This is not the world most people live in. And, sadly, I don’t have a solution. If I could wave a magic wand I would transform our world into neighborhoods connected by walkways and riverways, eco-villages where people are invited to connect with one another in the old ways. In light of this, perhaps it takes a slight edge of pain off to know that, when you enter parenthood, you’re being set up for pain and disappointment, and that there’s nothing wrong with you or your baby or your marriage if you’re struggling with any aspect of this transition.

It’s supposed to be hard, but it’s not supposed to be this hard. It’s supposed to rock you to your core but you’re supposed to be rocked in the arms of other women who can soothe you with their hard-earned wisdom. In this absence, all you can do is trust that you will get through, your baby will be fine, and that in the end it’s the love, the commitment to learn, and the desire to grow through these challenges that will be more than enough to get all of you through to the other side in one piece, and perhaps even softer and more compassionate because of it.

Photo: Evgeny Atamanenko/Shutterstock

14 thoughts on “The Truth About Why New Motherhood is So Hard”

  1. Hi Sheryl,

    I am a mother of twins and they are 16 months now. They don’t sleep through the night. I breastfed them for 15 months and it didn’t get better.

    I am tired and a little frustrated. Researching the web for possible solutions, I found a product called Sleepy BabySleep (I think it is and I am wondering whether you, or any of your readers, know it and can share some experience??


    1. Sheryl – with 16 month twins that don’t sleep you must be tired : ( so sorry. I do have solutions! I’m a mom of 5, have 11 grand babies under age 6 and 3 new babies are due before December!
      1. You are the expert on your own baby.
      2. Hold, snuggle, love them well, in the midst of getting on with your days responsibilities. You will be secure in your routine and will remain a “real person”, and they will settle into your routine also. You’re the boss, not them.
      3. Enjoy holding them close and breastfeeding or bottle feeding, whichever works, keep your eyes on them while you are doing it – distractions break that bond and severs the natural let-down of milk. I did breast feed all of mine, and they weaned themselves around 8 most because they were all eating independently by then.
      4. Tummy sleep babies from day one. They are cozy, snuggled, secure, get into deeper sleep cycle pattern right away so they are sleep-nourished. They will learn to lift their own head and turn from side to side to get themselves comfortable, and also burps and gas will naturally get pushed out eliminating you from having to take care of all of this. You are developing “independence” from the get-go.
      5. Feed rice cereal as early as 3 weeks to 1 month old, tiny soft spoonful at first before last night feeding, then adding morning feeding. By introducing food this early in small amounts their digestive system is satisfied, they will begin to sleep longer and you will be a happy mommy. They will also have a gradual adaptation to food instead of witholding food for 6 months and all of a sudden “wham” here’s the food = crazy. You will be able to add fruits, vegs, egg yolks, and eventually meats gradually along with adding sweetness and spices that will educate them early on the wonderfulness of flavor in foods. This creates enjoyment instead of agony for all of you : )
      6. Before you do something with your baby, suppose someone were doing this to you – would you like it? Good yardstick to measure sensibility of it. Would you like to be helpless and be tightly bundled on your back so you could not move, laid on your back looking at the ceiling while you are wide awake and expected to get yourself to sleep in complete dark, nothing snuggly around, no soft blanket to snuggle close to you, crazy noise machines interrupting sound sleep and muffling the comforting sounds in your home, taking away sweet “sleep props” that comfort you, trying to “love you well” then walk away and leave you alone to settle yourself (as suggested in Sleep Baby Sleep)? = nonsense.
      7. We are a family of 7 – all 5 of our children were tummy sleepers, breastfed, ate cereal at several weeks, snuggled in blankets, were comfy long sleepers and nappers, went along with the day’s activities, slept in the calm of daylight or natural night, no extra sounds, just the hum of family routine. My grand babies who follow these steps as well sleep through the night early, take naps, love flavored foods, aren’t reliant on sound machines or other “props”, bring along their snugglies as they need them, but are stronger, walking earlier and more independent than those who are back slept with all the props and withholding food, etc. Mommies and Daddies are happier and they are a joy to be with!

      I know this sounds “retro”, but I grew up in the 70’s and we are known for charting our own path. Oh and another thing, don’t be afraid of encouragement and loving care from mom, grandma, aunts, “seasoned” women – they’ve lived through this and would love to help hold you and those babies : )

      luv, janet

  2. Actually mother with her first baby facing many problems as she has no experience to tackle with her child. Also it is very new to her so facing these problems and got frustrated.

  3. I had the exact same insight as a new mother…. “where’s my village?” I wondered. I’ve been trying to create my own community ever since. Some form of community is usually within reach, but it can be a challenge. I intend to make sure my son has more support then I did when he becomes a parent.

    Thank you, this article is wonderful and every new mother would benefit from this awareness.

  4. Dear Mom, I had this all when I had my son Eliah 7years a go and I got postpartum depression because of that .still in medications ,and am still wondering if this is the reason why my son in so stubborn.but the only thing made me servive (except my medicine) is the great book of the writer : Gina ford ,she thought me what to do & when ,her book was my only light and I than her from my heart and God bless her and all of u . Please take care of ur self and don’t feel guilty,try ur best to take naps during the day. Wish you the best.

  5. Yes! This. I had a good community when my daughter was born (it seemed like every day someone was stopping by the house to see the baby – because she was so new – but what I felt really isolated at night, when I was up at all hours). Now that she’s a toddler that I feel like I need my “village” more than ever! Even if it’s just a family member to pop by the house to distract and entertain her for a few minutes. I’m always thinking about how if we lived like other cultures, I’d have a parent or in-law (or both) living with us to take some of the stress off, and maybe a sibling or older child, and I could run up to the grocery store while the baby napped, have someone to entertain her, and be able to keep that perspective of how brief this moment in time really is. Articles like this offer a little of that. Thank you 🙂

  6. Great article – mirrors my own experience! As suggested in the article, I would have loved to have had my husband ask, “How can I help?” Unfortunately, he never did. The solitude of a new mother who has no “village” is overwhelming. It does become very “me and you against the world” as in the old Helen Reddy song (with the giggling child at the end of the song!). In my next life, I will have a child when I am younger (so as to have younger/more helpful parents), my parents and siblings will be more empathetic and helpful (not sitting around waiting to be waited upon while visiting!), and I will intuitively know why my son was so sick and never slept (the infamous “colic” with projectile vomiting and diarrhea and subsequent dehydration). I feel very lucky my son and I have always had and continue to have a great relationship, with much trust and love, despite all the early difficulties. Whenever I see a young mother with an inconsolable baby, I always try to ask if I can help and say, “Don’t worry – it’ll get better!”

  7. Your article expresses so very well what I, and many other mothers, feel. Even with a support circle nearby, in the form of grandparents willing to babysit while I take care of some errands, I still feel it’s not quite as it should be, that my husband and I are trying to do too much in isolation from the rest of the world. The establishment of the nuclear family in western culture may have signalled an improvement in living conditions for families after WWII, but it came at the cost of the community supports that we’ve relied upon for thousands of years. These days, so many families are compelled to take jobs far away from their extended families and plunks them into manufactured communities where no one has any close ties. It is very difficult for a new mother make friends. Often she is physically drained and overwhelmed with household responsibilities, even if she is not facing any particular challenges. Many of us have not had the opportunity to learn mothering from our own mothers, and feel pulled in many different directions: career, home, children, spouse, social life. You are right to say there is no easy solution to this, the dilemma of the 21st century mother. I think we are in a transition period, and thank goodness you are encouraging us to come together to dream up new ideas to make motherhood better for mothers, fathers and families.

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