There are one thousand ways I have felt like a total newbie at parenting, even on my third time around. The newness has been both baffling and a sweet gift, reassuring that we are always growing, life is always changing, and affirming that I am a different person than I was when my first child was born. And that this babe is a different being.
In many ways, becoming a mama for the third time has been easier, more joyful. Besides the baby having more faces to look at and arms to hold him, and me already being a pro at changing diapers upside down since he’s mastered rolling over, some of these things don’t have to wait until the second, third or fourth time around to find.
One key difference with my third child is that I finally know that no one else will prioritize my self care but me. When my first son was born, I stopped showering, stopped meditating, stopped practicing yoga, stopped sleeping more than two hours at a time. I thought this was normal newborn motherhood, (the sleep part pretty much is!), and I accepted it as part of the package for my beloved baby. For a while, letting self care slide was okay with me, because I was so fulfilled by our shared love. But then it became the new normal. I didn’t remember what self care looked like and my daily routine had no room for it. For years since, I have struggled to make sure I wash my face each day, shower more than once a week, take time away from my kids every now and then. I have spent so much time being angry at my partner because he wasn’t taking care of me the way I wanted, and internally I have been angry at my children for not “letting me” take care of myself.
I thought that one day my partner would say, “I’ve noticed you don’t go to yoga (or pee alone!) anymore. Why don’t you go do that?” He didn’t say that. He was treading water in his own way, managing to work and figure out parenthood and bills on one income. Now I know that my job is my job alone. I can and should ask for help when I need it, but no one is a mind reader and no one knows how my soul and body needs to be fed but me.
From the very beginning of my third child’s arrival, I have woven in routines that allow me to care of myself. Immediately upon waking, baby lays on a sheepskin rug while I pee and brush my teeth alone. This may seem small, but any mother knows how rare alone time in the bathroom can be. Then I change his diaper and he enjoys solo kicking time while I take 10 minutes of yoga or semi-silent coffee drinking (usually half our household is up at this time, so semi-silent is pretty good!). A couple times a month, I’ll go to a support group, acupuncture, or out to dinner with a friend – sometimes the baby comes along and sometimes he stays home. I’ve asked my partner to help me get more sleep. I find time most days to journal and read, even for two minutes, because it refills me. And one major biggie: I shower when I need it!
I am a better mom when I care for myself. I know those years of resentment are my own fault. I thought someone else would force me to care of myself, or at least pay attention to the fact that I wasn’t. But they weren’t. Self-care is a self-job, though everyone around me benefits from it. I think often about that example of a plane crashing and parents putting on their own oxygen masks first. I’m putting on my oxygen mask when I stretch, shower, write or step outside alone. Then, I can help everyone else.
The second component of this is being able to ask for help and set boundaries. Wow. Half of the help is in the asking. Often people want to help and either don’t know how, or have a different idea than you about what helping means. This time around I found my footing in both asking for help and clarifying what that was. For the first month and a half, my newborn woke up every 1.5 hours to nurse. At the time, I was struggling with postpartum anxiety and mild depression. I knew that sleep was necessary to support my mental health, so asked my partner to take the kids on weekend mornings so I could sleep in. The specificity of my request was important. He works all week as a carpenter and truly can’t do that safely without sleep, so the weekend was the time he was able to help. It felt like a decent compromise to me. We needed help with meals, but visitors peaked my anxiety, so I asked people that wanted to bring food to limit their visit to one hour or drop food off in a cooler on our deck. It was amazing how many people were understanding and happy to help in this way.
This may seem like a no-brainer, to ask clearly for what we want, and if it is for you then I applaud you! For many of us though, we see pictures of postpartum women with clean houses and full makeup. We hear “Isn’t it amazing?” and “He’s so precious!” and “How about I hold the baby so you can get some things done?” and “We just can’t wait to meet her!” If these comments feel supportive, great! If they feel less than, it is our call to ask clearly for our kind of support, be it space, acceptance, or someone else to do the dishes.
In order to clearly ask for help, I made lists for myself so that if someone offered assistance, I had something ready they could do. I leaned into my trusted friendships and I learned how to ask for emotional support. And I hired a postpartum doula.
It’s important to remember that our children are always watching, and our example is a far better teacher than our words. When we ask for help we are modeling how to do that for our children. When we do the things that feed our bodies and souls, when we enjoy alone time, our children are learning how to do that for themselves, too. There are so many life-long skills rolled up into one when it comes to self care, and it is never ever too early for babies to learn. Truly, it begins in the womb and lasts a lifetime.
I wish I had known this stuff on my first go, and I honor that it took me the trial and error to learn, but you don’t have to wait until your third time to find more ease and joy.
Lis McCachren Mitchell is a mama and a birth & human advocate. She weaves yoga into her practice of heart-centered mothering, creating a small homestead with her partner & three children, and capturing moments for writing about connection & beauty in everyday life. www.heartcenteredmamas.com