Before I Forget: What Nobody Remembers About New Motherhood

No one should expect a woman with a newborn to be "on cloud nine."


Early one morning when my daughter Rosie was a few weeks old, I packed her up in a baby carrier and took her to the drugstore, which felt at the time like an ambitious outing. It had been a rough night, and she was now happily sleeping off her bender. I got into line with my stain stick and baby wipes and let my eyes go out of focus.

"Can I see this little one?" said a smiling voice at my shoulder. I turned around so that the older woman behind me could peek at the tiny creature nestled against my poop-stained shirt. She sighed, looked deep into my bloodshot eyes, and asked, "Aren't you just on cloud nine?"

Actually, I was queasy with fatigue. I was sad about the way my husband and I had snapped at each other while Rosie was crying the night before, and fretful about when she would regain her birthweight, and slightly freaked out about how totally my life had been upended and whether it would ever be mine again. And I was more than a little worried about this cloud nine. What was this supposed to feel like?

For me, and for many other women, being a new mother is hard. It can be hard in a million different ways: painful physical recovery from a difficult birth, breast-feeding problems, colic, tensions with your partner, sleep problems. It's also just hard on its own, on top of and in between all these other challenges. As a friend of mine said, "I knew it would be hard, but I didn't know what 'hard' would feel like." We thought it would be sitcom-style hard—not necessarily with a feel-good resolution at the end of every episode, but at least punctuated by those frequent moments of uplift indicating that, in spite of everything, life really is beautiful, isn't it? I'm pretty sure it's like that for some people, but for many of us, it's not. For many of us, it's not good hard, as in a "good hard workout"; it's bad hard, as in, it sometimes feels like something bad is happening to you.

But does anyone really remember this? I don't. I only know it's true because I remember saying it out loud, and because I wrote the previous paragraph almost three years ago, with Rosie sleeping at my side, in a typo-filled document titled "Before I Forget." Since then, my body and mind have edited my memories of the newborn period into the parenting equivalent of a kung fu movie training montage. Fatigue, hormones, nostalgia, and hindsight have reshaped those long months into a series of wordless film clips, set to the inspiring music of the love I now feel for my daughter, spliced together to tell the story of how it all worked out in the end.

On the whole, I'm grateful for this mechanism. Like the hormonal magic that dulls our memories of the pain of childbirth, the montage-ification of the first months of motherhood is therapeutic and practical. It allows us to smile fondly at a photo of the baby taken on her one-week birthday, the very day that we woke to her cries just an hour after the last feeding, put lanolin on our bleeding nipples and, sick with exhaustion, made a mental note to ask the man for whom we once wore expensive lingerie to run out for some adult diapers (excellent for post-partum bleeding). And it readies us to produce a sibling for the little tyrant who made us so genuinely miserable on that surprisingly photogenic morning.

But this benign forgetting also has the unfortunate consequence of making us feel a little more alone in those challenging months, because no one we talk to—not our mothers, not our friends with toddlers, not our pediatricians or lactation consultants—is able to re-inhabit her own experience fully enough to really understand how we feel.

Sometimes this memory gap takes the form of remarks like the drugstore lady's question about "cloud nine"—the first installment of the phenomenon Glennon Melton describes in her much-forwarded "Don't Carpe Diem," about older women who see her wrangling her three children in the checkout line and tell her to "enjoy every moment" with them (at once demonstrating their own amnesia about such moments and managing to make her feel guilty). But often the disconnect is subtler, occurring in conversations with people who really know us, people whose perspectives we value. I had a supportive team of experienced moms to whom I could turn for advice, and I can't imagine what that time would have been like without them. But as they answered my many questions, I heard them struggle to create coherent, internally consistent narratives, to cross back into the unique universe of those months when their lives as mothers began.

Here's an example of a sentiment that I know I experienced but can no longer access at all. One night after a long, fussy evening with our generally unfussy newborn, I suddenly realized that some people's babies were always like that. A chill of horror went through me, something like what I normally feel when contemplating prisoners of war placed in stress positions. My voice hoarse, my guts in knots, I turned to my husband and said, "The thought of having a baby with colic terrifies me." Now I think back to that moment and can't relate. The thought of having a baby who cries a lot terrifies me? But at the time, it seemed like a nightmare that I simply could not have faced.

Why? For one thing, it's hard to remember how distressing sleep-deprivation is when we're not actually experiencing it. Second, as many people have remarked, it's hard to explain how upsetting it is when your baby cries. My perspective on the horrors of colic was probably more accurate that night, with Rosie's cries fresh in my ears, than it is now.

But something about new motherhood also darkened my worldview and made the thought of those cries more threatening. This is where you may be wondering if I'm just talking about post-partum depression, but the struggles I have in mind are unlikely to raise any significant red flags at the six-week check-up. And while, being raised in a family of psychologists, I certainly asked myself whether I might have PPD, I generally didn't find that line of questioning helpful.

Don't get me wrong—it's an important question that we should keep asking ourselves and each other, and we should seek treatment unapologetically if the answer might be yes. But the problem with that question as our primary approach to the struggles of new motherhood is that it suggests that the post-partum experience itself is just fine, unless of course you have a legitimate clinical illness that distorts your perception of it. And the post-partum experience is not just fine. It is immensely, bizarrely complicated. It is, at various times and for various people, grueling and joyful and frightening and beautiful and disorienting and moving and horrible. There's a lot going on there that will never make its way into the DSM V.

Mood—in both its ordered and disordered forms—is influenced by both internal and external circumstances. When it comes to post-partum mood, the internal circumstances are all the more unpredictable. As I was wheeled down the hallway immediately after Rosie's birth, I felt a dark anxiety mushrooming inside me. The TV in my hospital room was playing a public service announcement about post-partum depression: Minor chords, a woman by a rain-soaked window staring mournfully over the head of a sleeping baby. "Turn it off," I said urgently to my mother. "Turn it off!" The anxiety dissipated after those first post-partum hours, but it was enough to give me a creepy sense of the biochemical forces moving within my body and beyond my control.

A year later, I visited a friend who had just given birth and found her crying with joy about how much she loved her baby and her husband. As a mutual friend said, "It's like a roller coaster. We're all experiencing the same thing, but it makes some people laugh and whoop with joy, and it makes other people cry with fear or puke."

How the external circumstances of new parenthood will affect your mood might be easier to predict. If you are good at just being in the moment and taking your life as it comes, there can be a Zen-like quality to your days with baby. But say you're someone like me—someone who likes the feeling of planning out your day, both what you're going to accomplish and when and how you're going to relax, and then executing that plan—then you will probably find that the long, aimless weeks of waiting on and reacting to your newborn are unsatisfying, frustrating, even depressing. You may find yourself a little weepy at the end of a cold, gray day in which you accomplished nothing but half a load of laundry, now moldering in the washer since the baby's surprisingly early awakening from her morning nap. You may find yourself unreasonably irritable when your partner calls to say that he or she is going to be home from work thirty minutes late.

I was less weepy on the days when I got more done, when I felt more competent. I draw a lot of satisfaction from the experience of mastering a task, of figuring it out and doing it well, but the task of parenting a new baby changes so rapidly that it's nearly impossible to feel any sense of mastery in those first few months. Everyone kept telling me that, when in doubt, I should tune into my "Mother's Instincts," but I didn't really feel like a Mother yet. I had Instincts, but they just seemed to be the same ones I'd always had, like the very strong Instinct to make myself a cup of tea and watch The Wonder Years. These Instincts didn't have much to say about parenting Rosie, and they were struck especially dumb when confronted with conflicting theories about childrearing. The hard-core attachment parenting ideologues said I should hold my baby all day (actually, it was worse: They said I should want to hold my baby all day), and I was pretty sure that was crazy, but what did I know? In the absence of loud and confident Mother's Instincts, some new mothers find it helpful just to pick an ideology and follow it. I opted for the more balanced approach of allowing them all to make me feel equally inadequate.

How much does all this matter? Not that much, in the scheme of things. I love parenting Rosie now, and I have little direct memory of the distress I'm recounting here. I would not have written this essay if I didn't have that old "Before I Forget" document burning a hole in my hard drive because, for the most part, I've forgotten.

And yet I'm still capable of tearing up a little when I talk about the challenges of those first few months, about the fear and loneliness I felt when that woman at the drugstore assumed I was "on cloud nine." I wish I'd understood then that the memories motivating her comment were probably less New Motherhood than New Motherhood Montage. My own montage is pretty convincing, and it can trick me into making all kinds of insensitive comments if I'm not careful. If I see you in the drugstore with your newborn, I probably won't say anything, but the adoring look on my face will say it all: I'm replaying my New Motherhood Montage, and it's beautiful. Let me apologize in advance for that. But let me add: Someday yours will be too. And that, if you can possibly believe it, might be the best thing for you to tell yourself as you shrug off my gaze, wipe the baby drool off your collarbone, and ring up that second package of adult diapers.