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Mess + Magic: Real Talk on Surviving the First Six Months With Your Newborn

Here’s an odd cultural quirk about pregnancy and parenthood in 21st Century America: while there’s a ton of focus on the stuff that swirls around having a baby (labor and delivery, decorating the nursery, how to sleep train, etc.), it’s rare that parents-to-be will have in-depth, honest conversations about life with a baby, especially immediately post-partum.

What I hear so often—and what I experienced myself after our first daughter was born—was a constant sense of wondering, Why did nobody tell me about this?!

Sure, I heard the standard lines about poopy diapers and sleep deprivation. People who are on the other side of raising a newborn would nod sagely and say something like, “Parenthood changes everything,” which was maddeningly vague to me. I read the relentlessly horrifying (and often hilarious) tales from the parenting trenches that made it sound like having a baby is the most awful thing in the world.

Like so many things in our culture, conversations about newborns tended to occupy the extremes: either it was the ethereal bliss of soft-glow photos on social media, or it was stories that painted parenthood as this grueling horror show. I realized how little we talk about what it’s actually like to be at home, just living day to day with a newborn baby.

So, I think it’s time for some real talk. Not glossing over the tough stuff and not catastrophizing parenthood—but just an honest conversation on what to expect and how to survive those first six months.

Here are some things that genuinely surprised me and other new parents in my life, what I wish I had known, and what I know now about how to get through it all.

1. I wish I had known that it’s totally normal to have moments of existential panic.

You will have a moment in those first days and weeks, and probably many moments, where you feel wholly unqualified to be caring for this tiny, totally dependent human being—and the weight of this realization can be pretty terrifying. There is no magic dossier of information that descends when your baby arrives, and even a library full of baby books cannot prepare you for the intensity of those early months.

Many things that are labeled as “instinctual” when it comes to parenting in reality require some serious instruction and lots and lots of practice. What I know now is that not knowing is okay. It doesn’t mean you’re not a suitable parent. It just means you don’t know, in that moment, and that you’ll figure it out. It keeps going on like that forever.

2. I wish I’d known that it’s not a failure to put your kid down for a while, ask for help, or take a break.

Early on with our first daughter, I felt like I absolutely had to be doing it all, all the time, and somehow also make it seem effortlessly enjoyable. Anything less was somehow evidence that I wasn’t really mother material, which was something I secretly feared. I’m not exactly sure where this message got engrained in my head, but I know it’s not uncommon.

Several days after we got home from the birthing center, I admitted this to my own mom over the phone, and she basically said, “Are you nuts? Who doesn’t need help?” And she came over. I cried about how tired and overwhelmed I felt, and I felt embarrassed to admit it. She hugged me and told me that being tired and overwhelmed seemed like a totally natural human response to having a baby. I remember thinking, How it is that I thought she wouldn’t understood exactly what I was going through? When did I forget that she was also a new mom at one time? Why did I assume it was effortless for everyone else except me?

She told me to go take a shower and a nap, and I did. The more I talked to other new parents, the more I found out I wasn’t alone. There’s this strange resistance to asking for help, but also a longing to reach out and beg for an occasional reprieve, for some rest, for reassurance.

I know now that it’s okay—and necessary—to find simple ways to get a breather. It took me a while, but I learned that my daughter could be content on the rug next to me while I stretched for a few minutes. I mean, it’s not like she was going anywhere, and if she needed anything, she certainly had the lungs to let me know. Both our girls were happy to play or rest in their bouncer nearby while I planted flowers or took a shower. My husband and I finally learned to take turns with short breaks to get time to sit and think in silence or make something or go for a walk—basically anything that helps you return to yourself and feel sane. By the time our second daughter came along, we felt zero guilt about alternating naps, taking turns, and asking my parents for help.

3. I wish I had known in the moment that the magic and the mess go together, just like everywhere else in life.

Instagram is awesome, but it’s also kind of a liar. Or at least it’s a highly edited, highly sanitized, and highly filtered view of parenthood.

When the reality for me didn’t match the glowing stories and gauzy photographs, I struggled with feeling like something was defective with my mom-o-meter. I had kids later in life, after years of wondering if I really wanted to have them at all. I’m a hard-core introvert who was used to spending hours alone each week—and then suddenly I had another human literally attached to me almost constantly. Here’s an understatement: that was an adjustment. It required some time to fully integrate and process what was happening. I was exhausted from labor, it took me eight weeks to figure out breastfeeding, and my body was going through about a million biological and biochemical shifts that I could barely comprehend and that made me feel like an alien in my own skin. It was all pretty overwhelming.

My sense of attachment as a parent warmed and grew over the course of weeks and months, and it was not a linear process. There were exhilarating moments and moments of crushing fatigue and defeat. I learned something critical from talking to my other friends who were also new parents: there is a huge spectrum of emotional and psychological response to the massive change and upheaval that having a baby brings into your life, and most of it is well within the range of normal.

While it’s of course important to know the signs of postpartum depression and to reach out for help if you need it—I think it’s also important to know from the get-go that taking care of a newborn is hard, demanding work. It’s okay to feel sad and scared sometimes, just like it’s okay to feel on top of the world as you hold that tiny hand. It’s okay to cry and wonder what you’ve gotten yourself into, just like it’s okay to be overwhelmed with joy and gratitude.

Just like with the rest of life—your partnership, your work, your close relationships—the magic and the mess live together. The imperfection brings its own kind of beauty, if we let it in.

You need grace with your partner, and you need it for yourself. The practice of giving that compassion to yourself in those early weeks—like really being tender and kind and forgiving with yourself—makes room for that grace to show up for others, and allows you to be more present for all the wonderful, life-altering moments that arrive unexpectedly, full of mess and magic.

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