SINGAPORE: Reading the news about the challenges that soon-to-be mothers face in these COVID-19 times brought me back to my own experience when I first became a mother 11 years ago.
I cared for my first-born without external help as my own mum was caught up with work unexpectedly during that time.
They were the most stressful days of my life. Between struggling to breastfeed my daughter (who was a sleepy feeder) and battling my own constant worries about having enough milk and whether she was putting on weight, I found little energy to do anything else.
While my baby took time to adjust to a more predictable sleep-wake-feed-play cycle, I felt stuck in an endless list of to-dos – from diaper-changing, nursing and pumping, to rocking the baby to sleep.
Some nights, with baby and I both crying and unable to sleep, it felt like I was at the end of my rope. But with my husband’s helping hand and emotional support, we managed to survive the initial parenthood shocks.
ALL IN THE MIND
In the good old days, our mothers and grandmothers raised their brood with little help. You can almost imagine ah-ma cooking for the household while balancing a baby at the hip.
Fast forward a few decades and so many of us are crying out when the help that we’ve grown accustomed to is taken away by COVID-19.
One cannot help but ask if society has grown more dependent and less resilient.
But maybe the solution lies in changing our mindset and lowering expectations.
Deep in my own first-time motherhood dumps, I realise on hindsight that I wasn’t just dealing with the practical challenges of raising a newborn, I was also battling feelings of failure because I seemed to be missing something.
The picture-perfect ads of a beautiful mother snuggling with her cooing baby had set me up.
I yearned for my experience of motherhood to be perfect, but why wasn't I basking in the warm glow of motherhood?
Why was breastfeeding not as intuitive as it seems?
Why was it so hard to settle my baby down to sleep?
It was tough admitting to family and friends that things were far from perfect.
It took me a while, but I finally figured out that I needed to give myself time to grow into this new role. I needed to be self-compassionate.
The truth about parenthood is that no matter how many books you read and how much theory you internalise, you still have to make that journey yourself.
It is deeply personal. You have to figure out your own baby while establishing your own parenting priorities. No two babies, or parents, are the same.
What works for one household may not work for another. For one, sleep training may work like magic; for another, a nightmare on repeat.
This is also why it is all too easy for us to judge other parents. We think that simply because we’ve survived the parenthood challenge, others should be able to do the same – with nary a whine or complaint.
Take for example breastfeeding. There are breastfeeding advocates out there who can be vocal about the benefits and bonding that comes with this experience.
But for mums who struggle to produce sufficient milk or battle with clogged ducts and mastitis, it can also be a hair-raising experience.
Making space for such different truths and stories can be crucial in shoring up societal support for new mothers.
READ: Commentary: When parenthood comes knocking, life's never the same again no matter what route got you there
GETTING THE HELP YOU NEED
With the still-precarious COVID-19 situation in Singapore, many households with new-borns or young infants now have to bear the burden of baby-caring as a family unit.
While it can be daunting, there are ways to help relieve some of the pressure. One of them is confinement food delivery or appealing for your mother or mum-in-law to stay with you through the period.
A good friend of mine, who just gave birth to her fourth child, and who manages her household without help, shared that training her elder children, aged five and seven, to help out in the home proved handy after baby arrived.
Another is to ask for help from your partner. While most modern dads are ready to get involved – whether it’s changing the diaper or doing a night feed – it can get dicey when expectations or instructions are not set out clearly. Where possible, try discussing these before baby arrives.
Clear communication is key. For instance, if you need him to heat up the milk for the night feed, be sure to leave written instructions so that he knows the temperature or heating time required and is set up for success.
New fathers are also undergoing change themselves, so it may take a while for both parties to fully embrace their new roles. Meanwhile, showing grace to and forgiving each other may be your best tool.
Instead of harping on a mistake made, for instance, focus on the problem at hand and thinking of solutions.
When couples approach parenthood with a mentality that says “I’ve got your back,” both parents may feel more supported and this can help your marriage survive the tumultuous ride.
EMOTIONAL SUPPORT ESSENTIAL FOR GROWTH
New parents, brace yourselves. It will be a steep learning curve and the ascent will be tougher for some more than others.
Tell yourself that the struggle will be worthwhile in the end, and that it will soon pass – just like the COVID-19 situation.
It is okay to live in a messy house for a month, to not have all the answers, and to make mistakes.
As the lyrics of the song The Light goes, “So come on just let go, you’re not in this alone,” make sure that you have company for the journey.
Do whatever it takes to maintain some semblance of sanity, whether it’s by pouring out your woes to friends or making yourself a cup of chamomile tea at night.
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Staying positive, laughing a lot, and clinging on to hope will help you rise to the occasion.
Don’t believe everything the experts say and remember to trust your own instincts.
As you mark each milestone in your baby’s growth – her first turn, her first laugh, her first word – you will also look back and witness your own growth. And be able to say, “I survived motherhood without help, and now I am stronger for it.”
June Yong is a mother of three, an educational therapist and owner of Mama Wear Papa Shirt, a blog that discusses parenting and education in Sing