Ann Dunnewold: A Letter to New Moms

You're bleary-eyed and exhausted to the bone. You swing wildly between "What was I thinking — did I ruin my life?" and "What a miracle — a new baby!" You expected it to be hard — even the mail carrier told you so — while everyone said it would be "the most wonderful time in your life." What you didn't anticipate was the endless litany of worries in your head. You prepared — you read piles of books, stalked and studied everyone with a baby, blushed through a breastfeeding class. Or maybe you tuned all that out and threw your odds with "trusting your gut." But you never anticipated the constant, hard-to-suppress brain chatter: Will I know what to do? Will I do a good job? Will I be able to protect my child? Will I wreck my child's life? Will I talk to her enough, play with her enough, know what she needs? Will she hate me when she's a teenager? Will I love being a mom? Will I be able to have a life for me?

If you are like most new moms — especially women with postpartum depression — you're riddled with anxiety. Doubts about doing this job (let alone doing it well) mushroom into a cloud that engulfs your days and nights. There's so much at stake. Before baby, maybe you fantasized about this little ball of Playdoh that you could lovingly shape into a fine, functional adult (who would adore her mama!). Now you feel the weight of mother-blaming in a way you never did before. (Sure, you were guilty of tsk-tsking at someone else's screaming child in the grocery store. Pre-baby, we all were.) This job of mom feels like a make-it-or-break-it deal. You're either a calm, loving earth mother, producing an organic-fed, Nobel, Pulitzer andOscar winner — or Freddy Krueger's mom. Nothing in between. It rests squarely on your shoulders, like a ton of dirty diapers. Of course you are worried!

As a psychologist who has worked with hundreds of new moms and raised two daughters, I know how the brains of moms work. It truly feels like success or failure, all or nothing. You zero in on dozens of decisions and can immobilize yourself with second-guessing, if not outright fear. It's not simply the choices. It's the underlying massive potential for disaster, screwing up those choices. This is how the human brain works — especially in moms — seeing danger everywhere. Perhaps this is a product of evolution. A woman who didn't tune into hazards waltzed through the meadow picking daisies while the saber tooth tiger nabbed her baby. You had to tune into the perils of life to survive. Pretty powerful reinforcement for negative thinking. Negative thinking is directly linked to depression and anxiety. Ditching that negative habit is a good way out of self-doubt, let alone heavy-hitting depression and/or anxiety.

You can change these thinking habits, a baby step at a time. Just remember one word: perspective. Turn it into a mantra, replacing the negative brain chatter. Perspective is what you need most throughout your life as a parent.

By keeping perspective, you can avoid the trap of thinking that any one act as a parent shapes (read: "ruins") your child (or his/her life). You yell at your toddler, then worry you've warped his little psyche. The baby screams bloody murder for five minutes while you take a shower, your first in three days. You miss sign-up for preschool, though your friends and enemies have signed up all their children at the top school. Your eyes closed, you listen to your favorite song, scolding yourself that you should be singing to your baby. No doubt you'll tally your own list as you move through your child's days. My nearly 80-year-old mother confessed to my three sisters and me recently how she ranted at us one dismal, snowy, long-ago afternoon because toys were strewn from basement to attic. She felt so guilty afterward that she sat down and sobbed, certain we would turn into axe murderers, or at the very least, hate her. My sisters and I looked at each other, dumbfounded. Not one of us could remember this event, while my mom had plagued herself with it for nearly half a century. This is an essential truth of parenting. Any single act as a parent is not indicative of the whole, it's just one piece of your parenting. It is not the sole defining moment.

Instead, parenting is the sum total of all the tiny, unnoticeable acts throughout your days and years as a mother. Here's the second part of this critical task of finding perspective. Do take credit for all those individual things that you do each day, the ones that feel right to you.

If you hug your child, kiss a boo-boo, trigger a smile with your smile, extract a burp, feel calm for two seconds as the baby sighs into your shoulder, diaper the baby without incident, take credit! Read a story, tuck the blankets in at night, tickle a tummy, play peek-a-boo, laugh at the fortieth telling of a knock-knock joke, pack a lunch, snuggle in bed — count those caring acts, too! Perfect parenting does not exist. No one can parent the way that she wants every single waking moment, 168 hours a week, 365 days a year, for 18 years or beyond. If you watch, you can tune into how much you DO accomplish each day that counts as great parenting, the multiple glimpses in the day of the mom you can be.

Perspective is key. We spend too much time laser-focused on where we goofed, what we didn't do. With microscopic examination of each act, our ragged humanity glares through, showing our mistakes. We can't all be June Cleaver, perfect in every way. For that matter, watch some early episodes of old icon June. You quickly see that she was intensely human herself. In one show, June tells Ward how she doesn't like Eddie Haskell. She is steadily making sandwiches for the boy's lunch. "I'm going to put mayo on Eddie's sandwich," she slyly confesses, "because he told me it upsets his stomach."

We are much too hard on ourselves if we think that every act or choice has the potential to wreck our kids — or boost them into superkid realm. You're going to have rotten mom moments. I don't know a single mom who hasn't. What counts in the end is balance. Just watch. Add up those good acts throughout the day. You'll feel better about yourself as a mom. You can let go of (some) anxiety about the outcome when you take credit for each good thing. You can relax when you see that any single blunder is outweighed by dozens of good mom acts.

The many tiny sacrifices and caring moments of parenting are like bricks in the patch toward your child's future. A chipped, broken or missing brick here and there is no big deal. Don't trip on them. Focus on the many bricks that are workable, great, even perfect at times. They add up to a perfectly passable path, leading your child to a perfectly great life. Every moms can be a perfectly good mom. You have that potential in you. Embrace it, keep perspective, and watch the anxiety about parenting drift to the background.

Hugs and Happy Mother's Day.

Ann L. Dunnewold, Ph.D., is a licensed psychologist dedicated to arming women against the pressures of modern motherhood. She has authored four books on motherhood issues, including "Even June Cleaver Would Forget the Juice Box" and, with Diane Sanford, the forthcoming revision of "Postpartum Survival Guide" entitled "Life Will Never Be the Same: Surviving the Ups and Downs of Pregnancy and Postpartum".

About Katherine Stone

is the creator of this blog, and the founder and executive director of Postpartum Progress. She has been named a WebMD Health Hero, one of the fiercest women in America by More magazine, and one of the 15 most influential patient advocates to follow. She is a survivor of postpartum OCD.

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  1. Lauren Hale says:

    Ann –
    Thank you for a wonderful essay.
    My favorite part:
    "Instead, parenting is the sum total of all the tiny, unnoticeable acts throughout your days and years as a mother. Here's the second part of this critical task of finding perspective. Do take credit for all those individual things that you do each day, the ones that feel right to you."
    AMEN. It truly is the little things that make up life.

  2. Katherine Stone/Post says:

    "A woman who didn't tune into hazards waltzed through the meadow picking daisies while the saber tooth tiger nabbed her baby."
    Awesome line. That's how I felt, and honestly, in many ways that's how I still feel. The moment I let down my guard something awful will happen. It's one of the toughest parts of motherhood for me. Thanks Ann.