“I really think you should come to the meeting,” said the social worker on the other end of the phone. I’d given birth several weeks ago, and since then my baby had entered the NICU and been released. I was having a hard time breastfeeding, which is what landed him in the NICU in the first place—he had low blood sugar because he was unable to suck. Now trying to get him back to the breast, I was on an endless cycle of nurse, bottle feed, pump. I was exhausted.
Before leaving the hospital, I had to fill out a questionnaire assessing my risk for postpartum depression. I had my son after many years of infertility and miscarriage, so I was already dealing with a lot of anxiety—would he actually arrive safe and sound? And then to have him wheeled off to the NICU at one day old, well, no wonder I was stressed. My evaluation was red-flagged, and resulted in that call from the social worker.
I almost didn’t answer the phone. Sometimes I wonder what would have happened if I hadn’t. Instead, sleep-deprived and cranky though I was, I listened as she told me about a new mothers support group at the hospital. She urged me to come, saying that I needed to take care of myself, too.
But how would I make that happen? Just getting out of the house with my newborn seemed a massive undertaking, one that I just couldn’t handle. But when the day came, somehow I got him in his bucket seat, carried it out to the car and made it to the hospital.
We sat in a circle, holding or breastfeeding our children. We talked about the challenges we faced, our small accomplishments and the difficulties we encountered. The words we found ourselves uttering time and again were, “No one told me it would be like this.”
Our leaders were the social worker, somewhat formal and reserved in her demeanor, and a former nurse, warm and grandmotherly. They stressed that we needed to take time for ourselves—one hour each day—to have our husbands or someone else watch the baby while we showered, napped or did whatever we wanted to make us feel human again.
A non-parent once asked me what the most surprising thing about becoming a mother was. “The constancy of it,” I said. The baby just never stopped eating, crying, pooping. All day, every day. And although I knew it before—of course babies do these things—the toll it all took on me was not something I was prepared for. Maybe you can never be truly prepared for it.
So there we were in our meetings, getting to tell the truth about new motherhood to the only other people who could understand. Everyone in the group cried at one time or another; it was practically a requirement. As our babies got a little older, our challenges shifted. Some moms had difficulty breastfeeding and felt guilty about quitting. Others were sad about going back to work. Some, like me, were dealing with the identity shift that went along with becoming a stay-at-home-mom. Some babies were colicky. Some husbands didn’t help out. Some had annoying in-laws who offered unsolicited advice.
Whatever our particular problems were, we could discuss them in the judgment-free, confidential zone of the support group. Our babies were now old enough to play on blankets on the floor as we talked. More women started coming, and soon it was hard to get around to everyone in our allotted time. Sometimes we’d run over, and doctors who had a meeting scheduled after us would gather impatiently in the hall.
The support group was initially supposed to be for moms of babies under six months. Then it was extended to a year, since everything seemed to be going so well, and the more seasoned mothers like us could help out those who’d just had their babies.
But as we approached our children’s first birthdays, it got harder and harder to manage our active little ones within the confines of the meeting. Tiny infants on the floor would run the risk of getting trampled by newly-walking babies. It seemed that a divide was forming. We were no longer “new moms.” It was time to hand over the group to the newcomers.
One woman, who became one of my very best mom friends, started a Facebook group so we could move into a digital space, instead of a physical one. We would still plan activities—play dates, pumpkin picking, meet-ups at the playground or lake. But most of our get-togethers were focused on our kids. They weren’t really about taking time for ourselves anymore.
Although it was true that my new-mom struggles were behind me, I still felt—and still feel—like I could use a support group. Not a play group. A group for moms, where we could sit in a circle and vent and cry like we used to.
Some of us went back to the hospital group about a year later to visit. We each told our stories, but the new moms in the group looked at us like we were from another planet. When you have a newborn, almost-two-year-olds look giant and seem like a different species, running around and causing mischief. I realized that our stories weren’t helpful to them because we were not going through them now. We had gotten through, overcome, so our tales were less relatable. They needed each other, not us.
The women I met when our children were newborns will always remain special. Some I see frequently, some have moved, and some I only see now and again—but the bond we have is one you don’t lose. Becoming a new mother was an intense, scary, heart-bursting, tearful, joyous time. I think we all feel like we wouldn’t have gotten through it without each other.