Adjusting to motherhood is a major process. Not only do you have to adapt to the massive responsibility of parenthood, you also need to figure out how to make it all fit together. The process of adjusting to motherhood ultimately involves a change in identity. This means:
- building your identity as a mom; and
- finding a way to integrate your new mother-identity with your existing life and sense of self. (1-4)
And here’s the important point: this process of adjustment is not just a bunch of psychological “who am I now?” stuff. It’s actually based in our everyday actions and activities. More specifically, adjusting to motherhood involves accomplishing the following seven main tasks:
1. Connecting with the baby
Contrary to popular belief, many moms don’t fall in love with their babies automatically or instantaneously. Bonding IS a process.(5) It can happen right away, but it can also take time (up to six weeks or more). So, don’t be surprised if you don’t feel that connection instantaneously. Be patient. Keep cuddling and taking care of your baby and these feelings will come.
Also, get enough rest. This helps a lot in getting you bonding with your baby, one of the main tasks of the early adjusting phase.
2. Physically recovering
Pregnancy, labor, birth, the early postpartum — these wreak havoc on our bodies and our physical well-being. Thus, one of the most important parts of adjusting to motherhood is to get yourself physically recovered. Of course, this can take a while, especially while your baby is still getting up at night. Remember though, your own physical health is an absolute necessity. It is directly linked to your emotional well-being, not to mention your ability to take care of baby in the way you want.
In general, the longer it takes for you to feel better rested and recovered, the longer you will be in the stage of early adjusting — the toughest part of the process.
For this reason, it’s a good idea to make this task a top priority, even if it means getting more help with child care, expressing breast milk/letting someone give a relief bottle, delegating others to take on some of your household (and other) responsibilities for a while, etc.
3. Developing a sense of confidence and competence in your ability to take care of the baby
This can also take time — anywhere from a few weeks to many months. You need to get to know your baby, and you need to figure out how best to take care of him/her/them in a way that also works for you and your family.
Sometimes this means following a particular child care approach. Most often, though, it means reaching that point where, as a parent, you feel comfortable enough “tweaking” various expert tips and approaches in ways that allow them to work for YOU, your child, your family.
This task is also typically part of the early phase of this adjusting to motherhood process. Remember, there is often very little routine or control or predictability in those first weeks or months. That’s normal. Just keep getting to know your baby and keep working to figure out what works best for YOU, your child, your situation. Trust yourself.
Regaining control and re-building routines.
This task is about regaining control and re-building your day-to-day life and routines. This task is one of the main components of the later adjusting phase of this process.
Don’t worry about trying to get a handle on this right away. It’s just not possible to get out a lot, to get back to your own things, or to build new activities and routines until your baby is on some kind of semi-predictable routine, and until you are feeling more rested and energetic.
5. Making decisions about work / returning to work
Paid work is a big part of all of our lives. It’s also often a big part of our identities. Some of us love our jobs. Some of us don’t. Some of us work because we have to. Some of us have a choice.
No matter what YOUR situation might be, figuring out what to do about work — whether to return to work, whether to stay home, whether to change jobs, whether to go part time, whether to go back to school etc. — is not always easy.
It is, however, something moms do have to figure out — and actually DO — as part of adjusting to motherhood. Again, each baby and each situation is different.
That means you might make a different decision about work after each baby. There might be different considerations.
Sometimes figuring out whether or how to work is straightforward. Sometimes it can be really tough. Remember, too, that whatever you do doesn’t have to be a “forever” kind of thing. It’s actually very common for mothers to change up their work situation every few years or so.
6. Reconciling expectations with reality
Make no mistake — this is a MAJOR part of the adjusting process! And it’s something we have to do in both the early and later stages of adjusting to motherhood.
The bottom line is that there are always things that don’t match our expectations about what we thought or believed it would be like. A huge part of adjusting to motherhood is the task of working through any disconnects between “what we thought” and “what we got.”
Whether it’s an unpleasant birth experience, unexpected relationship difficulties, unexpected difficulties with breastfeeding, an unexpected colicky baby, unexpected emotions, or any other gaps between what we expected and believed and what the reality of our situation actually is, we won’t feel properly adjusted until we’ve dealt with these gaps.
7. Reconfiguring existing relationships/Building new relationships
The relationship between you and baby’s Dad is the one that requires the most attention.
Both of you are now parents to a new child, and your family is forever changed as a result. You two need to figure out what this means for you as a couple, and as parents. It’s very important that you talk to each other about your expectations and needs, fears and concerns, pressures and joys.
Typically, a big part of this adjustment task is negotiating “who does what” as well as “how” things should be done.
In doing this, you may find that you each had different assumptions about the division of responsibility — and/or the division of labor — vis-a-vis the baby, the house, the earning of income, etc. Working out these kinks, and re-positioning your relationship TO EACH OTHER (now that you are parents to a new baby) is thus a key part of adjusting to motherhood.
This adjustment task also has to do with the other relationships in your life. You may find, for example, that connecting or making NEW friendships with other mothers is part of what you need to do as a new mother. You may also find that you are spending less time with some people you saw a lot of previously, and more time with others.
All of this reconfiguring takes a bit of effort and attention. It is also normal and to be expected. Indeed, when you become a new parent — especially for the first time — your day-to-day life and needs and priorities do tend to shift.
It only makes sense, then, that you will also need to pay some attention to your relationships — how you spend time and interact with the various people in your life.
Sources for Adjusting to Motherhood:
1. Mercer, R.T. 1995. Becoming a Mother: Research on Maternal Identity from Rubin to the Present. NY: Springer Publishing Company.
2. Bergum, Valerie. 1997. A Child on her Mind: The Experience of Becoming a Mother. Westport, Connecticut: Bergin & Garvey Publishers.
3. Eagan, Andrea Borcoff. 1985. The Newborn Mother: Stages of her Growth. Boston: Little Brown & Company.
4. Miller, Tina. 1995. Making Sense of Motherhood: A Narrative Approach. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
5. Eyer, D. 1992. Mother-Infant Bonding: A Scientific Fiction. New Haven & London: Yale University Press.