“I’m fine! I can handle it! I can do it all by myself!” No, I’m not quoting my 5-year-old having a tantrum. I’m quoting my 33-year-old self, four weeks postpartum, crying to my husband at four in the morning, covered in breastmilk and bouncing our newest daughter, Josephine, on an exercise ball. Who says motherhood isn’t glamorous?
Before you have a baby, you are told two things by those who have had babies before you: First, congratulations. Second, you will never, ever, ever, ever sleep again. This being my second child, and my husband’s fourth, you would think we would have caught on by now as to how exhausting the often overlooked fourth trimester would be. What started this particular emotional 4 a.m. battle was that he had waived the white flag. Running on empty, he calmly stated that he was feeling dangerously depleted and expressed that he felt we needed help.
I know! How dare he?! How are you supposed to know that you’re a good parent if you’re not a member of the walking dead? Aren’t we supposed to feel like a shell of former selves? Isn’t that how we know we’re doing it right?
As the sun came up, and our baby finally went down, I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror. I expected my body to still be unrecognizable. My milk-making breasts to be at my dream augmentation level, with chunks of my hair falling out, and a belly that didn’t look quite vacated yet. What I didn’t expect to see was how empty my eyes looked. I was living in quarantine due to the ongoing global pandemic, with two teenagers doing distance learning, a 5-year-old begging for a playmate, a dog begging for a walk, and a newborn baby who was having trouble sleeping because she only poops once a week (apparently it’s a thing). Needless to say, as a parent, and as partner, I was not the best version of myself.
With our families living out of state and friends who had young children of their own, it was time to admit four words I loath saying. My. Husband. Was. Right. We needed sleep. I wanted help. A couple days later, we hired a night nurse to work with our family a few nights a week. The firecracker middle-of-the-night fights between my husband and me immediately diffused. I was able to formalize a better breastfeeding schedule and worked with our night nurse on how to introduce formula to our daughter as I’d realized how much emotional stress I was under trying to make enough food for our baby. This meant my husband and I had the emotional energy to be present for our other children, the mental energy to cook a family meal, and the physical energy to treat our dog, Rebel, to a morning hike.
Once I started to notice the spark coming back in my eyes, I’d wondered why asking for help felt so hard this time around. Sure, the global pandemic may have made me a bit of a recluse, scared of when I’d be comfortable to introduce my new baby to any breathing human in the outside world. But this felt different. This time I wasn’t a working mom, and I felt guilty thinking that I couldn’t handle it.
I wouldn’t have made it my first year parenting our now-5-year-old without help from friends and a wonderful support system of caregivers. My husband, a musician, was on the road, and I was working full-time, filming 14-hour days on a TV series. I thought back to when a co-worker fell sick and I was called in to film on my off day when my child caregiver had their own important day off. I called my friend Vanessa, who without hesitation clocked out of her job and drove straight to mine, helping to take care of my daughter off camera while I filmed. My friend Kayla, would often be in Atlanta filming and instead of staying at her hotel, she would stay with me to help me take care of my early-rising daughter on the weekends.
Why had I decided now that being at home with our kids wasn’t work that might require an extra set of helping hands? We often hear, “It takes a village to raise a child.” I also believe it takes a village to raise a parent. To become the best parent you can be. Let me be clear. I know that the system is broken. We live in a country that does not support new parents, give them a proper maternity leave, or the financial assistance other countries do without question. As women, we are made to feel guilty about even asking for maternity leave. Many parents don’t have the option of staying home with their new baby and must return to work as soon as possible to put food on the table. Safe and affordable childcare is not readily available for working or single mothers. The system is broken. Which is why we need to be able to admit it when we need help. Whether you ask loved ones for help or you’re in a position to hire someone to help work with you, it’s OK. Create your village. Build your support system. Not just for the sake of your children, but for your own mental health as a parent.
Once I was able to admit that I needed help, it felt like the pressure I’d put on myself to “do it all” dissipated. As my body continued to heal, and my hormones began to regulate, I continued to feel stronger and more capable as a mother for all of our children.
A few weeks ago, I found myself changing a week-long, built-up, blow-out diaper and staring at an empty wipe container. My 5-year-old saw the panicked look on my face and the poop on my hands.
“Can I help mommy?” she asked. With a sigh of relief, I told her the extra wipes were in the closet, and I happily accepted a helping hand from the youngest member of our village.