Imagine you have just moved to a foreign country. You have the worst case of jet lag ever. The guidebook you brought, which seemed so comprehensive before you left home, does not tell you everything you need to know. You do not yet speak the language, and everything is confusing…
My sense of emotional dislocation reminded me of what I’d read about geographical dislocation: the phenomenon of culture shock and the general fish-out-of-water experience a person has when uprooted from her normal environment. So I did some research and discovered that the similarity between culture shock and what I was experiencing as a new mother was even more pronounced than I had imagined. The term “culture shock” was first coined nearly half a century ago by anthropologist Kalvero Oberg to describe the anxiety produced when a person moves to a completely new environment. In general, I learned, there are four phases to the adjustment cycle:
1. Initial euphoria, also referred to as the “honeymoon” stage, usually lasting from a few weeks to a month, where the newness of the experience is exciting rather than overwhelming;
2. Irritation/hostility, the “crisis” stage, in which many of the things the traveler initially found intriguing and exciting now seem annoying, frustrating, depressing or overwhelming;
3. Recovery, where the traveler eventually becomes acclimated to the new country and feels less isolated; and
4. Adjustment, the final phase, in which the traveler can function in both cultures with confidence.
These phases of adjustment seemed to correspond so neatly with the first year of motherhood, I realized Oberg had provided a perfect description of the process I was in the midst of—this dislocation, this coming to grips with an entirely new way of living, was a kind of culture shock. It was mother shock.
A mother’s culture shock, what I call “mother shock,” is the transitioning period of the first year of new motherhood. It is the clash between expectation and result, theory and reality. It is the twilight zone of twenty-four-hour-a-day living, where life is no longer neatly divided into day and night, the triple-threat impact of hormonal imbalance, sleep deprivation and physical exhaustion.
It is the stress of trying to acclimate as quickly as possible to the immediacy of mothering, a new conception of oneself and one’s role in the family and in the world, a new fearful level of responsibility, a new delegation of domestic duties and a newly reduced amount of sleep.
Mother shock is not merely the hormonal plummet of the short-lasting “baby blues,” and it is not the medical emergency that is acute postpartum depression. Mother shock is the transition, the period of adjustment to the weight of all the things required of mothers, a weight that presents itself all at once. (For that reason, I think of mother shock as something almost exclusively limited to first-time mothers. Mothers of two or more children certainly have their own overwhelming initial experiences, but that element of surprise — shock — is missing.) Like the traditional breakdown of culture shock into four phases of adjustment, I conceived of mother shock as comprising a cycle of stages:
1. Mother Love (honeymoon stage, the first month): The pure joy of a mother’s bonding with her newborn, analogous to the “honeymoon phase” of culture shock. This is the Hallmark-moment experience of maternal bliss that we routinely see in the media and expect to enjoy ourselves.
2. Mother Shock (crisis, months two to six): After a few weeks, the stress of the new situation — and in many cases the chronic lack of sleep — begins to take its toll. In culture shock, the second stage is mostly sparked by unmet expectations and the strangeness of being cut off from cultural cues. The second stage of mother shock can also include those features, with the added critical factor of sleep deprivation. No matter what type of sleeper your baby is, chances are you’re not getting the same amount of sleep your body has grown accustomed to for the last twenty- or thirty-odd years. A chronic sleep deficit can be brutal, and it can also strongly affect judgment, perspective and sense of well-being. With little sleep and first-time-parent nerves, disillusionment, frustration and self-doubt can begin to set in.
In addition, new mothers are inundated with often conflicting advice from friends, family, doctors and even complete strangers. This can undermine a new mother’s confidence, especially if she is insecure about her parenting skills or is exhausted (as new mothers usually are). A new mother may feel overwhelmed by the immediacy of her baby’s needs and may also feel isolated. A mother in this stage may feel conflicted about her postpartum body, about returning to work or not returning to work, about breastfeeding or being unable to breastfeed. She may experience depression, and it is in this stage that postpartum depression can set in for some women.
3. Mother Tongue (recovery, months six to nine): Day by day, so gradually it might not even be noticeable at first, a mother becomes acclimated to the routine of life with an infant. Physically, her postpartum body may begin to resemble the one she had pre-pregnancy, and either her baby has begun to sleep for longer stretches of time, or she is now used to getting by on interrupted and generally reduced sleep. By this point her baby is also becoming more interactive (e.g., smiling, cooing, laughing), and with more proof that everything is turning out fine, the mother can feel more confident in her parenting choices, less thrown by changes in routine and generally more comfortable in her new role.
4. Mother Land (adjustment, months nine to twelve): This is the point at which a mother feels more or less fluent in mothering. She feels comfortable in her new role and has assimilated to this new place in her life. She is no longer a stranger in a strange land, and she may even find it difficult to imagine ever returning to the way things were before.
Not every stage of mother shock is discrete, and not every mother will experience each stage in the same order (or duration) in which I have described them. But nearly every new mother will experience some aspect of this total period of adjustment. I see mother shock as being two-fold: the series of stages I have laid out, a timeline of adjusting to life as a mom; and the less temporally limited experience of motherhood in general.
Mother love is something we can experience whether our babies are three weeks or three years old. Mother shock — our anger or disappointment or frustration as mothers — can be sparked from dealing with a colicky newborn or a tantruming toddler. Mother tongue, mastery of the intricacies of mothering, is something that we revisit sometimes monthly as our children change their routines or evolve developmentally. And mother land, the feeling of contentment at being a mother, is someplace we might reach with an infant sleeping on our shoulders or with a preschooler saying “I love you” for the very first time.