Thursday, April 06, 2006


The other night I went to a baby shower that was thrown for a woman who is expecting her first child in two weeks. As an icebreaker, the hostess asked for volunteers to tell stories of their own early days as mothers. Most were funny, a few were intended to be funny but were not – but almost all were negative. The stories were of frustrations, surprises, and fears. There were no stories that reflected the wonder you feel when you touch those perfect, tiny hands; the unsurpassable joy that fills your heart when your baby looks at you; the love that is stronger than you ever thought possible; the fact that now prayer comes as naturally as breath. This expectant mother was not given a single word of hope – except, I suppose, when one well-intentioned mother of two told her to remember that when she and her newborn have their very worst day, “it can only get better from there”…rather a passive form of encouragement, I think. The things that were said were true. Nobody could be accused of deceit. But the things that were said could only make this new mother apprehensive, could only make her worry more about the upcoming weeks. She was told by several people that she would be exhausted, that she had better get her sleep now because she’ll never get it again (a rather silly thing to tell a woman who is 38 weeks pregnant. Chances are that she is already not sleeping well.) Women joked and told tales about endless crying (of both the baby and the mother), medical emergencies, leaving their child at a restaurant, babies falling off counters and down stairs, etc., etc., etc. Everyone laughed or oohed or gasped as appropriate, including the expectant mother. But no one told a happy story.

I include myself in my criticism. I could have told a happy story and I did not. I did not tell any story. Someone – I – should have broken the chain of negativism that seems to wind its way tightly around expectant mothers. Why are we so quick to tell negative stories? So quick to assure new parents that they are about to go through terrible trials? It seems that women try to outdo one another with horror stories about labor. Do we think that we will be admired or respected for our suffering?

I know five women who are pregnant right now, four of them for the first time. I am concerned for them. My experience when I was pregnant last year was that most women were quick to tell me how difficult the first few months of mothering would be. I am prone to depressed moods, maybe even to depression, and each negative comment or story or piece of advice lessened my excited joy until I finally realized that I was actually dreading the birth of my child. That is not how you are supposed to feel! I was fortunate. This realization came to me before my daughter was born. Just recognizing that my dread was based on the unsolicited reports of others helped to put it into perspective for me. With a little bit of unqualified analysis of human nature, I concluded that probably the experiences of these women were not wholly negative, but that for some reason the bad things are the things they decided to share. At that point I was able to count on one hand the number of people who had given me positive encouragement, who had told me how lovely and irreplaceable those first few weeks with their own babies had been. They were not deceptively optimistic. They said that the adjustment to motherhood was not an easy one, but a worthwhile one despite the inevitable difficulties. The number of people who had given negative “encouragement”, on the other hand, was too high for me to keep track of. Strangers, even! Parents of patients at my job. A woman in line at Dairy Queen. A business acquaintance on a telephone call! So, with six or seven weeks of pregnancy to go, I deliberately decided to avoid the negative comments where I could, and to let the unavoidable ones affect me as little as possible. My husband, a friend, and my sister all helped in deflecting negativism. My excitement returned and I joyfully anticipated my child’s birth. And you know what? Those first few weeks with my baby…they were lovely and irreplaceable. They weren’t easy – but is any worthwhile endeavor easy?

Well, anyway, I am concerned for my friends. I am afraid that they may be experiencing the same sort of barrage that I experienced. I hope not. If they are, I hope they figured out earlier than I did that they don’t have to be affected by it. I regret not speaking up at the shower the other night, not telling a good story, not reassuring Kelly that she has a wonderful time ahead of her. If we must put a particular spin to our stories, why not make it a positive spin? I value honesty and don’t think we should lead others to believe that things will be easy when they won’t. Women need to know that labor will hurt, that they won’t always be able to figure out why their baby is crying, that they will be awakened at all hours of the night. But they also need to know that they have the strength to make it through delivery, that babies learn to trust their parents when they are held close through fits of unexplainable crying, and that some of the tenderest moments are experienced in the wee hours of the morning.

Maybe my experience was a blessing in disguise. Maybe parenting a newborn was even better than I expected it to be specifically because I had heard so many bad stories. Maybe women tell bad stories because they themselves found the early days of parenting to be much more difficult than they had expected, and they do not want other women to experience the same disappointment that they did. If this is the case, then I can only think that the negative stories are told with the best intentions, with kindness of heart, and with a desire to protect expectant mothers from idealistic visions that are sure to be shattered as soon as they bring their babies home. I just think that there must be a happy medium to be achieved. Let's not make parenting a newborn out to be all roses, but for heaven's sake, let's not make it out to be drudgery, either.

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