I had known Jamie only four weeks when I received a text asking if I was ok.
“You don’t seem like yourself. What’s up?”
My eight-week-old baby, just nine days older than Jamie’s, was sleeping in only two-hour stints. I was still sitz bathing each morning. My nipples were crusts, leaking and bleeding through my bra. My neck could only turn to the left, stiff from the middle of the night feeds. My gums were swollen and I couldn’t sneeze for fear I’d have to change my underwear. (On top of my son’s spit up, I had no energy for the extra laundry.) It had been a bad week, sure. But, I hadn’t been myself for as long as I had been a mother.
Still, it was Friday. I had missed our mother’s group that week. I had stopped responding to the latest messages about naps after 5pm, feeds before 5am, lunch at 9am.
So, she reached out.
A woman birthing not only a child but a new identity is not a new idea. In fact, there is a scientific term for it: matrescence. This phase, in which hormonal, physical, and psychological changes occur can be so overwhelming that 15-20% of postpartum women will be affected by postnatal mood disorders, according to WHO. However, as Dr. Alexandra Sacks emphasizes in The Birth of a Mother, those who do not experience postpartum depression still undergo a significant transformation. Feeling comfortable talking about how one feels is critical to growing into a well-adjusted mother.
Still, it shouldn’t be surprising that the medical community focuses its attention on the infant versus the woman that birthed her/him. Who cares if she too is wearing diapers at that first postpartum check-up 6 weeks in?
I joined my local parenting group at 3am, while my 10-day-old son screamed in the bassinet beside me. My husband had gone back to work out-of-state days earlier, and I was alone and terrified. I knew, even in the midst of fog and deafening noise (newborns are so loud, even when they sleep) that I needed to be near women. I needed mothers. My own mother, who was with me during the birth, had returned to Sydney, Australia.
Upon signing up I received an email, automatic, welcoming me and suggesting different groups I could join: Working Mothers, Single Mothers, LGBTQ Mothers, Mothers of Multiples, Mothers without Mothers. So many mothers. I picked New Mothers and typed in my son’s birth date, hoping there was another woman - wide awake, exhausted - who got knocked up last spring and now, in the depths of winter (also known as the fourth trimester, although in my case it was February in New York) wished she could take it all back.
Turns out there was.
It was a Wednesday morning and us New Mothers had been awake since the sun went down at witching hour the evening before. The black ice on the pavement, treacherous when we were 40 weeks pregnant, further mocked our hobbled limps postpartum. We took up the entire backroom of a local cafe, our strollers so shiny and new. Introductions were made; our babies names first, middle name and all, and then our own. There was much talk, desperate, hysterical talk. Some of us cried but still talked. We were delirious but still, we talked. About before. Who we were. What we did. Our work. Our marriage. The pregnancy. How lucky we were to be pregnant. How scary it was to be pregnant. How hard it was to be pregnant. How wonderful it was to be pregnant. How long some of us waited to be pregnant. How easy it was for some of us to fall pregnant. How we held our breaths for nine, ten months. And then, birth.
As we rocked and bounced, swayed and weaved, unable to sit without wincing, it was impressive how acrobatically we danced around the fact that we were no longer the people we were mere weeks earlier.
“I hear the baby blues only last two weeks,” one woman said, cradling her three-week-old with a smile so strained I thought she might pop a stitch.
“Just try to get to six weeks,” suggested another gently. “And then 12 weeks. Then maybe we will stop counting?”
“I didn’t like my first son until he was seven weeks,” stated one mother, a toddler eating a danish beside her as she breastfed his infant brother. “At least this time around I know that this phase passes. It all passes.”
It was clear to me then, despite the haze, that this group of women was my answer. Even if they didn’t have the answers. Nothing was off the table; breastfeeding, solids, work, sex, childcare, the reminder to pack an extra pair of pants in your diaper bag; one for baby, one for you.
Over the following weeks and months we connected, in person, online and over text at all hours. Someone was always up (especially if they haven’t sleep trained… the right group of New Mothers won’t judge how you do it) to remind the others that they were not alone. That’s the thing about early motherhood. Despite now having another human: at your breast, at your feet, on your back, on your lap, never not on your person, the loneliness can be breathtaking.
That Jamie had written me - nudging me out of my funk - to ask what’s up, or more precisely, if I was down, meant everything.
In the absence of those multigenerational communities - AKA the village - that one reads about in picture books, us modern day New Mothers need mothers. A supportive spouse? Absolutely. Friends and family? Definitely. Supportive colleagues? Sure, yes please. But other mothers? Women whose infant’s sleep is regressing the same month yours is? Whose toddler transforms to tyrant the same moment you also see molars breaking? Who know the right dose of Tylenol, Motrin, Benadryl, tequila and lime? Women who remind you, on the days you barely remember your own name let alone your child’s, that you are doing just fine. You are doing enough. Women with whom, now that you are no longer yourself, you can actually be yourself with. Those are the women you need.
Louisa Farrar is a writer living in Brooklyn. Learn more at louisafarrar.com.