I came across an article at work the other day noting a recent study concluding that ‘less happy’ new parents are more likely to have smaller families. While this doesn’t seem all that surprising, the general modal number of originally “desired children” is two. This already seems like a ‘small’ family relatively speaking, so it is interesting to try to find out why, comparative to the earlier desired number, many people end up having only one kid.
What the study found was that over 70% of new parents experienced a decline in overall happiness in the first year after the birth of their first child. Of course, as the authors acknowledged, “it is taboo for new parents to acknowledge feelings of unhappiness about childbearing;” there’s a lot of pressure for new moms (and dads) to feel happier, and to project that happiness to the world, which can only exacerbate negative feelings like depression, failure, and worry.
It’s difficult to acknowledge feelings of unhappiness post-birth even to ourselves, because at the same time as life is unbelievably challenging in ways we couldn’t have imagined, there have also been, or at least there were for me, moments of unbelievable joy and love that I never knew before my son was born. There can be a pressure to focus on only the happy side, the wonderful side, and tell ourselves to ‘suck it up’ when the unhappiness rears its ugly head, because after all, this is what we signed up for and we know we should be grateful for all the blissful bits.
I’m personally still in the ‘two desired children’ camp, but when I look back on this first year, I know I’m probably only here because of my village. My village of people, mainly women, but with some pretty fantastic men in there, too, who sometimes felt like the only thing holding me together – like a trellis keeping a fragile, ragged vine from withering.
My village kept me sane. My mom and mother-in-law taking my babe for naps in his stroller or just holding him in the living room for an hour so that I could have a shower or a sleep. My husband telling me (even when he had to repeat himself and raise his voice to get me to believe it) that it really was okay if I just needed to leave the house and go for a walk; he had things covered. My sister talking to me every day, also on her mat leave, and being my daily contact with another grown up on days when I didn’t make it out of the house.
My village kept me safe. The mothers of a previous generation who were living proof that things really would be alright, but who still listened with sympathy and a shoulder to cry on. The few courageous friends who shared with me the details of their own dark, twisty motherhood times as well as their moments of light, letting me know that the roller coaster I was on didn’t make me a bad mom, but was just part of my ride. My husband who, even on the really, really, REALLY awful days, the kind when we were both at our worst and it was hard to even look at each other, was always there bringing water while I breastfed, making dinner, or calling me from work to see how my day at home was going.
My village kept me connected to who I had always been long before I became a mother. Friends came to dance class, encouraging me to get out and shake it off even on nights when I was tired or overwhelmed. Non-parent friends listened about the trials of birth and mothering the way they would have talked to me about any other topic before my life changed, even when I gave gory details they probably didn’t want to know. One particular non-parent friend called on me for urgent love and support when she was in her own dark place, giving me the gift of still feeling that I had something to offer my friends in return, that someone other than my baby still needed me, too.
Being a new parent can be really, really, fucking hard. It’s often said that we mothers have an inner strength that gets us through anything with a newborn because we simply have to, and I suppose this could be true, but for me, my village has been the difference between coming through able to believe I can thrive again, instead of just barely holding my head up.