After making your way through those forty-ish long weeks, eating well for the baby, picking paint colors for the baby, setting aside money for the baby, it’s only natural to have a bit of tunnel vision about the baby. So it can come as a bit of a shock to many mothers to realize that that tiny, squishy, needy human impacts every other relationship in their lives, too. We asked clinical psychologist and mother of three Julie Kupfer, Ph.D., to help us hash out some of the most common relationship struggles new mothers face.
“I miss quality time with my firstborn.”
Finally, you got a good latch. The couch is sprayed with breastmilk, but baby is eating, and maybe you’ve even got a glass of water there for yourself. And then boom! Toddler attack from behind, strangling you with the biggest “hug” his little arms can manage. You breathe; you stay calm. Maybe you even manage to keep the baby on the breast, but in that moment, you might also think: How on earth am I ever again going to give my firstborn the attention he so clearly needs?
The answer, says, Dr. Kupfer, is, to reject the feeling of guilt and instead make “small, realistic, achievable goals of time together that set you up to feel successful.” That goal can be as small as five minutes of one-on-one time with your older kid. “Five minutes can go so far when you’re just playing with or attending to your child,” she explains, suggesting that parents build a ritual around that time so that everyone in the family can look forward to it and play a role in making it happen. Perhaps a partner or someone else can regularly do the baby’s bath to free you up, or maybe naptime is always time to read a story to your older child, she says.
Talk to your older kid about the plan so you can set their expectations and give them some control. You could also try a “special-time jar” with slips of paper inside, each with an activity that you and your eldest like doing together. Whenever you find yourself with five minutes, have them pull one out for you to do.
“I kind of hate my husband.”
So often, this is about “being touched out,” says Dr. Kupfer. “When you’re giving so much, when you’ve literally shared your body, if that’s how you brought this child into the world, it’s OK to hate your husband. Those thoughts are completely and utterly normal and deserve to be validated and normalized.”
So what helps with the validated and normalized hatred? “Finding ways to appreciate each other and saying them out loud can go such a long way,” she says. Noticing and saying, “Thank you for replacing the diaper pail” or “Thank you for picking up sushi” helps your partner feel loved, and helps you see yourself as someone capable of that love. Dr. Kupfer explains: “Being able to see your partner in that helpful role when you’re feeling so depleted, even if the roles feel imbalanced, even if he’s loading the dishwasher the wrong way—he’s still doing it. And you’re recognizing that they’re a participant in this new dynamic.”
"My boss thinks I don't care about work anymore."
First, it must be said, the motherhood penalty is real. Research shows that 80 percent of the gender wage gap can be attributed to bias against mothers. So if you’re feeling unappreciated, it’s likely not all in your head. But as you consider negotiating your new boundaries, and pushing back against that bias, the first person you must convince of your worthiness is yourself.
“You have values in your life,” says Dr. Kupfer. “Those don’t need to be competing. There’s something about being able to hold them openly, flexibly, and simultaneously.” In other words, you can be a wonderful mother and also value your work tremendously. You can be a motivated employee and want to do daycare drop-off every morning that gets you in twenty minutes later than you used to arrive.
Once you’ve convinced yourself, the easiest way to convince your boss is to simply express that you do care. Tell them how and why your work matters to you and express how you plan to get it done, albeit in a new framework. It can also help to think of any flexibility or adjustments you’re requesting as asks that serve a greater good. This is not just about you and your baby (though of course it may feel like it). It’s also about redefining working parenthood for any other moms who feel they can’t speak up as loudly; it’s about your employer being involved in collective social progress.
"I need my mom, but I can’t stand being in the same room as her."
Redefining your relationship with your own mother is a real tug of war, says Dr. Kupfer. “In that push and pull, [you may say] ‘My mom wants me to do things a specific way. I don't want her advice. I don't want her feedback.’ And then also, ‘I need her around. I want her to make my favorite meal. I want her to hold the baby and to be with me so I don't feel so alone.’”
If it feels confusing to you, you can assume your mom’s head is spinning, too. As always, clear communication is key, says Dr. Kupfer. “Say, ‘I appreciate you and I’m finding a new identity. Can I ask for your advice or feedback when I need it? And other times, can you wait and just be with me?’” Most mothers really do just want to help, so telling her the best way is a gift, not a burden.
But of course, there are also deeper issues that get dredged up in this moment for many mothers and daughters. “As we become moms ourselves, we reflect on our own experiences of being mothered,” explains Dr. Kupfer. “Typically, your mother is well-intentioned and just trying to care for you and the baby, but it can be perceived as judgment on your parenting style.”
It can also help to ask yourself, What is the most generous interpretation of that annoying comment or behavior my mom just did? More often than not, it comes from a place of love, and you can acknowledge that in the same breath as you try to be clear about your needs: “I know you love me and want to help me; here’s what I truly need right now.” And if what you really need is space, it’s better to ask for it than to seethe and resent unwanted company. “Maternal intuition doesn’t happen overnight,” says Dr. Kupfer. “We need space for it to be built.”
"I have nothing to say to my non-mom friends."
Even if they’re thoughtful enough not to plan a girls’ dinner for 9 p.m. or to gawk in horror when you take out your breast pump, your non-mom friends can appear to be out of sync with your new life and priorities. Or maybe, for you, they are a reminder of your old life and the sweet freedoms you don’t have access to anymore. That can all make for some messy friendships.
“I honestly hear this from both sides,” says Dr. Kupfer, “from recent moms who [feel disconnected] from their friends and from clients who are single and long to stay connected with their friends who have become mothers.”
What helps universally, says Dr. Kupfer, is acknowledging our needs honestly: “We all need each other in really specific ways. The activities might be different, and of course try to communicate about that. But also, if you’re feeling a sense of, I don’t know what’s going on here [between us], talk about it.”
Talking, of course, requires time. And Dr. Kupfer really recommends asking for the coverage and help you need to be able to leave the baby in someone else’s care for a bit and have that one-on-one time with your friend. “We all want to be included and desired and accepted, so take that framework. You know, that can be, ‘Hey, do you mind if I talk about the baby and show you pictures for a few minutes?’ And then, ‘I can’t wait to hear what’s going on with you.’ Think about what anchored you to that friendship to begin with, and that anchor can be the foundation [that you] evolve from.” As friends and individuals, you’ll only keep evolving.