12 Things I Wish I'd Understood Before Becoming a Mother (Plus My Favorite Cards to Give to Other New Moms)

12 Things I Wish I'd Understood Before Becoming a Mother (Plus My Favorite Cards to Give to Other New Moms)

March 29, 2022

Becoming a mother is the best thing that I've ever done. It's also the hardest thing I've ever done. I'm still at the beginning really, my kids are 1 and 3 years old as I write this. When I was pregnant with my first, I did a ton of research but I was still blindsided by the experience. Maybe nothing can really prepare you, but this is the advice I wish I'd found before I had kids, so I'm writing it down in case it can be of help to you or someone you care about. 

I'm also a working artist and maker of greeting cards, so I'm including my 12 favorite cards to give to new moms going through this monumental transition. They were inspired by my experience and if any of these can give another new mom a boost of confidence or a break from the loneliness and isolation that can unfortunately be part of adding this role to your life, I will have done both my jobs well. Here's a whole collection of cards for new moms.

I think you're going to be a wonderful mother handmade card with a woodcut of a mother and two children walking in the woods together
1. You are already a good mom.
The first thing I want to say to you is that I already know without a doubt that you are going to be a wonderful mother. If you are seeking advice like this, you are already everything your child needs you to be. If you are anything like me you have been wondering about this and I want to tell you right now you can stop wondering because you ARE. I want you to remember that. Practice saying it to yourself, "I am a great mom." Have an honest conversation with yourself now about what makes a good mom. Loving your kid. Keeping them as safe as possible. Doing the best you can. That's it! You're already doing it. You are going to doubt yourself and the truth is, no one can reassure you except you. I said so many mean things to myself in my head the first six months of my first son's life, and I wish I could go back and unsay them. So my most important advice is: practice speaking kindly to yourself. If you can't muster that, talk yourself the way you imagine a trusted friend or family member who loves you would talk to you.
Handmade new baby card that says "Congratulations on all the hugs in your future" on it with a woodcut image of a mother hugging a little girl.
2. Becoming a mom is a wonderful thing that will (eventually) improve your life.
It's hard at first but there are so many things I'm grateful for about being a parent, even beyond all the love and enjoyment I get from my kids. Here are some of them:
  • It has right-sized many other problems/concerns. I don't care as much about how I look, what I eat, the news, family drama...the list goes on. Once you have an actual tiny human to be concerned about, it puts everything else in perspective.
  • It has helped me exorcise career anxieties. Coming back to work was so good for me after having Lu and now after having Charlie. I'm so grateful to have a space in my life where I know what I'm doing, and I know that I'm good at it. Where no one's life is at stake. Where no one is peeing on me or yelling at me. It has made the things I used to worry about at work seem like a fun challenge instead of stressful.
  • I'm much more efficient. When you have limited time you get better at using it! I'm amazed at what I'm able to accomplish in short bursts of time now, at work and at home. For example on Monday this week, Charlie took a 30 min nap and I was able to touch up my roots, do the dishes, take a shower and put away all the laundry before he woke up. Wow, go mom! This also applies to relaxing. I'm able to really sink into every 5 or 10 or 20 minute interval of peace or freedom that I get now. Anytime I am free of kids or even have only one I am able to find peace and recharge, even zoning out reading a magazine in the five minutes when Lucas is helping Eric give Charlie a bath or letting the hot water run over me for two minutes in the shower before Charlie needs feeding. I'm better at enjoying things now if that makes sense and I think it's made me happier overall.
  • I've also loved how becoming a mom has helped me connect with other moms (especially relatives). It's hard in the pandemic not having in-person opportunities to connect but even over text or on social media it makes me feel really good to share this experience with so many people I respect.

Handmade card for moms, dads, employees, friends or coworkers that says "you are doing a great job" with an art deco style woodcut design in black and gold.

Ok now for some of the harder stuff...

3. You may not fall immediately in love, and that's ok.
I was really excited about the golden hour after I gave birth when I would meet my child and feel the biggest love I'd ever felt (people really play that up right?). But it didn't happen that way for me, with either of my babies. After both my births (one medicated and one unmedicated) I was exhausted and in pain. Neither of my babies' birthdays were the best day of my life. And it took me a while to bond. It's been faster with Charlie but with Lu I was so swept up in my anxieties it took me a long time to feel really connected to him. I've talked to a lot of other moms who had a similar experience so I just wanted you to know it's ok if it doesn't feel great at first.
Greeting card for new babies and expecting parents that says "We Are Your Village" with a woodcut image of hands holding out a onesie, a baby bottle, a rattle, a pacifier, a pile of swaddle blankets and two bottles of beer in teal and forest green.
4. Babies cry, and that's a good thing.
I wish someone had told me before Lucas was born to commit to working hard at getting comfortable with my baby crying. One of the most important things all humans have to learn how to do (besides eat and sleep) is to have emotions, express them and regulate them. Babies cry and it is almost never because their caregivers are doing something wrong. It's the only response they have at first and they cry because they are hungry, tired, in pain. But they also cry because they are bored, frustrated, confused, a tiny bit uncomfortable, have to fart, have to burp, can't control their limbs, can't really see, don't have anything else to do etc. etc. etc.

When Lucas (my first) was born it took me a long time to be able to hear him cry without taking it as a condemnation of my failing as a mother, to my great detriment and his. It was almost physically painful for me to hear him cry, and I did a lot of my own crying, started fights with my husband when I thought it was his fault Lucas was crying, and most importantly deprived Lucas of opportunities to learn to self soothe, so it took him a lot longer to learn how and resulted in a much greater net amount of crying in his first year. 

With Charlie I think my perspective on crying is much healthier and it has helped us both. Your greatest gift to your crying child is to stay calm and offer support in whatever way makes sense, but to give them space to learn to feel those emotions well up and then help themselves however they can. We want them to learn that feelings are ok and that they can handle them without always needing someone else to fix it for them. Obviously a newborn isn't going to be able to take care of themselves or regulate their emotions but I think keeping that in mind can help a lot even from the first days. We do all kinds of things that we know make babies cry but we know are good for them so we do them anyway (immunizations, strapping them into car seats, changing diapers). When they cry because they are hungry and you think they will eat better if they wait 10 more minutes, or they cry for 5 or 10 or 20 minutes while they figure out how to fall asleep on their own, it helps to think of it as one more skill they are learning.
Crying is healthy, crying is useful in many situations. If we jump to make it stop every time our babies cry, we are teaching them that it's not ok to have emotions and that when we do we should bottle them up inside. And as far as maternal mental health goes, if you take it personally every time your baby cries you are on the fast track to losing your mind (I know this from personal experience).
Handmade card of a round hand mirror with a gold frame and flowers reflected in it that says "If Only You Could See What I See" for new moms
5. Work hard on managing your expectations.
When you catch yourself playing out stories in your mind of how things are going to go, check that impulse and try to keep an open mind. Having specific expectations sets you up to be disappointed, frustrated, angry, sad when things don't turn out that way. This is especially true about the birth itself I think, but also about who your baby is and what it will be like to be a parent. Lucas is so, so different from who I imagined my baby would be. Starting with his bright red hair and wild personality and continuing to this day with how he is such an impish trickster and also very sensitive and perceptive he has surprised me at every step of the way. It was when I started trying to focus on who he really is and what was working about our relationship that I started to feel more confident as a mother. 
Handmade card that says "Friend I Think You're Doing Everything Right" with a woodcut graphic geometric design of math symbols in pink and black for moms and friends who need encouragement
6. Try to forget everything you've learned.
I'm convinced having an education like I have had with many years in academic settings under my belt has actually hindered my learning as a mom. It's the opposite of school in that there actually is no right answer. There are lots of good ways to do things as a parent and no matter what decision you make your child will be fine. It's easy to start applying one's skills as a researcher, test taker, goal accomplisher to parenting with disastrous results. The stress that is useful in school and makes us study more, work harder and longer just wreaks havoc in the context of parenting. And the truth is that except for a very few decisions you will make (whether to strap them into their car seat, whether to leave them alone in a bath), it really won't matter at all what you decide to do. He's going to be fine. That's all there is to it. You are going to love him, feed him, keep him as safe as possible until he's old enough to do it on her own. It's really just a lot of killing time. The real risks to his well being are beyond your control, so if you can try to just remember that no matter what you decide about what to feed him or when, how long to keep him awake between naps, what time to put him down for the night, what books to read for his bedtime routine etc. etc, it will REALLY be fine either way, it will make a big difference in how hard it feels and how much you get to enjoy it.
Handmade card for a new baby or new parents that says "can't wait to watch you grow little one" with a woodcut image of a child in red overalls and a red hat sitting in the grass in a garden, reaching for red flowers around her.
7. Remember that babies grow and things ALWAYS change.
It can feel at the beginning like you ruined your life and it will always be this way. But one thing babies do no matter what kind of parent you are is grow and change. Practice talking to yourself about the fact that things WILL get better. With Lucas it really got better for me at six months, and from talking to other mom friends I think that's pretty typical for a first baby. So even if it's really really hard, by six months I can pretty confidently say that you will have found a new normal and will be able to enjoy life again. I know that sounds SO long but in the grand scheme of your life it really isn't, and having that number in mind can really help when you feel the despair creeping in.
Handmade get well or feel better card that says "healing" with a woodcut image of a moon peaking through trees at sunrise in pink and maroon.
8. Breastfeeding is HARD but you can do it (or decide not to). 
Many well-meaning people in the lactation community (especially on the internet) will have you believe that breastfeeding is the easiest most natural thing in the world but in my experience, that is total BS. It's the hardest thing I have ever tried to do. I've come to the conclusion that if you can make it work, it is worth some extra effort at the beginning but it is NOT worth driving yourself crazy over. With Lucas I tried too hard and it contributed a lot to my PPD (postpartum depression - a very real phenomenon). I really wish I'd switched to formula a lot sooner, I think it would have been better for all of us. This is a great book with a wonderful, reality-based article about the true facts about the benefits of breastmilk over formula. They are nowhere near as dramatic as all the breastfeeding advocates out there would have you think.

With Charlie it has gone better and I'm finding it very rewarding now but it was still really hard at the beginning. First of all, it hurt. The books and experts all say that if it hurts you are doing something wrong. Well, I asked all the experts and they all said our latch was fine, with Lucas and with Charlie, but it still hurt like a b-word at the beginning both times. For me it hurt too much with Lucas and I had to start pumping which sent us down a rabbit hole that ended with him refusing to do it anymore, even after we had his tongue tie revised (we also had a bunch of other problems including a condition in his neck called Torticollis that made the breastfeeding positions painful for him but I didn't find out about that until later). But I also wonder if my intense desire to do it and my feelings of failure when it wasn't working contributed a lot to it not working. 

With Charlie I went into it feeling like I would do it if it was ok but not if it caused the kind of anxiety I had with Lucas. I was much calmer (he has a much calmer personality in general than Lucas too) and I think that helped. It still hurt quite a lot for the first few weeks but it felt manageable (because I was calmer or because it hurt less I'll never know). Then it got a little better, and by two months it wasn't hurting at all. It all depends so much on your body and personality and your child's body and personality and the circumstances of the birth and the support you receive. 

Kellymom is the best online source of info I've found about breastfeeding.
My main advice is to prioritize mental health and sleep over a commitment to breastfeed. If you want to do it, try. Get help if it's hard. But it's easy to overdose on the help (I saw 9 different lactation consultants with Lucas) and I think choosing to quit can be a very healthy decision if it's causing too much pain/stress/heartache.
Letterpress woodcut art print of a cactus in a window with gauzy curtains and houseplants made with hand-carved woodblocks that says "One Day at a Time".
9. Sleep is HARD but you can do it.
This is one area I wish I'd had more info going in. I think figuring out sleep is a lot more important than what you feed them in terms of mental health for the whole family. I have read so many books about baby sleep by now. My favorite resources are Taking Cara Babies and Moms on Call. I think Cara has some good suggestions for laying a foundation for good sleep habits from the beginning (and just some general baby soothing tips). This Moms on Call book offers similar suggestions for the first couple of months. They suggest doing more sleep training earlier though. We didn't do any sleep training at all with Lucas until 4 months and didn't really do it until 7 months. With Charlie we did it at 2 months and it has made such a monumental difference for him and for us. He's so much happier since he started sleeping better and for me I'm convinced it made the difference between having PPD a second time or not. Not many people recommend sleep training that early except Tribeca Pediatrics but I respect that practice (all the families I babysat for in NY took their kids there) and it was the right choice for us. Some other books I found helpful are Precious Little Sleep and Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child.

Everyone has to figure out for themselves what works but one concrete thing I really do recommend is to make sure you have two separate sleep areas set up for you and your partner if you are lucky enough to have one so that you can take turns sleeping near the baby if you decide to. If you can, give yourself lots of options for where each of you sleep and where the baby sleeps so you can experiment and see what's working as you go. The other things I think are most important are trying to establish a feed/wake/sleep pattern (feeding when baby wakes up rather than right before she sleeps so she won't develop an association between being fed and being able to fall asleep) and giving her as much practice as possible putting herself to sleep in her bassinet or crib. 
Letterpress woodcut art print of smooth stone beach on a blue lake with a white moon made with hand-carved woodblocks that says "It's Always Quiet Somewhere"
10. Put your own mask on first.
There's a lot more stuff on the internet now about how self-care is important for moms. I kind of hate the term self care but the truth is, the hardest thing by far for me about being a mom is learning how to keep my s*** together under difficult circumstances. Pregnancy is good practice but it can get really intense with the not sleeping, the physical discomfort, the emotional stress. I do think one of the advantages of having kids later in life (I was 36 when I had Lucas and 39 when I had Charlie) is that we know ourselves better by now. I have a pretty good idea of what my minimums are for staying on an even keel.

Some things I'm glad I did this time in preparation: I bought a treadmill from facebook marketplace so I could get back to exercising even without good weather/access to the Y/much time to do it in. I asked my husband to stagger his leave around help I had from other family. Even little things help, like I made sure to have an empty, pretty basket (and a place to put it on the shelf) in our bathroom for all the postpartum personal products I knew I would need so I wouldn't have to have the plastic bag I brought them home from the hospital in hanging around for weeks and weeks. It actually really helped! And recently I bought a milk frother so I can make London fog lattes whenever I want without having to haul a screaming baby through the drive thru. So my advice is do what you can to plan for your own wellbeing in the months after the birth. Figure out what basic things you need are to feel human and function and make sure you have a plan in place to keep those going or get them back asap.
handmade new baby card with a woodcut image of a swaddled newborn asleep in a crib that says "Welcome to the World Sweet Baby, Sleep Well and Grow Slowly"
11. Don't try to make a happy baby happier.
This is the best advice my mom gave me about parenting. It is pretty simple but so great! If a baby is not crying, don't move them/give them a pacifier/do anything you think will make them happier because you might make them less happy inadvertently. :)
In conclusion...
For me the most important thing I've had to learn since becoming a mom isn't any specific knowledge of baby ways or needs. It's been learning to trust my own instincts, stay calm and be the grownup in the situation. Try my best and if something doesn't work, try something different the next day. You can get very caught up in putting pressure on yourself to do things the "right" way but what matters most isn't what happens, it's how your kids see you reacting to it. We don't want to teach them how to be perfect, we want to teach them to love themselves and love life, including the imperfections. Which leads me to my final piece of advice which I think you have probably heard from every other mom you know...
Handmade new baby card that says "Can't Wait to Share All Our Favorites With You Little One" with a woodcut image of hands holding out a record, a slice of pizza, an ice cream cone, a basketball, and a tomato plant in navy blue and pink.
12. Make the very best of the good times.
What they say about it going fast is...sort of true. When you are in the dark days of early parenthood and you are sleep deprived, your boobs hurt, you're fighting with your partner and you're convinced your baby hates you it goes very, very slowly. But that time actually does pass quickly and if you aren't careful to take breaks from the misery and really soak up the sweetness of little newborn hands and the first six week old smiles and the chunky two month old thighs and the adorable one year old gymnastics...well, they don't last. 
Ok I think I've finally said enough! I wish you all the best if you are at the beginning of this journey. Please feel free to reach out to me if you need support.