Advice to New Mothers [Abroad]

As we approach the 5th month, and our baby is actually starting to develop some independence and personality, I thought I’d write down a list of things I wish somebody had told me before I became a mother:

  1. The first three weeks will be exhausting. You will have doctor’s appointments, but try to minimize anything else on your schedule.  Just getting enough sleep will be a challenge. The best thing we did was go to an all-inclusive hotel in Antalya for 5 days when the baby was 2-3 weeks old.  For an entire five days we didn’t have to worry about cooking or cleaning up or taking care of any of our other stuff. We just let everything go and relaxed and actually felt like normal people and parents-who-could-handle-it-all by the end.
  2. Have compassion for your spouse.  They weren’t pregnant for nine months, and so, while you had  hormone changes gradually preparing you to become a parent over those three trimesters, everything is dropped on them at once.  Know that your baby will probably want to be fed every time they wake up at night, especially for the first few weeks.  Let your partner sleep – and then take care of the baby while you sleep (after feeding them) in the morning or when you need a nap in the afternoon.  Both of you being exhausted does nobody any good.
  3. Don’t expect to get a lot done.  For the first week, commit to having one good (nutritious, delicious) meal a day.  The second week commit to one good meal and one thing you want to do – some days this might just be taking a walk, or getting in a shower.  Later, add on exercise. Even at 4 months, I still can’t fit in a full schedule.  Some days it’s just exercising in the morning and one e-mail I want to write.
  4. Drop everything the moment your baby falls asleep and start doing whatever is most important for you to do that day immediately. Especially in the first few weeks you have no idea when they will wake up again. Don’t wash the dishes; don’t check the news. Take your shower or write your e-mail or do a yoga set or watch your movie or write your blog.
  5. Likewise, when your baby is awake, make sure your mind is clear enough that you can truly focus on her.  If you have to do something, involve her in doing it – even an observer can be an active, engaged observer. Don’t try to run around getting something done when your baby clearly needs a bit of attention. Sometimes all our daughter needs is two minutes – a hug, a few words, a tummy tickle or toe massage – and then she’s perfectly content to settle into the carrier while I go on getting whatever needs to be done done. But first – focused attention and affection.
  6. Don’t volunteer to do anything for anyone those first three weeks.  Be ‘selfish’ – let your sister-in-law cook dinner; don’t offer to pick up any one else’s groceries from the bazaar (but do take them up on their offer to watch the baby while you go to the bazaar!). Prepare food ahead of time and in bulk (like chop up a bunch of peppers for omelets and salads so you can throw a meal together in 5 minutes) and specifically tell other people not to eat it.  You might feel selfish doing it, but they will (most likely) understand, and this well outweighs the disappointment of opening the fridge when you feel frazzled and starving and exhausted and finding your food gone.
  7. Buy a sling or carrier that you can use immediately following birth.  I made the mistake of buying a carrier for 12 pounds+ and realized immediately that (as I am not Kyrgyz) I couldn’t just carry my baby everywhere in my arms or the stroller for the next 3 months, especially in the house.  I ordered a sling and a wrap online and suddenly found myself mobile – I could cook (without knives or stove of course), prepare to go out, move around the house – and my newborn was quite content being so close to me.
  8. Get out everyday.
  9. Carve out some time – even if it’s just a half an hour – every day where you aren’t primarily a parent.  Clear your mind so you can come back and focus. After my daughter was 3 weeks old I began teaching a few classes online while my mother-in-law watched her and, honestly, it was wonderful to have a real conversation with an adult who did not see me primarily as a parent (and didn’t have any advice about parenting or unsought comments on the way I was holding the baby or how many layers she should be wearing!).  I now get up at 6:20 because I know that I need to wake up before her if I want to get in exercise uninterrupted.  If you don’t want to (or, for the first few weeks/months, physically can not) get up earlier than your baby, get a babysitter or relative to watch her for a little bit while you read or write or take a walk or a long hot shower.
  10. Let your baby sleep.  When we came back to Kyrgyzstan (at 6 weeks) she started fussing around 8 pm every night.  And I mean alternative crying and breastfeeding for hours.  I couldn’t get her to sleep until 12, and even then it was often a long routine of rocking her in the sling, feeding, reading, music, and on and on and on.  Then I decided to start sleep training, set 8:30 as the arbitrary bedtime, determined we would turn off all but dim lights by then and lower our voices, and – BAM – she started falling asleep.  It turned out she was fussing because she was exhausted.  She didn’t need me to put her to sleep; she needed me to let her sleep.  Now we do pajamas and fresh diaper at 7; go to her room around 7:30 (and she doesn’t come out of her room until it’s time to wake up); go out on the balcony to say goodnight to the city; and then I put her on my lap to read and feed, and pop in the pacifier when she fusses.  It’s unusual for her to fall sound asleep after 8. If she’s fussing, we let her go to bed earlier. If she wakes up during the night I check on her, pop the pacifier back in, put my hand on her chest, and try to rock her back to sleep before picking her up to feed her.  Usually she falls back asleep within a few seconds.  I don’t talk to her and I don’t turn on the light as I don’t want to draw her attention and prevent her from falling back asleep.  I know parents here (and in Turkey) whose children don’t go to bed until near midnight.  That’s not normal. The kids need sleep, and the parents need some rest too. But with the lights and tv on, how are the kids supposed to mentally prepare for sleep?  If we’re out and she fusses from tiredness I just drape a scarf over her stroller or carseat to block out distractions and let her focus on falling asleep.  She’s usually napping within minutes, if not nanoseconds.
  11. Don’t assume that your baby “needs” anything beyond their actual baby needs – love, attention, nutrition, and a safe and hygienic environment.  When your baby is newborn it is impossible for them to have preferences.  They don’t need to be rocked to sleep, or held this way or that.  All of these are learned preferences. So instill your baby with sane preferences.  Kyrgyz women I’ve talked to generally believe that Kyrgyz babies need to be held cradled in the arms at all times, and that they don’t like to be set down.  I’ve had several marvel at how well my daughter does lying on her back or stomach, perfectly calm and observing us or playing with some toy.  Kygyz babies cry when put down because they’ve been trained to prefer being cradled.  It’s not like they have some different being-held-in-the-cradle-position-preference gene.
  12. Likewise, assume anything can be entertaining for your baby.  When they’re newborn they have no idea whether anything should be a ‘toy’ or ‘fun’ vs. ‘boring’.  If you need to take a shower, put them in a bouncer (on a skid-proof bathroom rug) in the bathroom and take a shower – while talking to them and playing ‘peek-a-boo’ with the shower curtain.  Until she was a bit bigger I put my daughter in the sling while making breakfast every morning, showing her and talking to her about what I was doing.  If your child it like mine, she also won’t begin to play with – or even show interest in – toys until past two months. She’s a baby.  Give her time.
  13. Take advice with a smile – and decide what to do with it in your own time.  If you’re really tire of hearing the same advice over and over again, google some scientific reason for refuting that advice (or, for the older generation more prone to giving outdated advice and less prone to googling its efficacy), feel free to make up your own scientific studies as grounds for not listening to said advice. When listening to mother-in-laws and other older relatives, treat their advice as you would that of a doctor with 20+ year’s experience – and a 10+ year lapse in their medical practice and professional training.
  14. It’s ok to say “no” or be a little pushy – as long as you’re polite and understand that people giving you that unwanted advice may be doing it out of genuine concern.  That Russian lady working at the [unpasteurized] cheese and salami stand at the market who told me to put a hat on my baby when it was 70F outside – and then tried to touch her head to see if she was cold (SALMONELLA!!!) – trying to be helpful. I found it useful to keep a small bottle of hand sanitizer on hand and offer it (ahem..squirt it on) anyone reaching for my daughter.  Sometimes just the sight of hand sanitizer makes people back away.
  15. Have something productive on hand – and not your phone!  There will be times when you’re holding your baby for 20 minutes (or more!) waiting for her to shift from dozing to deep sleep, or when you’re in the car (and someone else is driving).  It’s easy to waste time on your phone – but wasted time is dearly wasted time when you have so little extra.  Pick out something you want to read, or send a bunch of books or articles to your kindle.

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