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For New Parents Who Think They Are Doing Everything Wrong

By Jessie Whitish

When my son was just a couple months old I got a flat tire. I was barely able to parent in public and now, alone with a small child, I was on the side of the road on a cold February day. Nash was hungry because I had opted to try and make it home before his next bottle instead of feeding him while I was at the store, and as I was pulling off the road I heard the unmistakable sound of a large newborn poop. By the time I was on the phone with roadside assistance, Nash was screaming that unrelenting newborn wail, and I was almost in tears myself. The customer service representative marked me as urgent because I had a child in the car (thank you!) and the roadside assistance technician arrived really quickly to get me on my way (thank you!) but in the 20 minutes or so I was waiting for help, a lot of things went wrong.

Fortunately, I was able to pull into a residential neighborhood, so I could safely stand on the sidewalk and change Nash’s poopy diaper on the backseat. Unfortunately, the sidewalk was practically overrun by the gutter, so I ended up standing ankle-deep in cold, wet mud. Fortunately, I had formula and a bottle in the diaper bag, so I was able to feed Nash. Unfortunately, as I was putting his bottle together, I spilled much of it all over me. My baby was clean and fed, but I was a mess.

The worst moment was when I realized how little clothing Nash had on. He was a small baby, and we couldn’t get him to gain weight, so he was still drowning in newborn clothes. We didn’t have many long-sleeved clothes, and because babies go through a lot of clothes, he didn’t have any clean that day. And I refused to put a hat on him because I was afraid of him overheating when I blasted the heat in the car. So that day on the side of the road he was in short sleeves and pants, and as I moved him from the back seat (where I had changed his diaper) to the front seat (where I was going to give him his bottle) I haphazardly wrapped him in the blanket that had been tucked in his carrier with him.

A man walked by (imagine the scene: car with flat tire, mom wrestling with baby) and instead of offering to help, he kept walking and said, “You should really have a hat on that baby. It’s cold out here.” And just like that, he was my negative inner voice come to life. “Why hadn’t I put a hat on the baby? It’s too cold. I’m a terrible mother.” “I should have just fed him and changed him before I left. Why do I keep screwing up?” “Why didn’t I ever learn how to change a tire? I could have been out of here by now, but of course I couldn’t be bothered, and now look where it’s gotten me.” “Maybe if I had been able to breastfeed, he wouldn’t be so small, and he could wear all the clothes we have for him.”

For me as a new mom, that inner voice—just like that unhelpful man who walked by me that day—was loud and mean. It reminded me that I kept making mistakes. It asked me what was wrong with my baby. It suggested that having a baby had been a bad idea. Lots of other new moms have told me how mean their inner voice was, too. That inner voice (mostly) went away as my baby got older, but some of my friends struggled with postpartum depression and really grappled with feeling like they weren’t good enough.

So when I read this story about a new mom who killed her baby—likely, it seems, due to some postpartum mental health issues—I was heartbroken because I understand how hard it is to be a mom to a tiny baby. She told police, “Like since he was born, I mess him up, you know? I didn’t know why he was crying…He didn’t know if he was hungry or, he didn’t know anything.” And when I read that, I felt sympathy. For weeks and weeks I thought I messed up my baby, and I often didn’t know why he was crying.

But I had so many ways to learn that my feelings, and how Nash was developing, were normal: birth class, supportive family and partner, postpartum doulas, healthcare providers who asked the right questions, a strong network of other new moms at my moms’ groups. Did the mom in the story have access to any of that? Did the hospital give her enough information about what to expect? Did she know she could go to free moms’ groups at local retailers? Did the people who care about her notice that she was struggling? Did her healthcare provider ask questions to screen for postpartum depression? Did she know she could get free in-home support and new parenting resources from HANDS?

Face It reminds us over and over again that parenting is tough. (Read this parent blog about soothing screaming babies and this blog about parenting not going as planned, among others.) Face It emphasizes this message because it is important for new parents to understand that we all mess up—a lot—and that there are services and people that can help us if we feel overwhelmed. And Face It encourages community members to offer a kind word or helping hand to parents of young children because those little things can mean so much and keep kids safe.

I look back now at that day on the side of the road, and I feel like a rock star. I earned my parenting stripes that day! I managed to feed and diaper my baby in a car, in the mud, in the middle of a crisis AND coordinate car repairs. Even though my child is now a happy, healthy toddler, some days my inner negative voice still tries to tell me that I’m not a good mom, but I learned how to (mostly) shut out that voice. I wish that mom had had the opportunity to learn the same thing.