The Outrageous Expectations We Place On New Mothers
Every couple of days I see people (mostly women) asking, begging — “How do you get work done with a baby around, I can’t seem to do it? Help?”
Here’s the short answer: It’s really hard to do and if you aren’t able to make it work, there isn’t anything wrong with you.
There’s a tiny delusion that if you have the right hack, the right system, the right schedule—heck, the right baby—you’ll be able to “do it all.”
Honestly, I wish people would say that working with a baby is basically impossible, and while you can sneak a few things in here and there on your phone, there’s always a cost, and it’s nothing like the way you might have worked before.
You’re not insane, you’re not wrong, you’re not broken, and you’re not a terrible parent or a terrible worker if you’re having a hard time getting work done while also sustaining the full-time job of caring for a baby.
It’s really hard to take care of a baby and get anything else done.
Ask any person in any job to try to sustain the same level of work, but on less than half the sleep they’re used to, only in 45-minute bursts that coincide with unpredictable naps, perhaps with one random 90-minute stretch (assigned at the last minute, never predictable), with no regular food intake and no exercise or backup, plus the additional intensely physical 8-hour feeding, changing, soothing, and carrying job of a baby—and they, too, will struggle.
The real twist is that some babies are slightly easier than others. Approximately 25% of babies have an easier temperament and take to sleeping better. This isn’t because of the training you do, the parent you are, or the things you ate while you were pregnant.
Some babies are just slightly more chill, and it has nothing to do with how you parent.
You know this because some of your friends are slightly more chill, and some are slightly more neurotic. Some people—a lot of them (myself included here) are not default chill. I can say with confidence that I was probably a picky baby.
In my casual observations over the last few years, I’ve noticed a pattern in the women I’ve worked with. Some babies are a little easier. Note that I didn’t say that they are EASY ALL AROUND. Just… slightly easier.
If your baby isn’t an easy baby, you’re not alone.
Other babies seem to come out with a fist to shake at the world, some are feisty, some are sensitive, some need certain soothing mechanisms, some struggle with colic, some are figuring stuff out, some cry a lot, some make a lot of noise, some need a lot of stimulation, some sleep every two hours, some sleep for six hours—there are so many ways to be a baby. None of this is about who you are as a parent.
It’s just who they are as a baby.
A few months ago, a woman came to me, tears streaming down her face.
“I thought I’d be able to get so much work done with them at home, but I can barely get myself dressed and showered and then they’re awake and screaming again and I just can’t seem to do this.” She was devastated by new motherhood and couldn’t seem to figure out why she couldn’t get the hang of working with a newborn more easily.
Here’s the part of her story that gutted me: After she confessed how hard it was, and how little else she was able to get done while caring for a tiny baby, and admitting that she had zero help and next to no childcare, she tearfully asked:
“What’s wrong with me?”
My heart broke. Nothing is wrong with you. Taking care of a baby is a full-time job that requires three adults. In any other world, in any other scenario, if you were assigned to a 24-hour round-the-clock job, you wouldn’t take it. You would divide it into 8 hour increments and give it to three different people on shift rotations, and you’d have weekenders and weekday laborers.
Nothing is wrong with you. Taking care of a baby is a full-time job that requires three adults.
In this maniacally individualistic western world, mothers are asked to work 24 hours on one job, 8 hours on another, and 8 hours on a third job all in the same day. The math doesn’t work.
Childcare help and support is essential, imperative, critical.
But we leave women alone, invisible, hidden from view, and we ask them to do impossible jobs and then we have the cultural audacity to blame them when it doesn’t work.
It takes time to learn a new job—any job—any learning a brand-new person and their quirks, preferences, and styles is hard even when that person is a grown up. It’s just as much work when they are a tiny baby!
Nothing is wrong with you.
Nothing is wrong with you. Taking care of a baby is a full-time job that requires, at minimum, three adults.
When my kiddos were both three months old, we had them go to daycare.
They were so little! I missed them—not because I wasn’t exhausted (I was), but because I wanted to have some of the cute time with them, not just the night shift. I wanted someone to do the night shift for me, and I didn’t learn until later that night nannies are a thing.
Here’s the same side of the same coin: I also love, love, love having them in daycare. I love daycare so dang much I can’t even describe it. My younger one would stretch his hands out for the school toys and the teachers—those amazing bonus adults who would hold him, rock him, and bounce him. They helped feed him. They were my extra hands. They play games I’ve never thought of, they were a place with other kids for him to play with, and they had so much learning and experience to share with him. He loved them. He loved daycare. There was never a world in which me doing this 24 hours a day would work without me losing my mind.
There is nothing wrong with you—this is a huge job, one that requires many hands, and getting help is not a failure.
🎧 Listen to Kathleen Shannon talk about how much she loves daycare — Episode #51
If I could do it over again, I would get as much help as I could possibly muster, and then more. I would find a parent group with kids around my age and try for a nanny and a parent share. If I could do it over, I wouldn’t ask tepidly for help. I’d ask confidently for help, and tell more people what to do, and insist on needing eight adults to do this job. Because no one knows just how hard it is to care for a child, and they won’t know if I keep trying to do it all myself.
If this feels impossibly hard, it’s because you’re working impossibly hard.
It’s okay to ask, expect, and insist on help. If you’re a new parent and you’re finding this overwhelming and challenging and frustrating, please know that you’re not alone. Please reach out and tell people you need help. I’ve created a few lists, scripts, and tools you can use if you need someone else to write the words for you.
If you need help asking for help, here are a few resources:
The Startup Parent Podcast
The Startup Parent Podcast — Episode #001
No matter how much prep work you do, there is no way to anticipate the experience of having a baby or starting a business. Dismayed by the flawed narratives and tropes around pregnancy and motherhood, I set out to interview real people about the honest truth of motherhood, parenting, and building businesses (or careers). Here’s where it all started.
ABOUT THE STARTUP PARENT PODCAST
If you're growing a business, leading a team, or figuring out entrepreneurship and you have kids, this podcast is for you. We go in-depth with founders and entrepreneurial parents about what it really takes to have babies, grow businesses, and get a little bit of sleep. Sign up for the newsletter to get new episodes in your inbox, click here to sponsor the podcast, and if you like what you hear leave us a review on iTunes.
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Sarah K Peck
Founder, Startup Parent
Sarah Peck is a writer, startup advisor, and yoga teacher based in New York City. She’s the founder and executive director of Startup Parent, a media company documenting the stories of women’s leadership across work and family. She hosts the weekly Startup Parent Podcast and Let's Talk, her second podcast. Previously, she worked at Y Combinator backed One Month, Inc, a company that teaches people to code in 30 days, and before that she was a writing and communications consultant.
She’s a 20-time All-American swimmer who successfully swam the Escape from Alcatraz nine separate times, once wearing only a swim cap and goggles to raise $33k for charity: water. She’s written for more than 75 different web publications and and has delivered speeches and workshops at Penn, UVA, Berkeley, Harvard, Craft & Commerce, WDS, and more.