People say the first child is the hardest. The first year of having your first baby is almost ludicrously hard. It will challenge you in ways you never thought possible and force you to draw on reserves of strength you never knew you had. But having to go through it alone, far from home, and from everything that is familiar and dear and comforting to you can be extremely alienating. Whenever I mention my struggles with new motherhood, my status as a foreigner in Cairo with no family close by; or help with the baby in general; my bouts of what I suspect was postpartum depression (all in the same sentence), people incredulously ask me how I could’ve possibly survived. Well, I’m not sure I’m on the other side yet, but I do believe the worst is over. I believe that, ultimately, you have to create a homeland out of your experiences. Below are some tips that helped me navigate this long arduous journey to feeling like myself again.
I have been told, ad nauseum, by many different people, on the several occasions that I complained about Egypt or being far from home, or unintentionally compared Egypt to other places that I lived, that I have to accept where I am right now. I never realized, until much later, that that didn’t just apply to my geographical situation. I didn’t want to admit, even to myself, that I was subconsciously bristling against the chains of motherhood. I secretly resented my new life filled with responsibilities that took up all of my time, energy and sleep. I kept waiting for this phase to end, or for my husband and I to move back home, but it just dragged on and I found myself struggling to catch up on everything. Then someone told me that the only way out is through. That it’s all about acceptance; accepting that this is where I am right now in my life. And while I might not be going anywhere for a while, I need not feel shackled to a gilded cage. Acceptance not only made me revel in my new role as a mother, (in a way, my baby became my home), it also made me realize that there was still room to breathe, even carve out an identity within the limited space I allowed myself as an individual. I started playing with my baby more and taking joy in her smile. So be present in the moment. That moment may seem to stretch itself out into a seeming eternity, but in reality, it is but a brief, sweet season in our lives. Try to catch it and be mindful of it while it lasts.
About that space, I cannot stress enough how important it is to take time for yourself. After months of being pulled and stretched and twisted into every which way, by the demands of caring for a baby and then a toddler, a 10 minute shower started feeling like the most decadent of luxuries. But I’m talking about more than just a shower. I’m talking about going out for a cup of coffee, a manicure, or (dare I say it?), a full spa day, while having a trusted person babysit your child for a few hours. Other things that helped me were exercise, reading, and practicing meditation.
3). Reach out and connect with people
In the beginning, I made the mistake of confining myself to the four walls of my house for days at a time. The only time I would leave the house was to go to a doctor’s or pediatrician’s appointment. I told myself that Cairo wasn’t exactly a mother-friendly city and I’d rather stay at home than have to go through the hassle of going out with a young baby and all the associated preparation required for such an undertaking. But eventually, the lack of contact with the outside world or anyone (save my husband) began to take it’s toll on me as my self-imposed house arrest bred serious cabin fever and induced feelings of depression and restlessness to leave the country altogether. So make it a point to leave the house. You may be a foreigner but it doesn’t mean you have to be isolated. You might have friends. Connect with them, plan a lunch date with them. Adult human communication is vital for a mother who’s been cooped up in the house for days on end with no one but a toddler to talk to. Even if you haven’t gotten around to establishing a solid circle of friends, find out about mother support groups in your area, or mother-baby activities. It’s the best way to make friends with whom you share common ground. In fact, they will probably be the only people who will understand and empathize with your situation.
4) Plan vacations or even day trips
Another thing that kept me going was planning and going on almost bi-monthly trips with my husband and baby. Cairo may not have much to offer, but there is a lot to be said for the undeniable beauty of Egypt’s Red Sea Coast. A favorite destination of ours is Dahab, a sleepy little village, around a 5 hour drive from Cairo, on the Red Sea, from where I always came back magically transformed and recharged. I also made it a point to go back home as often as I could. So go on vacation, or even day trips. It will give you a much needed change of scenery, not to mention, the well-deserved break from the routine of housework and cooking, even if it’s just for a couple of days, will lift your spirits. If, on the other hand, circumstances prevent you from travelling back home, then ask your mother, sister, mother-in-law or close relative to come visit you for a while. We tend to underestimate the importance of the proverbial “village” but having another woman in the house (preferably a veteran mother) will provide you with valuable support and guidance. Sometimes, knowing that dinner was already cooked and that I could go get a manicure while my baby was in the loving arms of one of her grandmothers, was all I needed to get me through the day. In addition, I loved hearing “war” stories from when my mother and mother-in-law were in the trenches a long time ago, and how they coped. Especially, since both of them also raised children in foreign lands, far away from their support systems and communities.
5). Take up a hobby
Make a point of pursuing a hobby every single day. I had always been into gardening, but it grew into a passion for me after I had my baby. I became obsessed with taking care of my plants. Every evening, when my husband would take over baby duties (feeding her and putting her to sleep), I would go out into my patio garden, and care for my other babies; inspecting the plants, watering them, picking off the dead leaves, but leaving the heavy-duty gardening till the morning. It turned into a ritual for me and gave me something to look forward to. Another activity that I indulged in was writing. I tried to write in my blog as much as time allowed. On days when I was sleep-deprived, touched out and just plain miserable, hobbies became for me not just a way to de-stress, but a sanctuary where I was blessedly alone. No one needed me for food, or comfort or play. The appeal was more than just the fact that they were non-baby related activities, they also provided me with a metaphorical space to connect with my pre-motherhood self. It was during those times that I would catch glimpses of a woman who existed outside the all-encompassing realm of dirty diapers, 3 a.m breastfeeding sessions, and pediatrician’s appointments.
6). Plain old optimism
This may sound a little cliché but after months of getting caught up in a never-ending loop of negative thought patterns, I decided to give good old optimism a try. When things would get really bad and the crazy in my head starts to have party, I would take deep breaths and tell myself over and over again that everything was going to be fine. That I am stronger than I often give myself credit for. That’s not to say that I didn’t have a good cry once in a while (okay it’s more than just once in a while). Sometimes you just need to let it out, let it go. But I had re-train or rather trick my mind in to thinking in a different way. I started with baby steps (no pun intended), like wearing makeup and nice outfits, even if I wasn’t stepping out of the house that day. It made me feel and look normal, after months of a bare, tired-looking face and matted, unkempt hair (which I secretly called my tousled, bed head look). But I also set goals for myself. You may think this is who you will be and all that you will ever do for the rest of your life. But I promise you, there is an end in sight. Try to think of what you would like to do with your life when your baby is in the nursery and you finally have time for yourself. Make short- and long-term plans. It will give you something to look forward to. You never know, those plans might materialize sooner than you think. (However, I must emphasize that if feelings of despair and sadness spiral out of control, seek professional help. Talk to your doctor. You might be in the throes of postpartum depression and it is vital to treat it in its early stages before it has a chance to deteriorate).
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