One of the most paralyzing parts of first becoming a new mom is the expectation that you will instinctively know what you are doing — right away. Once, after I expressed my anxiety about having my first baby, a man actually said to me, “Oh, please. Women have been squatting in fields and having babies for ages. You’ll be fine.”
This man is no longer in my contacts list.
It’s kind of ridiculous, if you think about it objectively. It’s your first day of a new job. You’ve had no training. No degree in this field. No supervisor. No experience. You drive your car into a parking lot lined with droves of excited family and friends, all holding banners and balloons and yelling advice and encouragement. But you walk in the door of your new job all by yourself.
And they hand you a baby — whether that child came from your own body or another brave sister entrusted you with hers — and you’re just supposed to know things.
Years later, everybody will laugh about this, including you.
How terrified they were too. How little they understood. How panicked they were about the basics, even if they grew up with four siblings and had a Red Cross babysitting certificate.
But the unspoken rule at your new job is not to show panic. Just keep smiling, use the word blessing as often as possible, and learn to do your job really well on two and a half hours of sleep. Then people will say you are a natural. Born to do this.
I know everyone has different new-mom experiences, so I’m not trying to project mine onto yours. Maybe you were a natural. I had a friend who could breast-feed and vacuum at the same time. She also didn’t own a microwave because — shrug — who needs a microwave? I wanted to sneak into her house while she slept and locate the computer chip that was planted in her brain. She wasn’t at all smug about her awesomeness — she was an incredibly loving and supportive friend, and she was truly just… a natural. Usually, after a morning dose of antidepressants, I was able to admire her with more ease.
My point is this: most of us have no idea what we’re doing. Still.
It’s the great secret new moms don’t know. And I think it’s kind of a cruel secret because they would feel so much better about all that insecurity and angst and exhaustion if everyone else stopped acting as if they’ve discovered an essential oil that cures terror.
I am obnoxious around new moms now. In stores. At the park. On planes, especially. I basically assault them with affirmation: “Listen. I’ve been watching you, and you are doing a seriously amazing job. I mean, you’re killing it. I wish when I had an infant I was half the mom you are.”
Occasionally, I never make it past “I’ve been watching you…” before the mom starts to create some safe distance.
Motherhood is the only course in the university of life in which you are expected to both teach it and learn it at the exact same time.
And the harder we try to fake our way through motherhood, the harder we make it on ourselves.
One of the biggest ways I have learned to be a more present mom is to acknowledge my constant student status with my kids.
Somewhere in the history of all the wonderful mom wisdom that’s come before us, we have bought into the great myth that “I don’t know” is not an acceptable answer, or, at the very least, a last resort. When you are a brand-new mom, “I don’t know” usually translates shamefully and internally to I know I should know. Why don’t I know? Everyone else knows.
When I was really struggling to breast-feed, one day a sweet new friend brought over her breast pump since I didn’t have one. She brought me a sandwich and a latte, unpacked the pump, and laid all the pieces in front of me.
Me: Great. Thank you so much. This will really help, I’m sure.
Her: Of course! Happy to help! You know how to use it?
Me: Oh, well, yes… I do. I do know how. It seems very self-… Yes, I’ve got it.
(Standing in awkward silence for a few minutes)
Her: You have no idea how to work this, do you?
Me (committed to my pride): What? Yes! I mean, it’s a breast pump, not a carburetor! I’ve got it.
Her (standing there compassionately): Keep eating your sandwich, and I’ll just do it.
And with that, I let my newish friend (who is now one of my best friends) shove me into that contraption while I ate pimento cheese and cried a little from the embarrassment.
Why did I expect myself to know anything?
Now, smack in the middle of my son’s preteen years, I’m realizing that I still fight the same internal embarrassment on topics I should be owning at this point: Online safety. Puberty. Video game ratings.
I can’t tell you the number of times, even now, when I am carefully comparing notes with another mom, and one of us lets our guard down, revealing that we might not be experts in any given field, and instantly, the other nearly passes out from an exhale of relief. “Oh, thank you for saying that. I thought I was the only one who had no idea about that.”
Immediately, the playing field is leveled. Wisdom is shared. Encouragement takes root.
The secret, new moms, is that you never really wake up one day with all the answers. It would be wonderful if childbirth or adoption classes would include an entire session on learning how to say, “I don’t know.” We could practice saying it out loud many, many times, and then maybe your spouse or your mom or a supportive friend could practice saying back to you, “Me neither.”
This could go a long way with our little ones in the honesty department too.
We are so afraid that our children will question our authority or crumble underneath the weight of doubt if we aren’t the experts on everything. How will they sleep at night if they suspect we are not omniscient?
My take (after years of making up plausible but flimsy explanations) is that your kids will sleep really well because they value your honesty more than your vast knowledge.
In most matters of academia, you will give yourself away by the time you have a fifth grader. He or she will know you don’t know a bunch of stuff, so don’t even try. At the spelling bee last week, the very bright son of a friend of mine was eliminated on the word burglarious. Excuse me? I tried to look up the definition but couldn’t because… spelling.
But in matters of faith, this gets slippery.
Both of my kids have always been very inquisitive and intuitive. And unfortunately for me, they can smell a tidy, fraudulent answer a mile away. Charlie, at age six, asked at bedtime, “Mommy, how can God the Dad, Jesus the Son, and the Holy Spirit the nice ghost all be one, but separate?” “Sssshhhhh. Night night, buddy. I’m gonna put your VeggieTales CD on.”
“But how — ” “Okay. Night night, love. Enough talking. Ssssshhhh.” What?! How is this tiny child asking me to explain the Trinity at bedtime? As my kids have gotten older, their questions have gotten more complicated. About God. About Scripture and religion. About science. About politics. About racism. About sexual orientation. About my feelings and beliefs about all those things.
Sometimes I have answers that come from firm convictions, and it’s easy to share them. I pat myself on the back afterward, certain I’ve helped shape their worldview in an informed, compassionate, honest way.
But other times I have learned to take a deep breath and say, “I just don’t know. I know as much as I think I know. I know what my life experience has taught me. I put my trust in God, who is holy and worthy of my trust. But if you’re asking me for a 1,000 percent for-sure answer, I do not have one for that. But let’s never stop asking God to show us truth.”
Saying “I don’t know” gives me more space to be an actual human, not a Wikimamapedia, and it gives my kids more room to lean into the mysteries of God.
So, lean into the way your faith can deepen when you still feel safe enough to fall asleep without the Trinity making any logical sense, but trusting in a Creator who designed you to ask thoughtful, probing questions in order to know Him and love His creation better.
To have a heart that chases after truth, and the truth beneath that truth… and not the easy answer.
To be a student of life, at every age, about everything, and to recognize that God puts people in our path to teach us with their lives, and not just their smarts.
To value honest inquiry over rehearsed and scripted explanations.
To trust that at the end of every day, “I don’t know” is a perfectly acceptable answer because knowing is not the end game and God’s ways are higher than our ways.
Excerpted with permission from Slow Down by Nichole Nordeman, copyright Nichole Nordeman.
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New moms, if you don’t know what you’re doing, welcome to the club! “Motherhood is the only course in the university of life in which you are expected to both teach it and learn it at the exact same time.” Don’t worry — you’re doing a great job. And, “I don’t know” is a perfectly acceptable answer. We’d love to hear some of your “new mom” stories in the comments!