In 1999, I was just entering my final year of high school. Graduation was all my fellow classmates and I had on our minds. And The Sunscreen song.
Baz Luhrmann set an essay by Mary Schmich of the Chicago Tribune against smooth electronica beats with the hit song “Everybody’s Free (To Wear Sunscreen).” It was the cheesiest of songs, and yet we couldn’t help but bop to the beat every time it came on the radio, which was a lot. It became THE graduation song of our generation (until Vitamin C made us cry, but that’s a story for another day.)
The words of Schmich were a long list of advice to graduates, life lessons only learned on the other side of the great growing-into-adulthood divide. We all rolled our eyes at the well-meaning but somewhat condescending tone of how to be a person, but the truth was those words got in our heads. Because on graduation day, when you’re sitting in that uncomfortable folding chair in that uncomfortable polyester gown with the uncomfortable idea that you are headed into the great unknown, equally scared and exhilarated, you do kind of want to have a catchy song in your head for those moments you feel like you are drowning.
When we were stressed, we remembered to dance. When we felt lost in our jobs, we remembered even interesting 40 year olds don’t know what they want to do with their lives. We did something scary, we sang, we recycled, and, of course, we always wore sunscreen (except not until our thirties when we saw those first lines appear on our forehead and realized they were right.)
It’s with that same idea that I sometimes wish I could make a song for new mothers–words of wisdom that get stuck in your head for those moments you feel like you are drowning.
The list of what I wish I could go back and tell my postpartum self could fill volumes. In fact, there are plenty of books that promise to tell you What To Expect. But this isn’t a What To Expect book unless the answer to What To Expect is Anything and Everything and Nothing.
I do hope that this list catches in the back of your mind, like that annoying graduation song you can still sing 20 odd years later. Not because it’s an earworm, but because the words really are exactly what you need to hear.
Ladies of the new class of motherhood,
Trust your body. Your weak muscles, your sagging skin, even the bones that feel like they could go at any moment. That same body carried you to this point. Trust it will heal. Trust the time that the healing process requires. Trust that it is as strong as you need it to be right now.
Listen to your body. Sleep when you feel tired. Eat when you feel hungry. Move when you want to move and for goodness sake, sit still when you want to sit still. Laugh. Scream. Cry. All the time. Go ahead and just cry. There will be plenty of people around you telling you what they think you need (hello, I’m doing it right now.) But this is your body, and if there is any time to be selfish and learn to tune into its needs, the time. is. now.
Take help. All of it. Practice saying yes, but on your terms. This is where the listening to your body part is important. Know what feels like help to you and allow it. We are biologically meant to be mothers in community. Others want to be a part of your becoming. Invite them in.
Take pictures. All of the pictures. The selfies and the sleep smiles and the tiny fingernails and the poop explosions. Your memory feels like a fog now because it is. The photos will be what will remind you one day that you were there. You noticed. You remembered. You don’t need to soak it all up. You don’t need to force a core memory. Just be there. That is soaking enough. Let the pictures do the remembering.
Take a shower. Trust me. Water heals all wounds. And it’s a great place to cry.
Cry. I’ll say this one a lot.
Also, laugh. I’ll say that one a lot too.
Remember, you are a mother. This one feels obvious. But being a mother is not defined by what you do but by who you are. You are a mother when you hug away tears. You are a mother when you laugh and sing. You are a mother when you scream or go silent. You are a mother when you close your eyes and when you hand off your child. You are a mother when you add extra minutes (hours?) to screen time rules just to survive the day. You are a mother even when you don’t want to be. The only definition in the book for a mother is the one who is in relation to their child. Let the rest be defined as you both grow and change moment by moment.
Remember, you are a woman. You have dreams and desires beyond the one you cradle in your arms. Hold on to the parts of you that fulfilled you before you became a mother. Friendship, books, music, reality tv, movement, shopping, makeup, sweatpants, politics, nature, intimacy, silence. You will not be able to insert your whole body into that woman you once knew, but you can keep a finger or two in place. And if you forget, call upon the people who knew you. Gather in your friend groups. Call up your mom. Scroll past memories and make a list of moments that made you feel alive. Return to this list when you feel lost, if even for a moment.
Remember, you are also a new woman. New body, new family, new responsibility, new eyes on which to see the world. Allow yourself to grow along with your baby. Delight in the amazing ability to become something new while the parts that have always been there give you structure from within.
The sun will rise again in the morning. Go outside when you can. Vitamin D is free medicine.
But of course, if you do this, wear sunscreen. Trust me.