Why So Many New Parents Are Languishing—and What to Do About It
I’m going to say something you’re not supposed to say. Ready? Here goes: Being a new parent is sometimes boring. I know, I know. Shocking stuff. After all, we’ve been conditioned to believe that we should enjoy every precious moment. But lots of those moments—well, they drag.
Don’t get me wrong, there will be loads of days where you’ll struggle to feed and bathe your own body. You’ll have no time to do the dishes or run the wash or squeeze in a quick workout (ha!). You’ll be hard at work changing diapers and rocking babies and blending purées. You’ll be knee-deep in toys and bottles and binkies. You’ll be covered in mashed avocado and bodily fluids. You’ll be beyond busy. But you still might be bored. (Turns out, the two are not mutually exclusive.)
The unfiltered reality is that most of the things that take up your day as a new mom or dad aren’t particularly thought-provoking or interesting. Important and meaningful? Yes. Stimulating and fun? Not so much. And if you’re at home without another adult human beside you, you might feel lonely, isolated and stuck. It’s called languishing. And the even more confounding truth is that you can absolutely love being a parent, and still, well, languish.
The good news: You can find ways to get out of the stifling cycle and engage your mind and body—so that you do feel more joy and satisfaction in between the non-stop feeding sessions and naps. Ready to do more than simply get through the day? Here, experts weigh in on how to languish less and motivate more.
Languishing means not making progress. You’re stagnant or stuck. But languishing in parenthood doesn’t mean you’re failing. It doesn’t mean you’re not a good caregiver. It just means you’re in the thick of it. “Languishing is common among new [parents] because their world has just done a complete 180. They now feel ‘blah’ because their life has become an endless, monotonous cycle of feed baby, change baby, try to sleep and repeat,” explains Renee Goff, PsyD, PMH-C, a licensed clinical psychologist and owner of Orchid Wellness & Mentoring in Cincinnati, Ohio. Suffice it to say that early parenthood is “all consuming,” says Alision Lieberman, LMFT, PMH-C, a marriage and family therapist and co-founder of Rooted in Harmony Counseling in California. And the fact that you go to sleep and wake up to do it all over again, day in and day out, can eventually lead to some level of apathy.
What’s more, the COVID-19 pandemic contributed to a general sense of malaise, as the world shut down and options for socialization, connection and interaction became few and far between. Parents who welcomed babies during this trying time felt the added sting of isolation. And even as communities open up and life assumes a new normal, the damage has been done, and it’s hard to readjust.
When is it more than languishing?
Papiernek says that languishing can almost mimic the symptoms of postpartum depression. “We can start to feel that each day is heavy and that we don’t have choices in our life,” she says. But, ultimately, the difference between languishing and experiencing a perinatal mood disorder is the intensity and severity of the symptoms, explains Goff. “If your symptoms are negatively impacting your ability to care for baby and/or yourself, then you should be immediately assessed for a perinatal mood disorder.”
If you feel like you’re just going through the motions—feeding, changing, wiping— you’re probably experiencing some degree of languish. And while this exhausting and sometimes frustrating phase of parenthood will pass, that doesn’t mean you should just have to push through and endure. There are steps you can take to feel like you’re making strides. Below, tips to help you see the light.
Break the monotonous cycle
The days are long with an infant at home. But taking breaks and interrupting the tedium can work wonders for your mental health. “Take a walk—somewhere new, like a different park or a different path,” advises Goff. With infants and toddlers, you live and breathe by the routine—and you may feel reluctant to switch things up. But a change of scenery and a breath of fresh air can be incredibly helpful and invigorating.
Join a class to socialize
Goff suggests signing up for a parent-and-child outdoor fitness class. “It’s a great way to meet other parents with babies similar in age, socialize, increase endorphins and reap the benefits of fresh air and some sunshine,” she says. Not ready to exercise in public? Infant- and toddler-friendly art and music classes are great—and free library meetups will do the trick too. Essentially, all of these options offer an approachable way to find friends you can relate to and chat with. Some grownup conversation will do you good.
Set small, realistic goals for yourself
It’s okay to admit that it’ll be some time before you make a gourmet dinner for your family or tackle a home-improvement project. You have a ton on your plate. Keep goals realistic and tasks tangible so you can actually see progress. “Find a project you’ve been putting off that you can work on a little bit at a time,” suggests Goff. It could be scrapbooking in the baby journal for 15 minutes each day or cleaning out one pesky junk drawer per nap. This will help you feel like you are moving forward and accomplishing things on your list beyond feeding and diapering a helpless human—which, for the record, is pretty impressive on its own.
Find some joy every day
When you’re indifferently moving from task to task, it can be hard to find satisfaction in your day. But there’s plenty of simple pleasures to enjoy if you actively seek them out. “Sometimes we need a reminder to keep looking for [joy],” says Brenda Papierniak, PsyD, PMH-C, a psychologist and certified perinatal mental health clinician with Ascension Medical Group in Hoffman Estates, Illinois.If you take pause and come from a place of gratitude and embrace a hearty dose of perspective, you can find more moments of contentment. “It can be in the little things, like our morning cup of coffee,” says Papierniak. The baby may get you up at 5 a.m., and you might be covered in spit-up, but the way they look up at you with that sweet gummy smile makes life a whole lot sweeter. And, yes, that piping-hot first sip of caffeinated goodness can help too.
Fill the “in-between” moments
Some degree of tedium will always exist (playing peek-a-boo a million times in a row will never leave you feeling particularly titillated). That said, you can find ways to fill the many in-between moments of parenting. Have a book handy so you can read a few pages while baby is independently at play. Keep an air pod in one ear so you can listen to a podcast. Jot down thoughts, ideas and inspiration in a notebook during impromptu naps. This will help fill in gaps of time and fill your proverbial cup.
Share your actual reality (and seek out others who do too)
Social media is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it helps us find connection and community. But it can also feed into the fictitious narrative that new parents should be blissful all the time. “[People] usually don’t share the pictures of what their house looks like on a normal, hectic morning with a busy toddler and a tired baby,” says Paperniek. “We can start feeling very alone and like we’re doing something wrong when we assume everyone else is ‘managing’ based on those constant sources of information.”
To that end, be mindful of who you follow on your social feeds, and remember to distinguish between Instagram versus reality. What’s more, do your part to break the cycle of social media lies. “We need to hear from others that it’s normal to be overwhelmed at times, to have a messy house, to sometimes feel like our gas tank is running on empty or that we might come to dread the bedtime routines with a newborn or a toddler,” she adds. Normalize surviving and not thriving—because the struggle is real and it’s important to recognize that truth.
Show yourself grace
Above all else, be kind to yourself. “For new parents, your entire identity and schedule has changed. You’re trying to figure out who you are now, how to keep this tiny human happy and healthy, what is life going to look like now and how will this new baby impact my relationships? That’s an overwhelming amount of things to process,” says Goff. Remember, that there’s a learning curve and an adjustment period.
Parenthood is full of highs and lows and expectations versus realities. A lot of the journey will be fast-paced and exciting, but some of it will be slow and steady. You may thrive at times and languish at others. Recognizing this truth and acknowledging that you’re changing and growing and settling into this role will help you get through the more trying times. No one said it would be easy, but it is all certainly worth it.
About the experts:
Renée Goff, PsyD, PMH-C, is a licensed clinical psychologist and owner of Orchid Wellness & Mentoring in Cincinnati, Ohio. She received her doctor of psychology from Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio.
Allison Lieberman, LMFT, PMH-C, is a marriage and family therapist and co-founder of Rooted in Harmony Counseling, a therapy practice dedicated to moms in California. She is also the host of the podcast The New Mama Mentor.