I'll be honest: My self-esteem has never been super great. In high school I felt like a goth misfit. In college, I struggled with eating disorders and body image. And even as a young adult, I felt awkward. It wasn't until I was in my late 20s that I finally "blossomed" and felt comfortable in my own skin. Through exercise, nutrition, and a lot of therapy, I'd finally made peace with my body. But it was a fragile peace—one easily shattered when I had kids.
No one can quite prepare you for the immense way a child will change everything in your life. Nothing is the same—not your relationship, not your career, and definitely not your body. So even though I truly wanted to have a baby, I was still completely wrecked afterward, physically and emotionally.
I'm not the only one to experience this phenomenon. A new study, forthcoming in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, followed 85,000 mothers before, during, and after pregnancy. The researchers found that most moms experienced a significant dip in self-esteem after having a baby and that dip lasted up to three years. This was true regardless of the mother's relationship status, job situation, and level of education.
I'd say it took me about two years after having a baby to return to an even keel, but it was still a lot longer than people expected. During that time I got a lot of comments from people who said I'd be "back to normal" once the baby got into a routine or started sleeping through the night or stopped breastfeeding or any number of other milestones. So when I didn't feel normal, like they promised, I thought something was wrong with me. Where was the beautiful post-baby bliss from the diaper commercials?
While the study didn't examine the causes, I can think of a lot of possible reasons for this self-esteem crash and burn after baby. There's the obvious one: the physical aftermath. My body, the one that used to do pretty much whatever I asked it to, was now suddenly gushing, leaking, and spurting uncontrollably—not to mention looking pretty different. All the hormonal changes wreaked havoc with my emotions, making it even harder to accept my new reality. But there was so much more than stretch marks and alien boobs to deal with.
When I had my first kid, I gave up a competitive job as a university professor to take a more flexible position at a community college. Not only did my peers think I was crazy, but I kind of thought I was too. My identity and self-esteem had always been tied to my career, so when I took a step off to follow the "mommy path," it made me question my intelligence and competence. It also didn't help that I quit a job I was good at and got a lot of praise for (teaching) for a job I sucked at and that I not only got zero recognition for but was actively criticized for (mothering). To this day I still get weepy remembering a woman in the grocery store yelling at me because I didn't put socks and a hat on my infant—on a 90-degree summer day.
I also lost a good chunk of my social circle. Because I chose to have a baby at a younger age than most of my peers, I often felt alone. I'd go days without seeing anyone other than my husband and my squishy-cheeked infant, who, though adorable, wasn't much of a conversationalist. I eventually found a mommy group that basically saved my life. But in the interim, losing friends did a number on my self-esteem.
Then, there was being a mom itself. I loved my baby, but I wasn't sure I liked him very much, especially at the beginning. For something so "natural," absolutely nothing about mothering came naturally to me. Babies can't tell you what they need and are so fragile that it makes everything you do feel Super Important (and thus Super Scary). So I did what many new moms do and pored obsessively over parenting sites, forums, and books—which made my anxiety skyrocket and did nothing to help my self-esteem.
Now, add in society's crushing unrealistic expectations of mothers. You must be everything to your baby, all the time! Anything bad that happens to your kid or is done by your kid is 100 percent your fault! Oh, and you must make being a mom look effortless and joyous as you mark every month's milestones and post them on Instagram—in between candid shots of yourself in perfect makeup wearing your cutest pre-baby-sized outfits. Exhausting.
And forget about the "self-care" strategies that used to make me feel better when I'm down. Things like sleeping eight hours a night, showering for more than two minutes, eating nutritious meals on dishes at a table, having long conversations with my sister, and working out became much harder. (See: How to Make Time for Self-Care When You Have None) Add all that together and it's a recipe for self-esteem disaster. Frankly, I'm amazed all new moms don't just explode in a burst of bottle-shaped confetti.
But somehow, we don't, right?
Because along with all the downsides come some truly amazing experiences that only having a baby can bring. Sure it's hard learning all those new mom skills. But once you've mastered changing a boy's diaper without a urine fountain or getting your little one to eat peas without spitting them back in your face, you feel like a freaking ninja. You're the one your baby turns to when they're scared or hungry or sleepy—and you can give them everything they need to feel better! Plus you get all the big firsts: You're the first face they see, the first word they say, and the first tattoo they'll get (a mom can dream, right?). So what if your self-esteem never quite returns to what it was? Once you're a mom it isn't about returning to "normal" (whatever that means anyhow). It's about creating a new normal with this new person—and finding the happiness in it.
This article originally appeared on Shape.com.