I had a long drive by myself last week and I took advantage of the opportunity to listen to a book on tape, uninterrupted by a baby demanding my attention. Isn’t it amazing how 7 hours in the car suddenly sounds luxurious when you get to do it alone? It was actually a pretty enjoyable trip, due in large part to the entertainment. I’ve been wanting to read Bossy Pants by Tina Fey for a while, and finally got a copy of the audio book for my drive. If you haven’t read or listened to this book I highly recommend it. It’s hilarious, witty, and sometimes even illuminating. What made me think about my work with NMP was Tina’s discussion of the rules of improv. I’d learned a bit about improv (think Who’s Line is it Anyway) during graduate school when we discussed how to apply the rules of improv to counseling sessions. If you still aren’t sure what improv is check out this clip. Hearing Tina describe the rules again I realized how applicable they are to the postpartum period and motherhood in general. I think the rules are pretty universally accepted throughout the field of improvisation. There are only four and they are so simple. I find using any one of them in a given moment can shift the situation from frustrating and overwhelming to one of opportunity and peace.
Rule # 1 Agree – Say Yes. This means that instead of rejecting an idea or a given circumstance you agree. Let’s think postpartum situation. Baby wakes up in the middle of the night for yet another feeding. Usual thought: “NOOOOOO!!!!” Improv thought: “Ok, the baby is awake.” Yes, it’s subtle. It’s semantics, but sometimes a subtle shift is just what you need to get you through the moment. Becoming a parent is about accepting a new role and a new routine. It’s normal to have some difficulty adjusting to parenting, and I know I tried to fight it a bit. If you can find ways to say “yes” to this new life rather than pushing against it you will find ways to be more at ease.
Rule # 2 Agree and add something – Say Yes, and…. Think of an improv show, if one person tosses out an idea and the other person only agrees the show is not going anywhere. The partners need to agree and build on the idea. They each need to bring something to the situation. So, as a new mama how can you say ‘yes, and…” To me this means accepting the situation and going with it. In the situation above it means saying “ok the baby is awake, and I will use my time feeding her to read a few pages of my book.” Or maybe it means “ok the baby is awake and I know my partner wanted to help out more so this is a great opportunity for them to help.”
Maybe rule number two means being just as creative as you would be if you were on stage at an improv show. Imagine this scenario. You are going to the bathroom and suddenly the baby starts crying while in the bouncy seat in the bathroom. You are literally in the midst of your business on the toilet and baby is raging. So, what do you do – you say “yes, and” – I will pick the baby up and nurse her while I go to the bathroom so I can poop in peace. Rule # 2 allows you the freedom to ensnare yourself in slightly ridiculous situations in order to get everyone’s needs met. Most importantly it reminds you to see the humor in the moment.
Rule # 3 Make Statements (i.e. don’t ask questions all the time and be part of the solution). If you have ever seen an improv show you know that it has to move quickly and keep flowing. If you stop to ask too many questions you will kill the scene. For example if your improv partner says, “I’ve got a pack of tiny green men that have inhabited my body, help!” You say, “Quick, I’ve got an antidote jump in my orange mobile and we’ll roll to my lab for it!” not “why would there be green men in your body? how did they get there?”
As a new mom you are probably flooded with questions constantly. I had a steady stream of why and how questions flowing through my brain at all hours. Looking back I can see how finding the answers to those questions was a)impossible and b) inconsequential. There was never much I could do to change the situation. If I shifted from trying to figure things out to just acting based on what was in front of me I could get through the moment much more easily. I remember a road trip we took when my daughter was four months old. We got ourselves all packed up, I fed her, changed her diaper, and tried to leave the house around a time she might nap. We got in the car, started driving and she immediately started screaming. My partner and I discussed for 5-10 minutes why she was crying and hoped it would stop, but it didn’t. Finally I declared that she must need to get out of her seat and be changed or fed. So we stopped, I nursed her again, put her back in her seat and then she was fine for a while.
Rule # 4 There are No Mistakes (Only Opportunities). Doesn’t every new mom need to hear this? In improv there is no do over. You’ve got to go with what’s happening in the moment. If someone goes a different direction with the scene than you were expecting you go with them. In parenting there are also no do overs. Caring for you baby will definitely not go exactly as you expect. You can go with baby and see what opportunities await or you can …. well basically you have to go with the baby. Rule number four is so important for two reasons. 1- If you can accpet that there are no mistakes only opportunities you can let go of the guilt you might feel if you have made a mistake. 2- If you view things as opportunities rather than mistakes you open your mind to new options and outcomes rather than being stuck with a fixed set of expectations.
I love thinking about the rules of improv and how they can apply to all aspects of life. I find them to be some of the best rules to live by. I am especially grateful for being reminded of these rules as we are settling into the holiday season here in the U.S. While this is a time of excitement and joy it is also a time of lost routines, unexpected turns in the action, and new partners to work with. As you navigate all these new experiences and scenarios with a new baby we hope you find some of these ideas helpful too.