Published in the Fredericton Daily Gleaner, Monday, January 23, 2012
When my first child entered the world I was a young 20 year old and still in college. I don’t remember much about the time – things were so hectic that those first six months were pretty much a blur. I don’t think I suffered from postpartum depression because I don’t remember feeling down. I joke about not having it because I didn’t have time to have it, but really I think I was just lucky. Kristen was born in February and aside from taking care of her, my studies were first and foremost. I was lucky to have help from my parents, but that didn’t mean things were a cakewalk. There were extra pressures associated with school and catching up after being off for a couple of weeks and the constant worry of whether or not I’d have enough money to live.
Nine years later, finally married, settled and working, I get to experience and enjoy baby number two. James arrives while we are living and working in Iqaluit. While the labour is something I’d rather not reminisce about, the fact I was able to have a child normally after a c-section was a blessing. I felt better almost immediately after his birth – recovering in days rather than weeks.
But that didn’t mean there weren’t problems.
When James arrived my parents were more than two thousand kilometers away and I had never taken care of a newborn by myself; not without someone there, not without someone to answer my questions, and most importantly, not without someone to alleviate my fears. I was rusty at this ‘having a baby’ thing. Trying to remember details of events encapsulated in a sleep-deprived period is hard.
What I remember about those first weeks is that breastfeeding hurts if you don’t know how to do it, that people will help if you ask them, that it’s okay to cry, and that you’re not supposed to know everything. Thinking we are failing in those first few weeks because we can’t ‘read’ our child well is like thinking you should know a person well enough to marry them after the first date.
You’ve literally just met this person – this is new territory for both of you. Sure, you carried this wee creature inside of you for nine months, but they are their own person from day one, and it takes time, patience and a lot of trial and error in getting to know them.
I remember sitting in my living room crying while I was nursing James at some ungodly hour of the morning when he was about two weeks old. My breasts hurt with every suckle and I couldn’t control my tears. I wondered what I had done to our perfectly serene little life. I had brought a baby into this house and in doing so had disrupted everything. I was a frumpy mess of a woman who seemed to have lost her identity. I was a slave to this feeding monster who had not only ruined my stomach but was working hard at ruining my breasts too.
That night was probably the lowest point of those first six weeks.
That time remains a blur but memories of my mental state are very clear. I felt lost despite all the glorified images of motherhood that surrounded me. I wondered why I couldn’t be like ‘them’. I blamed myself for the messy house; I was a permanent witch for a couple of weeks, as I existed on little or no sleep. I ate more than I thought I should be – a side effect of your body producing food for another body – and I couldn’t seem to hobble together a meal for my family. The thing that bothered me most was my inability to follow through on what should have been very basic daily tasks, things like showering two days in a row or combing my hair.
And while my husband helped as much as he could in taking over other duties and making me feel better, unless he could arrange for the ‘breast-milk fairy’ to miraculously visit him in the middle of the night, the things I needed help with most were things no one else could do.
Four and a half years later we tempted fate again. Kathryn arrived in the middle of a house renovation in April – a project that was supposed to be completed well before her arrival. The child may have been different, but the story stayed much the same. I wondered what I had done, as I held this innocent child who single handedly disrupted our perfectly organized schedules. My inability to cope well in those first weeks caused by undue stress related to sleep deprivation once again made me angry with everyone and severely interrupted my hygiene schedule.
After surviving these horrible weeks, much like a wounded soldier, I vowed to share my story and let expectant Mom’s know that it’s not like the commercials and parent magazine images make it out to be. I don’t try to shock people, but ease them into conversations surrounding ‘the truth.’
I tell people to be prepared for feeling horrible, for feeling inadequate – that not everyone feels this way, but most of us do. Be ready for feeling like you’re ugly, that you’re fat, that you are the most unattractive woman with this ‘thing’ stuck to your breast 24-7. I remind them that every mother is different, that every child is unique, and that, God willing, they’ll become the women I curse – you know the ones; the ‘fit into her jeans the day after giving birth with a perfect baby who sleeps through the night after the second day home and is always happy and breastfeeds like a pro’ type mom.
Some laugh…. and others give you that look – you know that look I’m talking about – the squinted eye look usually accompanied by a short giggle and then a sideways glance that says, without words, ‘she’s joking…right?’
But horror stories aside (oh, and I can tell those…. three kids, two over nine pounds, both of them born up north where you don’t have the comfort of pain killing drugs unless you’re having a c-section) there are many silver linings in these clouds, and LOTS of gold at the end of the coming rainbows.
Sure, you smell like spit up, and you hadn’t had the chance to shower today, but your baby smiled at you – she looked at you and beamed – you got to see this first because you were holding him while he was feeding for the 90th time today. You got that gift because she planned it just for you.
Sure, you don’t recognize your body anymore, but that body wants to be hugged by a little body over and over and over again, and that love, and the witnessing of that bond makes another body want you…. that partner who felt guilty in the delivery room, the guy who took all your insults and snapped sentences throughout those horrible times without saying a word still loves you, still wants you, and feels even more connected to you through the love you share for this tiny little person.
Sure, your house is a mess, and you can recite entire sections of Disney movies, and you’ve been known to use the word “poopie” in a sentence in public while adults are present. And yes, you’ve had in-depth discussions about things you’ve never talked about before – cracked nipples, stretch marks, diaper contents, spit up and snot colour – but you’re more aware and concerned for the world around you. You pay attention to what’s important, you feel more deeply about everything, you want to ensure the world is a better place for your baby. You’ve become a better human being.
And of course you are stuck at home on nights that other friends might be out; your social life has all but dried up, and some nights a ‘date’ could mean you’ve both been successful at showering that particular day and the child has fallen asleep before you have, and are briefly reminded that you are still a sexual being and loved as such.
But there’s more…. and it gets better each year. My kids are my favourite comedy channel, my kids are the best things about me, my kids make me proud, teach me lessons, remind me that life isn’t supposed to be perfect and my kids make up a big part of the person I have become.
These kinds of transformations happen for many, not just those of us who have birthed babies, but anyone who has helped parent a child, or who has fallen in love with a beautiful little person. It happens to any human who realizes that the birth of a baby offers hope for the world.
Children are worth it – but in those first few horrible weeks of getting to know a child, it can be hard to see beyond the sleep deprived, showerless life you lead with this little baby who doesn’t seem to understand how the world works just yet.
But therein lies the gift…. after those weeks are over you get to be their tour guide on the trip of a lifetime.