19.9.17

what i've learned: year one of motherhood

I continue to marvel at the fact that every single member of our species has been born and brought to independence by so arduous a route. 
-Rachel Cusk, A Life’s Work (I love this book)

A friend who is due to have her first baby in October recently asked her friends about personal experiences with labour and those first few months after having a baby. At first I hesitated, thinking, I am no expert. I only have one, and I have only been at this for slightly over a year. As I thought about it, though, I realized that I have learned so much. Mostly I learned that you will never quite understand the things people tell you will happen until you’re in the thick of it yourself. All those things you never quite believed would or could happen to you: they will happen. We took a class and I read all the books, and I was prepared for sleep deprivation, cluster feeding, and how to heal, but so much was trial by fire, I suppose. I spent a whole year asking “How do people manage more than one?” Here are a few key things that I have learned; this is all old news to experienced parents, but everything here took me by surprise. Also, that thing about it being the deepest love you will ever know? That is true.


They do sleep! Also, we love our Maxi Cosi Jool convertible seat! It’s a comfortable ride for him and I love how I can throw the cover in the washing machine. (This is the Sparkling Grey model to match the infant seat we had—oh boy, tiny Luca).

1. Fear is powerful.
Luca was about ten days overdue when we went in for an induction. I didn’t have any expectations for labour and delivery. I thought I would go along with whatever happened, although I was aiming for the so-called “natural” birth everyone holds up as the ultimate experience. I read the books by Ina May Gaskin, I did visualizations, I wrote in journals, I practiced the yogic breathing, and I didn’t get this experience. I was induced using four different methods and after all of it, I was no further ahead than I had been the week before. A few other complications along the way, and I ended up having a c-section. I was 100% okay with it. That said, looking back, I think that my fear of losing the baby was a powerful force in leading me to have this birth. I didn’t regret it in any way, and the c-section was fine and I recovered quickly, but afterwards I did want to burn the Gaskin books, and felt crushed every time I encountered the term “natural birth.” The weeks that followed were an even more fearful time for me. I didn’t feel confident in my new role because I hadn’t known that much about babies, and wasn’t I supposed to be wearing a swimsuit on a beach at 6 weeks postpartum, holding a baby above my head and laughing like everyone (everyone!) on Instagram? Why was the Explore page always showing me tanned blonde beautiful women in Australia nursing three week old babies while wearing bikinis? The postpartum period was deeply dark and terrifying for me, but luckily I had access to some helpful resources (not everyone does, and this is a terrible fact). The fear eventually subsided when I became more confident. But I wish autocorrect didn’t change “basket” (as in Moses basket) to “casket” and “grace” to “grave” (a pretty good way to make a new mother weep).

2. Oh, so that’s why people are obsessed with napping schedules and baby sleep.
Before I had a baby, I honestly thought babies slept all day. Well, some of them might. Mine did not. Nap time is the only time during the day that a caregiver has to unwind, to clean, check email, to pick things off a to-do list, maybe eat some lunch while sitting down, to take a breath. But when you have a cat-napper as I did/do, you can do your best to try to cram everything into a 30 minute slot (or even 5 minutes sometimes?), but there isn’t much that can be done in that short a time. I tried not to get too wound up, tried to convince myself those things could wait, and just went with the flow, but there were many days where I spent all of his naps sobbing because I was overwhelmed and tired, and I had work to do. When baby is awake, you spend every moment meeting that baby’s essential demands: feeding, changing, reading books, playing, keeping the baby safe, etc. Maybe that sounds like fun? But it’s exhausting, especially when they get mobile and you literally have to follow them everywhere. Some babies are happy to chill out in a swing while you do dishes or make dinner, or to sleep on you while you get your hair cut at a salon. I did not have one of those babies! We ended up going out for a lot of walks, which was actually really nice, and sometimes on those walks he would sleep for longer periods of time. Sometimes once he was asleep all I had the energy to do was stare off into space, which made me feel so guilty for not being productive. It all wreaks havoc on you.

3. Babies will fundamentally alter your relationship with your partner.
Whenever people I know have babies and immediately gush on social media about their partners, I despair a little bit. In a few months, in the fog of exhaustion, with your nerves completely frayed at the sound of a baby crying inconsolably, you will snap at each other. You will bicker more than you ever have. You can have the most supportive and helpful partner in the world (and I do!), but when you can’t take your frustrations out on a tiny, helpless baby, and you’re so sad that you can’t seem to help, you will look to the closest human and unleash. Maybe this doesn’t happen for everyone but it certainly has been the case for nearly every new parent I have confided in. People don’t talk about this openly because maybe it’s embarrassing, or because it portrays a less than perfect image. I had always been so proud of the fact that we had great communication and didn’t fight, so maybe this made it harder to accept. But I can’t think of something more human than a full range of emotion shared across a partnership. Also, much of this is because...

4. Your self-esteem will most likely take the most enormous nose dive it ever has.
I’ve spoken to a lot of people who felt amazing during pregnancy, but it seems that often, around the time that the baby is six months old, women start to feel awful about themselves (this article states that self-esteem is lowered for THREE YEARS). This has definitely been the case for me. I still have a hard time looking in the mirror. I gained a lot of weight during pregnancy (I did run a 5K in the early days, but couldn’t keep up with exercise), my chest has never been so enormous (not a look I like for myself), and I just don’t have time to worry about my appearance. Breast-feeding was not the magical weight loss tool I was told it could be, mostly because on hard days I could devour a box of donuts. I tried going to a yoga class, but I had a four month old baby who wailed the whole time because the class was during naptime, and my wrists were way too sore for many of the poses (that’s another thing that happens! Your wrists get really messed up). I’ve never felt like a great beauty, but it really isn’t pleasant to feel that you would prefer to be invisible. I see women on social media who look amazing post-baby but I wouldn’t be surprised if even the most perfect-looking women still feel a little badly about themselves. When I started back at work I felt extra vulnerable because I didn’t have a stroller to hide behind. Never mind catching glimpses of my tired face in the reflection of the windows on the subway. Oh and then you feel guilty for being vain. We can’t win.

5. Those post-partum hormones are no joke.
When I brought the baby home, I found myself being very careful never to complain about any of the difficult parts. After all, it was something I had wanted so badly, had dreamed of and wished for, and I used to feel upset when new parents would complain about lack of sleep, etc. I thought, you don’t know how lucky you are. Once I had the baby, I felt guilty because I had a baby when so many people I knew were struggling (let me just pause that for a second: I felt guilty for having a baby, even though it had not been easy for me at all). I tried to be so careful because I knew other people were hurting. I didn’t want to seem ungrateful, and I didn’t want anything to be less than perfect (the idea of perfection is an obsession, it would seem). I didn’t let myself release any of the difficult feelings I was grappling with, and ended up needing treatment.

6. Everyone is different. Everyone is different. Everyone is different. 
What’s that joke about how I was the perfect parent before I had kids? Yeah. Once you have a kid you realize how little other people’s choices matter because they don’t affect you at all, and most of the things people judge others over have nothing to do with imminent danger (it’s almost always something trifling). Also (and this is something I have to keep reminding myself about still), some people can make it look super easy, and some people are just graceful and elegant no matter what. They have babies that sleep all day, they are able to get out of the house every single day for some alone time, they get together with their friends and bring their chill babies who just sit there and look around, they have a few kids and they always look impeccable. But again, this doesn’t mean anything. Maybe that is merely the image they’re sending out into the world. Maybe they have a lot of help. Maybe they don’t have post-partum depression. Or maybe they do! None of us has any idea what happens behind the seemingly-perfect scene. I did my best at all times, and if that meant that I was too nervous to nurse my baby in public, fine. If that meant that I didn’t take him on a plane, fine. But again, I do have to keep reminding myself of these things because seeing what other people are capable of with newborns or even older babies STILL makes me feel awful. I should have done better, etc.! But survival mode is very real, and I truly did my best.

7. Your baby may end up being your little barnacle.
To this day I still don’t know how to find a babysitter. I didn’t realize just how hard it would be to be apart from the baby as a nursing mother (pumping never worked for me). When Luca was just five days old, I had to go to the emergency room. It really struck me then that I couldn’t go anywhere without him, since he was nursing every few hours and I had no idea how long I would be there. I was so scared to take him to the hospital with me, with all its germs. Luckily the nurses found a small room with a bed for me, and he was so tiny he curled up on my chest and slept there the whole time. I was lucky in that I could take advantage of the one year of maternity leave Canada provides, so I didn’t have to pump at work, but I did have to take him everywhere I went for a long time. I was okay with this, but it meant that I didn’t get any alone time for quite a while. I could occasionally leave him with Geoff for an hour or so, but I didn’t do this very often because I actually didn’t love being away from him, and if I got a text that the baby was fussing I would head back. It was a learning process for all of us, and this part certainly got easier with time.

8. In the absence of a village, having a core group of friends you can text or email for advice is invaluable.
If you find a friend who can text you through baby’s first fever, hold that friend tight (thanks, Lauren).

9. You may lose yourself, even momentarily.
This was another one that I truly didn’t understand until I was there. I didn’t even really know what it meant. People give parents such a hard time for posting photos of their babies; I lost literally thousands of followers on Instagram once I had a baby, which really hurt (I know I shouldn’t take it personally, but how could I not? I also found myself having conflicting feelings about posting his photo at all, but that is a whole other discussion). The truth of it is that we don’t have TIME for anything else. It was a year of the me & Luca show. Some women are able to balance a lot of things at once and they can continue indulging in their hobbies and whatever they’re interested in. Doing this when children are young requires a lot of help, often hired. Not everyone has this option. Some people do make it a priority to have time to themselves, even while being the baby’s main caregiver, and they are really good at this. I never really was. I’m slowly making my way back now that he’s a little older and slightly more independent, and picking up little enjoyable projects (knitting, sewing, reading, etc) goes a long way.

10. A year goes by in the blink of an eye.
All of this said, I cannot believe how quickly it went by. I remember having moments where I thought “please let me never forget this, this moment right now,” but sadly I don’t remember what it was that I was trying so hard to remember. If I didn’t have an archive of baby photos on my phone I would forget what it was like to have a baby with the tiniest hands and feet I had ever held. These moments are so fleeting but they are the greatest things in the world.

Oh and also: 11. If you take the batteries out of noisy toys, they might never know they’re supposed to make noise.