The Challenges of Early Motherhood
Bringing a newborn into the world is a blessing, but it doesn’t always feel that way. Like any new job, learning to be a mom can be toughest in the beginning.
I spent my first night as a new mother sleeplessly imagining various scenarios in which we gave up the baby for adoption. There were people out there who would have given everything they owned for our good fortune. All the more reason for us to offer our daughter to them, I thought. Lying there in my mechanical bed with a baby whose needs I felt incapable of meeting, I could think of only one good reason to keep her: Her grandmothers would never forgive us.
I just never thought it would be like this: what a spectacular failure of imagination. Some women have written about new motherhood, in memoirs in particular, and I’d even read these, but their words hadn’t registered, I hadn’t conceived the weight of it all. The days without sleeping, how time slows down, the world shrinking, the unceasing cries, that unceasing need-and being the one person in the world equipped to meet it.
Such a failure, however, is reasonable, because who would want to imagine it? People don’t make movies about this stuff because nobody would want to watch them. And a novel about three days in the life of a new mother would be the longest book in the world.
I was utterly miserable during my first days of motherhood, and by “first days” I really mean about six weeks, and three months, and maybe more than that. And I’m not even talking about postpartum depression. Though there’s no doubt this is a very real affliction, it’s also a label that undermines the very simple fact that living with a newborn is, as parenting writer Ariel Gore describes it, “like suddenly getting the world’s worst roommate, like having Janis Joplin with a bad hangover and PMS come to stay with you.”
When we finally left the hospital, after three days, the nurses gathered, waving goodbye. I heard one of them telling another, “Harriet’s going home now,” the first time I’d ever heard the baby referred to as an autonomous someone. My husband, Stuart, was pushing me in a wheelchair, and I held our daughter in my arms. The temperature outside was over 30°, but Harriet was wrapped in the thick blanket I’d knitted while I was pregnant.
I was crying. We were being released into the outside world, with no saviour to appear at the press of an alarm bell. We were taking the baby away from the only home she’d ever known.
The understatement to end all understatements was that I would find myself “a little weepy” when my milk came in. I hadn’t counted on full body-racking sobs, on all these feelings being brutally real and somehow worse for having no point of origin, for their aimless churning. I cried the day after we left the hospital, when Stuart and I went for a walk and we made it only to the end of the driveway.
I cried because our daughter was so wonderful, it was unfathomable, and because I loved Stuart so terribly, and now I’d gone and destroyed our lives. Then I cried because I couldn’t help it, and the sky was so blue, the trees were so green and the entire universe was such a miracle-what a gift to be here. And also because I kind of wished I was dead.
I cried at the space the new baby had made in my life. And I also cried because now I knew if anything ever happened to her, it would destroy me.
I wasn’t the only one who cried. Harriet cried, too-a lot-though later we discovered this was mostly because of gas. Stuart cried a couple of times, during those rare instances in which he had neither hysterical wife nor hysterical child to comfort, when it would suddenly dawn on him that he couldn’t take it anymore.
One day when I was crying, and thought things couldn’t get any worse, the baby threw up in my mouth, and I had it confirmed that whenever you think you’ve come to know the baby, she will always turn around and surprise you.
When eight pounds is your entire mass, every bit of every ounce is extremely important. It can be a matter of life and death, but for us it was more a matter of life or lethargy. Harriet had lost so much weight that she was too tired to feed, a vicious cycle we had to counter by stripping her down to her diaper and shocking her with dripping cold washcloths, by supplementing her breast milk with formula, by feeding her through a narrow tube attached to a syringe so as not to put her off the breast altogether with “nipple confusion.”
The baby was feeding now, displaying that fantastic latch that had tricked everybody in the hospital into thinking we were doing just fine. The midwife was crouching before me, slightly adjusting our position. I never could feel the “letdown”-when the baby latches onto the breast and the milk begins to flow-but I could feel the sucking, a gentle tug-tug that pulled deep inside me, and from the way her jaw moved, I could see she was swallowing.
The problem, however, was that she would stop. I could feel the tugtug still, but this was sucking for pure comfort rather than sustenance.
“So you’ve got to wake her up,” said the midwife. “Start again and keep going. Breastfeeding takes patience.”
Harriet spits up onto her burp pad, and the stain has a reddish tinge. We could almost ignore it, but then she spit up again, undeniably blood.
At Emergency, we get to bypass the queue, walk through corridors of visibly ill children and infants stretched out on gurneys, and their anguished parents.
The doctor diagnoses a cracked nipple: Harriet has been drinking my blood. I didn’t even know it was cracked, but these things can happen deep under the surface.
When the baby was about two weeks old, I ran into a woman who’d been in my prenatal yoga class. Her due date had been close to mine; our daughters born a week apart.
“So, you did it,” she said to me, and we wished each other congratulations.
“It’s so hard,” I answered when she asked me how I was doing. “We’re still trying to figure out the difference between day and night, and I’m so tired. I never thought it would be like this, but I guess you know how it is.”
“Well, not really,” said the woman. “It’s pretty great, actually. I don’t know if I’ve ever been so in love in my life.”
Things never got easy, but they became easier. Some time between three and six weeks, I stopped crying every day. There began to be mornings again, though I was usually still exhausted when they found me.
But there remained the question of love. I mean, of course I love the baby, but…, which was a phrase I’d kept saying, though the reservation made me uneasy.
But love is a letdown, I realized, as the weeks went on and we started measuring the baby’s life in months. Love, though I couldn’t even feel it, had been there beneath the surface all along, doing its job. Love was me not walking out of the house and never coming back. And it was persevering through two-hour nursing sessions 12 times a day. It was holding her when she cried, even if I was crying, too; it was keeping her clean and warm, having her sleep on my chest and learning ingenious ways to provide her with comfort, desperation being the true mother of invention.
In those terrible early congealing days, love was doing, instead of feeling. And sometimes it wasn’t worth it, but sometimes it was, and then one day I noticed the storm had been over for a while.
This article was originally titled “I Just Never Thought It Would Be Like This,” in the June 2011 issue of Reader’s Digest. Subscribe today and never miss an issue!