I've been mulling over something in my mind for a while now. I've gone back and forth about whether I should write about it, feeling at times that perhaps I am alone in this perspective, perhaps this is only my personal experience. Yet time and time again little slivers revealed here and there by different women have continued to make this topic tug at my heartstrings. And often speaking about something that gets little attention is sometimes the most important thing we can do. So here we go...
It hasn't been sitting well with me, this idea that having a newborn is nothing short of a transcendental, fairytale-like and exhilarating experience. The superlatives are numerous and everything is filtered through the oft sought "newborn haze." Sounds delightful! Do pockets like that exist? Absolutely and they truly are wondrous. Are they constant and is the newborn experience exclusively magical? Certainly not, and I think most mother's would agree with me on that. So I want to spend some time talking about the non-glamours/blogworthy/photogenic part of the newborn experience because lord knows we already have plenty of those. And I think we should continue to share that aspect of it as well since after all we can all agree that it is so very much worth it despite it all. Those memories are great to put in a pretty book and tie it up with a nice big bow. But there's also the reality of the experience, the humanity of the experience and that side of it isn't always pretty.
My first experience with bringing a newborn home was mostly filled with terror. Terror and pain. Massive, monstrous, swallow-you-whole type pain. Nothing was easy; neither sleeping, nor breastfeeding nor sitting. It was frightening. Frightening because of the degree to which this tiny human relied on me. Frightening to be this ill, this broken. I felt like I was living outside of myself. I felt lonely, scared and disappointed. All those months of hypnobirthing classes and my baby entered this world surrounded by my shrieking and tears. It wasn't at all how I thought it would be and how I tried so very hard to make it be. It was painful and hard and disappointing and occasionally the pain would be dormant long enough for me to marvel at this being that ripped me apart mere days ago and think "this is wonderful." I'm talking minutes, not hours.
Let's isolate the lack of sleep thing for a minute though. I often see a brief mention here and there like "oh gosh I haven't sleep in days hahaha" here and there as evidence of honesty and authenticity. It's still all very light and anecdotal though. But it's not a joke. Do people realize that sleep deprivation has been used a form of torture? That studies came out just last year comparing the mental impairment that one suffers from lack of sleep to being drunk? That doctor's lose their licenses over mistakes that they made on their patients from lack of sleep. It's not a joke. It's frightening to see how poorly you start to function when you are running on an hour or two of sleep. You make poor decisions, you're not yourself, you create arguments for arguments sake with the people you love the most and if that's what the "newborn haze" is then it's a very murky, dark and confusing "haze." So when I see people mention that they haven't slept I simply equate that with the fact that they are operating on a level of a barely evolved mammal. At best.
Let me pause here and explain a little bit more about why I feel it's important to talk about this. I think it's important because we are all dealing with it. It's important because what is helpful, supportive and encouraging is not hearing someone wax poetic about just how soft their newborn's feet are (I know, good, moving on) but hearing someone say "I'm scared too, I'm sad too, I'm in pain too." When we unite over our joint hardship and choose to bear each other's fears, sadness and worries that is when we are truly at our best, that is when we are being helpful. To say to one another it's ok to be scared because I'm here to hold your hand. I'm not here to even tell you that it will be ok or get better, I'm just here to say it sucks. In my experience those words are sometimes the most comforting of all. The simple admission of the reality of a situation is sometimes all we need to bring us back from the depths of despair. So I'm telling you that I was terrified, it did hurt, I didn't know what I was doing, I was lost and helpless and alone. And it sucks, it really does.
Because when we suppress or ignore the fact that something is hard, painful or terrifying we unwittingly devalue another person's experience. I remember when I struggled with breastfeeding the first time around and finally gave it up. Reading other women's poetic accounts of their wonderful experience made me feel like I was less than, I had messed up somehow. I was bad. I was wrong. And even still when I read birth stories that glaze over the reality of how painful and horrifying childbirth can be it makes me feel as if there must be something wrong with me - I am weak, bad, negative, lazy, etc. It makes you feel as if there is only one way to birth, feed and grow a child. I must just be a bad person if I felt all those things and I couldn't just look past the pain to see how magical and angelic the presence of this tiny creature is. I did sometimes, just not all the time, and not exclusively. Like I said there were pockets of clarity.
And the second time around wasn't any easier. Though my recovery was better, Teddy's reflux coupled with a very needy toddler made for an equally terrifying experience. I read about "quiet baskets" and bribery but some days were pure madness no matter what I tried. So much screaming and crying and wanting to run away. It was tough. It was lonely. It was terrifying. And for someone that had never been hospitalized before having children I can never get over all the tubes, stitches, medications, pain and discomfort that inevitably comes as a result of it every time. Those first few weeks when my mum left and my husband went back to work were not spent jointly cooing over the baby. They were spent surviving.
So I'm writing this for all those mama's that are holed up in a bedroom somewhere with their newborn, scared out of their minds. Your stitches may be bothering you, you may be feeling icky from all the meds you are on, breastfeeding may not be working, your toddler may be having a massive tantrum and you can't stop crying. Listen - this sucks. You want to just dote and love on this baby and twirl around the nursery in some billowy confection and sing lullabies but you're not and it sucks. But trust me when I tell you this - YOU ARE DOING GREAT. You love that baby. It may not feel that way sometimes but you do, fiercely. You are not a bad mom. You didn't do anything wrong. Your body and brain are in crisis mode. You are doing the very best you can. But remember:
- Ask for help if it gets too hard. If it feels like too much or too heavy.
- Take breaks. Make sure the baby can take a bottle so that you can take a break from all the feeding. I remember Teddy used to cluster feed for two or three hours straight sometimes and it would practically make me go mad.
- Have a "safe" person who you can talk to about anything. Even the ugly stuff. Vent, unload, cry, commiserate.
- Don't minimize anything to do with your health. Nothing is normal. Better be safe than sorry and that is what your midwife or OBGYN is for. I think there is this misconception that care stops with delivery when in fact there is so much more care that is required after.
- Go outside. We would go on several walks every day and I found them so incredibly restorative not to mention just getting out of the house can make you feel normal and human again.
I just wanted to put this out there for anyone feeling lonely or less than. For you to know that you are not alone, not abnormal and not less than. We're all in this together and for 100% of women there are only two ways for that little angel to come out and just from a physics perspective there is no way it's going to be painless or easy. So remember pretty much all of us tore, got stitches, IVs, meds, cold packs and nipple cream. And once again, lest anyone forget - we ALL love our babies very, very much. And it really is all worth it.
*image by Morgan Blake Photography