Diaper by diaper and bottle by bottle
I am reading about someone who has a lot of followers on Twitter. She just had a baby, and I am outraged. “Can you believe this,” I say to Mr. B. “She writes that childbirth was ‘beautiful,’ and that she’ll be offline for a bit because she, her husband, and her baby will be ‘falling in love with each other’ for the foreseeable future. ”
Mr. B looks up from his computer. “So,” he shrugs, and goes back to watching an American excitedly narrating two Koreans killing each other’s Zerg and Protoss in London.
“Did you even hear what I said,” I demand.
“Hmm,” he says.
“You’re so busy watching that game all the time that you don’t even care about my deep thoughts” I whine.
Mr. B closes the laptop and looks up expectantly at me. “I’m listening. What’s so important.”
“This woman had a baby and she is writing that childbirth is the best thing to ever happen to her,” I say in disbelief.
“Who is this person?”
“Someone who’s wrong on the internet. Childbirth is not beautiful, at least for the birth-er. It is terrible and confusing and painful and very serious. It’s not a love-in. The first six weeks after you have a baby are the worst weeks of your life. Do you remember our first weeks? I would not wish them on my worst enemy. ”
“This is someone you know?”
“This is someone you talk to?”
“Well, no, I just read her Twitter sometimes…”
“So…you’re getting worked up over someone you don’t know, someone who you creep on from time to time, who’s Wrong On The Internet?”
“How is that different from watching Starcraft? If anything, it’s worse.”
When you put it that way, it is pretty shallow. Why do I care about this particular woman? Or why do I care that Kate Middleton looked perfect two days after having Charlotte? Why do I care what other women say about childbirth and babies when it doesn’t impact my life?
I care because they reflect back on me through the lens of society. If someone influential says they just had a baby and are over-the-moon happy, it means people who have not had babies read that and expect that very soon after birth, you return to normal and can participate full-flung in your pre-baby life like nothing happened. Or, if you’re planning on having a baby, you expect a sparkle-filled euphoria as soon as you’re handed your child, and you need to tell everyone on your feed that you are ecstatic. It’s along the lines of that old advice, “Enjoy every moment.”
But for me, the first couple days after having a baby, it was like someone reached down my throat, pulled upward by my intestines, and turned me inside out until all of my organs were outside laying right there on the uncomfortable hospital bed, exposed to the elements. I could not sit or walk comfortably for weeks. I wore sweatpants for months.
My brain felt detached from my body, like a fragile balloon that could be redirected by the slightest wind. Not only was I easily distracted, I felt like a crazy woman who had no qualms about crying at the drop of a hat had taken the wheel, and it terrified me that I had lost my personality, which made me cry even harder.
Mr. B and I got absolutely no sleep. We were barely hanging on from the physical and mental exhaustion enveloping us like a scratchy wool blanket.
The first night home, we were alternately exhausted and terrified. The baby was up every two hours to eat, be changed, and go back to sleep, and so were we. By the time the watery January sun rose, we were so exhausted that our eyelids were burning. And then, when the baby had finally gone through her change-eat-swaddle cycle and gone to sleep, we were terrified that she wasn’t breathing correctly, and so we couldn’t even collapse in an exhausted heap on our own bed.
There was no room for love-ins, just learning and survival.
From having talked to friends and read message boards, my experience is completely normal , because childbirth and the bleary weeks that follow it are not a walk in the park. It is a primordial, unforgiving process, no matter how you go through it.
It takes so much time and energy to care for someone learning to become a human, and it takes even more concerted effort to learn to become a family. I don’t think this is obvious in our culture, which favors quick, happy endings. All we hear about are how people had babies and are “over the moon” or “overjoyed.” I don’t think this is reflective of how most people feel when they’ve just had a baby, regardless of how happy they are, based on conversations I’ve had outside of Facebook and Instagram text boxes.
The process of getting to know a baby means practicing the art of the slog, and when it’s good, it’s amazing, but when it’s bad and hard, it is terrible and will test every bone in your body, for weeks on end. I remember my parents saying they would stay with the baby for a couple hours while we went to get lunch. “Take a break,” my mom said, encouraging me. How can I take a break, I thought to myself. I know she’ll need to be fed, changed, and swaddled to sleep again in three hours and three hours after that, and three hours after that, well into the night. It’s not a break if the days blur in a cycle of relentless three-hour increments that don’t stop on holidays or weekends.
And throughout all of this, you constantly feel alone, like you are the only two people on the planet who can be this tired and this miserable. Everyone else is busy being over the moon and excited and happy with their babies. I remember, once, being up at 3:47 in the morning, feeding her. Our house was the only one on the street with lights on, and I was sitting, silently hating my neighbors for daring to get a good night’s sleep, and clinging onto wakefulness with every ounce of strength I had left so I wouldn’t nod off with the baby in my arms. I felt like the only woman in the universe.
You never know how much you miss sleep until it is gone. Every bone in your body just constantly cries for it. When you’re hungry, you wonder if you should take time to eat, or try to settle into a nap. You think about sleep in the shower, when you’re trying to watch a show, when you’re with the baby all the time. As you are changing diapers and your eyes burn, you long for a bed and a cool pillow, The idea of sleep consumes you, overtakes you like an obsession with a drug.
Exuberance and happiness all come later. But when they do come, they overwhelm you with how large they are and how infinite your heart can feel. When your baby first smiles, when you can’t imagine a day where your baby doesn’t exist, when your baby shrieks with delight as you come home after months of not recognizing you — these are the times you just want to hold your baby to you forever because you are truly over the moon and exhilarated by the feeling that has come to you – pure, unadulterated love.
And I guess I’m mad because any woman who has the attention of millions of people can choose to say all of this, rather than portraying the early days of babyhood as a walk in the park. I’m not saying it’s necessary to go into gory detail. I think the truth is somewhere on a sliding scale between laying out your birth story contraction by contraction and saying you are “so in love with your baby.”
There is a reason that many cultures have and had a lying-in period. Because there is nothing easy about the first weeks, but it becomes even harder when society tells us that, in addition to learning or re-learning how to parent newborns, we need to be falling head over heels in love with them, posting starstruck pictures full of exclamation points, and generally taking to parenting in a breezy manner that indicates that nothing has changed in our lives.
Even celebrities, though, soon realize that family life is hard, harder than it’s been sold to them.
But the other beautiful truth is that after the first bleary weeks and months, your life starts to shape itself to the new rhythm. You won’t notice it at first because you are busy changing diapers and reading about how to cut toenails and trying to take 20-minute naps and generally being deep-down miserable to the core of your existence.
But slowly, your baby will start to sleep three hours, then four, then five, then, miraculously, you will put your head down and wake up six hours later and panic, thinking that something was wrong. But really, your baby is no longer a newborn, and is sleeping through the night. And it’s then that you really get nostalgic about infanthood and how small and quiet your baby used to be.
The truth is, that the truth is hard. It is not all absolutes. It is possible to have an extremely hard time adjusting to parenthood, as has been the case for millennia, and still be a good parent. It is possible to be completely disoriented and loopy the first time you are handed this package, your son or daughter, and not know what to do. It is possible not to feel like a mother or father until well after you leave the hospital and have saved the bracelet for your scrapbook (or not! you don’t need to have a scrapbook to be a good parent). Don’t let society tell you otherwise.
The truth is a slow, building crescendo of appreciation and love for your baby. You don’t learn to parent the minute your baby is born and you don’t have to make proclamations out of the gate. This thing, this growing of love and protection, is something that can only happen through days and hours of crying, of learning, of actively and constantly being there and helping your baby make sense of the world.
What you feel and exclaim the first couple days is an important experience, but removed from the whole – you are running on fumes, and a strange kind of high that you won’t be able to understand until much later. You learn the real process of connecting to another human not the first time you meet your baby, with the Facebook announcement post or the tweet, but minute by minute and hour by hour, diaper by diaper, bottle by bottle. You have the right to be deliriously happy.
But if you’re just overwhelmed by the enormity of the experience that you’ve gone through and need a couple months to process the terrifying fact that you are now responsible for a life that you love unconditionally, that’s fine, too.