I’ve been thinking about this a lot in the past few days. Before the baby came my cousin Jodi said, “Oh, Angie, it’s just so hard” and I didn’t know what that meant. I assumed that it was due to lack of sleep because the baby would cry. So I steeled myself to be tired. But that’s not it.
When you’re getting ready, you set up the nursery and talk about names and prepare yourself for ‘the big event’: childbirth. And you think, for some reason, that there will be a chance for you to take a breath and gather yourself once that’s done. After all that pain and blood and effort, don’t I deserve a break? But you don’t get one, not even a minute. Once that baby is out, she’s brought to you to breastfeed almost immediately it seems, and from there it never stops.
So it’s really a few things in combination:
(1) You’re tired. The baby is up night and day, metabolizes her food quickly, and doesn’t get the whole 8-hours of sleep thing. She cries when she’s hungry, she cries when she’s tired, she cries when she has gas, and you can’t figure out the difference or how to stop it. A crying baby is scary.
(2) Babies like to be held. And cuddled. And sleep on you. Or if not on you, then at least near you. So how do you shower? Or go to the bathroom? Or cook dinner for your husband? Or even fold laundry? Suddenly, instead of holding the house together, you feel like everyone is holding you together. You feel like you’ve really had a major accomplishment by brushing your teeth. And then you have a moment when you think, ‘I used to be CAPABLE. And now I wear the same underwear for 3 days in a row and can’t remember the last time I stepped outside. How did I go so far downhill so fast?’
(3) You suck at breastfeeding at first (no pun intended) – – and guess what? So does the baby. Breastfeeding is HARD. Two people have to work together and worry about all these complex angles, timing, the hands (all 4 of them) in the right place, the body positioning just so, the mouth the right size with enough of the aereola crammed in there, the tongue in the right position, the breast squeezed just so…. and then if you mess up just ONCE you get sore nipples for days. OUCH!
(4) The psychological pressure of this demand NEVER LETTING UP. For the first three weeks or so, you’re not supposed to pump and give them a bottle for fear of messing up your milk supply or the baby’s relationship to your nipple. So for that period especially, the weight of single-handedly caring for this person ALL THE TIME is on your shoulders. And no matter how supportive your husband is, the simple truth is that he can’t grow breasts, so there is NO ONE ELSE IN THE WORLD who can feed the baby. (With the more dramatic exception of going to donor milk or formula.) For me, this was the biggest challenge.
oh, and (5) Your body is unrecognizable to you. You are weaker, you tire easier, you’re hurt and bruised and stitched and who knows what, your breasts are hideous and your belly is horrific. It’s all rather discouraging, honestly.
But after a few weeks, you know what? You get used to sleeping in 2 1/2 hour bits. You start to wake up before the baby in the dark of the night, and wait for her to wake up. And those nights that she gives us longer stretches of sleep? You lie awake beside her, torn about whether you want her to sleep longer, or if you should wake her up!
You get to be comfortable with crying. You learn when she’s serious and when she’s just considering getting really worked up. You understand that there will be times you just can’t get to her, or times when you just can’t calm her down and she cries in your arms. And you become strangely immune to wailing that used to send you into fits of anxiety, because you’ve learned that she’s not going to break if she cries a little.
Finally – after many weeks – get the hang of breastfeeding. You don’t need your husband to pin back the baby’s hands and you don’t need your fancy curvy breastfeeding pillow to be in just the right angle. You start to pump and sometimes someone else can give her a bottle. You start to collect little bags of breastmilk in your freezer, and seeing the collection grow day by day warms your heart.
You get more confident at dealing with baby-related issues. You can breastfeed in the car. You learn how to unfold the stroller, and find out the hard way about not bringing enough wipes or a back-up outfit in your diaper bag. Baby gets to be a tad more independent, and you can have a (very very quick) shower. Baby likes the swing and suddenly you can brush your teeth. You get a sling and suddenly you can fold laundry. You have clean underwear again.
You meet other moms, and you find out that they all have baby issues too. That one won’t sleep, that one won’t take a bottle, that one is still struggling with feeding. Suddenly you don’t have the world’s least manageable baby. You learn to carry the car seat in the crook of your elbow, and you give up on carrying a separate purse and put your wallet in a pocket of the diaper bag.
After a few weeks, your body heals. And your whole identity starts to follow.
For me, the most important step was the psychological freedom I gave myself when I told myself it would be ok if I gave her a bottle of formula on one of those bad nights when she was so so hungry and I couldn’t get the latch or didn’t feel like I had enough milk to feed her. I had been feeling such intense pressure to feed her only breastmilk, and I felt that I’d be a failure if I caved and gave her anything else. But despite Johnny’s preferences and the determination of my midwife, I decided it would be ok if, on a really bad night, she got some formula. My intention is not to stop breastfeeding, but to have an alternate solution if I was on the verge of a total meltdown. (Believe me, there HAVE been nights…)
And do you know what? Making that decision made me feel so much better about breastfeeding! Suddenly, I don’t feel so much anxiety about feeding her. I think she senses it, too. And to this day, she still hasn’t had a single taste of formula. I just had to give myself permission, and the weight of it was gone. Oh, the freedom!
Big bed, little person: