Tuesday, April 26, 2016

The First Weeks of Motherhood (I'm not The Madonna)

I've sat down a few times to write the story of Bennett's birth, but I realize this morning it feels more honest to write about how hard this feels right now.

Two weeks ago last Sunday, three nights of stop and start labor culminated in an unplanned surgical birth. Although that probably sounds hideous to most people, it was by far the most beautiful, profound experiences of my life. It wasn't an emergency ceasarian, which I think helped. We had time to labor, time to try different approaches, time to decide it was time.

Two weeks ago tomorrow, we brought our baby home after an exhausting hospital stay. We sat on the couch and watched garbage Netflix and were grateful to sleep in our own bed. We set alarms to go off every three hours through the night to make sure our sleepy baby, who gave us a dehydration scare in the hospital, ate enough to keep his little system going.
My husband woke up the next morning to study and attend classes all day, as he has done every day since, faithfully toughing out these last few difficult weeks of having to be both student and new father.

My mother came over, as she has done every day since, to hold Bennett as I took an after-lunch nap and to attend to the chores my recently cut-open self wasn't physically able to keep up with (which was all of them).

I spent the day in bed, letting my body heal while also spending hours nursing and holding this tiny new being.

I thought we had it down. At one week postpartum when I couldn't stand looking at the same four walls for one more minute, I took my first walk outside, strapping Bennett to my chest in a snuggly baby carrier. I felt a million times better both physically and emotionally and decided we were through the worst of it.

We made it to the routine doctor's visits. We're getting sleep that's on the good side of normal for a newborn. I can sit up by myself. Nursing is going nearly as perfectly as I could have asked, which I do not take for granted.

I thought each day would continue to be better than the last, but yesterday, as I sat in my midwife's office for my two week checkup, and after sharing that I have great support, that breastfeeding is going great, that baby is sleeping, that the pain of my incision is almost gone, I finished with, "and I love my baby and am totally devoted to his well-being but...I'm don't feel in love with my baby. And I'm not sure if that's normal." And I cried, and as she reached out and looked me in the eyes and said, "I'm worried about you." I realized I wasn't doing myself any favors by trying to convince myself and everyone around me that this isn't incredibly fucking hard in a way I coudn't fathom before being in it.

And there is so much shame in it being hard, because it's not the image of motherhood we hold in our culture and because it feels so shitty to feel or say anything negative about the experience when you are one of the lucky ones who gets to hold your own baby. There is no room to talk seriously about how long the days and nights are, how unprepared we were for the intense loss of identity we undergo in taking on a new one, how deeply we miss being valued for our brains more than our boobs and our ability to soothe a tiny screaming dictator in his third hour of crying. There is no room to talk about how the life we spent the past 30 years building was important and valued unto itself, not just in preparation for the role of motherhood. There is no room to talk about how this experience can be both profoundly overwhelming and profoundly boring at the same time, or how many minutes we let the baby fuss in the middle of the night while undergoing an internal debate of how pressing the poopy diaper really is, or whether it makes one a bad mother to hope the baby will magically go to sleep even though it's been 4 hours since he ate and you know that's already pushing his limits of how long he can go without a top off. There is no room to talk about the thousand different ways there is to step into the role of mother that don't in any way resemble The Madonna. The "how are you/how's he sleeping/how many hours a day do you spend staring at him" round of questions don't invite these conversations and it feels very dark in the shadows.

I thought about waiting to write until this had passed. It feels safer to write from the perspective of "it gets better!" than "I think/hope/have to believe it gets better." In truth, I know it will get better. All of us have many examples of times we had to learn a new way of being, and we did it. In my own experience, these periods of change always result in a me I like better and I have no real reason to suspect it will be different this go. I write in this place of vulnerability, as I usually do, because I find healing in it. Turning the ideas into words gives me some space from them. I write also because, although I know I'm not alone in this, I want to know I'm not alone in this. Your reassurance, stories and encouragement are welcomed.

I write because, if you know someone who recently became a mother, yes, coo over her baby, ask if he's sleeping, how she's feeling. But also ask what is hardest about her days, about the transition. Ask if she's cried and what it was about, and please don't let her brush it off as "just hormones." General questions allow too much room for glossing over the grime. If you struggled, share that with her. Tell her how old your baby was when you started feeling better. Give her permission to skip the equivocation, to avoid reassuring you that everything is really fine. Tell her you know she loves her baby and that she can both be a devoted mother and also spend a lot of time feeling unhappy or blank. Complex experiences are part of being human; there's no need to fit our experiences into a single (or any) box. Tell her if you think she is depressed--it can be incredibly difficult to call it when you're in the thick of it, since the story depression tells you is it's always been this way. Tell her you'll be over this afternoon for a walk. Bring a bottle of wine (yes, yes, alcohol is technically a depressant, but I swear drinking it with a good friend ameliorates the effect).

I write because, if you are soon to be a mother, before giving birth I want you to ask your support system to plan to check in with where you are emotionally at least several times per week after the baby arrives. Know you might feel totally awesome at some hours of the day and like you're losing your marbles during others. BE HONEST when people you trust ask how you're doing. Find some support groups ahead of time--new parent support groups, breastfeeding support groups--whatever will put you around a bunch of other people in the same phase of life. Get a list of therapists on your insurance and stick it on the fridge. Find a way to get help for at least the first two weeks (my daily naps are my saving grace and they absolutely would not happen without my mom coming over to hold the baby for an hour). Know there is every possibility that you won't end up needing any of this. Know that if you do, you'll be glad to not have to figure out what resources are available. Finally, know that just because the baby blues, postpartum depression and the nameless in between are relatively common experinces does not mean they are to be toughed out. Call it early and get support, even if that's just a mandatory family walk and talk when your spouse gets home each night.

I write also because if you are with me in this place, I want us to remind each other: This is tough, but we are tougher. Let's give ourselves and each other permission to be exactly where we are. Perhaps this is not what we hoped or expected to feel in the weeks after our children were born, but it is beautiful and rich nonetheless, and someday soon, these weeks will become a memory, as everything does.