Saturday, February 20, 2016

To New Mothers

18 months ago I was a new mother and lots of people were giving me (sometimes unhelpful, frightening) advice. Here are the things I would like to tell a new mother (but otherwise than on my blog try to refrain from doing so because who needs more advice?) (this is, I think, a great thing about a blog--no one has to read it, and I get to give my advice to the air):

1. It gets better.

So many people told me at the beginning, It's worse when they can crawl. Or, Wait till they can walk. Or, Wait till they're a teenager. I think that those things are terrible things to say to a new mother. And I'm sure that everyone has a different experience, but for me, nothing in life has ever been harder than having a newborn, and it isn't that my newborn was particularly hard.

It's that my body felt utterly foreign to me--it didn't belong to me anyway, as Baby Leopard asserted his right to be fed every two hours, whether or not that process was excruciatingly painful for me. But I don't think I can overemphasize how foreign my body felt--it had expanded to contain a watermelon, had pushed that watermelon out, and now was a deflated ghost of what it had been (and, at the same time, not adequately deflated). A painful, puffy, deflated ghost. My midwife just talked about "new normals." And I didn't have my academic work, which has been a constant in my life for the last 20 years or more--suddenly I had a career-shift to become a round-the-clock caregiver. And my hormones were awry and my sleep was constantly interrupted, and I was negotiating a new relationship and the way that that new relationship changed my marriage. And I had no idea how you're supposed to put a kid to sleep--and putting a kid to sleep 5 times a day and waking him up to eat 5 other times was not my idea of a great time. And I wasn't even sure if I could physically care for my child because my back isn't good and there's a lot of carrying the baby involved. And I was so so hungry that I could have spent all my time finding food for myself, except that I had to spend all my time being food for someone else, a someone else who barely even responded to me. When that someone else starts to smile and move and walk and talk and laugh, it gets way, way better.

(And I am a person who loves babies, but it's different when that baby is utterly and completely dependent on you.)

The best advice I had early on was from my aunt, who said it's better at 6 months and it's even better at a year. How right she was. And also a congratulatory text from a friend with two little ones that said something like, "I hope you can enjoy some sweet newborn moments in the midst of all your adjustments." I think that's a realistic hope.

1.b. Breastfeeding gets better.

Breastfeeding is hard at the beginning, at least it was for me. And "beginning" refers to a long time--around two months. Two months at 10 times per day is, what, about 600 times. So breastfeeding is hard for the first 600 times you do it. Let's just be honest, that's a very long learning curve.

Now, a year and half out, having finished pumping at a year, breastfeeding is pretty idyllic. Ok, not really--there are still middle of the night feedings and 6 a.m. feedings and the kid is a lot more grabby than he used to be, which means I'm constantly pushing his hands away, but it's relatively blissful and good and it's nice to be able to shut him up for 10 minutes during church.

2. It's ok to complain.

Somewhere I think that there's a mom-code that says, "No Complaining." Because boy, moms seem loath to do it. It's like they think that people will think that they don't like their kid or are going through PPD or something if they complain. I think you're basically insane if you don't complain. And I think that complaining can help others know that they aren't alone in the terror and disorientation and utter helplessness that they feel. (Every once and a while, when I'm trying to get dresssed and the kid is hanging on my skirt and I'm late for work, I yell, "Get that kid away from me." And I'm a good mom who utterly adores my child.) It's really ok to complain.

3. Giving birth is traumatizing (at least it was for me).

There was no blissful moment for me after the baby came out and was laid on my chest in which I "fell in love." The baby was laid on my chest and I continued to think about how traumatizing giving birth was and how glad I was to still be alive. As the baby laid on my chest and they stitched me up, I thought--They said this part doesn't really hurt, but it does, and I want it to be over. As I pushed out the placenta, I thought, Why does there always have to be more--I want this to be over. I continued to be haunted by the trauma of the birth for 3 months, 6 months, something like that. People told me that you forget how awful birth is right away when you see how great the baby is. Well, I think that 3 months is a long time to have those memories be right beside you. I remember Francisco and my first big date 3 months after the birth was marred a bit by my inability to think about anything but childbirth while listening to Bob Dylan sing. Whenever I had a moment alone, everything would come flooding back to me in a really terrible way.

(Maybe I'm just giving an argument for epidurals, I don't know.)

The best moments in the hospital were two that I photographed (I can't, in retrospect, believe that I took pictures after the birth): seeing Francisco hold our little burrito, all wrapped up, for the first time, and seeing his connection to the baby and his emotions; and seeing my mother hold the baby in the morning, sitting on a chair, perfectly and sublimely happy. Both of those things made me really happy, too. So the positive emotions of other people were wonderful, but I can't say I had any of those myself at the very beginning. I do have them now, though--in case you're worried about me.


I think that's all I have to say about that. I think that everyone's experience is different and I wish every new mom immediate breastfeeding success and non-traumatic births, and blissful moments of happiness and immediate connection to your baby, but in case things don't happen in a fairy tale way, it does get better. You figure out your patterns and priorities and you get to know and love a dynamic little person. That part of motherhood is hard in its own way, but also really great.


Hannah said...

Amen! Bravo! This is great. I agree with so much. I also really enjoyed your description of pregnancy and after. Ha!

Maybe it's because she's a girl or maybe it's because she's the second or maybe it's because she has a different personality, but I feel like it 'got better' sooner with Harriet.

Emily Hale said...

So glad to hear that re: Harriet!

And glad you enjoyed it--I feel like all I can write post-baby is variations on the same thing:)