Things I Wished I'd Known About Early Motherhood
1). Those hemorrhoids you acquired during pregnancy or child birth might not go away...ever.
Ugh! This was the most disappointing fact that I learned of all, and I can't really believe that I'm putting such personal information out on the internet for the whole world to read, but I do it so that any readers may also be prepared and know that it falls within the range of normal. Depending on the intensity of your labor, how long you push, and if you developed hemorrhoids earlier in pregnancy, it’s possible that those hemorrhoids might not go away. For many, they will go away as you heal. For others, the skin from those veins may become prolapsed and hang around, no pun intended. I was seriously appalled when I received this news from my doctor through a weak smile. I kind of got the feeling she broke this kind of news quite frequently to new mothers. What?! I really wish that I wouldn't have tried to be a badass, moving around furniture and carrying boxes when we first moved into our apartment about halfway through my pregnancy. The skin can be removed with surgery, but it is a risky surgery due to the veins involved and the amount of blood that can be lost.
2). Breastfeeding can be really difficult.
So, I had a relatively rosy view of what breastfeeding would be like prior to birth. I thought of it in warm sepia tones with sun shining through the window as I smiled down at my new little pleasantly plump bundle of joy. I think I had a relatively normal difficult time with nursing in the beginning. I didn’t get mastitis. I was able to breastfeed after birth, and I didn’t have any major complications preventing me from doing so, such as surgery or anything traumatic like this. But it was still really hard. I just want to put that out there. My daughter didn’t have a good latch. I visited lactation consultants, and they showed me pictures of what a good latch should look like, but I just couldn’t get my daughter’s latch to replicate what those beautiful pictures showed. Instead, I was getting bitten ferociously by her little mouth as she desperately searched for food. Those gums can be surprisingly strong, especially on tender skin. My breasts would become engorged, and I had constant worry about whether she was getting enough food. I visited breastfeeding support groups at the hospital, but the group was so big that there was never enough time to get to everyone for one-on-one support. I felt frantic. One low point was in the middle of the night trying to manually express milk by hand into an infant medicine spoon as I cried and my husband helped to get it into her open, screaming mouth…at least enough to get her to calm down so we could try to breastfeed. After a couple of weeks of this, I tearfully tried a nipple shield and felt such overwhelming guilt and inadequacy over this. Why couldn’t my body do what others made look so effortless and beautiful? But, with this assistance, she was able to latch on and get milk, so I got over myself and was happy that we could have calm breastfeeding sessions instead of the ones where we both cried. As with all aspects the birth community that you build for yourself, I would recommend locating a lactation consultant that you really connect with if you’re having difficulties. The lactation consultants that I met with were knowledgeable and supportive, but they were so busy and part of the corporate hospital where I received my care, that they just didn’t have enough time to help each woman thoroughly enough.
Then, when my daughter went in for her four month appointment a week before I was scheduled to return back to work, I found out that she was not receiving enough milk even though we were breastfeeding frequently. She just wasn’t putting on weight normally and was in the second percentile for her weight. I’m not usually one to worry about percentiles, but this low number scared me. The doctors felt the use of the nipple shield had caused me to produce less milk, so I began taking herbal supplements, drinking obscene amounts of water, eating oatmeal several times a day and pumping after every breastfeeding session. This is incredibly hard to do when you are home alone with an infant. I was not prepared for this difficulty prior to having a child, not that preparation would have changed much. Who was supposed to hold the baby during all of that pumping? The storage of breast milk we had in the freezer dwindled to nothing after only a couple of days, and we had no choice but to supplement with formula by the time my daughter grew to be five months old. I tried melting a little coconut oil into her bottles to try to get her weight up. Why do doctors say to parents, “The baby needs to get enough fat in her for healthy brain development.” Seriously. Why? As if the level of worry weren’t high enough already.
I pumped while I was at work, but sometimes nothing came out…sometimes less than an ounce. I was anxious for her tongue thrust reflex to go away so I could begin getting some pureed food in her. Then at six months, we began feeding her solids the same week that she cut her first tooth, and it was like we turned a corner. Within that week, she stopped biting me, and she latched on perfectly for the first time. From there on out, we looked like one of those fuzzy sepia-toned picture of a mother and child, but those first six months were brutal.
3). All of those little jokes people made about not getting any sleep...they weren't kidding.
Phew! No they weren’t! My husband and I walked around like zombies until…well, we’re still kind of walking around like zombies, but it got a lot easier after those first four to six months. If you’re a new breastfeeding mama, you will most likely be up less than every hour and a half to feed your new baby. They say every two hours at first, but the clock starts when you start feeding, so if you breastfeed for 30 minutes, this is an hour and a half between feedings that you may actually be able to sleep. There is nothing that can prepare you for this, although I have heard tales of parents who have babies that sleep well very early on. May this be your path as well. I had one friend who joked with me that she hasn’t slept in 20 years. Now she just stays up at night worrying whether her child will return home safely. I hope to hell she’s kidding.
We put our baby in our bed for the first few nights of her life, but I was so terrified of SIDS, that I moved her to her crib. She was pissed to be put in that big, spacious crib with tumbleweeds blowing through. She could hear the wind whistling through the slats of the bed, and it was not warm and cozy like the womb. We did some traveling to see family and were forced to sleep with her in our bed when our flight got cancelled and we were stranded in Houston. That was the best night of sleep we’d had yet, and we didn’t look back until recently.
Everyone deals with sleep deprivation a little differently, but at my ugliest moments, I snapped at my daughter…my defenseless child who was only trying to communicate her needs. I felt more evil than Mommy Dearest.
4). You might have menopausal symptoms for as long as you breastfeed.
I'm told by my doctor that this is somewhat rare, but about a month after I gave birth, I started to experience some hormonal symptoms similar to menopause, specifically, intermittent vaginal itching and burning. We tried several treatments. It acts a lot like a yeast infection, but it comes and goes. I monitored lots of different things in my life to try to find a connection: food, sex, use of tampons versus pads verses Diva Cups versus Luna Rags, different fabrics of underwear. There seemed to be no correlation to anything. The final diagnoses after a year and a half was that irritation was caused by fluctuations in hormones related to breastfeeding. As long as you're breastfeeding, estrogen levels are lower than normal, so the treatment is topical estrogen until I wean my daughter off the boob. Considering all of the pain we went through with breastfeeding, I’ll make the sacrifice for now.
5). Unconditional love like you've never experienced.
From the moment I met my daughter, I felt immediately that I would do anything to protect her and keep her safe. There is no question that I would put my life on the line for her if it were ever to come to that. It may sound like platitudes of a self-sacrificing mother, but when it comes down to it, it’s true. I’d sacrifice myself for her without a second thought. It’s built into my evolution, and I was unprepared for the power of the love that I would hold through and between every breath of my being for this wet, wrinkly little creature who carried a large piece of me within her. She was the best thing I’d ever created or dreamt up. The greatest adventure so far. She would look at me with a steady, timelessly primordial gaze, and I would melt. She held complete trust in me, and I would not let her down. At least I hoped I wouldn’t. I was sure that I would pass along some insecurities and eccentricities that might challenge her in life despite my struggles to hold the role of strong, confident mother, but I hoped she’d forgive me or rebel and do her own thing. I admittedly love the rebellious spirit that you see in some children, and I knew if she had my blood pumping through her, there would be at least a little bit of that. This is the way that I felt instantly when I met her, and that feeling has only grown as we’ve spent the past year and a half together.
6). Loneliness, Isolation and Existential Crisis.
The first day I was at home alone with my daughter after family left town and my husband went back to work was like a giant chasm opening up, a great, dry rift cracking open in the desolation of the desert. My daughter was about a month old at the time, and the realization hit home that I was going to be all alone in this...at least for large chunks of the day. I've never felt more alone and lost in my whole life. What was I supposed to do in these hours day after day? How would I make it through to the other side when my husband got home and I could talk to another adult or take a shower? I hadn’t even felt this lonely in my 20s when I found myself in far corners of the world nursing a broken heart. My heart wasn’t the problem. It was full as ever. But the eight to ten hours a day that I would spend alone with this little being that I loved felt far more daunting than those months I spent alone in the wet, rolling hills of Oregon.
My daughter was in her “fourth trimester,” which means she wanted to be cuddled and held at all times to replicate the experience of the womb. I totally get it and understand this on an intellectual level, and I wanted to be that warm, comforting mother that was able to provide this with a smile on my face. But, I was the most tired I’d ever been in my life, and my back and arms felt like they were on fire from carrying her all day, even when I peed, brushed my teeth and ate my meals. All I wanted was to lay down and sleep for eternity. So, I decided to step outside with my baby still in arms and see if maybe I could back away from the ledge of my breaking point with a little fresh air. My neighbors were in the backyard, and I am certain that I looked like an unpredictable lunatic, hair un-brushed, dark circles around my eyes, still wearing the clothes I’d slept in that were covered in spit-up, breast milk, armpit sweat and possibly even a little baby pee, who knows. They looked at me like maybe they thought it was best to keep their distance at that moment, but they spoke kindly anyway. I think I sputtered out some words about being so tired and just wanting to set the baby down for a few minutes before plodding back into my cave of an apartment like a traveler in the desert with no water. That was probably the loneliest moment of all, feeling like an old, dried-up piece of gum on the putty knife of the janitor cleaning the bottoms of the high school bleachers. I finally broke down in a messy splash of tears when my husband got home from work. And after that day, it got a little easier. I didn’t feel quite so unhinged as that first day alone. There were still days where the expanse of the hours before me felt limitless and huge, but I found my rhythm and realized that sometimes the baby just has to cry for a moment while I set her down to pull on a pair of actual pants that don’t have a stretchy waistband. And it’s okay when that happens. I just pick her back up, kiss her, and we both move on.
7). You're suddenly part of a new club that you never knew existed.
Before I had a child, I didn’t realize there would be such a feeling of camaraderie that could develop so quickly between adults in the aisles of the grocery store, while pushing my daughter on the swings at the playground or over cocktails at a party upon seeing someone else with their children. Despite many different varying life circumstances, having a child creates common ground with strangers that I’d never considered before. This world had been invisible to me prior to having a child. These passing conversations are comforting, and it’s nice to see lots of other people out there experiencing similar joys and struggles over their parenting choices and children’s behaviors. It puts some of the ease back into forging friendships that I hadn’t known since adolescence.
Commiserating about teething or the latest visit to the pediatrician or potty training at a party can sound unbearably dull to those without children, but to a new parent, it feels a little bit like a life raft. Finding others who are eager to discuss baby and toddler sleep feels incredibly liberating when everyone else in your life becomes glassy eyed at the mention of baby poop.
8). Many of your parental choices are going to be judged by complete strangers.
Even though you’ve found this new adult club to which you now belong whether you seek it out or not, your every public move is being judged when you have your children with you. You’ll be judged not just by other parents but by the young and old and everyone in between at some point or another. You may be judged for being an overly involved helicopter parent as well as being emotionally distant on the same afternoon. You’ll be judged for being too uptight and controlling if you feed your children healthy food, and you’ll be labeled low-class and uneducated if you feed your children chips or cookies. Never mind a healthy medium. You’ll be judged for being too strict or harsh, and you’ll be judged for being too passive and letting your kids walk all over you. You’ll be one or the other at any given minute, and you may be surprised to find that complete strangers will make it their business to tell you their opinion, which is of course, correct. Not to say that everyone does it, but parental judgment is rampant. Hell, I have judged other parents in my head before I checked myself. There is no way of knowing the entire story just by seeing a parent with their children out in public for a few moments. I have found myself making excuses to random people who don’t really need or deserve any explanation about my or my children’s behavior, but none of us want to be viewed as a bad parent. It would be unconscionable. That being said, it’s something you have to learn to let go and realize that those judgers simply don’t know your own circumstance.
9). The first year of your child’s life feels like finding yourself all over again.
Becoming a parent is a complete identity shift. It changes the way you see yourself. It changes the way others, even some of your closest friends, see you. It changes your options, obligations and priorities more than you could have dreamt. It is a job that requires your attention 24 hours a day. For me, I have to find small pockets of time during the day, like while my daughter takes her power naps, to do fun, enjoyable things for myself to remind me of who I am. I write or make jewelry or do a craft project. As a result, my house is impossibly messy, but carving out those little moments are far more important to me than a sink full of dirty dishes. Once my daughter awakens again, she has my complete attention…at least the majority of the time. Occasionally my mind wanders and daydreams, but she has a way of snapping my attention back into the present.
Month by month over the first year of my child’s life, I gradually felt more and more like myself, like I was recovering little lost pieces of my former self here and there and learning how to incorporate them into my new identity and role as my daughter gained more and more independence. My husband occasionally finds himself through punk rock and metal shows and late night painting. I find myself through jewelry workshops and National Novel Writing Month, but most days I do little things that make me have those moments of awe(some) that help me reconnect to the world, myself and my family. We set out on mini road trips to the coast, and we gaze out at the waves together. I like to be reminded of how small I am in the grand scheme of things. It helps put current troubles or worries in perspective.