[Fair warning: If you don’t want to read some brutal honesty about the hardships that are intermingled with the joys of pregnancy, birth, postpartum, and life with a new baby, then this isn’t the post for you. If however, you’d like to be refreshed by some raw authenticity about realities such as screaming babies, (responsible) drinking secondary to maternal exhaustion, and hemorrhoids, by all means read on.]
I ended my last blog post with this sentence: “Every time I nurse in public, I transform all of my pre-baby, feisty ideals into softer (but fuller) real-life mothering glories.” And it’s true that my public nursing is an expression of my metamorphosis from childless woman to proud (and tired and worried and obsessive) mother. Is nursing in public exactly how I thought it would be before I was a mother? (Read: an endless cry of “I am woman! Hear me roar!”) No. I’ll happily nurse anywhere, but there are numerous intricacies (as of late, a highly distracted baby who often WON’T nurse until I retreat to a quiet, uninteresting place — unless you call constantly pulling off my nipple and getting himself sprayed in the face with a milky jet-stream “nursing”) that I never considered prior to motherhood, as detailed in my previous post. Via my nursing-in-public experiences, I’ve grown from my pre-baby feisty ideal (the rather hyper chant of “I am woman, hear me roar!” whilst nursing my baby unabashedly in a “boob beanie”) to my REAL-LIFE mothering glory: nursing anywhere because my baby is hungry, because I am tired, and because nursing is frequently a quick fix. Not because I have a need to put on a show or make a point. (And I don’t give a damn what hat he’s wearing!) But these intricacies, surprises, and unforeseen challenges that accompany the shift from pre-baby thinking to true-mama-know-how do not only apply to nursing in public. No, no, no. God knew that that alone would not be humbling enough; He knew that would not be sufficient to lovingly knock me off my self-righteous perch on the ladder of the passionately pious. Because He loves me, He desires my best — even if that takes a little chiseling to achieve. A gentler, kinder, wiser Halley. The means? Give her a baby, of course! I’m convinced babies are God’s original recipe for humble pie. And oh, I’ve eaten so many slices…
Let’s start with pregnancy. Pre-baby, pre-pregnant Halley thought that pregnancy was beautiful, glorious, and utterly delightful. Then I got pregnant. Some parts of it were indeed beautiful, glorious, and utterly delightful. Like telling Simon. And hearing the heartbeat for the first time. And feeling baby kicks for the first time (and the millionth too!). And watching my body transform before my eyes as it changed from not only my soul’s residence, but to the home of ANOTHER BEING who was all-together part of me and distinct from me. But you know what’s not beautiful, glorious, or at all delightful? Vomiting. Heartburn. Your crotch aching with every step. Stretch marks. People treating you like you’re handicapped. (OR, people assuming you can do everything you’ve always done without any regard for that HUMAN you’re carting along in your uterus! Why don’t people know when you want to be perceived as fully able and when you want to be babied a little and offered assistance?! Did I mention the crazy hormonal swings that also aren’t so awesome?). Boom — humbled. But you know what? It means more that I rocked 9 months of pregnancy *because* it wasn’t all roses. Because it WAS difficult at times. It’s like Tom Hanks character said in A League of Their Own, ” The hard is what makes it great.” And if it wasn’t hard, you’d never want to go into…
Labor. Oh, labor. It’s hard. It sucks. I think most people realize this, but you can’t truly appreciate it until you do it. I always understood that labor would be hard — and would hurt — after all, I’ve helped many women cope during labor, but I still managed to hold on to some romantic, naive ideals prior to my labor with Gabe…drippy candles, slow dancing with my husband to the rhythm of my contractions, “breathing the baby out,” “home sweet homebirth,”and so forth. And actually, there was a drippy candle, I did “slow dance” with my husband during some contractions, and based on the fact that I never passed out, I assume I was breathing. But it was really, really, really HARD! It involved vomiting and IV fluids and killer back labor every 3 minutes. I was so relieved when it was over. It was important to me to have a natural birth, and I am so glad that I DID have a natural birth, but if I had been in the hospital I totally would have caved and gotten an epidural! Labor and birth are such hard WORK. That reminds me — birth. Birth is completely amazing but so unbelievably intense. When my baby’s head was crowning — when his 15-inch diameter head was stretching my lady parts as far as the east is from the west — I started shouting “It’s the ring of fire!!!” because that’s exactly what it felt like. It was the most intense yet incredible bodily experience I will ever know. It hurt like hell. I felt like I was splitting in two. But it was amazing to push my baby — in my own power and no one else’s — out of my body. Once his head popped out, the rest of him flopped out of me like a fish and it was utterly other-worldly. He was immediately placed in my arms and we were never separated. It was the beautiful; Simon and I were crying right along with our sweet baby Gabe. In the documentary, The Business of Being Born, anthropologist Robbie Davis-Floyd says of natural birth, “There is bliss and there is pain. And you cannot have the bliss without the pain!” That was my experience. So much pain! So much bliss! It wasn’t a “home sweet homebirth” in a sense that it was easy or simple or “oh how sweet.” It was challenging; it was overwhelming; it was scary; it was painful; it was fantastic and insane and amazing and utterly RICH. It wasn’t a funfetti cupcake — it was a Godiva dark chocolate cake. To be savored. (But I do NOT want to do it again for a long time!).
Of course, after the birth comes the postpartum period. The “babymoon” where you “get to” stay in your PJs for weeks and do nothing but snuggle your precious baby (who surely will nurse perfectly) and have people pamper you 24/7. BAHAHAHAHA! I’m sorry, but no. The 2 weeks after Gabe was born were so much harder than my 28-hour labor. He did NOT nurse perfectly (he was tongue-tied and he annihilated my nipples until we had his tongue clipped a few days later). I sure WAS in PJs for weeks and weeks, but it was not a beautiful thing. First of all, let’s clarify what I mean by PJs: an adult diaper and my husband’s boxers, with my saggy postpartum belly creating the mother of all muffin tops. Occasionally an over-sized T-shirt became part of the ensemble (when visitors came over), but my engorged breasts couldn’t handle that very long. So yeah — diaper and boxers. Not to mention the leaking blood and milk. Gross. And then the hardest part — you now have a BABY that you are responsible for ALL OF THE TIME. Need I mention they do not come with instruction manuals? And that they need you just as much at 3AM as they do at 3PM? I must say though, my husband and I *were* very lucky in that we were really pampered for quite a while during the whirlwind of the postpartum period — Gabe was born on December 3rd, and we did not have to make a single meal for ourselves until after the new year. (And even through January we received meals here and there). My sister even purchased, transported, erected, and decorated a Christmas tree for us! We were so well-loved by our family, friends, and church during those crucial and crazy first 6 weeks, and as a result, I feel an ever-growing desire — no, a NEED — to support other families just as well during their own postpartum journeys. I really cannot put into words how incredibly NECESSARY and AWESOME that postpartum support was for us…I do not know how we would have survived on our own…I think I very easily could have slipped into a wicked postpartum depression. And I still had majorly hard days as it was, even with meal and errand support, understanding friends, placenta encapsulation, and my own mother mothering me. I still broke down and cried. I still cringed every time I pooped (I hate hemorrhoids!). I still “ran away” to Starbucks for an hour’s reprieve from the constantly demanding little human. I still fantasized about driving out of state and away from the dungeon of Groundhog Day my life had become. I still had a moment of fury during which I wanted to burn my own child with my hair straightener. (Of course I didn’t! Chill out. But I totally get how Shaken Baby Syndrome happens :(). The postpartum period is so HARD. (Pre-baby ideal? Babymoon! How sweet! Real-life glory? Obstacle course from hell that I battled through and deserve a huge trophy for — you should see the size of my metaphorical mothering muscles after wrestling that f-ing bear). As passionately as I feel that every woman deserves a birth doula, now I may feel even more fervently that every women deserves a postpartum doula — I’d love to be able to offer this service to moms in the future. People cheer you on during pregnancy and labor, and you get credit for “making it through” both of those things. For postpartum, there’s help, yes, if you’re lucky as I was, but there’s generally little, if any, credit given to moms for coming out on the other side of the postpartum period (I say that like it ends…it kind of doesn’t, it just gets easier/you get more used to being a mom). Let’s start doling out some credit — it warrants such.
Gosh, how else have I been humbled…(more like, Of the million things I’ve been wrong about, which ones do I want to talk about — or admit to — in this post? And how much do people really want to read about my STEEP learning curves?)
Let’s take holding your baby. I’m going to tell you a short story about my pre-baby self. (I wish it was a story about someone else, but unfortunately it was me). Several years ago, I was at a Christmas party and a friend of mine was there with her newborn. I was baby-crazed, and like many childless adults, completely oblivious to the stress and demands those darling babies place on their parents. My friend asked if someone could please hold her baby for her, and I immediately jumped at the chance to cuddle that snuggly sweetie. Now I’m sure this dear mama was asking for this favor so that she could get a plate of food, use the restroom, or simply rest her arms! However, at the time, all I could think to myself was OMG! How TERRIBLE that she doesn’t want to hold her own baby! I will NEVER not want to hold my own baby! (I know, it was horrifically judgmental and uninformed). Fast-forward a few years to my own Christmas with a newborn. You bet I wanted someone else to hold my baby at times! (I also wanted him back whenever I wanted him back, but that’s a different story). And as much as I generally believe in attachment parenting and uphold many of its precepts, I do “separate” from him (if you want to call it that) by using an activity mat, a Bumbo, a swing, and a stroller. And when my baby falls asleep in his car seat, heck yes I leave him in there until he wakes up, which is always a short amount of time (take him out to babywear and sacrifice that oh-so-precious sleep? Are you insane?). As much as I think babywearing is wonderful and often practical — and something I do almost every day — you cannot shower while wearing a baby! (You can pee, and even do the other thing too, but it’s not exactly pleasant, and of course baby thinks this is a great time to wake up and cry). I love wearing my baby and holding my baby (if you ask my husband, he’ll say I never put him down). And I’ve learned to do a lot of random things while holding him (it really helps if you can pick things up with your toes!). But for goodness sake, I do sometimes put him down. Honestly, how can you not? Maybe if you had six arms…and if your back/shoulders never hurt…and there was no such thing as tendonitis…But I have 2 arms, my back/shoulders do sometimes hurt, and I’ve self-diagnosed tendonitis in my left wrist. Time for tummy time, Gabe…
Before I was a mother, I thought there was always an understandable reason that babies cry. (I say “understandable” intentionally — I do tend to think there is always a reason that babies cry, but that doesn’t mean I can always figure out what it is). Now when well-meaning people say to me, “He’s crying!” or “Why is he crying!?”, with a hint (or a heap) of a judgment, I kind of just want to throw a brick at them. Yes, he’s crying. Does it look like I can’t hear him or don’t care? Do you really think I haven’t already tried 500 things to calm him? Are you aware that I only got 4 hours of sleep last night?
You know, I used to think I was well-prepared for motherhood. Now I think there is no way to prepare. Mothering is a lot about flying by the seat of your pants and coming up with the most creative solutions to the weirdest problems (this is how I learned to pick up a gallon of bleach with my toes, and how I mastered the art of putting a pacifier back in a baby’s mouth by feel while driving). Even though I knew a lot of “information” about birth, breastfeeding, baby care, etc, before I was a parent, none of that helped me at 3AM when my baby was crying, nursing, pooping; and I was crying, leaking, bleeding. Even though I had been babysitting since I was eleven, taking care of someone else’s kid for a few hours is nothing like taking care of your OWN baby, FOREVER. (It seems so silly now that I ever thought babysitting and parenting were comparable whatsoever!). But you don’t realize these truths until you’re in the thick of things. You don’t have ears to hear. You don’t have the capacity to understand the reality of being a mother until you ARE a mother. (Please see my friend Molly Remer’s excellent blog post on this subject: What to Tell a Mother-to-be About the Realities of Mothering).
I thought I had a “leg up” going into parenting because of my “knowledge” and “experience” as a big sister, babysitter, nurse, and doula. HA! Sure, I knew it would be “hard,” but my postpartum experience quickly showed me that I had no freaking clue what “hard” really entailed.
Hard is when you cannot eat, sleep, and/or pee when you want to. So you go hungry, tired and with a full bladder so that the tiny human you made can be full, rested, and diapered.
Hard is when you cannot dictate your own schedule. AT ALL. And when you’re generally stuck at home all freaking day long because venturing into the world with a tiny baby often feels like more trouble than it’s worth.
Hard is when you feel pathetic because you know that Boy Meets World reruns are on from 6AM to 8:30AM, Full House reruns from 11AM to 1PM, and Friends reruns from 2:30PM to 4:30PM (and then repeat a couple hours later on TBS West).
Hard is when your baby will not stop stop crying even though they’ve nursed, been changed, are being held, and none of your tricks are working…(this is where that responsible maternal drinking comes in to play! Bring on the wine!).
Hard is a lot of stress on your marriage — a new brand of stress you’ve never dealt with before, by the way. You’re both tired. Nothing gets done around the house. There is no time for romance unless you are VERY intentional about making it happen. Sex? Not so much.
Although I have tried in this post, there is no way to completely convey the degree to which mothering has humbled me to my core, and continues to do so on a daily basis. I had no idea how selfish I was. I had no idea I needed God this much. I had no idea a human weighing less than 10lbs could wield so much power over me. (But I am, and I do, and, believe me, he can!).
At the risk of sounding arrogant, I’ll close with this: I have never been a better person that I am now. I have never been more understanding. I have never been more open-minded. I have never been more accepting, forgiving, or empathetic. I really don’t care if you had a hospital birth or a homebirth. Or if you use cloth diapers or disposables. Or if your baby lives in a Moby wrap or an exer-saucer. I’m on the other side now. I’m a mother. I get it. We’re all tired and doing our best. We all love our babies and know them better than anyone else out there. Maybe I am a tad less passionate about some things than I used to be as a result of “walking the walk,” but I am certainly more COMpassionate. That’s a great trade off, if you ask me.