Coming up to the birth of my second child has been reminding me again of all the things you forget later about newborns (kind-of like school, you tend to keep the good memories). Then I came across some points I’d written down when Little Miss was tiny, when having a newborn was a complete culture shock to me.
Okay, sure, I’d figured there would be some sleepless nights, and that the baby would cry sometimes. But really, deep down I had some image of a mother in complete tune with her baby. I’d keep up with working from home during my baby’s predictable and serene naptimes; I’d still go for occasional nights out as long as I left some expressed milk with my partner; I’d happily let my partner have nights out in turn; I’d take the baby with me when I went shopping or visiting friends, no problem.
I don’t want to sound negative about having a newborn. It just took adjusting to – and not everyone has the same experience. But I wish I’d known some things that might have made it less of a shock beforehand.
Such as, that you don’t necessarily bond with your baby the moment it’s placed in your arms, especially after a stressful labour; everyone else can tell you how beautiful she is, but you may be too tired and wiped and drugged to see what they’re seeing. Even when bonding comes, you don’t immediately understand every cry and what it means – in fact, it can take weeks, and even then some cries can blend together and be confusing.
I wish I’d known not to take it personally when everyone else was able to hold my baby without her crying, except me. “She’s just smelling your milk,” everyone said. I wish I’d also known not to take it personally when my partner, who had more experience with babies, seemed better with her than I did. I wish I’d known that the “baby blues”, that hit about day three and lasted for a few weeks, could be more debilitating than just feeling a little down. I wish I’d known that I would wake up with panic attacks some mornings, overwhelmed with responsibility, and feeling like perhaps she was better off with just her father, that I would only damage her inadvertently somehow, physically or emotionally. I also wish I’d known I only had to ride the feelings out, and that they would pass (with the help of placental pills).
I wish I’d taken advice to spread visitors out, so that I wasn’t overwhelmed all day, every day, from right after the birth until a few weeks, when it suddenly tapers off and you feel alone. I wasn’t prepared for the feeling of a roomful of people watching avidly as I learnt to breastfeed, until I came to dread it, fumbling awkwardly and botching latch-ons and exposing nipples. The two weeks my partner took off work after the birth, instead of being spent on us bonding as a family, were spent with a full house. Some visitors were a pleasure to be around and were helpful; others needed entertaining that I just wasn’t up to. I discovered that too many visitors in the early days affects bonding, as it can start to feel that everyone wants to hold your baby when it’s happy or sleeping, and the only time you actually get to is when the baby is crying or hungry, leaving you feeling like a resentful milk bar. I wish I’d known that sometimes the friends and family you expect to be helpful, aren’t, and the ones you least expect to are the ones that step up.
I wish I’d known that breastfeeding classes beforehand would have been a good idea. I wish I’d known that midwives are often too rushed and harried to show you the correct way, which leads to poor latch-ons and hurt and a feeling that you’ll need to quit. I learnt that lactation consultants and breastfeeding clinics are a godsend. I learnt that pure lanolin on sore, damaged nipples works wonders, more so than any other ointments. I learnt that a good breastfeeding cushion can be amazing for your back.
I wish I’d known how much my social life would be impacted. I wish I hadn’t waited the recommended 6-8 weeks before expressing (supposedly to avoid nipple confusion), by which time Little Miss was too used to the boob and refused a bottle, meaning that I could never go out at night for months. I learnt that accepting this and other life changes rather than despairing over them was hard but worth it. I learnt to live by the mantra, “One day at a time,” and realise that although those early days can seem to last forever, they are in fact actually short. I learnt to let go of any expectations.
I wish I’d known that sleep deprivation wasn’t just the case of an odd sleepless night, but getting up for feeds every couple of hours. That even when Little Miss started to go longer between feeds and appeared to be sleeping almost through the night (yay), she would regress during periods of physical and mental development and become a howling banshee several times a night (boo). I learnt that with a baby, progression is not linear, but can feel like two steps back to every three forward. And during the day, advice like “sleep when the baby sleeps” only works when you haven’t got a million things running through your mind, and you can let go of the guilt of undone housework. That plate didn’t need cleaning anyway, you only used it once. Or twice. Per day. For a week.
I wish I’d known that not every baby will sleep contentedly in the pram, in the car, or on your friend’s couch. They can get excited by new places, get overstimulated and overtired, and fight sleep like they’re afraid there’ll be no tomorrow if they close their eyes. I discovered that babies trying to sleep in the car don’t understand why you stop at red lights. I discovered that driving on sleep deprivation really can be worse than driving drunk.
I wish I’d known how to handle advice from people sooner. That some advice is asked-for, delivered kindly, and followed with, “But do what works for you.” But other advice is very strong and in-your-face, sometimes even dangerous to the physical or emotional health of your baby, and that you don’t have to feel obliged to take it just because the person is sitting right there, staring at you expectantly. I learnt that too much advice stops you feeling your own way. I learnt to do what felt right for me rather than listen to “making a rod for your own back” type statements. I learnt that nothing is worth distressing my baby for a second just because someone else thought it was “good advice”.
I also wish I’d known how to handle complete strangers coming up and telling me what I was doing wrong. (I finally discovered that cultivating an “eff-off, I’ve got this, okay” face works wonders.)
I wish I’d known that no matter how exhausted and time-poor you are, taking the time each day to have a shower (even if you have to switch from morning to night showers) and to get out of PJ’s into clothes when the day starts can make a massive difference to your mental state. Even though baby brain continues after pregnancy and you may find yourself perfectly dressed out somewhere, but with bunny slippers on. Or continually leaving either your wallet or purchase behind in shops, unable to remember both at the same time.
I wish I’d known to wait till after the baby was born to buy or ask for certain items. I learnt that some things you think will be essential, aren’t. I wish I’d known that no amount of cute clothes are worth the struggle of trying to get them on a screaming newborn, and that it’s zip-up suits all the way.
I wish I’d known that you can plan on being a certain type of mother and have to completely change ideals. You might want to be an “earth mother” type who wears baby in a sling and co-sleeps, only to have a baby that prefers the pram and its own space at night.
But I was also surprised by other emotions. The joy of discovery and imitation – when your newborn first discovers they can make sounds if they try to imitate your mouth movements, or that they can touch things with their hands, and how delighted you feel along with them.
I learnt that you can sometimes secretly wonder if you should have become a mother at all, only to realise that without hesitation you would give your life for your baby’s, and wonder how something so small can inspire such a powerfully primal response.
I also wish I’d known the power of a smile, that there is no defence against it. When after a broken night’s sleep, your baby wakes to see your face, and smiles, and all is forgiven. When after mauling your nipples, your baby looks up and smiles, and all is forgiven. When they won’t fall asleep in their bassinette, but you have to rock them for well over an hour, exhibiting patience when all you want to do is scream, and just before they drift off, they look at you and smile as if to say, “I know you’re keeping me safe. I trust you. I love you.” And all is forgiven. And even though you have been waiting for the moment they drop off to sleep so that you can get some shut-eye too, you stay awake for ages, gazing at their suddenly-angelic and peaceful slumber face in awe.
(And one day you will forget the exhaustion and tears of the newborn stage and be one of those people that aggravates new mothers by saying, “Oh, newborns are easy! All they do is eat and sleep.”)