When Will and I were dating, we ran into a girl he went to high school with one night at dinner. Actually, us “running into her” isn’t accurate. She literally bounced over to us, spring in her step and sparkle in her eye as she carried a tiny baby in a car seat to our table. “Oh my God!” I squealed. “How old is she?”
“I had her on Wednesday!” she beamed.
I sat slack jawed.
“Wednesday?!?” I squealed again. “Like, this Wednesday?? How are you even out and about and functioning already??”
She looked at me with a mixture of confusion and amusement – “Am I just supposed to stay home?” She laughed heartily, her eyes twinkling like it was the funniest thing she had ever heard. She was vibrant and joyful and look how amazing it is to be a mommy! Look how easy! Look at how her life hadn’t changed in any way but for the better!
Fast forward five years.
The first night home Will thought she sounded stuffy. Full red-alarm panic set in immediately. Of course, of course. The ONE THING I didn’t get was a nasal aspirator. My mom told me they would give me one at the hospital. They didn’t and I didn’t think to ask.
Frantic calls to our parents. Will’s mom and dad came over in record time with not one, not two, but three nasal aspirators of different shapes and sizes. Frantic call to Ask-a-Nurse. “They are going to tell us to come in to the hospital,” I wailed, pacing around the living room, “That’s what they always say.”
The nurse did everything in her power not to laugh at us. “Do we need to bring her to the hospital?” Will asked, his voice a little shaky. NO, she said, and I picture her now stifling a smile, You definitely don’t have to bring her in.
We had the pack n play set up on Will’s side of the bed. We swaddled her as we had learned, as we had practiced on plastic baby dolls in our birthing class. We set her down gently and climbed into bed, for the first time since I woke up at midnight to pee several days before and after noticing I was bleeding realized labor was probably just around the corner. I don’t know how long I lasted with her on his side of the bed. Five minutes? Two? Maybe 30 seconds? I sat straight up and told Will there was just absolutely no way I could sleep with her that far away from me. She had to be by my side.
Moving bedroom furniture at 2 am, midnight, 3 am, I have no idea what time it was. It was late.
She broke out of her swaddle in seconds. It was clear to me she was way, way, WAY too small to be in that big ol bassinet. It just looked wrong to my new mama eyes. She squirmed and made little noises and I cried because I was exhausted and cried because I was in pain and cried because I didn’t want to leave her two whole feet away from me and cried because all of a sudden I hated the dark and wanted the sunshine back and cried because I had no idea what I was doing and cried because neither did Will and cried because of hormones and because of something even deeper than exhaustion, because of desperately craving the comfort of NOT THIS MOMENT.
We eventually moved her to the swing in the living room. That was the first and only time she ever fell asleep in her swing. I lay on the couch next to her crying and feeling like I was being mentally tortured. I scrolled my phone about the safety of letting your child sleep in a swing. NO. It said. SIDS. It said. NOT SAFE. It said. I cried and cried some more and didn’t let myself fall asleep – marking over 72 hours with not a moment of rest. Not only that, but 72 hours including ten of the most physically grueling hours I had ever experienced.
I wore a mustard yellow sweatshirt to her first doctors appointment. It was snowing. Snow in April? Of course. Of course snow storm in April. Of course snow storm this day. I tried putting on my old winter coat, the pre-baby one. It barely zipped and I was humiliated. Because 4 days post-partum I should be back to normal. I wore it anyway, even though it was uncomfortable, as a point of pride. Put on yoga pants because I was not being caught dead in maternity jeans after I was clearly no longer maternity. I called my mom and said something along the lines of I can’t do this. She arrived promptly as soon as we got home that morning with a brand new, smaller bassinet and told us to go to bed. We did.
We decided to walk to the grocery store one day, the air was already dry and heating up. I had a sticky layer of sweat covering my body when we returned home. On the way I smelled the scent of dog shit baking in the sun. It felt like a metaphor in some way. We rented Django from the RedBox, something to get us through the night. Something to look forward to in that vacuum of darkness and sleep deprivation that we knew was coming. That night we watched it and I thought, not the right choice right now, for me. I held her in the dark as we watched violent murder scenes on our TV. I felt numb. And scared. Not because of the movie. Because of life.
I woke up on my birthday with a sore throat, aching body, nausea and fever. My boobs felt like they were going to literally explode. I cried. I was alone, with her. She wasn’t even a month old yet. Happy birthday, I thought. This is your life now.
These are my most vivid memories from the first couple months. When I try painstakingly to recall rushes of oxytocin or moments I cried because I was just so happy or times when someone said “isn’t this the best thing in the whole world?” and I said “YES” with gleaming eyes – I come up with nothing. I come up with the memory of the dog shit baking in the sun and the mustard yellow sweatshirt and the sense of complete doom that descended with sunset.
I don’t know how to explain it, and I’ve since stopped trying. I’ve got a list of possibilities, excuses, explanations. I had a traumatic birth. I was severely sleep deprived. I am prone to anxiety. My whole life as I knew it was flipped upside down and inside out in a matter of hours. This was a surprise pregnancy. I am a perfectionist, an introvert, someone who doesn’t do well with change.
I look at Facebook and wonder – was it only me? Then I think about my own Facebook and think, nobody would have known. All I posted were the sweet sleeping pictures, or her wide awake and bright eyed and adorable. I wrote “So. In. Love.” on the post that introduced her to the world. But if we get really, really, really honest? “So. In. Love.” was sort of a lie. Yes, I loved her instantly – would do anything to keep her safe without the blink of an eye. Yes, I was in awe of her – when she was handed to me I couldn’t believe how absolutely perfect she was. Couldn’t believe those ridiculously long, curled lashes, the weight of her perfect little body in my arms. But no angels were singing. I loved her but I wasn’t in love with her, not yet. I was in shock. I was exhausted. I felt … nothing sometimes.
And maybe its not just me, maybe it’s the stories we tell ourselves, the stories society sells us about how we should respond to becoming a mother, having a newborn. The idea that there is one right story. One good story. One narrative that all good moms follow. That narrative being: LOVE the dog shit baking in the sun and the mustard yellow sweatshirt and the impending doom of sunset – because you’re a mom now. ENJOY the dog shit and the coat that won’t zip and the obsessively checking your phone about SIDS because one day YOU WILL MISS THIS. And doesn’t your insane, head-over-heels, deepest, truest, most beautiful love you have ever known make up for absolutely everything bad? You ARE experiencing that insane, head-over-heels, deepest, truest, most beautiful love you have ever known, AREN’T YOU? If not, its probably post-partum depression. If not, you need to talk to your doctor. Because that’s not the right story. Not for a good mom.
I don’t buy it anymore. I tend to get a little shouty about my post-partum story because I didn’t ever see it represented in our cultural narrative. Those first few months were not great. They were actually pretty awful. But life moved on. Things changed. I fell in love with her. I got to sleep again. I got used to being a work-at-home-mom. I got used to a life that was absolutely nothing like I had known previously. And that’s ok. Its ok that I wasn’t bouncing around at a restaurant a couple days post-partum glowing and carrying on with my amazing, perfect life. Its ok that the girl Will went to school with was doing those things. All the stories are valid. They all have beautiful points and sucky points. And they all have value and deserve to be told and respected.
In some weeks time I will be making new memories of a brand new baby. I am both optimistic and realistic. However, I do know I will be fiercely protective of whatever story I end up having. It will be my story and it will be just as valid as yours or as the old woman who selectively remembers only the rosiest of memories. I don’t think I’m going to be the girl bopping around the restaurant a couple days post-partum, but you never know. I may never enjoy the smell of baking dog shit, and that’s ok.