My first pregnancy was like a dream. Shiny hair, radiant skin, fruit salad cravings and beautiful, sentimental sonograms. I even made an album of all my sonogram pictures, coordinating with our wedding colors. If this was motherhood, I had nailed it. Yup, even peeing in my pants every now and again was all still magical. You couldn’t tell me otherwise. I loved being pregnant.
Then I gave birth — and it took me through one of the most challenging moments of my life. When my daughter was born, I knew that I was now responsible for someone else, but it took a while to feel that overwhelming maternal love that you’re “supposed” to feel. So a few days into having a newborn, I felt like I was messing up on the big “supposed to.” I was “supposed to” be head over heels in love with this child, right?
Everyone in my life kept telling me how lucky I was, so why was every thought of mine about how I’d gladly rip off my nipple rather than have to breastfeed anymore? Why was I obsessing over what would happen if I woke up one day and forgot the baby was there and just left the house? When were the loving thoughts going to begin? I was too worried about keeping her alive — in between figuring out how to nurse; when to sleep; what to eat; how much ice I could put down my pants; relearning how to sit down, pee, poop (those hemorrhoids are no joke); and, of course, how to include my parenting partner, aka my husband, in any of this.
Overwhelmed and stressed, with seven people visiting my tiny apartment the day I came home with the baby, I zoned out. I didn’t remember the last time I had brushed my hair. I was still wearing a Hulk-sized maxi pad that paired nicely with my gigantic nursing pads (with my mesh underwear holding it all up) and a nursing gown. My mom, who has an emotional radar that would rival military equipment, took one look at me and knew I was in trouble.
She sat me down, and in between sniffles, I said, “I just don’t know if I love her like I’m supposed to.” What she said next may be the reason that mothers have survived through these dark moments at all: “You have just given life, and you need to rest. You haven’t slept, you’ve barely eaten, and you’re trying to figure out how to keep this baby alive.”
And then she said the phrase that has stuck with me ever since: “You know, they use sleep deprivation as a form of torture.”
In that moment, I broke down and ugly-cried (but very gently so I wouldn’t burst a stitch or lose any of that liquid-gold boob juice). “Give yourself time,” my mom added. “Once you get past this newborn stage, you’ll see that you’ll love her more than you’ve ever loved anything before.”
I knew she was right, but at the time, I had no idea how I was ever going to feel normal again. I didn’t need to launch a start-up or run a marathon; I just wanted to know if I would ever wear normal clothes again or plan my life in longer than two-hour increments.
I wish I could tell you that after my ugly-cry on the couch, I instituted a routine, involved my husband more and actually slept — but that didn’t happen. I couldn’t bear the thought of handing my baby over to anyone, which meant I also signed myself up to do all the childcare. So here I was with a newborn, giant boobs, awkward nap schedules and a pile of laundry gearing up to become a total long-term train wreck.
But around six weeks later, something started to change. I started to change. Maybe I was finally sleeping for longer or maybe I had just finally figured out the nursing thing. My husband and I started to give our daughter a bottle of formula at night to give me a break (another one of my mom’s ideas). My husband could pitch in more now. I started going outside again to let the sun shine on my face. The visitors slowed to a trickle. I traded in the Noah’s Ark maxi pads for the more demure super-nighttime-deluxe-mega-ultra pads. I discovered new shows on Netflix, read all the crappy free romance novels on iBooks, sent emails to my boss and colleagues with baby pictures, and I even learned how to sit down again.
Most important, I found my mom tribe: the moms of the MOMally Parenting Facebook group. Thursdays at 10:30 a.m. at our local restaurant were sacred times. We sat together, eating overpriced omelets and sharing tales of those scary first few weeks and months. We laughed about the “shoulder shits” and listened as moms with older babies talk about starting solids (*insert Jasmine singing “A Whole New World” here*). We spoke about going back to work and how on Earth we would ever manage to sleep again. In varying quantities, we all had some baby bodily fluids on us at all times, but we didn’t care. This was my lifeline: My way out of what I now realize was some form of the “baby blues.” We were all lost, and yet somehow, we were all helping each other make it through.
As corny as this sounds, I found hope in that group. Hope that I would be a decent parent and that the raw, ugly, “I don’t know what I’m doing, and how do I raise another HUMAN BEING” emotions were more than OK; they were normal. It was OK not to feel this insane love for your baby from the start — and also to feel overwhelmed. It was normal to start crying out of nowhere but then stop because you might pee and then start crying again. It wasn’t a bad thing to want your old life back but also not be able to remember what that life was like in the first place.
I became confident that I would love my daughter more than anything I had loved before (mom was right again), even if I didn’t know it — or rather, was too sleep-deprived, overwhelmed and anxious to recognize that feeling. It was OK not to know what I was doing, and it was even more OK to tell other people that I didn’t know what I was doing.
And all the thoughts and feelings I had about who I was “supposed to” be as mother? It was OK to throw those in the trash with the smelly diapers. My fellow moms helped me see that.
Then, on my birthday, roughly two months after my daughter was born, she smiled at me — and I thought my heart would burst. I took a picture of her that day and realized it was a birthday for both of us. That night, I put on my “leave the house” clothes and got ready to go out to dinner. It was my first birthday as a mom, and I finally felt like one.