Becoming a mom nearly killed me. The first night with my baby was by far one of the worst experiences of my life. I was scared. Unsure. Alone. I was in the bathroom holding my baby while we both cried and I tried not to wake the people who lived above us. We took the advise of letting me co-sleep with the baby while my partner slept in another room so one of us (him) could stay sane. Great advise except when you’re a new mom and feel like you have no idea what you are doing with a baby. So to do that alone felt isolated and frankly, absurd in hindsight.
I didn’t know what babies did, what they acted like, or really what they needed. I was NOT a “baby person”. I also feel that generally I have been excluded from the intimate baby experiences around me because it has become customary in our closed-off culture to shut out others from the nitty gritty of budding nuclear family. Pregnancy is kept a secret among new parents at least until after the first trimester. Miscarriages are rarely talked about. Births are private matters… except that they typically involve the strangers in the hospital. And of course, post-partum emotional experiences are often not discussed.
In fact, I remember a really good friend of mine at the time had a baby and I didn’t even know about it for several days. Although I respect their decision to do so, it admittedly had a negative consequence on our friendship. To not be part of that experience made me feel distant and I’m not one to have distant relationships.
I hate exclusion and I yearn for openness of all kind. As a result, I share stuff that provokes some sense of uncomfortableness in others (and myself) by virtue of exposure. Writing about my postpartum experiences is an example of that.
My first 6 months postpartum were terrible and hard and shocking and more emotional than the sum of all life experiences before that. I cried A LOT! I cried more in one week than I probably have my entire life beforehand. I cried more than when I was depressed in grade 10 and more than when I was depressed having moved away from my home city of Winnipeg to St. Catharine’s, Ontario.
Sure, I can be positive and find lots of things that, now, I can look back at with love and laughter, but generally, it felt quite horrible while in the midst of it. To me, my life sucked.
One hardship was that my baby was born by cesarean, a fact that in many ways continues to haunt me. I know — and have heard a million times — that I should be grateful that modern medicine exists for these situations. Few women or babies die any more during child birth in developed and medicalized countries (like Canada). But there is a dark side to the hyper medicalized births too. The likelihood of Autism is higher in cesarean-born babies and there is a host of new research beginning to show how valuable the vaginal birth is for the integrity of the gut microbiom (i.e., gut bacteria). As a result of my cesarean, my baby became predisposed to circumstances that could seriously alter his life’s path. This thought tormented me. Cesarean birth is also associated with more difficulties breastfeeding. Fortunately, we breastfed together, easily, and lovingingly. In fact, I love breastfeeding and I do feel blessed to have that experience… now. I didn’t at week 3 when my breasts were cracked and raw and painful and I felt like my body was no longer my own.
My cesarean birth was hard and continues to be hard. Right after my baby was born, I wasn’t able to hold him skin-to-skin, like I wanted, like research and good wisdom suggests is very beneficial. Instead of coming to his mom as soon as he entered the cold, bright, different world, he went to a ventilator. Once he did come to me, he was taken away less than 10 minutes after because I began to throw up from all the surgery drugs. Luckily, he went to his dad, who was in the surgery room with us, for skin-to-skin. Thankfully. And that night, when we went to sleep, I couldn’t hold my baby and keep him close to me in my bed, also like good wisdom and research suggests. I was too drugged up on medications that alter sleep. And as valuable as co-sleeping and bedsharing are for an infant, it’s not advisable when intoxicated by drugs that alter your sleep. I couldn’t be trusted in my state so he slept with his Dad, who sat in a chair holding our baby for two nights. Thank god for my amazing partner, for my baby’s amazing dad. I can’t even begin to tell you how my heart felt when I woke up and looked over to see them together. My baby was safe. But still, he was not with me.
When we got home, I couldn’t do little things like sit or stand up with my baby in my arms. I had no abdominal strength and needed help getting up. I felt helpless, quite literally .If he was crying and I was laying down, I couldn’t get to him easily or quickly.
Of course, many say this is of little consequence given the potential alternative had there been complications during births. Only I will never know if there was a worse alternative. No one will. We took precautions instead. We (myself, my partner, my midwife, my doctor), we all made a best guess based on the available data (and statistics) and determined that a cesarean birth was a good idea… at the time. Maybe it was. Maybe it wasn’t. I’ll never know. And yet, there are still consequences to those precautions.
So that was hard…
Being home with a new baby was hard too. I didn’t know him at all. I was told “Just make sure he is eating, pooping, and peeing.” Well, he did all that, pretty much textbook style. So we were in the clear. But what else? What else did this baby want and need? Love? Of course. We gave him that. We surrounding him with that with all our family and friends who came to visit and help us. But what did this cry mean and that cry mean? He is fussing. Why? He feels hot. He feels cold. Is he breathing? Questions and questions with few answers.
That getting-to-know-each-other phase was uncomfortable for me. I don’t like not knowing. I didn’t approach it with curiosity like my yoga wisdom taught me. I was scared. Scared he was going to die from SIDS because that fear was instilled in me from a nurse at the hospital, from people around me, and from all the reading I did. I still wake up worried he’s not breathing and quickly place my hand on his chest to make sure I feel it moving. Still... at 16 months.
Breastfeeding was hard, emotionally. I love breastfeeding now, but I didn’t at first. I was not adapting well to having a new being attached to me. I felt incredibly uncomfortable and cried for my own space, literally. I felt trapped and still do sometimes. My nipples hurt a lot, but that’s not that unusual so I sucked it up. And I couldn’t go anywhere because at any moment he would cry and need to eat. Breastmilk digests quickly so newborns need to eat every 2 hours. Sometimes every hour for an hour. And sometimes they pretend to eat but are just laying there because it’s so damn cozy and by then an hour or two has passed and it was time to eat again. Urgh!! I just wanted some space!!
Now… and only recently… I can look back and laugh and love at this. At the time, I felt like I had no life, no body, no control of my own. Because I didn’t! Nothing was my own. Even my brain was tethered to him. I couldn’t engage in any kind of activity that I use to find pleasurable, like writing, or teaching, or coaching. I remember going for orientation at the University of Guelph-Humber, where I newly began to teach when my baby was just shy of 3 months. There was this amazing lecture by the president. I felt myself getting so inspired. But quickly, I felt something grab a hold of my brain and bring it back down to earth. There was no space for me to dream and aspire and fantasize. I had a baby, who was literally on the other side of the wall because he wouldn’t drink pumped breast milk and had to come to campus with me. He did that all term actually.
My brain was singly focussed on my baby, all souped up with the right mix of postpartum hormones like oxytocin. Smart design actually. I probably learned a lot more about the brain by observing it on hormones than through any one of my neuroscience degrees.
It wasn’t all bad. I know that. I did feel pretty bad but there were times along the way where I felt, “I got this!”. The clouds would part and I would see the light. Then the clouds would return and I would be devastated again. The waxing and waning was both good and bad. Good in that I knew the bad would change. But bad in that I knew the good would change too. Annica — impermanence. A lesson I keep learning over and over again.
Six months in and I knew this journey was still so much longer. Some people, including myself, have wondered if I had/have postpartum depression. From the Canadian Mental Health Association website:
“Signs of depression include feeling sad, worthless, hopeless, guilty, or anxious a lot of the time. Some feel irritable or angry. People lose interest in things they used to enjoy and may withdraw from others. Depression can make it hard to focus on tasks and remember information. It can be hard to concentrate, learn new things, or make decisions. Depression can change the way people eat and sleep, and many people experience physical health problems.”
Maybe. But more important is that these experiences are not uncommon, whether diagnosed or not. I know I’m not the only one who had a rough time with a new baby and who continues to have many rough days of feeling guilt, frustration, despair, and exhaustion, along with the other emotions of love and gratitude and compassion and kindness.
Except, before I had a baby I didn’t know that all of those could be present. I was naive and ignorant. I knew it was “hard” but I didn’t know what that meant. I hadn’t really seen anyone go through it. Many don’t talk about the negative. Often we get criticized if we do. We are told to be grateful. We are told to look at the positive. I GET IT!! But I also know that there is scientific evidence (and some of our common sense) that supports not suppressing these feelings. My life coach told me to write them down in a jar and that I didn’t have to share them with anyone. I just needed to give them a space to exist. Well, I do want to share them. That’s what I do! Because every damn time I share something people thank me for articulating exactly how they felt or they share with my their own experiences, which they have held voiceless for too long.
Maybe I needed to go through all of this craziness with a new baby and learn for myself. That’s probably true. But this felt like the biggest culture shock in the world and I can’t help but wonder what it would have felt like if I had participated more in other people’s experiences. What if others shared the good, the bad, and the ugly more. But we don’t. We are afraid of how we will look. We are afraid that we will feel like bad moms (or dads). We feel guilty for any negative thinking. Well, I don’t feel like a bad mom and I don’t feel guilty for having a shitty experience. I feel human.
I do feel guilty for spending 45 minutes writing this instead of working when my mom is upstairs looking after my baby. But my soul needed some nourishment and after months of ignoring my need to write my shit out, I feel a little bit better.