You picture it like this:
It’s a beautiful (insert season here) day and you’ve just come home from the hospital with your precious bundle. You’re smiling, your partner is smiling, the baby is sleeping peacefully in your arms. You spend x-amount of weeks home on maternity leave, enjoying the bliss of bonding with your first-born. Fresh-faced you take the baby for walks outside, basking in the beauty of nature. You nap when the baby naps, and after all, newborns spend the majority of the day sleeping, so you are well-rested. Baby is dressed in adorable outfits and maybe you have purchased some to match. You can do pretty much anything because the baby is SO good, SO easy. In fact, being a mother is just as wonderful as you had always imagined. The birds are chirping, the hills are alive with the sound of music, and the sun is shining out of your quickly-healed parts. What a picture-perfect beginning!
I don’t want to disillusion you, mom-to-be, but I’m going to go colloquial on you here- that shit ain’t real. Now I’m just one person, and maybe for someone, somewhere what I described above is true. For most of us, it’s not.
Don’t get me wrong, having a baby is beautiful. And there are perfect moments that make you feel all warm and fuzzy inside, and sometimes your world will be perfectly aligned with your former expectations. Given the chance, I’d go back and do every moment over again in a heartbeat. But that in no way, shape, or form translates to what I described above.
The truth of the matter is that there is absolutely nothing that you are going to read that is going to prepare you for motherhood in real life. But if you’re like me, you want to be prepared. If you today (or myself 13 months ago) were sitting next to me right now, I’d pat you on the back, smile at you, and tell you how cute that is.
Nevertheless, whether it be that idealism that is still beholden to you or if you seek a reality check, you’re going to keep reading. Because I survived year one, it’s all still very fresh in my mind, and I’m going to give it to you straight: the great, the horrible, and the hideous.
The First Week
Since my son had a non-traditional 17-day NICU-stay at the start, I’ll be honest in saying that our first week at home was delayed. And for the first two weeks while my C-section began to heal and I was adjusting to the tiny human in my life, I actually was getting amazingly full nights of sleep. But I’m going to count my little man’s first week home as our first week.
First of all, let’s talk about that sleep you so enjoyed.
Forget about it. It no longer exists.
Life is a blur. Newborns do not actually “sleep the majority of the time”. Because even if they sleep a lot, they are eating so frequently that the time in between seems like nothing. Yes, you absolutely should try to sleep when the baby sleeps. But ultimately, you probably won’t. Because until you’re used to all of baby’s little noises and movements, you are probably going to spend all night checking on him to make sure he’s breathing. It is amazing the physiological instincts that kick in when you become a mother. My guy was very restless in general when it came to sleeping anyway, but I swear that there is a legitimate sixth sense that spontaneously develops as soon as you give birth that keeps you attuned to baby’s every slight squirm or grunt. And when they are taking daytime naps, you still don’t want to sleep half of the time because you are going to want to snuggle that baby all day long and watch him breathe. Not because you are concerned this time, but because of the sheer wonder of it all.
You’re going to be so tired – a new level of tired that you have no concept of prior – that you aren’t going to know what day it is or whether you’re coming or going from a room. So drink all the coffee you didn’t drink while you were pregnant. Because you’re going to need it.
Next, let’s think about food.
I didn’t breastfeed. I never had any intention. All the power to the women out there who do the beautiful, natural thing that is breastfeeding, but it was not for me. I tried it for one day in the hospital – one day – and I knew it was not for me. It is a full-time job. It is hard, it is exhausting, it is frustrating. And I knew that I would not be sane if I did it any longer than that one day. So I bottle fed.
If you want to hear how “easy” bottle feeding is, go elsewhere. Is it convenient? Sure. Was it great that Dad could help? Heck yeah. But no matter what, your schedule revolves around what time the baby is eating, when did the baby last eat, when is the baby going to next eat, etc. When you are waiting for the bottle to warm up at 3am and the baby is crying and you’re running on an hour of sleep, it. is. not. easy. You know what else? The 20 bottles you received at the shower just might not be the ones the baby likes or needs, so you’re going to have to run out and purchase all new ones. You’re going to have to figure out which brand’s slow nipples are slow, and which ones are too slow. God damnit, you’re out of formula. You could’ve sworn that you still had enough when you were up two hours ago. How is it already time to eat again?
And you? You won’t even know if the last time you ate was this morning or yesterday. I used to scoff at moms who said, “I forgot to eat”. But let me tell you, ladies, that part is a real thing. It’s not because you’re so desperate to lose the baby weight that you are avoiding food. You just literally forget to eat because you are so tired that you don’t feel hunger anymore. Or you “just have to get this done” while the baby is sleeping, and before you know it, he’s up again and you’re thinking about feeding him, not yourself. And who has the energy to actually cook, anyway?
The First 3 Months
Summarily, things do get easier, but they call it the fourth trimester for a reason. It’s true that most of us are still walking around looking pregnant and wearing maternity clothes for a while. It’s true that you’re going to cry. Not being an emotional person to start with, I think that I probably wasn’t as weepy as stereotypical depictions, but the struggle bus comes with emotions. It’s inevitable.
Sleep deprivation is a real form of torture. I vividly remember trudging around, bleary-eyed and roaring about how I didn’t know how people chose to “do this” more than once. Luckily for us, it got better at about 11 weeks when my son actually did start sleeping for longer chunks of time at night. Please know that by longer chunks of time I mean that I was getting maybe a solid 4-5 hours. So around the end of the 3 months, I started to feel somewhat human.
On the same subject, and tying into eating, do yourself a favor: feed. your. baby. I’m not a doctor and you should listen to yours. But I’ll tell you right now, a hungry baby is a cranky baby in the middle of the night. A well-fed baby is a sleepy baby. I would read the message boards of the app I was involved in, on which moms were questioning if feeding their baby 2-3 ounces per feeding was too much. And then in the next thread they would be questioning what they could do to get their babies to sleep longer.
Gee, I don’t know. Maybe try feeding them? I definitely listened to my doctor because as a new mom you want to do right by your child. But you have to use some common sense too. Doctors are worried about childhood obesity and so they have a general set of guidelines that they have to advise you to stick to, but if your kid is hungry, FEED HIM. You’ll all be happier for it.
One of the most welcome, most challenging parts of the first few months is (if you have huge families like we do) the overwhelming amount of visitors. If you’re anything like me, you are going to feel endless gratitude for seeing new faces and having other adults to talk to and also the desire that everyone would just go home, in equal measure. You want company, you want to show off your little angel-baby, but you also are just. so. tired. You feel like your house is unkempt, you don’t know when the last time you showered was, and you have suitcases under your eyes.
Maybe, just maybe, if you’re like me, you also are terrified of the germs that your visitors may bring to your fragile little person. You dread the necessary insistence on hand-washing and sanitizing before holding the baby that some people just don’t have the common sense to think of themselves. You feel the need to put on airs that everything is just perfect because you don’t want others to worry about you, or worse, judge you. You also feel like while you could use a break, you want the baby to yourself and all the visitors are infringing upon your time with him. It’s a delicate balance between appreciating the love and support and needing some space. The bottom line is that you can’t be afraid to open your mouth to stand up for what you want, or to say no, we are not having visitors today. Because it is okay to do that too. Your house, your baby, your rules.
I spent much of the first three months questioning everything and feeling like a failure. My son was very gassy and uncomfortable much of the time. It felt like the only time he was content was in my arms for a while. I would put him down to nap, sure, but it didn’t seem to last very long. I kept thinking that I must be doing something wrong. It was overwhelming, and even though I had a great, big support system to fall back on, I felt like I shouldn’t depend on anyone else. Yes, I did get over myself and accept help, but it wasn’t easy. Your body has been through hell, you can’t drive for the first six weeks (when you have a c-section) so you can’t really get out of the house much, you have a tiny, helpless human that depends on you for everything, and you’re trying to navigate a brand-new world. It’s easy to spiral. But you have to remember that women have been going through the same thing for thousands of years, and they’ve gotten through far worse. And you also have to look around at the women who have multiple children and realize that if they’ve done it more than once, it can’t be so bad in the end.
As the months pass and baby begins to do new, fun things like coo and play and find his fingers, you do get to have a lot of fun. You will find new things to be amazed about every single day. Every time you look at your baby, you will love him more. It will get easier to get back into a routine and you will get to leave the house. It’s important to make time to find some semblance of yourself and of your relationship. Go out with some friends. Go on a date with your significant other. You will miss that baby like crazy while you are gone and you will look forward to going home, but it is healthy to do something besides be a mom- yes, especially in those first few months. My husband and I went to a Red Sox day-game when our son was about 6 weeks old. We talked about him the entire time we were gone and we both couldn’t wait to get back to see him, but it also let us bond over something other than discussing diapers and feeding. It let us feel like “us” again, to let us spend time with each other aside from in passing (my husband had no paternity leave and we slept in shifts early on so that we actually could get some rest, which often meant we didn’t really see each other). It’s important. Make the time.
Another fun fact? You could never have predicted how many of your conversations with your significant other will revolve around poop. You will discuss bowel movements so many times a day – in detail – that it will be your main topic of conversation. You will be an expert on every size, shape, and color and know exactly what is normal and what is alarming. You will get up close and personal, and become a real poop-analyzer. You’ll now discuss poop with your friends like you are an 8-year-old boy on a playground, and you won’t bat any eye. Welcome to motherhood.
The Back-to-Work Stage – 4-6 months
I know, I know. Everyone goes back to work at varying points, and some do not go back at all. I, for one, had to go back to work when my son was 5 months old. When I went on maternity leave, I had hoped that by some miracle we would find a way that I could stay home, but it just wasn’t possible. For me, going back to work was just about as hard as the newborn stage. The separation anxiety was real. Having spent my days revolving around the sun that is my son, it was brutal having to be away from him for 7-8 hours of the day. I remember standing at the stove cooking dinner after one of my first days back, stirring a pot and just crying. I’m not a crier, so my husband wasn’t sure what to do with me. He asked me what was wrong, and I couldn’t even find the words. I was just feeling overwhelmed all over again, feeling guilty for missing out on so much being back to work, and missing him to the point of heartache. I think that the only words that I stammered were, “I’m just having a hard time”, because honestly I didn’t know how to explain what I was feeling. I felt like I had complained so much about how hard it was being with the baby in the beginning, and now all I wanted to do was go back to that. People at work are so kind; they ask you how you are doing being back to work. But you have to answer generically because on the inside you want to blubber, “I am not fine!!!!” and burst into tears.
On top of just the general yearning, my son still wasn’t really “sleeping through the night”. I qualified it as sleeping through the night because he wasn’t getting up for a bottle, but I had to go in his room literally countless times a night to give him his binky back, so I was up just as much or more than before. You see, it’s very cute when babies learn to roll over, but it is not so cute when they roll over in the middle of the night and then they are pissed that they can’t roll themselves back. Every time my son would roll in his sleep, he would partially wake himself up and I would have to go in and give him his binky. Thankfully, he would settle again rather quickly, so I really can’t complain that much. The bright side? At this point you really have just adjusted to functioning on little sleep. I never could understand before how people could get up and go to work not having slept, but it’s possible. You just do it.
Food gets to be a lot of fun. If you are not advised by one of these new-age doctors that doesn’t want you to feed your kid until he can walk, your baby will be trying cereal, fruits, and veggies. You will learn the proper technique for holding a baby with arms that move in involuntary directions and feeding him with a spoon without making a right mess out of it. Most likely you’ll be down to about four bottles a day, but feeding will still seem to be the gauge of your day. My weekends were (and probably still are) full of me saying, “Wow, time to eat again already?” That never seems to go away.
Every single blessed person you meet will want to give you unsolicited advice about some topic or other. Every single person will ask you if he is sleeping through the night. I hope for your sake (and the sake of the person asking!) that he is, or it can be a touchy subject. As far as the advice goes, you have to always be willing to listen to it, at least out of respect, but also because you never know when something useful will come along. Veteran moms have been through it all before you. They know what you’re doing, so you should listen. With that being said, taking everything in does not mean you need to follow the advice. People are always going to be shocked by what you do or don’t do. At this point in baby’s life, you’re going to start feeling confident enough to make your own sound judgements. When necessary, it’s also okay to politely tell someone to butt out or to not judge your parenting choices.
Seven Months to the Dreaded Year
At this point, if baby isn’t already sleeping through the night, he will be. You’re going to have a bedtime routine and it’s going to be one of your favorite parts of your day. For one, there is nothing better than rocking a snuggly baby to end your day. And for another, you’ll know at this point that you can count on some adult time before you yourself go to bed. It’s perfection to feel the weight of a sleeping baby in your arms, but it’s also nice to know that you are at the point in babydom where you can unwind. It’s also relieving that at this point, for the most part, you feel like you do not have to worry as much about if the baby is still breathing in the middle of the night. This also makes for a better night’s sleep.
Feeding gets continually messier as baby is able to eat more and more foods. It’s also helpful when he can hold his own bottle and you can now actually cook or eat simultaneously. Your floor will never be clean because you are always going to find bits of Cheerios or puffs on the floor. Add highchair and walker trays to your daily cleaning list; those will be in constant need of attention if your baby snacks all day like mine. Those tiny little hands that you feel like you just made will grasp bits of table food and baby will feed himself. He’ll be drinking from a sippy-cup and sharing his food with you.
Playtime is legit now; no more laying on a mat and swatting at things hanging in front of his face. Baby is most likely crawling around at some point during this time and can not only move himself to objects he wants, but also manipulate the objects themselves. You’ll find yourself on the floor more than you are off of the floor. You’ll sing along to the songs of musical toys by heart without even realizing you’re doing it. Even if you don’t make television a staple in your home, you will inevitably know all of the characters on the shows too.
BATTEN DOWN THE HATCHES. Do yourself a favor and babyproof your house BEFORE he goes on the move. Put locks on all your cabinets that baby can reach and put all of your outlet covers in. I staggeringly did so, and I am still trying to catch up. You want to make sure everything is safe before baby is pulling your Tupperware out of the cabinet and throwing it all over the kitchen. Trust me, learn from my mistakes.
Before you know it, a year will have gone by. I called it the dreaded year, because you’ll get to this point and realize that your baby isn’t really a baby anymore. Yes, it is a beautiful journey and I am so thankful to have a happy, healthy little boy, but it is shocking to the soul when you realize that they grow up. You are so caught up in the baby-ness for that first year that you forget that they aren’t going to be babies forever. You’ll get to the one-year mark, and you’ll spend so much time reminiscing and wishing to go back to do it all over again. All of the sleepless nights, all of the confusion, the unsurety, the crying. You’ll look back having survived the first year with pride and longing, and you will relive the moments in your mind over and over again.
You’ll find yourself in my position, looking back on that first year full of lessons learned, reflecting on how much wiser you now are (HA!). In a year or so from now, you’ll find yourself creating your own list of survival tips, ready to pass them on to the next brave soul who takes on the most important job in the world.
My Top 10 Tips for Surviving the First Year
- Accept help when it’s offered; ask for help when it’s needed
- Taking care of yourself is important too, so eat and shower
- Do what works for your family, regardless of what is “trending”
- Don’t be afraid to talk to your significant other about your struggles and again, ask for help if needed
- Listen to all the advice but only practice what you feel is right for you
- Be comfortable enough to say no to visitors if you’re too tired, too overwhelmed, or too anything else
- Get out of the house, get some fresh air
- Make time to do something fun with friends and/or your significant other starting early on
- Let some things go; you have the rest of your life to have a clean house
- Feel all the feels: you have permission to have any emotion and you don’t have to feel bad about having them