My son turns 12 years old today.
He enters middle school this year. He has changed so much, grown up, and sometimes my heart aches when I see how far he’s come. How far we’ve come together as a family.
The below post has nothing to do with writing, but on being a mother. It is my own personal indulgence on this special day. I wrote this essay when my son turned nine weeks old; a spoof on dealing with motherhood along with intense revelations I felt so long ago. I thought it would be nice to revisit the past and the woman I was when I held my first baby in my arms.
Happy birthday, Jake.
I hope you enjoy!
I am a new mother.
This statement has been met in a variety of different ways. From the single person who has never experienced children or birth, I usually receive a halfhearted smile, a nod of congratulations, and soon disinterest. From a woman who already has children, the smile is sympathetic, the good wishes are sincere, and the advice is a whole barrage of entwined quotes from baby books and personal experience that usually leaves me more confused than I have ever been. And when I announce this statement to another new mother, her face lights up with excitement and worry as we stumble over one another in an attempt to try and make light of what has just happened to us and if we will ever be able to maneuver this rocky path with no marked signs alone.
I have never wanted any children, and when I was little, would proudly state to my own mother that I intended to be an independent career woman. I longed to be a writer and a top notch executive, jetting off to exotic business locales while meeting fabulous men across the country. She shook her head and hoped I would grow out of it. I never did.
I forged through until my mid-thirties, alone but feeling satisfied with my life until I met a man who turned my world upside down. He was not particularly fabulous in any clear cut sort of way, but he had a wonderful laugh and sparkling brown eyes and a kindness that radiated from him. I became hooked and left the single life behind without regret. He always wanted children, and I remained undecided, but with a new support system and a man I truly loved, I began to carefully consider the alternatives and a battle plan if we did decide to have a child. I toyed with the options in a half-hearted sort of manner until one day fate stepped in and gave me no other choices.
The doctor confirmed. I was pregnant.
Millions of women go through pregnancy on a daily basis, but I believed I was the exception to every rule. Panic ensued in all manners of my life. My pregnancy would be difficult; my labor would be horrifying; I did not know how to change a diaper or pick up a baby properly; I would hurt this little creature that came into the world, dependent only on me. As my belly grew, I lay night after night and imagined the different scenarios that would enfold in this new life of mine, listening as my husband peacefully snored beside me. Then it hit me. Books. There were plenty of baby books out in the world, all written by experts who had done this before and knew the right path. My heartbeat slowed as I nodded to myself in the dark and grew calm. Yes, I would buy all the books and gather all the information needed to deal with this new human being who was setting my life awry. I composed a battle plan of issues I needed to research, questions I needed answered, and the exact time tables I needed to follow.
I haunted the library, the internet, and the bookstore. Soon, piles of pregnancy and baby books lined the tables, counters, bookshelves. My husband eagerly dived into help me and praised my brainstorming. We would not be uneducated, confused parents. We would rise to the occasion from our literary backgrounds and conquer this new world with ease and grace and a smile on our faces.
Our son arrived.
Looking back, I realize the actual birth experience should have been a warning to the reality of book knowledge. My husband and I were like the ultimate tag team during labor. He read the contraction intensities on the monitor and coached me appropriately through the proper breathing techniques. We had our focal point and our visualizations mapped out. We knew every machine in the room, what dilation and effacement of the cervix meant, and exactly the proper time to request an epidural for the pain. Then the pushing began. My body bore down with all the strength left in me, teeth gritted, sweat dripping down my brow, I let out one long wail and my son’s head emerged. The sweet sound of his cries filled the room. As I gasped for breath, my husband cut the umbilical cord and laid my baby’s naked body on my chest. We had talked many times about the importance of the bonding process, so I was prepared to feel a sense of pride, accomplishment, and a tidy sort of love for my first child. Overwhelmed by fatigue and a rush of strong, messy emotions, my gaze found his. The crying ceased, and silence rushed over the room as we looked at one another for the first time. Time stopped. Recognition dawned on both of our faces, almost as if we were both relieved to finally meet face to face. Then we both promptly burst into tears.
The hospital stay was a whirlwind of guests, and late night feeding, recovery, and mad scrambles to the bathroom to apply makeup in order to hide my battered face. I greeted a sea of faces with smiles and held my baby up like a war medal I attained, nodding at the appropriate oooghs and aaghs of the crowd. I shared my labor story with girlfriends in dramatic fashion, talking in detail of long needles and searing pain while propped up on pillows in my new sunny yellow pajamas. I handed my beautiful newborn over to the nurses at night, and finally slept now that I no longer had a large pregnant belly.
We took him home on a cold winter morning in February. I realized then that I had not practiced feeding him on my own, dressing, or changing him and hurriedly went to the stack of information neatly laid out with clearly marked pages in pink highlight.
Diapering: frequent changing is the best way to avoid irritation and diaper rash on baby’s sensitive bottom. To ensure a change for the better whenever you change your baby’s diaper do the following: Have all equipment on hand including clean diaper, rash ointment, change of clothes. Wash hands. Have baby entertainment available for ease. Spread a protective changing cloth on the table. Never leave baby unattended. Follow diaper manufacturer directions. Dispose of dirty diaper in a sanitary fashion. ((Eisenberg, Murkoff & Hathaway, 79).
My husband and I followed the directions with smugness, already anticipating the ease of our first task. As soon as I removed my son’s diaper, a spray of urine hit me directly in the face, bounced off the nursery wall, and soaked his outfit. Then he opened his mouth and wailed so loud we were sure we had damaged him permanently by the experience. Knowledge drained away as we scrambled to clean up the mess, rip off his clothes, clean each other up, and struggle to gain back our footing. When we had quieted him, my husband and I grouchily agreed we should write a letter to the editor, because nowhere in the reading material did the author warn that a newborn penis is a dangerous weapon.
Sleep deprivation was the most important factor to consider with a baby. “The typical infant has both the natural ability and the capacity to sleep through the night sometime within the first nine weeks of life. It is an acquired skill which is enhanced by routine. (Ezzo & Bucknam, 55). Sleep props must be avoided. Rocking a baby to sleep, nursing, or sleeping with the baby are three items to be avoided. This way, a baby will learn to fall asleep on his own without the dependence of an outside factor. (Ezzo & Bucknam , 56).
It seemed after reading all the details regarding sleep props, sleeping with your newborn was definitely the most negative. “Sharing sleep with children puts them at risk both physically and emotionally. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, bed sharing may actually increase the risk of SIDS.” (Ezzo & Bucknam, 57). I heard of many women who told me it was not against the rules to occasionally bring a baby into bed for naptime. I nodded my head in agreement but silently criticized such a decision. I would never put my baby at risk for anything. By following the experts, I would race ahead of all the other mothers.
Until the night I was up with my son for hours while my husband snored beside me. By the time that afternoon crawled in, I felt drunk and woozy from lack of sleep and the crying that rang in my head. Desperate, I snuck into my own bed under the covers and brought my son in with me. I told myself I would just rock him in my arms for a while so I could lay my head upon the pillow and try to rest. Within minutes he was asleep. I looked at the bassinet that seemed so far away, and knew in my heart if I tried to move he would awaken. I closed my eyes and inched my way down into bed until my son was cradled comfortably in the crook of my arms. Just a few minutes, I thought. Just enough to get me through the rest of the day.
My husband came home from work to find us sleeping together in the king size bed. We had napped for four hours.
I dealt with his vocal criticism of the situation and how we had talked about “sticking to the plan.” I grumbled under my breath that the plan was not working very well, and nowhere in the books did it say a mother could become dangerous to her child from lack of sleep and general crankiness.
Still, I agreed with my husband and we were intent on establishing a proper routine from the first day home, including structured naps, feeding time, and playtime. Of course, we realized the books did not include knowledge that was essential to the new parent. Nowhere did the print state that guests, family and friends stop by for visits unannounced and call all day long. I expected to be sore and a bit tired, but never expected the crushing weariness, pain, and general feeling of being overwhelmed to intrude on every waking hour. I experienced bouts of weepiness and depression as I grieved my old life. I used to be an independent career woman. Now, I watched as my husband trotted off to work and days passed by without leaving the house. I became imbedded in a cocoon of babyland – winter storms raged against the windows and people continued their routine, but my life revolved around diapers and bottles and crying jags and baby talk.
When my husband came home one day to find me in the rocking chair, staring vacantly at the wall, he raced to the stack of books. Baby blues: “Roughly one half of all new mothers complain of weepiness, unhappiness, anxiety, and mood swings during the first week or so after delivery. This bout of “baby blues” is probably related to the precipitous drop in estrogen and progesterone after childbirth, and usually clears up within a few days, though some women find it comes and goes over the first six weeks.” (Eisenberg, Murkoff & Hathaway, 545).
Immediately, my husband was relieved, and came to tell me the good news. I nodded my head and noted I did feel better knowing I was a statistic and not going insane, though I began to get my first indication that I was starting to hate that pile of books and their neat black type.
We agreed pacifier use was another prop we wanted to avoid. “The more accustomed they become to a particular source of comfort, the more difficult it becomes for them to do without it. If you don’t want to run into the problems that may later be associated with pacifier use, now is an ideal time to make a break. (Eisenberg, Murkoff & Hathaway, 177).
One evening, my son would not stop crying. After changing, burping, walking, talking and feeding him, a strange thing began to happen. We literally began to go insane. My vision blurred into a fog – my ears rang with the shrill, high pitched screams that emitted from my son’s perfect, sweet mouth. My nerves sharpened and cut like razors and I came to the conclusion that the books never said a baby’s cry is so painful to the ears, one may jump out a window and run away screaming after three hours of nonstop cries.
Desperate and out of options, I tore through my drawers packed with medicine and miscellaneous equipment I received from my baby shower. My gaze fell upon the pacifier and I ran to the crib. I shoved it into his mouth and held my breath.
I wept with relief and when my husband opened his mouth to protest, I shot him such a glare he immediately shut it. I hurriedly brought out all the pacifiers I had collected, sterilized them, and lined them up on the nursery vanity. That night, I fell asleep and said a prayer to God for creating such a wonderful object.
The second month a baby should be able to smile in response to your smile. If a baby has not reached such a milestone yet, the pediatrician may be called because in rare instances there may be a problem. Other times, it could be perfectly normal. (Eisenberg, Murkoff & Hathaway, 140).
Each week, my husband and I would read up on the facts, highlight a chart, and make sure our son was meeting his goals in an acceptable manner. We began to look for his smile and worked hard at emitting his response. We cooed, we clapped, we spoke in high tones, we smiled and laughed, we tickled his belly.
Our son would stare into our faces with a serious look on his face that made me believe he thought we were crazy. Upset with his lack of response, I struggled about whether to call the doctor but stopped at the last minute just in case she would begin to refuse our calls and we would be in trouble if it was really something serious. We talked about the issue and decided to wait it out. If by the time we brought him to the doctor he hadn’t smiled, we would bring it up with our pediatrician.
I was nursing my son the other day. The early morning light streamed through the windows, illuminating his face. I hummed to him as we rocked together in the stillness, enjoying the sound of birds outside the window and the peaceful silence that gathered around us like a warm fuzzy blanket. I studied his features, memorizing the pout of his mouth as he sucked, the curve of his chipmunk cheeks, the high forehead that sloped into baldness now that he lost his hair. He concentrated on his breakfast with a fierceness that brought a smile to my lips. When he finished, I burped him and laughed as a loud manly burp emitted from his mouth. I laid him back down in my arms and cooed to him as I reveled in those minutes where mother and son were so closely bonded and there were no words needed.
Then he smiled.
His face lit up like a thousand rays of light shimmered on a perfect diamond. His eyes filled with happiness and joy as he gazed into my face, and a tiny giggle emerged into the silence of the room. The sound rose to my ears like the flapping of birds wings in the early morning dawn.
My heart filled and broke in my chest. It hurt to breathe – the love I had for this precious little boy pumped through my body and exploded around me, and I realized I would never be the same. Nor would I want to. My life was a new chapter filled with fear, uncertainty, and an array of messy emotions that made me all too human. And suddenly, the lesson was finally learned.
There are no books to describe the sheer love and devotion for a child. I had thought to simplify such emotions by making calendars and plans and gathering cold, hard facts to make life less messy. But as he smiled up at me with pure adoration in those wide blue eyes, I knew I needed no more books, no more expert advice to raise my son.
I had forgotten the most important fact of all. Time. Every day is precious with a newborn. I made the mistake of racing ahead, plotting his milestones, worrying about infractions instead of enjoying every moment he gave me. There would be many mistakes made along the way, but they would be my mistakes, out of love for him, and good intentions. There would be fear, but it was my fear, from my own personal growth, and I would share that terror with my husband, and my son, because it was real.
He turned nine weeks old last night. I remember holding him in my arms as he looked around at the world with eyes that registered surprise at each new object he viewed. I held him close to my breast and thanked God with my very last breath for allowing me to guide this child into the world. He would never be nine weeks old again. He would never have his first smile, or laugh, or cry ever again. But there was so much more ahead every day – his first step, his first taste of solid food, his first word. I did not want to miss one moment by studying books or making my own judgments. I decided to enjoy and revel in every milestone, and every mistake we made along the way, because this was a one shot deal and I did not want my eyes or mind or heart closed for a minute. My son had broken me and made me anew. I thanked him for that in those moments.
I gathered all the books and neatly stacked them in the bookcase, tucked away . I told my husband we would raise him on our own terms, in our own way, and by claiming him as ours we would have more joy than we ever thought possible.
The world teaches everyone to focus on the future, and goals, in order to be successful. What the world does not remind us that our lives are made up of moments, millions of them, and we should seize each one with greediness, like a starving dog pouncing on his first meal, and relish whatever that particular moment holds. This is what are lives are about.
This is what my son has finally taught me.
I was reading a book this morning by a writer who had a newborn son and wrote her journal for him the first year. It was not a book recommended by doctors or the American Pediatric Society, but as I read these words, I nodded in recognition, from mother to mother.
“One thing about Sam, one thing about having a baby, is that each step of the way you simply cannot imagine loving him any more than you already do, because you are bursting with love, loving as much as you are humanly capable of—and then you do, you love him even more.” (Lamott, 187).
Eisenberg, Arlene, Murkoff, Heidi, E. & Hathaway, Sandee, E. What to Expect the First Year. Workman Publishing: New York, 1996.
Ezzo, Gary & Bucknam, Robert. On Becoming Baby Wise. Multnomah Publishers Sisters: Oregon: 1998.
Lamott, Anne. Operating Instructions: A Journal of My Son’s First Year. First Anchor Books: New York, 1993