how i survived the first six weeks: a new mom's tale
Well, folks, it finally happened. My beautiful daughter is six weeks old today. Which means, based on what I've heard, that motherhood should be getting easier by the day. Time has flown by and her delicate five-pound frame has turned into an eight-pound bundle of lovable fat rolls and chubby cheeks. She's starting to make those entertaining cooing sounds that are darn-near laughs and is reaching high for the animals suspended from her play gym. Her smiles are "social" now, meaning she recognizes Mama and Daddy's faces and actually enjoys them and would like to communicate her enjoyment on purpose as opposed to only when she's queuing up an adorable toot or two. She loves kicking those chunky legs around and is an expert head-turner during tummy time. The bassinet is home to her near 4-hour nighttime sleep stretches - a win! And bath time? Oh, bath time has transformed from a time of absolute hell and screaming to one of tranquil zen and snuggles. And we've thrown in a post-tub dance party in her towel, just for good measure.
Six minutes into my scheduled 45-minute nap, she wakes herself up with what is sure to be the world's stankiest (yes, I made stankiest a word) Pamper, predicted solely based on the decibel level of that squirting noise coming from her bottom. No big deal, I think. I'm a pro diaper-changer and that diaper on her butt can handle ten times the damage. I pick her up. My hand is wet and sticky. And so is her adorable aden + anais swaddle blanket. Those sweetly stitched songbirds ain't singing any more.
Thirty minutes later, I'm on the phone with my husband, Delwin, sobbing. Why? Because she'd pooped - no DUMPED - in the diaper, through her clothes, through the blanket, onto my hand. And down her leg. And all over her back. And, inevitably, in her hair as I removed her onesie. And then she did it again. And again. And there was so much poop that the sink was almost not sufficient enough. And then she spit up all over herself, just for good measure.
My husband came home for lunch to prevent me from engaging in any tomfoolery that would jeopardize her or my well-being. I grabbed a box of tissue, headed downstairs, and turned on the single lamp in our guest bedroom. Then I sobbed without stopping for a long, long time.
This was just one more time added to the countless others when motherhood wasn't about squeezing cute fat rolls and basking in tranquil bath times and lounging during impeccable sleep stretches. This was the tough part, the drama, the hard-to-explain-to-other-people part when cries become too shrill to handle and diapers are more like detonators. These times try the mind, body, and soul. They test every single emotion and call into question one's sanity. They come before the questions "Why did we do this?" and "Can it be undone?" and stir up any and all previous counseling sessions you may or may not have paid for to get your control issues and your self-esteem to a mostly manageable place.
Believe it or not, six weeks goes by quickly with a newborn. And, yet, in certain moments, minutes feel like hours, and hours like days. So to all new moms out there, here's the little I know to be true and helpful. Just like everything else that has to do with parenting, this is a limited and incomplete perspective: Brooklyn is my first and only child; I'm taking twelve full weeks off of work for maternity leave to be at home with her; I haven't struggled with postpartum depression (yet); I have an incredibly supportive husband and immediate family; and, it's winter. So some of my insight may be more magnified by the fact that Brooklyn and I haven't been able to get outside for a nice warm stroll around our block. All that said, here's what I've found to be helpful tips for surviving the first six weeks of motherhood:
1. Cry if you want to. Having a baby set off every emotion I could think of: sadness as I mourned the loss of pure alone time with my husband and the ability to do seemingly easy things like go to a movie by ourselves whenever we wanted; fear as I realized I literally couldn't remember most of what I'd read on how to parent . . . and that here I was, thrust into this new role whether I liked it or not; anger as I wondered why in the world I chose to do dishes and clean off the top of our refrigerator instead of attempting to nap while she was napping; tenderness as I held Brooklyn while she was crying, knowing that I didn't really know how to immediately soothe her. Luckily, having a baby also sets off unpredictable spells of overwhelming love and gratitude and sheer joy. Sometimes I catch myself staring at her while she's looking off into the distance, just thrilled to be her mom. It's like a wave of giddiness is rising up inside of me that cannot be contained. Just because she's sitting there. And you know what? It's helped in all of those situations . . . to cry. Crying releases something that is good and healthy, whether I've been frustrated or ecstatic. Even though I'm usually one to wall up and shut off any emotional response in situations where I feel vulnerable, motherhood is one huge sticky peanut-buttery ball of vulnerable that can't be washed away with something easily accessible and uncomplicated - like milk. And so I have two choices: resist or give in. Resisting takes even more energy and eventually turns into bitterness and resentment. Giving in is messy, yet it's honest and healing. So cry if you want to. Whether you're in pain, in over your head, or in love. Sometimes, it's a much better alternative to digging and trying to find words for an experience that's new and nutty.
2. Find yourself some "oxygen." It's so super easy to spend ten hours a day by myself only focused on Brooklyn: feeding her, changing her, bathing her, rocking her, staring at her, singing to her, dancing with her, putting bows in her hair. And by the time Delwin gets home, I've gone the equivalent of a full work day investing in my child and not in myself at all. That may seem selfish to some, but how does it go on airplanes? Put your oxygen mask on before assisting others, right? Because if you pass out, you're no good to anyone else around you. I've found the same concept to be true about being a new mom. I'm actually doing Brooklyn and Delwin a disservice by choosing not to find myself some proverbial oxygen. This doesn't mean I'm necessarily keeping a tight routine. Because in the first six weeks, a tight routine is about as doable as texting your girlfriend without your thumbs, it's just not possible. So do things that keep you, well, you. My favorite thing so far? Dance parties. I said it. Just about every day, I find a reason to pump up some music and dance around my house - either with or without the baby - to some fun music in my pajamas. Because I love to dance and it makes me feel better. Not because it tones my thighs or releases endorphins (which it very well may), but just because I want to. Do something you want to do every day. Another thing that's been helpful is showering. Whether I give the baby to my dear husband when he walks through the door and take 30 minutes to myself in the bathroom or put her rocker (amazing product, by the way!) in the bathroom and give her the mini-spa special while I hop in and fill the room with mist . . . shower. It makes you feel better, which makes whatever happens next just a little bit more bearable. Wash your hair if you can. Put on some lip balm and a bit of eye liner to make yourself feel pretty. Or don't. But showering super helps. My last bit of oxygen has been maintaining my hobbies. Setting aside ten minutes to read a book before I nap does wonders for my brain. I bought the Donald Miller/Shauna Niequist Creating Your Life Plan just to give myself some pointed and guided journaling and reflective time. This weekend I start baby yoga with Brooklyn so we can get out and meet new moms - and exercise together! Now I don't do all of these everyday, but most of these or at least one of these every day is fueling for me. And it helps me remember in my worst of moments that my existence is not just about poopy diapers and spit up.
3. Talk it out . . . honestly. I have the best friends in the world. Friends who've brought us dinners, brought me lunch on their lunch breaks, who've come over just to be with me because they know that being a new mom is so isolating - especially in the dead middle of winter. They've folded laundry, offered to hold the baby while I fill up with some of my oxygen, they've invited Delwin and me out to their homes, to nice dinners, to wherever - just so we could get away and get me out of the house. (Note: One of the best things you can do for a new mom is to make their lives easier somehow. If you bring a meal, include plasticware. If you come over to visit, sit down with her and fold laundry or wash dishes while chatting. Even if the house is spotless and faces are smiley and everyone is happy, find a way to reduce the chaos, even if the moments you're there are quiet. Ask what she needs. And ask her to pretend that answering "nothing" isn't an option. It's probably not true, anyway.) But one of the best pieces of advice I received from my friend, Margaret. She encouraged me to talk it out - whatever "it" is. The awful days, the awful moments; the awesome days, the awesome moments. Talk it all out with your husband, your best friend, your mom, the moms at your yoga studio, your doctor, your dog. Anyone who you trust with your story. And if someone asks you something along the lines of how you're doing, be honest. Because saying "I'm fine" when you're not does nothing but isolate you further from truth. And truth sets you free. So say "it's hard." Say "today was the best day yet." Say "I've never felt so vulnerable in my life." Say "I don't like being a mom today." Say "I don't know how I'm going to feel once I start work again." Whatever is true for you, say it. Because, as a mom, you don't get bonus points in life for being "fine" when you're really not. Plus, when you're honest, the sweet moments are even sweeter. (Suggested reading in this area: The Gifts of Imperfection by Brené Brown)
4. Simmer in the good parts. When I was told that the first six weeks were the hardest, I immediately thought about how I could rush through those first few weeks to get to the "good parts." But one day it was 2am and I was trying to put Brooklyn back to bed as soon as possible so I could sleep, and I just happened to look down. She was staring at me, smiling, as if to say, "Mama, I'm right here. Don't miss out on the good parts." And so from that point on, yes, I wish I had a magic remote that would fast forward through the nasty bits, but not at the expense of missing out on the moments that I've seared in my memory because of how awesome they are: the first time she lifted her head; the first time she held my finger; the way she stretches when she's sleepy - it's hilarious! There are so so many good parts in the first six weeks, too. They won't happen every day, and if they do, you may not notice them every day. But they're there. Simmer in them. Take a million pictures. Write down your favorite memories. Smile from ear-to-ear. Pause.
Because the first six weeks - and I'm sure the fullness of motherhood - is about more than just surviving. It's possible to thrive, even in the midst of chaos. Even when you feel like you're far from thriving.
And, another thing. They really do grow up too quickly.