I’m feeling really guilty right now about how happy I am that Stephen just took Lily and Pali out for a walk without me. I can’t believe how thrilled I am to have the house to myself for at least an hour.
As I was thinking about this post the last couple of days, I was primarily thinking about how good things suddenly seem—Lily is sleeping well, flashing huge and completely irresistible grins all the time, “talking” up a storm, and generally doing something cute every few minutes that just demands a kiss. However, this morning she has been screaming and essentially inconsolable. I’m really suspicious that she might be starting to teethe already. Her hands are in her mouth all the time, and she’s starting to seriously drool. My grandmother just told me that my dad started teething at three months and had six teeth by six months, so it’s possible. I guess all I can do is take a minute to breathe and hope that this passes quickly.
This morning’s anomaly aside (and I am going to fervently hope that’s all it is), life really is starting to feel manageable. Just yesterday, as I picnicked in the Botanical Gardens with two other moms and babes, I commented that I could have hardly imagined back at four, five, or six weeks how much better we’d get at once seemingly impossible tasks like breastfeeding in public. At three months Lily is so strong now that she can easily latch on herself as long as I aim her in the general direction. She is also starting to act like a baby, not an infant. She likes toys, playtime, games, songs, and such now. And the truly gigantic grins she gets when I’ve been out of sight for a minute and then return makes me feel warm and fuzzy in places I didn’t know I had. Discovering life all over again through her eyes makes me feel optimistic and joyful about the future (who remembers how great sand feels on bare toes?).
While it’s still fresh in recent memory though, I thought I’d write a few notes about the early weeks. I feel like nobody really warned me about how truly brutal those early weeks and months would be. When people see you pregnant, they naturally wish you a hearty congratulations and tell you how wonderful life is going to be. That’s all well and good, but I think we all start to forget how tough it is at first or we’d never procreate again. Here are a few things that I’m now going to tell the expectant parents in my life along with the sincere well wishes and congratulations. Please add your own tips that you wish you’d known as a new parent and pass this list around.
The First Weeks
- Most major physical events in our lives get followed by rest. Not birth. After labor and delivery comes care of a newborn. I had a scheduled c-section because Lily was a footling breech, so I didn’t experience labor, but recovering from major surgery is still no picnic. My advice is to only allow visitors who either bring food, do laundry, or preferably both. (And if you can, hire a postpartum doula who not only helps around the house but knows how to care for an infant and is generally a "wise woman" type.) I was so exhausted in the beginning that I felt like I was having out-of-body experiences on several occasions. I’d think that I’d gotten up to feed Lily and then realize that in reality I was still lying down. There really aren’t adequate words to describe how brutally tiring it is to care for a newborn. (I’m still a bit sleep-deprived, but it really does get exponentially better around two months.)
- The whole "nap while the baby naps" is generally good advice except that a lot of babies, Lily included, really want to sleep on you. Given that they've been totally surrounded in comfort, their every need taken care of before they know they have a need for nine months, I don't think this is at all unreasonable. I got my best naps right after I'd fed Lily and then Stephen would take her for a walk. Knowing she was out of the house let my mind relax and turn of its mommy radar.
- Speaking of sleeping on you. I can't say enough about babywearing. Babies love to nestle down to sleep while hearing your heartbeat and feeling your body motion, and while you might not be able to sleep, you do get two free hands. I have a ridiculous number of babywearing options, but keep defending my bounty by saying that each one serves a different purpose. Although tricky to figure out at first, the Moby Wrap is still my favorite (it's especially good when they're too tiny for other options). I love that there isn't anything between Lily and me. Stephen likes the Ergo, and I've recently become more and more fond of my ring sling for quick in and out of the car trips. Our favorite use of our stroller right now is to put groceries in (you city folks will understand—when you've got good parking, don't use the car!).
- Finally, the Happiest Baby on the Block baby-calming methods truly work (swaddling, shushing, swinging, sucking, and I always forget the fifth one...four out of five worked for us).
- Breastfeeding may be natural, but it takes practice and serious patience for both you and your babe to learn. (I've got a whole soapbox speech ready about how poor lactation support is in our country. Your doctor wants to see you every week towards the end of your pregnancy, but once you're thoroughly sleep-deprived and have an actual human being to feed and care for, it's "See you in six weeks," and then it's, "See you in a year for your next pap." Insurance doesn't cover lactation consults, pumps, etc. You really have to be your own advocate...But that's another post.)
- I had read extensively about breastfeeding, attended a class, and had daily lactation support visits in the hospital (Lily did well right from the beginning), but I still had a hard time with nipple pain. I had scabs and shooting pains for several days. When Lily would latch on, I would have to remind myself to breathe and relax, breathe and relax. And I still yelled a four letter word that rhymes with “suck” more often than I’d like to admit now. I saw a lactation consultant and improved out latch (and switched to a My Brest Friend nursing pillow—lame name, great product), but in general, it just hurts for a while. Trust me, I don’t care what sort of adventurous lovemaking you’ve done in the past, your breasts have never been through this sort of handling before! It really does get better. Lanolin and Nipple Butter are still on my bedside table.
- Pick a mantra and image that helps you relax and get through the painful feeding sessions (hopefully not the four-letter one that I succumbed to on occasion…). I imagined flowing, moving images, like streams and rivers. Occasionally I saw myself like a goddess fountain spouting milk. Okay, more than occasionally—heck, if you aren’t an earth goddess while breastfeeding, when else can you be one?
- If you end up with a belly birth (c-section) like me, it is helpful to know how your body switches from pregnancy to lactation mode. I was really worried that not going through labor (I had a scheduled c) might mean that my body didn't know that it was time to flip the switch, so to speak. It turns out that it's the removal of the placenta (which is a giant pregnancy-hormone producing organ) that triggers your brain to start nursing mode, and that happens no matter how you end up birthing your babe. Knowing this helped me trust in the process and believe in my body's ability to know how to nourish Lily.
- If you’re anything like me, having big picture information really helps you get through the tough spots. For breastfeeding, Kellymom.com has been a great resource for me. Here are four that were especially helpful:
- How does milk production work
- The evidence for feeding on cue (rather than some schedule), especially for nursing longer than 3-4 months (please share this with anyone considering strict adherence to the Babywise Regimen).
- Baby is fussing during nursing
- My baby is gassy, is it something in my diet?
- My breasts feel empty--is my milk supply low?
- Babies go through a very fussy gassy period from three to six weeks of life. According to my pediatrician, this is the fussiest period babies ever have. Lily’s started early, probably because she was gaining weight so quickly at first (two ounces a day for two weeks). Don’t think your milk isn’t “enough” or that the baby has colic (although there are some babies who are sensitive to mom’s diet). Baby’s digestive tracks are waking up and having to deal with huge quantities of milk. (My ped said it would be like us drinking 12 gallons of milk a day; we’d be gassy too.) It seems like an incredibly, incredibly long time period, but it does pass.
- Infant suppositories are little magic sticks during this fussy time. This is the sort of thing my pediatrician thought was over-reacting, but then he didn’t actually have to go home to a gassy, screaming baby. A few grandmas mentioned this, and I was suspicious at first but gone onboard after I saw that even Dr. Sears talks about this as an option in The Fussy Baby Book : Parenting Your High-Need Child From Birth to Age Five. Prepare for a mess, but know that it’s worth it. Just hold one of these glycerin suppositories in their bum for a minute while gently holding their legs up (or bicycling them). It works best with two people. I never knew the sound of gas could be so sweet. We did this almost once a day for about two weeks and worried that we were getting a little overly dependent on this solution (she really stopped getting gassy at six weeks though). You don’t need a suppository. If you’re desperate, I’ve heard that a Q-tip or a rectal thermometer dipped in Vaseline works just as well. It just helps them relax.
- Co-sleepers are awesome! They provide the perfect blend of having your baby near enough to easily feed (plus just know she's okay—we all panic when they sleep too long or too deeply) and still have some space. Co-sleepers are basically a three-sided crib that attaches to the adult bed and acts as an extension. I actually bring her in with us to sleep around 3 or 4 a.m. most nights, but I really need my sleep in order to not be Angry Mommy, so having a few hours to sleep soundly in whatever position is comfortable works well for me. Having her so close means that I wake up when she first stirs, so she doesn't really ever fully wake up in the night. She just nurses in her sleep. This means she falls back to sleep right away (and I'd argue that in some ways she never really wakes up).
- If you think pregnancy hormones are bad, wait until the post-partum ones come calling. For several weeks I was very weepy with very little notice or cause. I now can’t remember which book I read it in, but a woman’s body in the six weeks following birth goes through more changes than she will ever go through again. Be kind to yourself. And make sure your partner has some preparation for this emotional roller coaster as well. I’d had my placenta encapsulated according to traditional Chinese medicinal practices. This means I ate it dried and powered in pill form. It’s supposed to have a host of benefits, especially to help fight post-partum depression. Yes, I know this seems really out there—trust me, I thought it was too at first. You should hear my story about the midwife who offered to make me placenta burgers and smoothies. Eating my placenta in a pill seems so middle America after those options. Whether it was a placebo or not, it seemed to help. Whenever I’d start to really gush, Stephen would bring some placenta pills to me and not-so-subtly say, “Here honey, why don’t you take a few of these?” (I don't mean to downplay PPD. If either my husband or I had thought I had PPD, I would taken serious steps to recover.)
- You don’t have to consume your placenta, but find some helpful way that you can be gentle on yourself.
- Don’t have big expectations that you will do anything other than care for your baby (this still is true at three months). As Dr. Sears says in The Baby Book, you’re growing an entire human being—and that’s a pretty big item on the to-do list. Even now that I feel like I'm getting the hang of things, I still don't manage to shower every day, and my email inbox has almost 300 messages needing a reply.
- I was thinking of giving sex a whole section, but then I realized there wasn't enough to say. I keep hearing that eventually libido returns and logistics seem more manageable, but right now, not so much. Sleep really is so much more enticing. My midwife assures me that it's just the first year that's so tough. Fingers crossed.
- A good friend told me during my last bit of pregnancy, “Don’t worry if you aren’t in love with motherhood immediately.” I feel grateful that she remembered to tell me this. Most of our cultural images of new mothers show total bliss and contentment, and that just isn't realistic for most women. This is a huge, huge adjustment. Although I was instantly in love with Lily, it took me many, many more weeks to feel like I had a handle on my new identity. I still don’t know if I’d use the word “love” to describe how I feel about motherhood. It’s a wonderful, awesome blessing to watch this new life unfold before your eyes, and it’s deeply powerful to know that you are responsible for this tiny being, but it is a huge adjustment. After the initial, mind-numbing exhaustion started to life, I struggled with loneliness for several weeks as I tried to figure out who I was now and how this new part of me related to all of my other parts (still negotiating this).
- It all really does start to "work" and before you know it, you and your babe will be adventuring across town together like pros, and you'll be whipping out your breast without a second thought.
- Moments of pure, sacred joy take you by surprise more and more frequently. I feel like I'm just learning what unconditional love means. It's these moments that soon overshadow all of the others.
So those are my brand-new mom lessons. I’m already forgetting how hard it was at first, which is how it's supposed to work or the species would never manage to propagate again, I suspect. I'd love to hear your thoughts on the first three months. What would you want expectant or brand-new parents to know?