The other day, my five-year-old daughter asked me about when she was a baby. We’ve been nannying for friends and their infant daughter; as a consequence, my children (especially my oldest) have been questioning me about every aspect of their babyhoods: what they did in my tummy, what they ate, where they slept, their first words, when they cried, why they cried, and the most interesting to date–exactly how they made it out of my tummy. (They thought the answer to that one was pretty gross, not that I can blame them.)
I haven’t yet figured out exactly the right way to answer her questions. What I remember is despair, terror, and an overwhelming sense of being up against something I could not possibly manage. I was twenty-four years old when she was born (I turned twenty-five ten days later). I’d been married for fourteen months and had lived in Virginia for fourteen months (I grew up in Maine and married a Virginian). My husband and I were completely broke, and I know everyone says that, but I mean we were completely broke. (This was equally due to our station in life and the fact that we were both financially inept.) I worked as a part-time cashier at a Thrift Store owned by a addiction recovery center and homeless shelter; my husband worked insane hours in the call center at the GE plant in town, a job that made him absolutely miserable, and everything was hard. Anyone who’s ever been in a new marriage knows exactly what I’m talking about. Nothing about our situation was unique, except that it was our situation. I had wanted to be a mother for as long as I could remember (when I was three years old, I was asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, and I responded with “the old lady who lived in a shoe and had a hundred kids”), so when I found out I was going to have a baby, I thought we all would live happily ever after. I’d spent my entire adolescence and early adulthood taking care of other people’s children, so I was sure I knew how to do all I would need to do. My husband and I–while we struggled mightily with all of the typical newlywed struggles–loved each other madly, so I assumed a baby would just add more love to the mix. And while I had struggled with depression and knew I was at risk for PPD (post-partum depression), I figured that getting everything I’d ever wanted would be a pretty good antidote.
Suffice it to say, I was wrong on every single level. She came nine days early, after a relatively easy thirteen hours in labor. We had the best nurse (Nurse Rose, if you’re reading this, we still think of you all the time!), a comfortable room, a fantastic doctor, and everything seemed like it was likely to go smoothly. When she came out, my first words were “I know I only think this because I’m her mother, but she is the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen!” (She was covered in slime and vernix, her skin was a mix of deep red and deep purple, and she had that alien, cone-headed appearance common with naturally-birthed babies.) The second thing I said was “Let’s do that again!”, to which my husband just laughed.
She was born before our hospital began their procedure of putting the baby on the mother’s chest immediately after birth, so the first thing that happened was that they took her to the scale, wiped her off, wrapped her in a blanket, and gave her to my husband, while the doctor finished with me.
As it happened, my uterus didn’t contract like it should have, and I was bleeding much more than they want a new mother to. I didn’t realize anything was wrong until the headiness of the first few minutes had worn off, and still no one had handed my baby to me. When I asked what was wrong, I was given that sweet pat on the hand that nurses must learn in nursing school and told not to worry. My husband asked what was wrong, and he was told that our doctor just had to work a bit harder than usual to slow the bleeding. What this turned into was about forty-five minutes of him kneading my abdomen (my already sore abdomen) with his fists and intermittently checking my insides. This continued hourly for the rest of my hospital stay. I found out hours later that the doctor was afraid I would need surgery, which is why they didn’t give me my baby right away. After my husband had held her for a while, they took her to the nursery to give her all of the shots that babies need. All told, I did not get a good look at my daughter for at least the first two hours of her life. I think about this constantly–to this day, she is not particularly snuggly, and she is preternaturally determined to do all things with as little help from me as possible–and I always wonder if, had those first two hours gone differently, would the next six months have been different, too?
(I don’t want any of this to read as a critique of the care we received at the hospital. Five years later, we still talk about how well we were treated by the doctors, nurses, and other staff. Their care was of the highest quality, and we are grateful for everything they did for us.)
When I was able to walk, I decided to go down to the hospital nursery and see my baby (I still hadn’t gotten to see her face.) My husband was fast asleep, so I slid out of bed, held the back of my hospital nightie closed with one hand, and dragged the IV down the hall behind me with the other. I got to the nursery and stood at the window, looking at all the babies. That night, there were only four or five, so I didn’t have too many to choose from. Those I could see were all wrapped up and lying in their bassinets, some awake and squirming, some fast asleep. They all were wearing their little hospital hats, so all I could see of any of them were their squishy little faces. I think that’s the first time that my sense of myself as a naturally good mother was shattered.
I went back to my husband and shook him awake, crying. “I’m a bad mom,” I sobbed. (Poor thing — he’d slept about two hours of the last forty-eight, and now I was crying incoherently on his shoulder.) “I went to the nursery to see her, and…I have no idea which one she is!”
Thus began several months of my perception of who I was being torn down. I had trouble nursing; she had trouble latching (although I didn’t learn that that’s what the problem had been until about a year ago); I had trouble sleeping, even when she was sleeping soundly; I would jerk awake from my few deep sleeps, sure that she had suffocated or been misplaced or choked or any number of things; I was completely incapable of doing anything resembling laundry or dishes or cooking; I didn’t know any other mothers; I hated where we were living; I would beg my husband to take sick days so I didn’t have to be alone; my mother flew down to stay with us multiple times; my mother-in-law would come on other days so I wasn’t alone; my best friend visited us from Charlotte and told me she was scared for me; I could barely even look at my daughter without feeling the crushing weight of failure; I was positive she could sense my fear of her and would thus grow to have deep-seated trust issues that would prohibit her from ever having a healthy relationship. My sense of perspective was so wildly off-kilter, I could barely sense one day passing into the next. I counted on my husband to do everything except feed her, certain that the more time I spent with her, the more I would screw her up. The two of them would gaze at each other, and I would watch them thinking it would always be the two of them…and me. How does he just…love her like that? I would ask myself. Where is his fear?
By the time our son was about eighteen months old (a total of twenty-two months) I had begun to even out and gain some confidence. It took my husband, my family, multiple moms’ groups and the friends I made in them, prayer (from TONS of people), and pills to get me back on track. Now, five years later, I recognize that I am a good mom, despite all my glaring weaknesses. My children will inherit some quirks from me that will certainly make their lives more interesting, but they will also gain from the perspective I’ve found as someone who struggled so fiercely.
But…when my daughter asks me what she was like when she was a baby, what do I tell her now? I can tell her what other people noticed about her, that she was cute, that she was an easy baby, that she noticed everything and knew exactly how to keep an entire room of adults focused entirely on herself, but I’m afraid to tell her what she was like to me when she was a baby. She was the scariest seven pounds I’d ever laid on in my life.
Sometimes I leap ahead in my mind to when she is an adult and she has her first baby. I wonder if she’ll be fantastic at it right away, like I assumed I’d be, or if she will struggle, too. I think she’ll probably be fantastic, since she is at everything else. But if she does struggle like I did, I hope I’m blessed to be there beside her, praying with her, holding her in my arms, and telling her all about what a terrible time I had, too.