Nine months ago, during the last storm of the snowiest winter in Philadelphia history, my stomach began to gurgle loudly like a draining bathtub. It took about an hour to realize what this meant: my daughter finally wanted out.
Toward the end of my pregnancy, I’d found out that my baby was facing my belly in my womb—“sunny side up,” the midwives called it, which sounded to me like an apartment listing that calls a tiny studio “cozy.” I was told to hang out on my hands and knees as much as possible and the baby should turn in time for delivery. She was angled in a way that meant she’d have to do nearly a full 360. Apparently fetuses can only rotate in one direction, like a flushing toilet. If only we were in Australia.
I killed time in my last few weeks by watching the winter Olympics on my hands and knees. When I needed a break, I crammed—re-reading key passages from my stack of childbirth books and handouts from classes at the hospital. Which breathing techniques to use for which stage of labor, which types of massage to request, which props to use. I was prepared.
Here is what I knew. If you just relax enough and surround yourself with people you trust, you’ll be able to have a natural childbirth and it might even be euphoric; you must, must, must breastfeed the baby immediately after she is born, plus keep her in your room with you that first night no matter how tired you are; and with Dr. Harvey Karp’s five S’s technique—swaddling, side/stomach position, shushing, swinging, and sucking—a bawling infant is magically soothed.
Here is what the books didn’t tell me. That I would be in so much pain I wouldn’t even want to be touched, let alone ask for a back rub. That the only type of breathing I’d possibly be able to muster was to blow raspberries. That I would get stalled for half a day at 5 centimeters. That just the teensiest, eensiest bit of Pitocin would send me into a series of 10-minute-long contractions that would leave me yelling for an epidural. That my baby wouldn’t turn, making it impossible for me to push her out without an episiotomy. That she’d take her first poop inside me, breathe it into her lungs, and need to be rushed to the NICU immediately after being born.
No nursing her; no keeping her with me in my room. I was kept up all night by a screaming newborn, but it was my roommate’s, not mine.
They had Sasha hooked up to machines for the first 3 days of her life. I tried nursing her a bit but we couldn’t really seem to get the hang of it, especially with all those wires in the way. I was given a breast pump without much instruction, so I basically didn’t use it. Besides, the only thing holding me together were the moments that I could go to the NICU and put Sasha inside my hospital gown, pressing her warm bare skin against my own. I wasn’t about to give that up to pump little splutterings of a substance that wasn’t even milk yet out of my boobs.
A few days after we took Sasha home, we discovered that my episiotomy stitches had busted and I needed to be recut and stitched. It was sort of like going to the dentist, getting shot with local anesthesia, except in a much more sensitive part of your body. The surgery left me unable to climb stairs for 2 months—or walk, really—so I lived on an air mattress in my dark living room during that time. I couldn’t stand long enough to change the baby’s diapers. I couldn’t carry her around to comfort her. I couldn’t even sit and comfort her because sitting on my butt hurt too much. With the help of pillows and rolled-up swaddling blankets to get us in exactly the right position, I could nurse her. But it turned out that because I had neglected to pump at the hospital I had low milk supply and had to feed her 3 ways each time she ate: at the breast, then a bottle of pumped milk followed by a bottle of formula. I was swollen, I was sore. I wept every time I went to the bathroom, during every infrequent shower I took. There were fluids pouring out of me from every orifice, except maybe my ears.
We tried the “five S’s.” We tried really hard. Sometimes they worked. But more often they didn’t. And at those times we didn’t just have a crying baby on our hands; we had a crying family. It all came to a head one night when my husband, Jonathan, was sick—passed out on the couch with a fever. It was 2:00 a.m. I was trying to nurse Sasha and she was yanking her head back and doing what Jonathan called her Fay Wray scream. She was clearly starving but she just wouldn’t eat. I frantically dug through my breastfeeding handouts, trying to find an answer. Nothing. It was too late to call anyone. I started doing this thing that I think a lot of people do when they’re desperate, where I’d loop my memories over and over in my head. I’d relive the birth as if it were a movie and I’d always get stuck on this one frame. This split second during labor when I was sure, absolutely convinced, that if I had just gotten on my hands and knees one last time and accepted a massage from my midwife instead of opting for drugs, everything would have gone differently. I would’ve been able to turn the baby, which would mean I wouldn’t have needed an episiotomy, which would mean I wouldn’t have needed to be restitched, which would mean I’d be more capable with Sasha, which would mean she’d be happier right now, which would mean she’d be nursing calmly in my arms, gulping and making little sighs of baby satisfaction. But I was weak and I did choose the drugs, and here we were: Fay Wray. I was suddenly so full of rage that I nearly threw the baby across the room. It was the scariest thing I’ve ever felt and I quickly put her in her bassinet and walked away.
Just about every mom I know, or at least the honest ones, has had at least one experience like this. Especially in the early days. When I told my friend Kirsten about what I was going through, about how I couldn’t stop looping, she told me this: These first few months are the longest shortest time. Remember that. They go on forever. And then they’re over.
When Sasha was about 9 weeks old, I had to take her with me to a dentist appointment. I knew I’d have to feed her there and I was terrified she’d go into Fay Wray mode. The receptionist offered to let me feed her in an exam room. So we sat in the reclining chair, me feeling practically naked without my pillows and swaddling blankets to prop her up. She lay there with her mouth around my nipple but wouldn’t latch. I braced myself. And then Sasha looked up at me. She looked me right in the eye, not at the top of my head, which is where she usually looked. She kind of gave me this smile and she grunted a couple times, like unh, unh. Her first laugh. It made me laugh, which made her laugh more, which made me laugh more. I wondered if the receptionist could hear us cracking up like a couple of maniacs.
This is all to say that it changes. Motherhood is not always giggles and hand-clapping and learning to walk. But things do change and often they get better. And the things you’re going through, even if they’re not in the books, they happen to other people, too. In this blog and podcast you can hear other moms—and sometimes dads—tell stories about their longest shortest times. And maybe, in your darkest hours (both literally and figuratively), you’ll hear a voice that reminds you that this part is only the beginning of the rest of your life with your new little person.
Photo: Richard Frank