On March 29th 2016 I gave birth to my daughter – my first child. My pregnancy had its ups and downs, the labour was easy (definitely not painless, but much easier than others have experienced), and my daughter was born healthy. Now, 8 weeks later, I’m finally getting opportunities to reflect on my new life.
1. Breast is Best.
Before being discharged from the hospital, the nurses had to sign off on two monitored successful breastfeeds. We also had to sign a paper that said we had watched the breastfeeding video and were strongly encouraged to attend a lactation group meeting where the lactation consultant held us back afterwards to tell us why pumping was such a bad idea. We were told over and over again that ‘breast is best’ and that formula shouldn’t be an option. Our first night home was a nightmare. Nora cried so hard and we couldn’t console her. I tried to breastfeed but she wouldn’t latch. I secretly gave her formula, and she immediately fell asleep. The following day and night were the same. She screamed, and the only time she had relief is when my husband or I secretly gave her formula, too embarrassed to tell the other what we had done. On the second day we saw another lactation consultant. I told her that Nora was crying all the time, and she responded saying “Oh, so she’s a normal baby”… I felt embarrassed for bringing it up... and assumed that having a baby is simply just a nightmare. By the third morning Nora wasn’t waking up. She was tiny… her neck was so thin and her skin was off colour. We went to the emergency room and she had lost a significant amount of weight and her sodium level was off the chart. She was immediately checked into the ER, and I was told to start pumping every 2 hours and forcing her awake to give her formula. Had the ‘breast is best’ mantra not had been slammed into our heads, it may have been avoided.
Since then, I’ve struggled to find a balance between breastfeeding, pumping, and using formula. I’ve seen 4 different lactation consultants and still meet with a public health nurse every other week to figure it out. I find it difficult to pump as often as I need to to keep up with Nora’s demands because she has colic and its difficult to pump while trying to console a baby. So by the time she is asleep, I need to eat or pick the dog up from daycare, or sometimes the only place she’ll sleep is in a carrier which is not conducive to pumping. I also have very slow let-down, so when I breastfeed Nora I have to feed her for nearly an hour until she’s full/satisfied, the first 20 minutes are really nice for both of us – the next 40 are frustrating and tiring for both of us. I give her formula at night to give us both some relief. Despite my best efforts/struggles/tears ‘people’ (even my own family – the ones that I thought saw and understood my struggle the most) are STILL telling me that ‘breast is best’ and making comments that implicitly and explicitly judge the fact that I desperately want to go to formula full time or even just want to complain about how tedious the whole process is. As if I’m giving up on what is ‘best’ for my daughter…
First of all… don’t the 125 bags of frozen breast milk from over 40 hours of pumping in my freezer, the bruises and blisters on my nipples, the hours and hours spent everyday in a rocking chair trying to keep her latched and the resulting screaming child from hunger/digestion pains indicate that I know breast milk is good for her? All that work, pain, and headache is not because I think breastmilk isn’t worth it – it’s because I’m struggling to do my best for my child. Second of all… is breast really best if it’s causing emotional and mental turmoil from the mother? Does the stress not make its way into the milk? Is it really best if the child is screaming to digest it? I’m not sure how many more hours I can spend clenching my flailing daughter in my arms whispering “it’s okay” through tears of my own wishing I could just make the pain stop for her… I just wish one person in the world would look at me and say “hey – fuck breast” and give me a hug.
2. It’s just you and me, babe.
Motherhood is one of the loneliest experiences of my life. We always have at least one visitor a week – often 2 -3. Some stay for 4 or 5 hours, most leave after 2 hours. I normally what them to simultaneously stay and go – go so I can nap, stay so I can have contact with another human. Unfortunately, when the visitor is there I have often have things to do… I need to take the opportunity to have a shower, get the laundry out of the washing machine that has been sitting in there for three days, change my bedding, catch up on work, etc. I have essentially been a single mom for 8 weeks and it means that all of this waits until I have a few spare hours – and often those hours are provided from visitors. I try to chat with them, but they have to get going or the baby starts to cry. Then it’s just Nora and I.
And it’s just Nora and I for the rest of the night… or possibly the next three days. I might go days without speaking to another adult or person besides Nora. I love Nora, and I don’t mind being with her non-stop for weeks on end. She’s the person I’ve been able to tolerate the longest in my entire life. But there are only so many times I can read Nora a book, rock her to sleep, babble to her in baby talk, read her academic articles, and stare into her beautiful eyes for an hour. I miss having friends to chat with about research and articles, having someone to give me support even when I don’t know I need it, going to endless potlucks… I miss my community. I worked hard to establish a community in my PhD group and it paid off – I’ve made some of the best friends of my life in the last three years. We’ve supported each other through really shitty times and really exciting times. I used to see them everyday and go out on impromptu lunch dates to argue about something we read the day before. I knew when I got pregnant I’d be giving some of this up – but I didn’t consider the fact that I’d be removing myself from my community and entering into a world that has been stripped of community. Instead, the mothering community is full of competition and judgement. Competition for quality of stroller or height of child. Competition for who has done the most research or had the most sleep. Judgement for bottles or soothers or if they have socks on or not.
Is she hot? Was that cough normal? Should she be talking yet? Will she stay cross-eyed? Should she watch TV…ever? What is the best carrier? If I cut my hair will she still know who I am? Can she sleep in my bed? The questions when mothering are endless… and I’ve made the mistake of looking up some of them on Google. Rarely do you get a straight answer, and more often than not you uncover yet another layer of mothering that you didn’t know existed and suddenly there is yet another thing to feel guilty about. Sometimes it is useful – I found a chart online with different colours of baby shit that was interesting and helpful…
I hate googling. I hate wondering/figuring out if she is at the right age to be doing something… if she’s behind or ahead in ‘smiling class’… if she ‘should’ have laughed by now or if she’s showing signs of some kind of disorder or genius or both. I find it detracts from being in the moment with Nora and simply enjoying her development as it happens. I also find that the over anxiousness about safety stifles some of the things that simply just feel right about mothering. But worst of all – it gives you a false sense of control over the baby and situations. She’s going to develop at whatever speed she develops and she’s going to sleep on her stomach sometimes… obsessing over SIDS and hitting development goals just provides this sense that we actually have way more control than we do, and I think this makes us more neurotic as parents. I find if I just let myself relax, do what feels right, let her just do what she wants to do… then I am happier and, as an extension, so is she. We also just get inundated with information which ends up confusing situations and making it so we are never actually confident in the decisions we’ve made (classic ‘risk society’ a-la-Beck issue).
4. Hurricane home.
My house is in a constant state of chaos. One of my biggest pet peeves is looking for my keys or wallet. Now, I am constantly looking for my keys and wallet. Sometimes I find them in places they never should have been in the first place (fridge…sink… bathroom counter…). I try to make systems to keep it cleaner and neater and to stop losing my keys and my wallet. But… I still lose them. Sometimes it bothers me so much that I get up at 3 am just to find them and put them into the designated spot – but it doesn’t matter how many times I’m neurotic about it, the next day I will certainly be searching for my keys and wallet. And how the hell are we supposed to function surrounded by 900 different kinds of baby distraction devices? Play mats… swings… jolly jumper… vibrating chair… it has just cluttered up every single corner of my home and now it never…EVER…looks tidy.
5. What’s most important?
Should I co-sleep with my kid because it’s easy, feels natural and results in higher confidence levels or is it more important to keep my marital bed my marital bed? I want her to be empathic, compassionate, hard-working, easy-going…etc etc etc but she can’t be all of them so which one is the most important? Should she start to eat solids at 4 months because she’s more open to new flavours or is it more important to error on the side of caution? For every decision there is a consideration of what might be a ‘more important’ consideration. In most cases I just do what my instincts tell me to do (cuddle the baby, teach her to love hard and work hard, give her food when she’s interested in it…) but I’ve been conditioned to be neurotic about what is ‘most important’ because society suggests I should be able to figure it all out given the wealth of information at my finger tips. It becomes VERY difficult to be a mother who is confident in the decisions that she has made when a) other mothers have made different decisions and said they did so based on their research…. (oh god, did they do more research than I did!?! Most likely!! …see #3 above) and b) there is so much conflicting advice.
Worst of all we don’t have a village or a community to rely on. I’m not sure about the experience of other women, but the parenting decisions between my sister and I are sometimes drastic (sometimes not drastic at all). Had we been living together in a small community where mother’s shared knowledge and passed down their knowledge form generation to generation, we would likely have the exact same methods and have a great deal of confidence in them. This a classic example of where the modern world has stripped us of knowledge and forms of relationships that made our lives more fulfilling and less neurotic/anxious.
1. It’s just you and me, babe.
Nora is the first thing I see in the morning and the last thing I see at night. Throughout the day I have the opportunity to shower her with 10 million kisses and to study every movement that she makes. I’m watching her grow, learn, and see the world – I am getting to know her more deeply than anyone else in the world will ever know her. There is literally no one else in the world that I have to answer to besides this tiny little ball of love. She demands all of my love and receives it without resistance.
2. A new relationship with everyone.
I’ve never loved my husband more than I love him as a father.
My sister and I have a renewed friendship over our children.
I appreciate and love my mother on an insanely deep level.
I can’t wait to talk about PhD gossip and girly/adult things with Caitlin.
I joined the allusive ‘mom club’ of the department (there is also a dog club).
All of my old friends are moms-in-the-making and it excites me that we’ll get to go through it together.
The people here that were once my research/drinking friends are now an integral part of my life. I literally would not have survived these 8 weeks without their talents and love.
A shared sense of the pure joy and love of parenting with my advisor. From advisor to grandpa.
Babies change the dynamic in every room they enter. They humanize workshops, soften meetings, and bring community to the halls of a workplace.
While Nora has brought me closer to all of these people, she has also taken something away from all of them – they were all knocked down on the totem pole… she is at the top, towering above them all.
3. A new perspective.
When I started my PhD I thought I was going to fight to the death for a tenure track position. As I went on in my PhD, I thought maybe I’d fight for it, but not for my life… more like if it seemed like it would work out. Now, it would be nice, but the importance of my career has dissipated into the ether. Now, I want to ensure that whatever I do is simply the absolute best decision for my daughter. If that means getting a tenure track (it would be great for her!) then I’ll definitely fight for it. But if it means becoming a stay-at-home mom that never steps food into another university again – I am completely prepared to do that, too. Making a decision about what to do in life now makes sense – before it seemed arbitrary… what was the point of a tenure track before? Sure, contributing to knowledge… but you can do that without getting paid. But now, it’s to take care of my daughter and give her as great a future as possible.
But… she simultaneously made everything make so much more sense and so much less sense. Life in general makes so much sense with a baby – everything about my body and my interactions with her tell me that this is what I, as a human, was made to do. But then, my life… is not at all made for a baby. I feel embarrassed when she cries in public, I’m not really supposed to bring her to meetings (but I do anyway), mothering isn’t really prioritized in academia (or most careers, I would think?)… it’s a side note that you have to attend to as you neglect your career, our family structures are no longer set up to prioritize family despite the fact that new babies and marriages are some of the most celebrate moments in our families. However, having her has only made me a better academic because it has put things in perspective and allowed me to view the process from a new, less anxious and more mature, light. My goals have become much more focused and meaningful – it’s a lot easier to write a paper when your motivation is coming from something rooted deeply in love rather than deeply rooted in…. the desire for a good pension.
4. No decisions.
One of my least favorite restaurants is The Works because there are ~30 different kinds of burgers that you can order. My default at restaurants is to order “the first burger” – whatever that might be (if they don’t have burgers, I will order whatever the person at the table that I like the most orders, or John picks for me). When I go to the drug store to buy deodorant and I’m faced with over a dozen different choices, I stand paralyzed… staring… do I go based on price? trustworthiness of packaging? scent? …of course it doesn’t really matter because whatever I choose is both the absolute right and wrong option. This is a well studied phenomena – the amount of choice in our lives leads to depression and loneliness – we never make the right choice and we’re often paralyzed by the options… we no longer benefit from our autonomy. While having a baby comes with a shit load of choice that can make you depressed (baby gear, which diaper cream to use, picking a name…) it also strips you of all of the most integral choices in your life.
I can’t choose when I shower, pee, eat, sleep, shop, call people, do work… my baby chooses when I do these things. She strips my life down to the most human/natural processes. My life is about her food, shit and sleep – everything else is an inconsequential act of life that will happen whenever the baby allows it to happen. There isn’t time to stare at toothbrushes or to give a shit about what movie is on. I grab the first toothbrush within reach at the drug store, I put on the first show that pops up on Netflix because I have 0.02 seconds before she starts to cry and I buy clothes that are easy to pull my boob out of and look like the might hide the color of spit-up the best. I am not making choices anymore, choices are being made for me, and it’s awesome.
5. Boundless, endless, deep, all-encompassing love.
Plus lots of cuddle naps…