“I should never have had a baby. I should have picked a children’s charity and worked with them instead. I’m good at working. I stink as a mother.”
That was me after a long day with a crying newborn that refused to be consoled for more than 15 minutes at a time for God only knows what reason. I took Spanish, French and German in high school, not “baby,” although I highly recommend they start offering it. Nearly a month into my first child and already I was cracking.
Among my husband’s constant reassurances that I was, indeed, doing a great job he asked, “Are you okay?”
“No,” I finally caved. “I’m not okay. I’m going to pop my cork.”
“Go to bed,” he said. “Tonight’s my night.”
“You have to work tomorrow. This is my job. This is why I’m a stay-at-home mother.”
“Go. To. Bed,” was his simple reply.
So I did. And the next morning I came to two startling realizations every new parent needs to know.
One, there’s a reason why so many new parents place panicked calls to their pediatricians. When you are so exhausted that you can’t bring a fork to your mouth to eat, you’re going to look at every grunt, cry and scream as a sign of your baby’s immediate distress and your complete failure as a parent.
In my case, my kid decided to go from downing 4 ounces at a clip to parsing out his daily intake into smaller meals. Once I did the math I realized he was eating the same amount of food and without any other presenting symptoms the only diagnosis a doctor would give me at this point was that of “panicked parent.”
[New parent tip: It may sound completely paranoid, but keep a chart of your baby’s meals and diaper changes. That way when your kid decides to change up their routine (the only thing constant with a baby is change) you don’t need to rely on your blurry memory to make sure they’re still functioning normally.]
Two, there’s a difference between postpartum exhaustion and postpartum depression. But, because some symptoms can overlap, and because such a huge deal is made of postpartum depression, exhausted mothers tend to either be misdiagnosed or overlooked altogether.
Thirty-eights hours of labor followed by a 2 day hospital stay loaded with nurses, midwives, pediatricians, lab technicians and family visitors cycling in and out every 2 hours left both my husband and myself feeling worse, not better when we brought our baby home. Then came the bris, the Jewish ritual circumcision that requires your entire acquaintance list to be invited to your house for a ceremony and a meal 8 days after you’ve given birth. Add all the well-wishing visitors who can’t wait to hold the baby to that list and suddenly, you realize that your house has become a transit hub for everyone you’ve ever met. Don’t expect the phone calls to stop, either. Amidst this outpouring of love you try to take care of a newborn that wants to eat, poop and sleep in two hour intervals, which means you get to eat, sleep, and you-know-what about once a day.
Please, for the love of your new baby, learn how to say: “I love you, go away.” Cultural traditions are tough to negotiate, but visitors can and should be kept at bay. And that whole “have people bring over food and clean for you” concept is the biggest myth of having a baby. No one wants to cook or clean for you. They want to hold your baby and hand them back to you as soon as they begin to whimper. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t ask for help. Chances are the folks who are really willing to help out are hanging out in the background, waiting for you to catch your breath.
You do this breath-catching thing by taking your partner’s advice and simply going to bed. Honestly, I don’t know how single mothers or mothers with husbands who live at their jobs do it. Being a stay-at-home mom may mean you are available 24/7, but it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t get some time off, especially in the weeks following labor. Your body, your mind, your soul and your baby need you to be well-rested enough to function within normal parameters.
I never stopped loving my baby. After a good night’s sleep (that still involved getting up to feed him once, despite my husband’s demand that I stay in bed) I was able to start loving myself again. Suddenly I was able to look at his seemingly fussy behavior with a fresh perspective sans the panic. “I have a theory,” I said to my husband. “He’s been struggling to stay up so much lately that he finally hit his wall and wants to catch up on his rest. You know what that means?”
“He sleeps like me,” I replied with a smile.