10 Months (and a few days) of Motherhood

I passed my books to the clerk at the library, who then handed them back to me, saying, “Your due date is August 22nd.” I wanted to tell him, “No, my due date is and always will be September 29.” The phrase due date is forever imprinted in my mind in relation to the birth of my child, the most monumental shift in my identity and existence. 

One of the books I chose today is called The Fifth Trimester: The Working Mom’s Guide to Style, Sanity, and Big Success After Baby. I’d noticed it before in bookstores and passed on it, my own "fifth trimester" come and gone, but seeing it now, at the library, I reached for it to take it home for free. While I’m usually leery of books that make such lofty promises, I figured there was nothing to lose by checking it out. With a cover checkered with check boxes of to-do list items, it seems relevant, painfully so. 

It pains me, too, that this is a women’s problem--managing life after baby, that is. There are fatherhood books, but most are hyperbolically comic, the joke being that dads are helpless when it comes to babies. (Of course, this is patently false.) But I feel helpless when it comes to babies! I’ve figured a lot of things out by necessity: how to pack a diaper bag, how many extra sets of clothes to pack in a diaper bag, how to make funny faces and sounds to entertain the baby during a pungent diaper change, how long to bake zucchini until it becomes soft enough to be consumed with only the stubs of two teeth, how to read the fine print on nursing pads, how to weigh the merits of various baby gear sites in order to purchase the least frustrating option in a given genre of baby paraphernalia, how to cut a band aid in half length-wise and adhere it to the baby mid-squirm. 

The mental load, the all-consuming nature of motherhood, the endless to-do list: no matter how it is configured, whether as sociological phenomenon, physiological or emotion reaction, or task-oriented approach, motherhood overwhelms all else, most of the time. And when it doesn’t, when I neglect to order guacamole in addition to our burritos simply because the baby likes it, I feel guilty. 

I do not forget her tears. An hour or so after she falls asleep at night, I turn to my phone to re-watch a video of her from earlier in the day. I agonize over whether to keep a band-aid on her finger while she sleeps. I worry that she is too cool, too hot, too sandy, too sticky. Do I read her too many feminist empowerment books, so many that she’ll wonder why I keep insisting that she can be whatever she wants to be and do whatever she wants to do? 

Last year, when I was pregnant, I promised myself that my writing would not become all about motherhood or babies, as though there were something inherently wrong with that. My impulse is to write about what I know, and how I see the world, and with a child now, all of that has changed. From uncovered outlets and sharp coffee table edges, to healthcare policy and the gender pay gap, I am concerned for her, and I see all of these obstacles with her in mind. 

So when I happened upon Sarah Menkedick’s new book, Homing Instincts, I felt relief and validation: writing about motherhood is, indeed, real writing. The tedious parts of motherhood don’t render the experience simple. There is complexity and nuance in the experience of raising and caring for a human being. And just as I hope we all respect mothers out in the world (those who are feeding their babies, or toting them on planes or buses, or merely trying to buy groceries) because we were all babies once, and we all needed our mothers, I would hope that we can all see the richness in delving into the complexity of becoming and being a mother. 

Menkedick's op-ed in the LA Times just prior to the book's release captures this tension: 

I am standing before a small audience in Columbus, Ohio, apologizing for what I’m going to read. “It’s about motherhood,” I say, then quickly qualify, “but you know, more than that! It’s about stories, and self, and the meaning of home.” I have been doing this for months, explaining the book I’ve written as something along the lines of “about motherhood but not really,” until finally, in front of this audience, the absurdity of my intellectual scrambling strikes me. What male writer feels the need to atone for essays about, say, war? I imagine him hurrying to clarify: “But really they’re about the human struggle, triumph over adversity, and the meaning of self.”

As I carry on as a mother to my precious little person, and as I read and write about this experience, I feel the tiniest bit more reassured, thanks to her, in the daily struggle and worry and delight that encompass what motherhood is to me. 

Six Months of Motherhood

Six months in, and I still feel like an imposter when I say I'm a mother. "Mommy" feels slightly easier to get behind, as it's a term of endearment rather than an identity. "Mom" feels like it belongs to the voice of an older kid, not to the babbling of my little baby. "Mama" feels too earthy to me. "Mother" feels like an enormous responsibility, one that should require some kind of extensive exam, or at the very least, some kind of Saturday afternoon class that provides a certificate of attendance as proof of readiness for bearing and raising a child. 

Impracticalities--and the impossibility of preparing to embark on task so enormous as bringing a person into the world--aside, the word "motherhood" still feels foreign. I envisioned being a mother as the commencement of a new relationship between me and a tiny person. As it turns out, babies, even my very social baby, can engage in relationships in only the most limited of ways. 

I very much felt like my baby's mother when my obstetrician cut her out of me during an emergency c-section and hoisted her into the air and over the curtain that (ever so thankfully) blocked my view of my torso so that I could see her, dripping with blood and amniotic fluid, and coated in vernix, for the very first time. (I considered avoiding all mentions of bodily matter in this post, but decided in the end that the gory process of creating life must not be overlooked.) Since then, I most felt a connection to her when I was able to make her giggle for the very first time several weeks ago. Her staccato, cackle-like laugh signaled to me that inside this little helpless being is someone who will blossom into a real person, someone who will someday need me for more than mere survival. I wait in eager anticipation for her personality to emerge even more and for our emotional connection to blossom. As she learns who I am and we develop our rapport, and as I become not just the provider of sustenance for her, I imagine I will get to be her mother in an even fuller sense of the word. 

In our six months together, I have enjoyed cuddling with her and feeling the warmth and weight of her little body on my chest. I love to watch her try new foods and cackle with delight, and then seconds later, watch as her face sours in surprise as the flavor reaches her tongue. I am relieved and heartened when I can comfort her with milk from the source. I like to wear her in my baby carrier and feel her close to me. 

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I was aware that I would often be deprived of sleep and utterly exhausted; that has proven to be the case. (But let it be known that it's better to be tired than nauseated!) I was not, however, adequately prepared for the task of feeding the baby. Prior to her arrival, I focused on procuring the appropriate baby paraphernalia and readying myself for the birth. Plenty of people helped prepare me for the actual birth, but I had no idea how relentless the task of feeding a baby was. Six months in, I can conclude: There is no easy way to feed a baby.

Breastfeeding propaganda abounds, yet actual evidence doesn't support all the claims that its advocates state with authority. Breastfeeding is quite difficult, and certainly not intuitive for the mother or the baby. For a mother recovering from labor, surgery, or both (as was the case for me), and a newborn baby who can barely see and has only a tiny mouth with little strength to suck, it is a challenging process. It's a wonder to me that our species survived with breastfeeding as the sole mechanism for keeping infants alive for thousands of years. 

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It eventually worked for us, albeit with the assistance of six lactation consultants. For several months, I spent four or five hours a day feeding Rebekah. (I highly recommend The Good Wife and Madam Secretary as breastfeeding television; I can attest that the female protagonists of both are oddly empowering to watch while sitting half-dressed in pajamas all day.) Now that Rebekah can see well, and her mouth is larger, the process is much quicker. But it is not free! The milk, to be clear, is free. But pumping with a rented hospital-grade pump is not free. (To maintain a milk supply if you are not with your baby every 2.5 hours, you have to pump.) Insurance companies are, for the time being, required to provide a pump under the ACA. The pump I received from my insurance company is both inefficient and loud. Nursing tops and bras are not free, and unless you want to disrobe every 2.5 hours, these are essential. If you want to leave home, nursing apparel--shirts with flaps or buttons--is also a necessity. Other purchases include: milk storage bags, a bag for the pump, new parts for the pump (periodically), and a hands-free bra (if you want to be able to use your hands while pumping), among other things. I mention all these obstacles not to complain, but to make the point that breastfeeding is not free, easy, or natural. It has its advantages--not waiting when the baby is wailing hungrily, for example--but it is not without its challenges. 

Also, if you want to go out in public with the baby, you have to feed the baby in public. It sounds silly to say that, but women still face so much grief for feeding their babies. This level of discomfort from many people puts mothers in a tricky and unfair situation: either you stay at home and lose your mind, or you go out in public, feed your baby, and risk making other people feel awkward. At first I was very modest and would disappear into another room if I was at home or hide in a bathroom if I was at a restaurant. Now I feed her when I need to and am mostly able to not feel bashful. 

These are some of the bottles we tried.

These are some of the bottles we tried.

We endured about 2 months of her refusing a bottle. This meant that I could not be away from her for more than 2.5 hours at a time. We tried numerous bottles, sought advice from experts, and eventually, after many tears from all involved parties, she took a bottle. I learned that I was right: It was not a matter of willpower, or letting her get hungry enough, or not giving her the right bottle. She had some tongue and lip tie issues that made it difficult for her to drink. I now have the option of moving her entirely to bottles, but I'm hesitant to give up the one thing that I know will almost always calm her down. There is also less cleaning involved than if we were only feeding her with bottles, and at this point, less cleaning equals more sanity. 

While I read a lot of books about pregnancy and birth, and one or two about breastfeeding, I read none about sleep. I anticipated (likely, incorrectly) that each author would have a pet theory that might work for some people but wouldn't be worth reading an entire book about. I knew that I would not be able to withstand even one night of "cry-it-out," the sleeping method in which you leave your baby in a room to cry until it falls asleep. That description is probably unfair because I have not read much about it. Nevertheless, I know that I would not be able to listen to her scream without intervening. When her lower lip quivers, and tears well and then pour down her face from the corners of her eyes, I feel a startlingly strong impulse to swoop in and save her. 

The first two months or so were easier than the last several, in that she now requires nearly constant entertainment and is not as portable as she once was. She grabs whatever is in reach and has already dumped one Chipotle burrito bowl onto the floor; not to worry, Schroeder happily cleaned it up. I was able to do things during those first few months when she slept all the time. I could make dinner while wearing her, which I did precisely once. I could write a few emails with her in the carrier, which worked several times, for about 15 minutes each time. I am behind on many things I have been meaning to do for many months now, including what I feel most guilty about, which is properly thanking everyone who gave us gifts, for which we are very thankful! 

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Six months ago today this little one joined us and changed everything forever. My primary responsibility is now to her--her health, safety, education, security, and well-being. We remain physically, intimately connected. It is an immense privilege to be her mother, yet motherhood, so it seems, is not without the emotional torment that comes with attempting to be everything she deserves in a mother.