August 5, 2013 by Julia
When Fiona was born, I thought she might be an only child – we wanted another, but didn’t know if it would happen for us. So with Fiona we went through the “first child experiences” while also preparing for the possibility that she might be an only child.
But of course in the beginning, I wasn’t thinking much about her possible future siblings. I had two main feelings: overwhelming relief that she had made it safely into our arms from the dark (mostly) unseen world of my womb, and a combination of love/fear/burden that shook me to my core. Dennis felt it, too.
A week or two after we’d gone home from the hospital, and my parents were leaving after an evening visit, I tearfully said to them, “You guys did a good job of never making us kids feel like a burden. I had NO IDEA that it was this hard.”
Now, it wasn’t that I’d gone into parenthood naively; I knew that it would involve a lot of work and was probably the biggest life change we’d ever go through. But I was struck, acutely, with that love/fear/burden combo that you can’t quite comprehend until actually becoming a parent. And I marveled at the fact that I had grown up in my parents’ household somewhat oblivious to the intensity of the love/fear/burden combo that they must have felt about me. To their credit, I’d felt more like a gift than a burden, heh.
But my mom has admitted to me that she did have some “baby blues” after I, her first baby, was born. I think part of the difficulty in the beginning is the incredibly steep learning curve. And I’m not even talking about the various methods of baby care. I mean parental confidence. It doesn’t matter how much baby gear you own, how many books you’ve read, how much babysitting you’ve done (although that might help more than anything) – it’s something you must learn through experience. Even the most seasoned parents can’t offer you a shortcut by way of advice. Not really.
The other difficulty is that this child is yours.
And if you love and care for your child, there is no escaping that, no way, no how, not even if you are two thousand miles apart for a weekend. The burden of your child will never go away. You are the adult here. All responsibility comes back to you. Not your own parents, not your boss. YOU. And that is some freaky shit, right there, the first time around.
The love itself is scary, too. I looked at Fiona, whom I don’t even know yet, and believed I would die if something bad happened to her. (That’s about as specific as I can get without flipping out.) And even if she remained healthy and safe, I still knew that she’d have to endure the hardships of life, and that my own heart would break when hers did. And the love hurt already, it ached, and the only balm was her fuzzy baby head in the crook of my neck.
She wasn’t a calm baby. She didn’t have colic (I honestly don’t know how parents of colicky babies cope. You are heroes.), but she was sensitive, and I remember this feeling Dennis and I both had of constantly walking on eggshells with her. We were on edge, she was on edge – hard to say who started it.
For our first dinner in public, we took her to a casual pizza place, sat in a booth, and wedged her car seat/carrier in next to me. She seemed contented enough, strapped into it. But we ordered our pizza, and she immediately started crying. I started gently jiggling the carrier, because we knew that sometimes put her to sleep. She did not settle down. We panicked. We flagged down our server and told her we needed the pizza to go, and fled the premises – one of us going back inside for the pizza, the other outside with the hysterical baby. “Well, that went well,” I said in the car, the air thick with our bitterness that we would NEVER AGAIN be able to enjoy the good life. To us, the good life meant eating out at casual pizza places.
I think that little story illustrates something typical of new parents. We found one thing that worked sometimes (jiggling her car seat to put her to sleep), and hung onto it for dear life, because the world was going to end if that one thing stopped working. Now, I look back on that night and think, why didn’t I just take her out of the carrier and cuddle her? Babies like to be held. Duh. I want to tell my past self to relax. But my past self would have told my current self to mind her own beeswax, probably. I was going on four (broken) hours of sleep a night, and was highly sensitive to any unsolicited advice.
Finally, a nurse from our hospital ordered me to come to a new mother’s group that met in the basement. She must have sensed something desperate and teary about me…a look she could probably recognize from a mile away. So I showed up, took a folding chair in the circle of moms waiting their turn to ask questions from the nurse holding court, and suddenly felt like I could breathe. Everyone had a baby with them, and those babies were crying, getting diapers changed, breastfeeding, like it was no thang. And the mothers! Such variety – some were in their early twenties, some were in their forties, some were fashionable and miraculously thin, others lost in stained sweats and greasy hair. But we were all the same. We were all tired, and stressed, and in love with our babies. Also, hungry. New motherhood is the great equalizer.
The suggestion I feel compelled to give to new moms is: hang out with other new moms. As a somewhat introverted person, I didn’t consider how much I’d miss the socialization that school and work had provided, until I’d been at home with Fiona for weeks by myself. So I became gung-ho about playdates – organizing them, introducing myself to people, always checking the message board for the online group we created.
And while I wanted to continue to see non-parent friends, of course, the stress level on these outings was usually higher. It’s one thing to sit with a bunch of old colleagues and try to nurse under a blanket while your baby screams because she is suddenly, furiously hungry (ahhhh!!!!!). It’s another thing entirely to deal with this scenario while surrounded by other moms who are currently bouncing and swaddling, near tears, laughing, carrying on conversations over the crying, whipping out boobs, shaking bottles as fast as possible, discussing every last detail of baby-raising as if it is more important than government policy – because it is (in some cases). These women helped get me through, more than any advice could have. This was the place where I was most comfortable, the place where my sanity was restored, my loneliness cured. And I still count some of them as some of my best friends.
Fiona’s first year went by slowly. She was a bad sleeper for the first four months, until we finally decided to let her “cry it out,” and things got better. I nursed her for eight months, which was really hard at first, and then wonderful for a while, and then sad (but slightly relieving) for me when she weaned herself, preferring the bottle. She never learned to crawl as a baby; she just wanted us to hold her hands up and walk her everywhere. Dennis and I couldn’t imagine a time when she would walk on her own or talk – not because she seemed developmentally slow, but because it’s so hard to fathom when you’re looking at this helpless little babe. We couldn’t wait, though. We wanted her to be a kid. We wanted to see who she was going to be, what her interests were and how she sounded when she spoke. We took a million gazillion pictures – albums’ worth for each month of her life, and I obsessed over which adorable outfit she should wear on which day. Both of our families were just as doting, especially with Fiona being the first grandchild on both sides.
Her first birthday was a joy. She began to walk. We were surrounded by her baby friends and our family members, and it felt so special to me. There really is something about a baby’s first. It’s a milestone for the parents, too – we’d made it out of the newborn woods, and were turning a corner into childhood. And to celebrate your own child, well…it doesn’t get much better. I just wanted to soak up every minute with her on that day.
As Fiona went from toddler to preschooler, things felt easier to us, although of course there were meltdowns and tantrums and confusing phases. But a toddler’s whine is less panic-inducing than a hungry baby’s. Also: sleep was happening for all of us. Things had grown more predictable, and we were gaining confidence. Although I do remember often thinking – there are moms out there who care for four or more children. Am I a weakling because just caring for this one child is hard for me? Is something wrong with me, because I struggle so much?
But now that I have two kids, I don’t look back on my 3 ½ years with only Fiona, and think, oh man – that was sooo easy, I had NO IDEA. I look back on it as being hard in a much different way than having two kids is hard. Both situations have their own sets of challenges and rewards. (More on that in Part Three: Having a Second Child!) The difference between having no kids and one is exponential compared to adding more kids to a family. All it takes is one to change everything.
So there you have it: what’s it’s like to have your first baby. No doubt everyone’s experience matches mine exactly. Just kidding, although I assume there are some universal truths that most of us share.
In summary, we were too overwhelmed to enjoy the baby phase, too excited about each upcoming milestone to appropriately savor the one she was currently in, went through a steep steep STEEP learning curve and major life adjustment, and last but definitely not least…have been given a love and joy that runs so deep none of that other hard stuff could even touch it. This is what fulfillment feels like.