I felt well-prepared for motherhood. I have sisters, brothers, and friends who had kids. I’ve changed diapers, held sleepovers, heated bottles, and sang Itsy-Bitsy Spider. I was aware of Dora’s propensity to shout (we get it, you like your backpack) and the vital importance of Elmo.
More importantly, I’ve listened to my friends and family talk. I knew it wasn’t all going to be serene moments of love and family bonding. I had been told that post-baby I would need giant underwear for unspeakable reasons and that my boobs would explode and teach me a new and much less sexy understanding of “wet t-shirt contest.” I was informed that there are actual creams and unguents designed to relieve cracked and bleeding nipples.
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Friends told me that my marriage would suffer. More than one promised that at some point post-baby I would look over at my husband and wonder: how could I have shackled myself to such an ignorant, selfish, deep-sleeping, mouth-breathing oaf for the rest of my life?
People told me that of course I would love my baby, but I wouldn’t always like her. They said that until the baby started to smile, it was normal to view her as insanely demanding, illogical, and egotistical. Friends told me to surf the hormonal waves rather than swim against them. They explained that if I needed to sit on the couch weeping over a Humane Society ad, that was perfectly acceptable.
The refrain I heard constantly, from friends, relatives, and even books was that the first six weeks were the hardest. They said that before that six-week mark, I should simply concentrate on keeping my baby alive, myself fed, and my husband not murdered. Showers, pants with zippers, a tidy home, and adult conversation were luxuries I would forego for a little while.
All in all, I figured that I had things under control. I cruised through those first six weeks with minimal angst. I was blessed with an easy baby, tons of help, generous maternity leave, and a husband who stopped complaining about how tired he was when I explained that he could tell literally anyone else on the planet about his exhaustion, but not me.
That’s why I was stunned to find myself at week seven on the floor of my daughter’s bedroom weeping and begging her to just Go. To. Sleep. Looking back, I realize that despite all of the advice, I was as ill-prepared as any first-time parent. As illogical as it sounds, some part of me truly believed that on the 45th day, my baby would start sleeping through the night, smiling when she saw me, and feeding according to a defined schedule. I thought that I would understand her desires and be able to meet all of her needs.
My life up until that point supported my belief that I would have control. I was a professional woman who had calm conversations with colleagues, got her reports in on time, and won praise for her efforts. I had mastery over all aspects of my life (except my hair: why so frizzy, why?).
Then 7.9 pounds of contradictions arrived. When I realized that my life was entirely dependent on this tiny person’s mood swings, I panicked. I resorted to books, devouring everything from The Happiest Baby on the Block (not mine) to The Baby Whisperer (it’s hard to whisper over ear-splitting screams).
I would figure out what the “right” thing was and do it. Problem was that the books couldn’t agree on a solution. Pick up your infant so she feels loved; if you pick her up, you’ll spoil her. Feed according to your schedule; follow your baby’s internal rhythms. No one was consistent, and nothing the experts advised worked on my little girl.
The books freaked me out, and the internet was even worse. Desperately searching for information on caring for seven-week-olds, I came across countless smug parents crowing about their fabulous sleeping, fuss-free, smiling babies. What was I doing wrong?
For three nights straight, I lay in bed and couldn’t sleep. I had a seven-week-old child and I also had insomnia. Those two things should not go together, and yet there I was. My baby was sound asleep, but I was wide awake, obsessively going over my rocking technique from the day before. Did I not shush-pat enough? Had I done it too much? Did my baby feel loved? Was I smothering her? How many hours, precisely, had she slept? I kept charts and tallies. I was making myself crazy.
Finally, in desperation, one freezing winter day I bundled up the baby in her stroller and trudged through the snow to meet my friend at her work. As I neared the city’s downtown core, I began to pass well-dressed women in high-heeled boots and spit-up-free jackets. These were women who spent their days working in offices with clearly defined goals and attainable markers of success. I had been one of these women only seven short weeks ago. Now I had on sweatpants but no deodorant.
I cried the whole way there.
My friend met me for tea and sympathy. She has three kids and knew what I was going through. She listened to me rant about theories on sleep cycles, eating schedules, and attachment parenting, and when I was through, she spoke. Kathryn reminded me of our girls’ trip, years ago, to Las Vegas. On the way to the airport, I experienced my usual pre-flight anxiety: I had checked and rechecked our tickets and passports; insisted on arriving two hours early, and made Kathryn forego all pre-flight shopping so that we could be seated at the gate when our flight boarded. Left to her own devices, Kathryn would have swanned into the airport with half an hour to spare, boarding the plane at the last possible moment.
Kathryn didn’t worry about missing the plane, but she did have a massive fear of flying. The instant she boarded she tensed up. She shushed me during the in-flight safety demonstrations, ascertained the exact location of her emergency exit, and gripped the seat so hard during takeoff that she left nail marks on the armrest. I, on the other hand, was as cool as a cucumber once I sat down in my assigned seat.
When we talked about it later (after Kathryn’s Xanax had worn off), I explained why I wasn’t afraid to fly. I had done all I could. I had gotten myself to the plane on time and was sitting where I was meant to. My responsibilities were over. The flight was going to happen, and if we were going to crash, we were going to crash. The power was out of my hands, and I could chill out.
Sitting in the coffee shop with my little girl asleep in her stroller, Kathryn leaned forward. “Your baby is seven weeks old. You have no power. You have no control. She is too little. You’re not flying this plane, Amy. The baby is. All you can do is bring your seat to the upright position, make sure your seat belt is fastened, and relax and enjoy the flight.”
I don’t know why the image of my infant daughter piloting four tons of complex machinery 30,000 feet above the Earth actually comforted me. Maybe it was simply receiving permission to let go. At any rate, I managed to relax, straightened my spine, and walked home through the snow.
I didn’t crack my baby’s code right away, but that was the low point in my journey to motherhood. It was a relief to be told to go with the flow and follow my instincts. At some point in that first year, I wrested control of the plane from my daughter. I’m the pilot now… at least until she hits teenagehood.