It was only two years ago that I first became a mother, yet it feels like much longer. Before my son was born, I read parenting books and websites voraciously, discussed child-rearing principles with my husband at length, and solicited advice from family and friends. When my son arrived, my husband and I felt as prepared as we could be and our son was a “textbook baby,” so there were not too many surprises. This time around, I found neither the need nor the time to do any research on caring for a newborn. I figured I’d done it once successfully, not so long ago, so I was prepared. I was wrong.
It turns out our parenting skills and expectations adapt to match our children as they grow. So just as it is difficult to pack for a trip to California while knee-deep in snow in freezing D.C., it is tough to imagine raising a newborn when you’re busy with a toddler. I also believe that our bodies are wired to forget the trials of those early months with a new baby so that we will want to have more children (just as the pain of childbirth is instantly erased from our memories when we meet our baby for the first time). Here are a few of the things I had forgotten about having a newborn:
- The cry. The cry of a newborn is very distinctive – like a lamb’s skittish bleat. When I hear that sound in an airport or doctor’s office, I immediately look around for a tiny baby and give his or her mother a knowing smile. It never bothers me when someone else’s newborn cries; it’s not very loud and it’s the only way they have of communicating. But when it’s my own child howling in my ear with gas pains, her face red from the exertion and tears streaming down her chubby cheeks, the sound rattles me to my core.
- The other noises. Even more notable than a newborn’s cry are the sounds that accompany her burps, farts, hiccups, and poops. It seems that their small bodies act as megaphones for projecting potty noises to anyone within a block’s radius. My two-year-old son and three-year-old niece find these sounds both horrifying and hysterical.
- The nursing learning curve. All babies are born with a sucking reflex, and I breastfed my son for seventeen months, so I assumed nursing my daughter would be a breeze. It turns out there’s a remarkable amount of trial and error before mother and baby find their nursing groove. I had forgotten how frantic a hungry newborn can become; sometimes even with my nipple firmly in her mouth my daughter screams with frustration. To say nothing of how frantic I sometimes become in this situation, especially in the middle of the night. And then there’s trying to get us both on a feeding schedule, which can be tricky while also meeting the needs of a busy toddler. Thank goodness there’s an app for that!
- The hormones. Crying spells, paranoia, non-existent impulse control, unjustified anxiety, general unexplained crankiness … sometimes I feel more like a toddler than my two-year-old! I know that there are a lot of chemical changes that accompany childbirth and breastfeeding, but in the moment, all I feel is the overwhelming emotion. I believe that sometimes the best way to cope with a crying baby is to join her in her indescribable discontent.
- The leaking lady parts. Between the post-partum bleeding, peeing a bit whenever I laugh or sneeze, and breastmilk seeping through my shirt, sometimes I feel like I should just wrap myself in a sanitary pad. TMI, but true.
- The unsolicited advice. I completely understand that most mothers would not take their two-week old on a cross-country flight during flu season or to a 3-year-old’s birthday party, but by the time we are there, it is too late to dissuade me by warning me about all the harms that could befall my child. So why do so many people try? I know they have the best of intentions, but I find passive-aggressive “concern” to be the most annoying form of judgment. And don’t get me started on the strangers who, upon hearing my baby fuss or cry, stop me in the store / street / park to inform me that she is probably hungry.
- The mountain of diapers. Oh my gosh, where does it all come from? I swear, the minute she gets a clean diaper, my daughter dirties it. Our Diaper Genie cannot keep up . . .
- The mountain of laundry. If a day’s worth of dirty diapers is a mountain, then that same day’s laundry pile is Mount Everest. Between poop explosions, spit-up, leaking breastmilk, food stains (inevitable when trying to eat and drink while holding a baby), and general dirt, sweat, and grime, the whole family has more soiled clothes when there’s a new baby in the house.
- The appetite. Mine, not my baby’s, although they are related. I have never been so hungry as during these first weeks with a new baby. Breastfeeding around the clock produces high levels of calorie expenditure and sleep deprivation, and leaves very little time for grocery shopping, food preparation, or eating. For me, this combination results in an animal-like pursuit of food – I will basically eat anything at any time. I snack constantly, but still often find myself in a hypoglycemic haze. My poor husband . . .
- The expressions. There is nothing so mesmerizing as the faces a new baby makes, usually involuntarily. From grimaces, to yawns, to sleep smiles, each expression offers a glimpse into the person this little one will become. Sometimes I get a flash of my daughter as a sullen teenager, other times, she is a six-year-old twirling in her tutu. And then, in an instant, she is back to being simply the sweetest one-month-old bundle of joy I have ever seen.
- The Mama Bear Instinct. I was incredibly protective of my son when he was first born – I hardly let him out of my sight (only a handful of times have I ever left him with anyone besides my husband), made all of his food, and did my best to keep him away from TV, sugar, the sun, too tall playground equipment, processed snacks, etc. This began to change early in my pregnancy when I realized I wasn’t going to be able to be with my son all the time and that he didn’t need me as much as he once did. So I started to let go, allowing him a few minutes of Sesame Street or a handful of goldfish crackers. My husband joked that we’d soon be feeding our second child pop-tarts and letting her watch Disney movies with our son. But my protective instinct has reemerged with this new, helpless baby. I’ll let others hold her (after they wash their hands), but I don’t want to let her out of my sight. I plan to make all of her baby food, too, and to shield her from as many potential harms as possible for as long as I can.
- How fast they grow. It is generally difficult to detect gradual changes in those you see daily, but not so for newborns. Every day my daughter has a bit more hair, can hold her head up a little longer, and looks more like a baby (rather than a grumpy puppy). She is a constant reminder of the passage of time and how fleeting this magical stage of her life is.