We love our independence here in the United States. Our single family dwellings have fences, our cars have tinted windows, our children each have their own rooms. In our culture, we are often alone. That means when women become mothers they don’t always have the resources or experiences to know what normal is. It can feel very isolating, overwhelming and even frightening. We are told about how when you give birth you will instantly love the baby. And while that it true, it doesn’t mean that everything will be easy or that you won’t make mistakes.
Because fears and thoughts are often not talked about, women believe they are alone in the dark and frightening thoughts that can occur at two in the morning. When you are exhausted, even the baby who you love with all of your heart can push you to your limit.
I want to give voice to some of those thoughts and fears, because it can help to know you are not alone. I was comforted when in the middle of the night I was exhausted and frustrated, I remembered a friend telling me about the way it sometimes really feels to be a new mother.
Special thanks goes to Sara Chapman, who wrote the essay below as part of the Mindful Mama Rites of Passage contest. Thank you Sara, for letting me repost this here.
Tell people you have twins, and the reactions range from the joyous to the cautionary. They lean in close, and whisper conspiratorially, as if confiding a weighty secret. You know, its not twice the work, they would say, It’s four times the work! I would nod, a stiff smile on my face, say “Oh I know.” What else could I say? I didn’t know.
Around 2 weeks after the birth of my twins, I read a story in the newspaper. It was just a tiny paragraph, buried in the B Section, about a woman who had dropped her baby girl into Lake Pontchartrain. She had felt the heart beating in the infant’s tiny chest just before the waters closed over her. I wept bitterly about that story. I wept for the loss of life, for the terrible waste of her mother’s blood and sinew and essence. I wept for the baby because it is a terrible thing to be unwanted, and because she never got a chance to win her mother’s love. I wept, but I could not bring myself to judge that young mother.
I had come late to marriage, late to motherhood. In the latter days of my pregnancy, I would lie awake at night and think about our future. I worried about all the things every first time mother worries about; will they be healthy, will I know how to care for them, comfort them. Can we afford two sets of clothes, toys, lessons, educations. My husband wasn’t the least bit afraid. He assumed we would get through parenthood as well as everything else we had done. He had courage enough for both of us, so I borrowed some from him and stifled my fears. It comes to me now that all the nights I lay awake, I never tried to picture their faces. As much as I worried about the mundane details of raising children, they remained an abstract to me until the day they were born.
My babies were born in mid-winter, close to the solstice; the darkest time of the year. I had wanted a natural birth; instead my daughter remained stubbornly breech and at the 38th week of gestation, I had a c-section. I was terrified of the idea; of the spinal block needle, and of being cut open. But I felt nothing except an odd tugging, as if someone were rolling my lower half back and forth. I waited anxiously for my babies to appear, and when they did, I got only a brief glimpse before they were whisked away to be weighed and measured. I lay on the table, craning my neck as far to the side as I could, trying to see my daughter. When my husband finally brought her to me, swaddled tightly, I studied her face through tears of relief, trying to recognize her. She looked so odd to me, not at all what I expected.
The first few weeks after the birth of my twins is a blur of fatigue and intense loneliness, despite the devotions of my beloved husband and my endlessly patient and kind mother. I have never experienced exhaustion like that in my life. I craved sleep the way heroin addicts crave the next fix. Breastfeeding didn’t make me feel natural and powerful; it made me feel resentful. Every time that thin cry woke me from a stupor at 3am, I fantasized about having a nursemaid take over.
My husband and I spent endless hours trying to get the babies to sleep; and when they finally did, we would do anything to avoid waking them. We kept the house tomb-like quiet: cuffed the dog when she barked, shushed company if they spoke too loudly, glared at each other with each clank of a plate and accidental door slam. I felt intensely guilty about how badly I wanted them to just sleep and wondered if something was wrong with me. I spent hours rocking them in my arms, sitting on a huge exercise ball and bouncing, pacing up and down, up and down gently jostling them into submission. One night, I had spent 45 minutes bouncing on the ball holding my son. My arms ached, my shoulder screamed in protest. I was hungry and tired and I didn’t want to be there anymore. I was certain he was finally asleep, but as soon as I tried to place him in the crib next to his sister, he awoke and bellowed. I suddenly had the most intense desire to shake him, which scared the wits out of me.
I called my sister for help. She is a devoted mother herself, and I felt ashamed and awkward confessing my thoughts to her. I told her how scared I felt, how frustrated. I told her that I wasn’t sure I was cracked up to be a mother. She surprised me by the strength of her affirmation; she too had felt frustrated and angry. She said something which buoyed me for weeks: You give so much more than you get, at first. You are putting so much in, and you get so little back. Be patient, give them time to win your heart.
As the days and weeks wore on, I gradually came to know my children better. The way my daughter smiles; slowly and looking sideways at me through her impossible lashes. How my son will patiently wait for my full attention, and when I finally give it, will crack his face almost in half with a grin so giant it could threaten to outshine the sun. I know now that my son likes music and swings and my daughter likes to bounce and have her head gently stroked. I know who is ticklish and which one likes to be pleasantly scared when we play “peek-a-boo.” I now know the intense delight of a new skill suddenly mastered, the joy of watching a tiny lightbulb go off over each silken head. I know the honeyed sweetness of a quiet moment spent cuddling a just-nursed baby, milk-drunk and pliant in my arms.
I think about that young mother in Louisiana a lot these days. I am lucky, I have had so much support: a mother, a sister, even strangers on an internet forum who have shared my moments of joy and desperation. I imagine that maybe she didn’t have any help, that she had to spend those first dark weeks feeling burdened and alone.
I wish I could have put my arms around that young woman, held her close and whispered in her ear, You are not alone. Be patient. Give her time to wake up and reveal herself to you. Give her time to win your heart.
Sara is a Los Angeles mother and keeps a blog of her babes’ monthly achievements, The SkatKitten Diaries.