“Hard work makes a mother. We like to think something magical happens at birth, and for some, it does. But the real magic is keeping on, when all you want to do is run.”
Oh, to have heard this encouragement from a seasoned midwife on the BBC’s "Call the Midwife" while still in the throes of newborn-induced insanity. This instant “magic” that so many mothers describe never happened for me. The birth of my first child was mind-numbing – my epidural did it’s job, and more. When they hastily ripped down my hospital gown and plopped that waxy little nursling upon my chest, I cried, but I felt nothing.
What followed was a fairly typical saga of first-time mom recovery, complete with post-epidural complications, difficulty breastfeeding, oceans of unexplained tears and a post-labor, postpartum appetite that rivaled that of a varsity lacrosse player. I was sure I'd done something wrong – in those long weeks, I either felt nothing at all, or complete despair at my newfound calling into motherhood.
I am not unique. Postpartum depression is real, folks. Most mamas experience some sort of curious “baby blues,” and somewhere between 11-20% of those new mothers have what’s classified as PPD. I was never officially diagnosed, but I’m sure I landed somewhere between the normal emotional rollercoaster and full blown postpartum depression. The thing is, I didn’t stay there. Somehow, some way, slowly, I emerged.
Looking back, I’ve realized that it's ok to secretly not love, and maybe even hate, being a mother at first. It’s a feat of olympic proportions just to give birth. Whether you did it like an all-natural birthing warrior goddess, had a calm, clean, and gloriously medicated birth, or had a crazy emergency medical situation ending in surgeries and sutures, these situations are all equivalent to running a thousand marathons in a single day.
And then, as your body – bleeding and leaking – attempts to heal itself, you immediately are required to begin the high-pressure task of keeping another human alive. “Time to feed,” the nurses yelled, barging into my room in the middle of the night, bearing no gifts except a wimpy, pathetic $800 ibuprofen disguised as “pain medication.” How does anyone ever have more than one child, I screamed internally, as I attempted to nourish this child with a body that protested producing anything more than the little life it had just given, sleeping peacefully at my bedside.
For some, this cocktail of pain, emotions, and delirium does not distract from the wonder of becoming a parent. For some, it is a magical, incredible, beautiful experience from the minute that sticky baby emerges. And for others, it simply is not. For some of us, it is a completely life-altering experience that feels devastating at first.
And that’s ok.
One day, after weeks of days that are nights and nights that are days, the tidal wave that was my postpartum misery slowly subsided. A friend came to my home 2 days after my first child was born and gently closed the nursery door. She assessed my general condition and asked me, in a hushed tone, after making sure my husband was out of earshot, if I felt like I’d made a mistake. She asked if I felt like screaming, if I felt like I wasn’t going to survive this.
Through embarrassed laughter, I cried tears of relief. Only hours before, I’d been contemplating marching back to the hospital and demanding a refund. This whole newborn thing was precisely not what I had signed up for. You’re going to be ok, she told me. It won’t always be like this, she said. You aren’t the only one who has felt this way.
I wish I could go back and reassure myself in those first dark days. I would remind myself that it’s ok that the sleepless nights, the constant feedings and changing and swaddling and shushing isn’t your cup of tea. It’s ok that you feel like you don’t know this baby, this small person that suddenly is in your charge. It really, truly does not mean you won’t be a good mother, or that you made a mistake having children. It means that you’re in charge of a tiny, helpless little maniac that will hold you hostage for a few months and then suddenly one day, without warning, that little dictator will smile or cough or sneeze or fart at you in the most amazing and incredible way that will fill your entire body and soul with a love that you never imagined was possible.
For some, that moment happens as soon as their slimy little babe is catapulted into this world. For others of us, it takes hours of rocking, countless diaper changes, infinite swaddle blankets and techniques and weeks of wondering if you’ve got what it takes to love this person, to carry on, to be an actual mother. For me, it took all of these, accompanied by hours of Googling absurd things like, “baby is still sleeping after 3 hours for the first time ever is this ok” or, “how to choose the pacifier that looks most like your nipple” before I started to feel like perhaps I may be capable of caring for my newborn son.
I remember gazing into my son’s sleepy, grayish eyes while feeding him one day, and suddenly his face changed. He gave me a knowing smile, like he was aware of all the upset his arrival had caused, and in that moment, I felt a thread of companionship, connecting us beyond just basic survival. I felt the first glimmer of pure, unadulterated love and infatuation for my child. It came slowly, but with each sniff of his sweet-smelling cheeks, it began to gain momentum. When he reached for my face for the first time, it grew, and as we passed the 6 week mark and the fussiness lessened, it grew again. Little by little, over those grueling first months, I fell hard for him.
In the years that have passed since the fog of brand-new motherhood cleared, the bond between my son and I has grown into something sturdy and enduring. It’s ok that it didn’t happen for us right away. The truth is, bonding between a mother and her child is unique and personal. It’s different for everyone—it’s as individual as each one of us. And most every mother will tell you that the bond deepens as time goes on, as she watches her littles become big. Because the magic truly is lost somewhere in getting up for the 4th time in one night, in cleaning the spit-up out of those adorably tiny fingernails , in changing a newborn’s clothes for the 8th time in one morning.
The magic truly is in keeping on when all you want to do is run.