I've been thinking about vulnerability a lot lately. It's somewhat common knowledge among my friends that I had postpartum depression with Cal. I've never coped well with hormones -- I've dealt with depression for a long time, but my first bout with it was when puberty hit. "That time of month" has always been pretty brutal. When I went on the pill, I was such a nightmare that I had to change my prescription. And obviously, the whole pregnancy and postpartum thing was pretty difficult. In addition, my hopes of breastfeeding exclusively were dashed when I found out both Cal and I had structural and genetic issues that made latching difficult for him and milk production difficult for me. Cal's birth was pretty difficult and painful to recover from, and to top it all off, he was hospitalized at five weeks with RSV. I'm not saying that I had the hardest time ever by any means -- I see sweet little babies in the NICU, moms with special needs babies, and other difficult situations and admire their strength and appreciate their difficulties as much as someone outside the situation can. All I'm saying is, for me, new motherhood was very, very hard. Without a doubt, the hardest thing I've gone through.
I hadn't really expected things to be that difficult. I was excited to have Cal -- he was very much planned and very much wanted. I was shocked with myself at the level of distress I felt as we learned to be a family. I wondered if I was a very horrible, selfish person because I wasn't bubbling over with joy like so many of the other new mothers I knew.
What literally saved my life was reading life experiences of people who had been through something similar. One of these days -- maybe in two weeks when I am able to get Cal to nap again, ha -- I want to write a post about all the books that got me through pregnancy and new parenthood. But the one that most helped me was Operating Instructions by Anne Lamott. Essentially, it was a little diary of her thoughts about her son in his first year of life. Sometimes what she wrote was shocking or abrasive. I didn't agree with every word in her book. But certain of her words were so freeing -- the way she obviously adored and lived and breathed for her new baby, but also the way she frankly admitted the struggles and negative emotions she experienced as she tried to navigate such raw, sleep-deprived days. My favorite quote is this:
I wish he could take longer naps in the afternoon. He falls asleep and I feel I could die of love when I watch him, and I think to myself that he is what angels look like. Then I doze off, too, and it's like heaven, but sometimes only twenty minutes later he wakes up and begins to make gritchy rodent noises, scanning the room wildly. I look blearily over at him in the bassinet, and think, with great hostility, he's raising his loathsome reptilian head again.If you've never felt a hint of that when your baby woke up after only 20 minutes, you are truly a saint and have my admiration (and skepticism).
Because of the way others' frankness helped me so much to get through my difficulties, I've always felt this desire and obligation to be open and vulnerable about what I experienced -- not to scare people or be negative, but because these emotions can be scary and heavy, and having someone else to share the burden lightens them so much.
All of this came to mind because I saw a discussion online about how women are "too negative" about early motherhood. All the women in this discussion were talking about how wonderful and perfect motherhood is, and how they hated how people had tried to scare them and how if they weren't selfish and tried harder to be positive, they wouldn't have such a hard time. This felt like a punch in the gut to me, especially because I had shared on this page the fact that I found it encouraging when women shared their struggles as a way to support each other. I think there has to be a better way to find balance. It was so harmful to me when everyone told me that motherhood was perfect bliss -- I was so shaken by the things I experienced. Of course I expected sleepless nights and a shift in my priorities. I think of the one person, one of my college roommates, who said to me, "It is so, so hard. But you love the baby so much." At the time I was a little shocked that she said this to me -- I was thinking, are you trying to make me worry? But after I had Cal, I was so grateful for her honesty. Because it was so, so hard. And I do love Cal so, so much. She was one of the lifelines I had that I wasn't a completely degenerate human being because I was struggling.
Anyway, all this to say that vulnerability is hard, but I still think it is important for us to be open about our experiences, both negative and positive, in early motherhood. It is uncharted territory with every new baby. Now that I am adding a second baby to our family in the next few weeks, I know some things. I know what it is like to wake up multiple times a night and go through a day on two hours of sleep. I know what it is like to watch chubby limbs go floppy from milk and melt into my chest. I know what it is like to watch every day as eyes grow more alert and smiles become more frequent. I don't know what it is like to watch siblings learn to love each other (and also to fight with each other). I don't know how to entertain a 3 year old while I try to feed a newborn. I don't know how to get through a day with an active 3 year old after staying up all night with a newborn. I am grateful for the stories my friends share who have been there already -- the stories of being awake all night and popping the toddler in front of the TV for hours, the stories of sweet first hugs between siblings, the promises that things will fall into place. The honesty of one friend telling me, "Mothering two children is the hardest thing I've ever done." I don't see that as negativity. I see it as openness, shared experience, connection. Something all mothers share, through both the terrible and wonderful moments of parenthood.