I’ve been a mom for just over a week now. While I did write a long, rambling, mess of little Thea’s birth story while I was still in the hospital, this is the first time I’ve sat down to think about what the past eight days have brought. Joy, sweetness, an emotionally indescribable sense of responsibility, snuggles, laughter, fierce admiration for Nick’s capacity for love and support, exhaustion, some fear, guilt, anxiety.
People keep telling me to sleep when the baby is sleeping. I’m supposed to be sleeping right now. Nick is watching Thea sleep. There is absolutely nothing dramatic going on. We cleaned up the Christmas chaos this morning. And yet, here I am, wide awake. Lying in bed, I hear what might be Thea crying. It’s an ambulance three towns over. Or the whir of the construction site down the block. Or the opening of the fridge door downstairs. Then I get to feeling guilty about not sleeping. Or not doing my pelvic floor exercises yet. Or not walking. Or walking too much. Or worrying about my milk supply.
I once read that to be a mother is to have your heart permanently living outside your body. I was reminded of this aphorism after one of many mid-night feedings when I lay, exhausted, in bed, listening to the rhythm of Thea’s breathing, trying to determine if she was falling asleep or fussing, maybe still hungry or just smacking her lips in satisfaction, and it was as if there were two layers of me. One exhausted layer about to drop into deep sleep and one wide awake layer watching over my baby.
I knew labor would be painful, and I tried to stay in shape so I’d be strong for delivery. I thought I might go without an epidural. I told people this was because I’d heard the recovery was easier, because I wanted to be able to walk around after my baby’s birth, because I heard it might interfere with breastfeeding, but if I’m really being honest, it was because I wanted to prove that I could, because being “tough” has always been an important part of my identity.
Well, let me say that the pain of labor was unlike anything I could have ever fathomed existed. I had in my head that I’d try to focus on contractions like intervals around the track. HA! Who cares about intervals around the track, really? I mean, it’s for fun, even when I was a more serious competitor (in college), it was, by definition, for sport.
Because my labor progressed so quickly (I went from dilated to a one when my water broke to dilated to an eight in just over four hours), I didn’t have a very long period of time in which I felt in control of anything. I was able to breathe through contractions for about an hour, and I tried the pain management techniques I assumed I’d use throughout (the birthing tub, holding Nick, visualizing riding over a wave, staring at a spot on the wall), but fairly shortly after labor began, contractions were lasting about a minute and a half with just about a minute in between, and I was in so much pain that I shook uncontrollably throughout each contraction. I wasn’t able to react, just to exist. I felt like an animal, not because I was fierce and in touch with my primal instincts, but because I could not even think. After trying an hour or so of nitrous oxide (which, for the record, did absolutely nothing except make me dizzy), I asked for the epidural.
While the epidural did allow me to rest, it also slowed down my contractions, and with each contractions, Thea’s heart rate decreased a bit. I could see the nurses and midwives watching the monitor, and although they told me there was nothing to worry about, I knew that wasn’t quite true: they were all watching the monitor. Then, even though I wasn’t fully dilated, they asked me to start pushing to bring Thea down, which I knew wasn’t typical, and made me even more scared. So, when I tried motivating myself to push by thinking about the last hill at my high school state course, or finishing 400s on the track, it just felt dumb. What I was really thinking was “I don’t care what happens to me, I have to get my baby out safely.” Usually what I’m thinking during a 400 is something more like “don’t be a wimp; you want to earn your beer tonight!” At one point, in what I now realize was an attempt to boost my confidence after I expressed worry and fear, the nurse told me she’d heard I ran marathons, and asked how many. Everyone in the room made a big fuss when I said “eight” (I’m not sure where that number came from; I’ve run five, but I wasn’t really in a position to count them up just then). The thing with pain in a marathon is, again, really, who cares. If you have a bad marathon you feel like crap about yourself for awhile, and maybe even feel like absolute garbage in your legs and head and bowels for days, or even, in a really bad case, weeks, but I’ve never feared that a life was on the line when I hit the wall at mile twenty or went out too fast on a hot and humid day.
I haven’t spent much time around a newborn since my brother was born 24 years ago. Of the things I was not prepared for, despite understanding logically, my baby’s vulnerability has been by far the most world-altering. From the moment I started suspecting the monitor showed signs of Thea’s distress, I understood something fundamental had changed in me.
Of course this change is a good one, and a necessary one. But, there have been a few moments where I’ve felt sad about this change. Not so much sad that I’ve changed, but sad for the part of my life that’s over. I’m no longer just my mom’s daughter, but a mom myself. It’s hard to explain what about this makes me feel so nostalgic and emotional. My mom told me that having kids made her realize how much her mom had loved her, and I think that’s part of what overwhelmed me about my love for Thea–the understanding of a kind of fierce, protective, unconditional, terrifying love that I didn’t understand before. It makes me feel a fiercer love toward my own mom, too. It makes me feel connected to generations of women before me in a way I hadn’t anticipated, and even more broadly, to women in general.
I chose midwives for my prenatal care because I liked the idea of treating a low-risk pregnancy as a phase in life rather than an illness or a disease, but the word itself means “with women.” I have never felt so strongly that I was with women than I did in the hours of and immediately after labor. Not just the women in my family who’ve come before me, but the women in the hospital who responded when I said I was scared, who tried to remind me that I’m a marathon runner, who brought Thea to my chest after she was born, who gave me stitches and helped me to the bathroom, and talked through the importance of my recovery at discharge, who gasped at the scabbed state of my nipples after three days of breastfeeding… being with these women has shaken to the core the way in which I perceive dependence and need for assistance.
Watching my little girl sleeping, unable to sleep myself, I am filled with hope that she’ll be kind, and strong, and tough, and independent, and thoughtful, but also that she’ll be able to ask for help, and understand the beauty of receiving it.