The white noise machine in my son Ezra’s room has a repetitive underbeat that sounds kind of like the hook of California Love– but over and over, and without Tupac.
I listen to this loop for several hours a day as I sit on an exercise ball, holding Ezra. Bouncing on the ball is the only way he will fall asleep, and the only place he’ll nurse. I sit and bounce and fantasize about how I’m going to destroy this ball when this phase is over. My current plan is to cover it in lighter fluid and ignite it while inflated so I can watch it crumple in on itself while it burns.
My back hurts. My back hurts so badly by the end of the day that lying on my stomach to sleep is painful– ironic, considering how much I looked forward to that while pregnant.
Ezra will only nurse on the ball because I have what’s called an overactive letdown, which means nursing can be a bit like trying to drink from a fire hose for him. He developed a breast aversion even though I tried everything anyone ever suggested to manage overactive letdown, went to two lactation consultants, even tried cranio sacral therapy (don’t ask me what it is as I’m honestly still not sure). Everyone tells me he’ll come around, grow out of it, and yet nearly two months have passed, and here I bounce.
FYI, with enough practice it’s possible to nurse a baby while answering emails, playing Farm Heroes Saga, or writing a blog post, one-handed, all while bouncing on an exercise ball.
I have cried on the ball. I cry silently so I don’t disturb the baby. I cry because my back is on fire, because I’m exhausted, because I’m lonely. I cry because I’m a new mom, and this shit is hard.
I go to a weekly Mommy Group at my birth center– where, despite my best intentions, I did not have a beautiful natural labor. Instead, I ended up as a hospital transfer, arriving at Huntington from the birth center in full hardcore labor screaming “GIVE ME DRUUUUUGS.”
I go to the Mommy Group every Thursday, and last week, things got real. I’m not sure how it started, but suddenly these women holding tiny perfect humans began to share the darker, not-Instagram-ready side of new motherhood.
Postpartum depression, postpartum anxiety, even postpartum psychosis. Guilt, fear, and comparison. And the crippling loneliness of spending nearly all of your time alone with a new person who needs you very much, but who cannot speak or say thank you and tends to be wide awake just when you most need him to take a goddamn nap already.
I listened and thought about my own first days postpartum. I had horrible nausea and could eat only smoothies and crackers. My alarmist OBGYN told me the slight pain in my side might be appendicitis and I should go to the emergency room (the midwives at my birth center correctly guessed that I had just pulled my psoas muscle during labor). I had what I now realize was a panic attack at Ezra’s first pediatrician appointment, shaking and nauseated and unable to stand, scaring the shit out of my husband and my mom. As soon as possible, I went on a low dose of Zoloft to help with the crippling anxiety that made my teeth chatter and prevented me from sleeping when I most needed to.
It’s just really, really hard.
My baby is cute. He’s not particularly screamy, and aside from the nursing weirdness and a general dislike for sleeping, he’s a pretty easy baby. That doesn’t stop me from watching the clock every day as it creeps toward 7pm, the time when my husband comes home to give me a break and a conversation partner.
When I get out of the house with Ezra, I have to say no to guilt. He seems happiest at home, parked under his baby play gym. But I am a person too and I need more than a squeaky giraffe to keep me sane.
Mommy groups and “play dates” are opportunities for new parents to get out of the house. The babies do not care. For the first few months, they barely acknowledge one another’s existence.
But I look forward to the two or three excursions I try to schedule each week, entering them carefully into my otherwise blank Google calendar. They’re my chance to ask “is this normal?” (answer: yes) and to practice being a functional human for an hour or two.
Everyone acts casual, but I know these meet-ups are the highlight of the week for many of us. We run brushes through our hair, maybe put in contacts, and dress our babies in their cutest outfits. We sit on the ground and compare notes on all of the things that have suddenly become fascinating– growth spurts, childcare costs, and the color and frequency of our babies’ poops.
And behind every conversation I’m thinking, God I hope I’m not repeating myself. I hope I’m making sense. I sound like a human, right?
Because one of the things humans need to survive is sleep, and while my husband and I didn’t draw the colicky/screamy baby straw, we drew the terrible sleeper straw. At 13 weeks, Ezra still sleeps an average of just 2 to 3 hours at the beginning of the night, starting at about 9pm after a long bedtime ritual where I try to get as much milk as possible down his throat. He then wakes up, eats, sleeps an hour, wakes up, eats, sleeps another hour… repeat until 7am, 8am if it’s a great day, 5am if it is not.
Sleeping for an hour at a time, most of the night, most nights, for 13 weeks, is not something you can prepare for. My husband and I read ten books between us on parenting and infant care while I was pregnant. None of them laid out the sleep deprivation reality we’ve faced.
The chapters on sleep said things like “the average three-month-old will sleep four to five hours at the beginning of the night, followed be one to two shorter chunks.” They didn’t follow that up with “but your baby might say fuck that and continue sleeping and eating like a newborn for several months.”
We pored over sleep schedules and vowed to set a consistent wake and bed time, try a dream feed to help encourage him to sleep through the night, etc. We were ready. We didn’t realize that in order to do any of those things, your baby needs to sleep longer than an hour at a stretch. If our fifth wake & feed of the night ends at 6:45am, there’s no way in hell I’m getting back up at 7am for a “consistent wake up time.” I’m going to try desperately to fall back to sleep as fast and hard as possible, and pray the little critter decides to give me another hour before he’s up for the day.
In those excruciating first postpartum days– and, to be honest, during the 4am hour a few times since then– I’ve wondered how the hell anyone has a second child after living through the purgatory of early parenthood.
But the answer is simple: you fall in love with your baby.
At six weeks, he smiled. Last Saturday, he laughed. He is alert, curious, and active. My mom tells me I was an equally horrible sleeper (sorry, Mom), and in his nursing quirks and the single-minded focus he brings to a task like learning to roll over, I see his parents’ stubbornness and determination.
But he is his own person, too, a social, muscular little man who alternates between silly and solemn. I get to hang out with this cool miniature human, and watch my husband become an incredible father, too. Every day we all learn more about one another.
Did I cry yesterday? Yes. How about today? Does 4:30am count, when I couldn’t get back to sleep after the fourth feeding of the night and the reality of how tired I was going to be for the rest of the day sunk in? Then yes, I’ve cried today.
But Ezra also nursed in a rocking chair instead of the exercise ball this morning, for the first time in over a month. He laughed at the song I made up while changing his poopy diaper (in all fairness, it was hilarious). And when I leaned over his crib after the one successful, 23-minute nap he’s had today, his face lit up in a big, toothless baby grin, legs kicking up with his sheer happiness at seeing me.
A friend joked that if babies had a 15 day return policy, there would be far fewer people in this world. Maybe so, but here at the 90 day mark, I can say we’re pretty damn happy with our acquisition. I can almost see how people end up with more than one.
Now excuse me while I try to put this baby down for a nap for the eighth time, silently reciting the words to California Love as I bounce to the rhythm of the white noise machine, praying that this little person I love so much will give me enough of a break to clean the cat box and do a load of laundry before nightfall.
Wish me luck.