I might have gone a bit overboard preparing for the arrival of my first child. I read everything there was about taking care of a baby. What I failed to do, though, was prepare to take care of myself postpartum. As a result, there were some feelings in that fourth trimester that took me by surprise. Actually, all of them threw me for a loop since I had, well, never been a mom before. And while I felt confident about my diaper and crib bedding choices, I was much less secure about fitting into this new identity as a parent.
Part of the due diligence I should have done was to talk to other new moms. If I had sought more women out like me, who had already experienced what I was experiencing, I would have realized that it’s completely normal to endure a wide range of emotions in those first few months after becoming a parent. My 12 weeks of maternity leave left me rather isolated, as my first baby was born in November. Being home, often alone (after the initial rush of visitors), compounded my nervousness and made dealing with the onslaught of strange new feelings more challenging.
I don’t want other moms to unnecessarily shoulder the burden of scary emotions that the fourth trimester brings. Acknowledging these feelings, talking about them, and identifying them as part of the process of motherhood helped me work through them, the second time around. Here are some of those fourth trimester feelings every new mom will experience, but the good news, for me at least, was that they taught me to ask for help when I truly need it:
My firstborn was a chance to redeem myself for any missteps I might have taken in life (as in, the way I spent most weekends during my 20s). This was a clean slate; a chance to start over with a brand new person and help shape them into a perfect model of humanitarianism and altruism… until the overwhelming responsibility of that task sets in.
Becoming a mother for the first time, I was gripped with fear. Although there was a chance my partner and I could cultivate our baby into a magnificent human being, there was just as good a chance (in my mind, at least) that she would become a nightmare thanks to our terrible parenting. This little newborn was positively helpless, and no matter how many hours I had logged as a babysitter in my teens, there was nothing that abated all my fears about being somebody’s mom.
When fear came to visit in those first few postpartum months, anxiety wasn’t far behind. Whatever I was afraid of — my baby not thriving, my baby not sleeping, my baby not smiling at my jokes (this was a particularly big blow to my ego) — set off a chain reaction of endless worry. The fear and the trepidation festered into an anxiety the likes of which I had never experienced before.
Because I was so afraid of negatively impacting my newborn and the future I had envisioned, I was convinced I was never going to be a good mother. A good mother wouldn't second guess her instincts, like I was doing when I wasn’t sure what my baby’s cries meant, right?
I really needed to be told I was doing fine, and that my baby was fine, even though I had friends, and family, and the pediatrician assuring me, in that first stretch of time adjusting to life with a newborn, I felt untethered. Only as time went on, and my baby thrived throughout the fourth trimester, did I take it as evidence that maybe I was an OK mom.
As fear and anxiety and insecurity mounted, I began to feel like I couldn’t manage it all. Though I didn’t seek out a diagnosis at the time, I am pretty sure I was showing the symptoms of postpartum anxiety, depression, or both. I would hold my newborn tightly to my chest, and press myself into the wall of the dining room, which was the furthest point from our living room window. For some reason, I thought that, even though we were over 20 feet away from it, my child would fly out of my hands and through the glass, plummeting six stories to the concrete below. No amount of logical self-talk could convince me this wasn’t a possibility.
These helpless moments, though they were brief until I was able to find calmness, were some of the lowest points of my nine years of parenting.
When the phone would ring, just as I was stepping in to the shower after trying to put my newborn down for the last hour, I would be seized by annoyance.Then I would feel guilty,for feeling that way, especially when it was just someone calling to check if I needed anything while I was home alone with the baby.
It took me a long time, but I had to make peace with the fact that I wasn’t always going to feel amazing and fulfilled by motherhood. I was just as entitled to being pissed off and irritated by parenting-related things, especially as I adjusted to life with kids, as anyone else.
Another diaper blow-out. Another outfit change. Another load of laundry. Having a newborn made me feel as if I were trapped with Bill Murray in Groundhog Day. It just didn’t end.
With the endless repetition of diaper changes and nursing sessions, I got pretty good at the manual labor part of parenting. So good, that I challenged myself to keep things interesting. Let me be the first to warn you that the one-handed eating of a sandwich over a nursing infant’s head will not go as planned. I got a little cocky in my abilities at times.
Also a symptom of the mundane repetition of caring for a newborn is complete and utter boredom. These stretches wouldn’t last long, as babies have a knack for changing things up with unexpected hunger pangs and sleep strikes, but no fourth trimester is complete without experiencing parental ennui, even if it’s brought on by the umpteenth repeat airing of a Flip of Flop episode while you’re folding yet another load of laundry.
Even though I cycled through this list of prickly feelings, there was one constant I felt every single day: crazy love. Buried under a landslide of strong emotions, and sometimes hard to discern through the chaos, was the purest, deepest love I’ve ever felt. Different than romantic love, it didn’t give me pause that it would some day flame out. It is almost scary how an emotion can be so strong, and now that I live with that love, for my two children, I can’t imagine a life without it.
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