My first diary was a A Little Orphan Annie book with a tiny gold lock I received as a birthday gift. Since then, I have always kept some kind of diary, as a safe place to record thoughts I had to purge but didn’t want to share with anyone: the ones I thought painted me in an ugly or pitiful light. I just wanted to park them somewhere, with no intention of revisiting them. But when I looked back at the journal I kept after having a baby, it was cathartic. It made me realize how much I had evolved, and how much I benefited from parenthood, despite the fear and despair I recorded in those early days of motherhood.
In the wake of my first child’s birth, I was anxious, exhilarated, hopeful, frightened, overjoyed, and exhausted. It was a lot of emotions, all at once. I had my husband, and my family, and my friends, and a supportive online community, and I can’t imagine how much harder it would have been to acclimate to parenthood without them, but even all those factions didn’t shore up the belief that I was doing OK as a mom. Even after I had my second child, when I had been through the newborn experience before, I was still flooded with confusing, and sometimes alarming, thoughts. I was worried about my career. I was stressed about childcare. And I was still figuring out how to parent a toddler, pioneering her life stages as we continued through unchartered family territory.
There was little I could control. There wasn’t a measurement by which I could assure myself that we were doing fine as parents, other than our babies’ growth. So I unloaded my scary thoughts into a makeshift journal: a 2-inch square spiral notebook, with just enough space on each page for a couple of sentences. Any more than that, and I’d probably start spiraling.
All I could do, in the pages of my journal, was to own up to not knowing what I was doing.
“I don’t know” was a common phrase. There was so much I didn’t know. Parenting books made it worse; they just served to show me how no mom-baby pairing is the same. “Sleep when the baby sleeps” and “just love them” rattled around my overworked brain. I did those things, and then I didn’t do those things, and none of it paid off with any more confidence in my parenting skills. All I could do, in the pages of my journal, was to own up to not knowing what I was doing.
To the outside world, I appeared somewhat in control; my child was behaving in typical newborn fashion (waking at all hours, cluster-feeding, wailing if held by anyone but me). I just felt so unsure of myself. There was nothing anywhere that showed me my feelings of uncertainty were actually perfectly within the scope of new mom emotions. My doctor was only interested in my physical healing. The pediatrician was only interested in my baby’s weight gain and diaper output. My visitors were only interested in holding the baby, as long as they could give her back when it suited them. I answered to everyone but myself, but I did that to myself. I didn’t make my needs known.
Reading those thoughts now, it’s pretty clear I could have definitely stood to talk to someone about feelings.
So I scribbled them down in the tiny journal. They were my horrible secrets: I just wanted to sleep, I wished someone would ask me about something other than the baby, I needed to fit into my pre-baby clothes because I didn’t have the time to shop for new ones. Also: who was I? I was still me, but now also a mom. How would this work? Do I compartmentalize these parts of myself, or can I be everything I ever thought I was while committing to care for this tiny new roommate who was also the new love of my life and — OMG — how could I have ever thought I was a complete person before I was her mother?
Reading those thoughts now, it’s pretty clear I could have definitely stood to talk to someone about feelings. I wish I had been braver back then, but I had no spare energy to muster the courage to admit I needed help. I felt as if all parts of me were working as hard as they could and the days of putting myself first were over. I had my first baby at 35, so I got plenty of me time, I reasoned. So I logged the bad feelings, along with my weight, and stuffed the notebook back into my dresser drawer.
Recording my weight was the tiniest bit of control I felt I had. I logged it during my pregnancy, pleased that I stayed within my doctor’s recommended range for how much to gain. And I logged it in the months postpartum, as a way to record how I was able (without exercise or restrictive eating) to close the gap between who I once was, and who I had seemingly become. If I could wear the clothes from before my motherhood manifested, perhaps I could reclaim the sense of order and predictability I had lost once they strapped the fetal monitor around my abdomen on the last day of my pregnancy.
As I thumb through the pages of my post-baby journal, I feel a twinge of sadness for my new mom self, but mostly I feel relief. I made it. Motherhood has tempered my expectations. I have no less ambition, and no less frustration with myself when I feel I’m falling short of my professional or parenting goals, but I am much more realistic when it comes to dealing with prickly feelings. I don’t try to “solve” my discomfort or fear. I recognize it, and I recognize that I can get through it. I am kinder to myself because having kids is difficult; they hold a mirror up to every crack in your self-esteem and threaten to widen it. But then their tantrum ends, or bedtime arrives, or they just look at your like you’re their whole world and it fills every crack in your parenting confidence.
I’m glad I recorded my fears at the very beginning of my children’s lives; reading them is a reminder that I can move past them… though I know some new ones are waiting for me. After all, my first baby is now a tween.