When I discovered I was pregnant with number two, I was terrified. It wasn’t sleep deprivation or 12 diaper changes a day that had me quaking; it was having to face the intellectual wasteland of the newborn period.
Okay, maybe that’s a bit harsh. I certainly read an admirable number of novels while nursing my firstborn twelve hours a day. I took some epic, meditative walks. I learned many valuable lessons about relinquishing illusions of control. But learning how to be okay with spending half my waking time sitting in a chair breastfeeding was incredibly challenging. What can I say? I’m a New Yorker; I was born with an innate phobia of stopping. I was jealous of my husband as he bounded out the door to go teach a class. Jealous of the hipsters poised in sunny café windows, typing with two hands, of the women with yoga mats strapped to their backs, their sweaty faces beatific with that post-vinyasa glow. I was jealous of everyone walking in and out of restaurants, grocery stores, houses with no wailing creature attached to their body. Of everyone who even slightly resembled the woman I used to be, a woman I feared I would never find again.
No, you don’t lose your pre-baby identity when you become a mother. But, as much as you might hate to admit it — and I really hated to admit it — you do put many aspects of your “self” on the shelf for a while. A long while.
And no one prepares you for it.
You prepare, instead, for the demands of caring for a newborn, and don’t get me wrong—it is some of the hardest work I have ever done. But the truth is, mothering a newborn doesn’t require you to do very much. You’re often sitting for many, many hours a day in the same chair, nursing. Perhaps you’re also pacing for many, many hours day with a baby in your arms, jiggling, jostling and bouncing in the hopes of stopping their tiny wails. The most intellectually engaging part of your day might be figuring out how to peel open a banana or brew a pot of coffee with one hand.
You do put many aspects of your 'self' on the shelf for a while. A long while.
Yes, you can remind yourself many, many times that you’re nourishing new life, and many, many times staring down at that little red face, or listening to those sweet baby pants and groans is rewarding beyond all reason. It makes you, and the whole world, feel whole. But many times it does not.
Many times, nursing will be accompanied by struggling to balance a book and turn the page with your teeth, or impulse-shopping on your phone. Or sitting quietly, contemplating how small your world has suddenly become.
When you finally do pull it together and meet up with other new moms, you end up comparing how many hours of sleep have eluded you as you struggle to get a good latch. You go home with much-needed validation over your choice to bed-share and a fantastic secondhand Boppy pillow, but very little sense of who you are or where you now belong in the world.
Maybe the art of sitting with yourself and feeling okay about producing nothing more than breastmilk for hours on end was easier for prior generations. For women who didn’t walk down the street staring into cell phone screens and shooting off really important emails. Women who were less likely to have spent a decade or more building a fulfilling career before putting it all on pause to have a baby.
Or maybe it’s always been this hard.
Either way, it makes me wonder why we don’t talk about this more. Because what if this sudden abundance of time to think, to imagine improbable, tragic scenarios, contributes to postpartum anxiety and depression? What if it fuels the frustration many newborn caretakers feel toward their partners, who are under a very different, very real pressure to keep on providing the bottomless financial and emotional support the arrival of a new child demands?
As my 2-year-old once sagely noted, 'You’re not a person. You’re a mom.'
Warding off these feelings of identity loss and isolation, which were so overwhelming with my first daughter, is a little easier the second time around. In part this is simply because I have a 2-and-a-half-year-old, and I know the literal wasteland your life, and home, become once your baby devolves into a toddler. At times, it seems like there was not much autonomy or sanity to lose in the first place. As my 2-year-old once sagely noted, “You’re not a person. You’re a mom.”
With this new, dehumanized perspective, my newborn often feels easy. I find myself basking in the few hours a day my older child is in daycare, when I am able to sit in a chair instead of nursing while one-handedly whipping up a pot of boxed mac and cheese. I appreciate the minutes that allow me to do nothing and hear nothing. Or at least, not hear tearless whining or a tuneless rendition of “Wheels on the Bus.” And just when I begin to feel unmoored in my isolation, my toddler races in and provides me with the emotional stimulus and satisfaction that my newborn, simply, cannot.
I’m also less anxious about my choices, confident that I won’t destroy my child’s chance for a happy future if I let her cry for three minutes so I can finish rinsing the shampoo from my hair. I don’t feel quite as much pressure to be everything for my newborn, which creates a bit more space for me to be me. Striving for perfection isn’t just foolish now, it’s impossible. I am often physically and emotionally pushed to my limits providing just enough for my daughters, and far too exhausted to feel guilty about it. Really, I can’t think of a better gift to give them than the ability to accept the real over the ideal in a life that is destined to disappoint as often as it elates. This is a skill they have taught me, and continue to teach me, during sleepless nights, wasted workdays, agitated walks through the park.
My girls have shown me how to find beauty and peace in the smallest moments. They have taught me that you can live a full, happy life with blocks, books, and tutus scattered across the floor. They have led me to realize that these long days are actually fleeting, and incredibly precious. I have learned the value of sticky palms and sleepy sighs. This time around, I can see that I have not lost myself, but have been given an opportunity to grow in uncomfortable and unexpected ways.
I still bitch about having to navigate through life with one hand, and I still cry in the shower. I definitely still struggle to resist the temptation to cruise Amazon during long nursing stints. But I trust that these contemplative hours and patience-devouring days are not causing me to disintegrate. They are helping me evolve into a person who is wiser, kinder, and generally just better than the person I would have been had I not ventured into this strange abyss of motherhood.