During the hottest July in history, I waddled through the last month of my pregnancy with my not-yet-2-year-old toddler, Melby, in tow. The resounding response from the general public was that it "looked like I had my hands full." Somehow, during a second pregnancy, people seemed to hold judgment and fear above me a lot more than they held doors for me. Needless to say, I was pretty darn worried about having two babies under 2, especially with my entire family over 2,000 miles away, my previous experience with postpartum depression, their father traveling almost full time for work, and the generally ominous response from everyone around me, but seven weeks postpartum, I can triumphantly say: I got this. Having a newborn and a toddler has actually been way, way easier for me than just having a newborn.
Before anyone subjects me to screening for sanity, let me explain myself. My first foray into motherhood was undoubtedly rough. I fell, careening, into that nebulous blur of time and space that a newborn baby often brings. I felt unsure of who I was, what I was doing, and what defined me in the absence of a career. I was terrified to do anything wrong and reassured by every article in the black hole of internet parenting advice that I actually was somehow doing everything wrong.
Especially as someone, who'd made a career out of working with young children and families, I felt pressured to embrace motherhood effortlessly, to "bounce back," do it all, and just love the whole experience. I did not. I felt constantly scared, exhausted, and helpless.
Bonnie, arrived on August 7, a casual five days past her due date, after 27 hours of active labor that made my previous labor look like an afternoon tea.
I distinctly remember going home to see my family when Melby was 6 weeks old. I felt sure that once I got there, I'd feel less broken. Surely there, I would be OK. One day, my sister, mom, and I were walking through Anthropologie; I was running my hands along the beautifully textured fall clothing, and I just could not stop crying. I cried audibly and unabashedly in public, because even there, amongst the prettiest things and the people I loved most, pretending to live a life I recognized, I felt empty and lost.
Time, therapy, some crucial mom friends, and a lot of yoga eventually pulled me through those bleak first few months of motherhood, but I definitely approached this impending second child with a lot of unresolved fear from my first go at it. The wide-eyed response from people around me did not help.
Our second daughter, Bonnie, arrived on August 7, a casual five days past her due date, after 27 hours of active labor that made my previous labor look like an afternoon tea. Within the first few weeks, I had a wild full body rash, what felt like postpartum arthritis, if that's even a thing, the onset of terrible allergies, and a nonstop headache that made even lifting my head hard. For the first month, Bonnie slept only while attached to me and wailed whenever she was awake, unless breastfeeding. My body was definitely retaliating; my baby was not too terribly thrilled about being removed from her position of supreme comfort inside my uterus, and I kept waiting for, along with it all, my mental state to plummet into some profound abyss.
I hit that six week postpartum mark last week — the point at which, with my first, I recognized that I was really, truly not OK. On that same day last week, Melby turned 2, and as an unexpected gift to myself for two full years of motherhood, I realized, I'm OK.
There are the requisite markers of a freshly postpartum woman that still feel sensitive for me: I'm getting to know a new version of my body; living with interrupted sleep is challenging; I am always the last one to eat/ bathe/ rest/ have my needs met, and yet, still, I feel almost weirdly positive. After reflecting a little on why that is, I realized that, especially as a stay-at-home mom, I've already got a pretty good routine as a parent. Melby and I regularly do activities, meet up with other families, and enjoy our community. At this point, I just inserted another person into the equation.
The kids seem to take my cue: we're doing our best, which is decidedly messy and imperfect.
While Melby's arrival left me floundering to figure out which way was up, this time, Bonnie just entered into a dynamic that already existed. The groundwork had already been laid; we get out of bed around 7, everyone eats, we go to the park or the library, have lunch, take a nap, do a little post-nap activity, eat dinner, take a walk, bathe, read books, go to bed. Instead of the newborn days that once dragged on endlessly, there's an opportunity, a reason, really to get out and about, and that reason is my toddler, who will take a very crappy/nonexistent nap if we don't get her energy out somehow in the morning hours. While I acknowledge that hitting a playground full of very busy kids during the late summer heat can be particularly exhausting for a new (again) mom, I personally felt like the momentum to put on pants and leave the house has really benefited everyone.
When Melby was first born, I might have sat at home obsessing about how long it had been since her last nap. (And I did. Please see: the internet tells me everything I'm doing is wrong. Surely a newborn could never stay awake more than 45 minutes at a time, while mine had been up for five hours!). Now we're on the go, and while I attend to Bonnie's needs, often wearing her in a carrier for a nap or finding a place to gently rock her at the park, my divided attention actually seems to make things run more smoothly. The less aggressive energy I put into making everything go perfectly, the more effortlessly it seems to unfold. The kids seem to take my cue: we're doing our best, which is decidedly messy and imperfect and my pretty joyful resignation to that imperfection makes everyone a little more relaxed.
I had a moment the other day, in which I questioned why it was so much easier to give Bonnie a bath than it had been Melby. I remember meticulously preparing for Melby's bath time — strategically laying out every item I could possibly need in its exact position, warming the room to a certain temperature, testing the water with one of those very cute gimmicky whale thermometers, and then ever-so-worriedly washing her down. Bonnie's bath ritual has been the exact opposite; it's easy and quick and if I forget the towel, I don't fall apart. It's not haphazard; I don't mean to paint a picture of chaos or carelessness, but just that everything is much more organic in its unfolding. I am comfortable holding her in my lap in the bathtub, letting Melby carefully pour water over her toes, sharing a towel to dry off. There's just much less ceremony, fueled by much less fear.
I was so worried, I had very little space left to love her.
That, I feel, is really the sum of it. I'm not afraid this time. I was so worried that holding Melby 'til she fell asleep would create a lifetime of dependence on me to sleep. I was worried that every bad nap meant she was so far off track we could never recover. I was worried when she didn't hit developmental markers exactly when she was "supposed" to, when she had baby acne, when her skin flaked off, when I would pump and it seemed like there wasn't enough milk, when the milk spilled, when she cried, when she grunted, you get the idea. I was so afraid it felt like everything was a failure.
Now, suddenly, she is 2. She talks in sentences, hurls herself downs slides, prefers brie over cheddar cheese, dances to Taylor Swift, demands sparkling water, hugs people when they're sad, remembers all her friends' names, falls asleep easily, wakes up happy, and is generally the best, funniest, most independent, beautiful girl in the world. I wasn't sure about her at first. I was so worried, I had very little space left to love her. And now I see how the whole world opens up in time, how your relationship with your child grows, how your confidence and abilities as a parent grow too, how mostly unfounded all of the fears are, how much better it is for everyone once you begin to let them go.
I love a little one on my shoulder and a little one holding my hand.
So when Bonnie arrived seemingly kind of miserable at first, I knew to tell myself: I got this. It takes time to get to know each other and to figure out the world, both as a newborn and a new version of myself as a parent. It's okay that it takes time and I can see the result of that unfolding: she is my supremely lovely 2-year-old. I feel like having two is doable because the first is constant evidence that I'm doing OK. She's the little trail of crumbs leading me and my newest girl along the path, saying, "Just one crumb, one step at a time. You did this once, just keep going."
I want to acknowledge that my experience is not universal. My initial experience with postpartum depression, in retrospect, seems a lot like grappling with an identity and paradigm shift that exposed many of my deepest insecurities, whereas a lot of women are actually dealing with something much more profound. I would never want to isolate someone by exclaiming how happy I am, thereby, maybe exacerbating whatever experience of sadness or anxiety they are having. Clearly each pregnancy, birth, and postpartum experience is dramatically different for every woman.
But where someone's typical response to hearing that I have two small babies is often one of such bleakness, fear, and chaos, I want you to know that I love having two little girls, and that this is a possible reality. I love a little one on my shoulder and a little one holding my hand. I love watching them love each other. I love where we are going, who we'll be. I love seeing the ways in which they are similar, and cherishing the ways in which they are not. I love how such a tiny girl makes my previously tiny girl seem so big. I love how doing it a second time gives me an opportunity to release some of the fear from the first time around, to allow myself some ease. I love saying, "my girls".
Let's be clear: it's not all sunshine. Melby frequently tries to smother Bonnie or rip one of her limbs off. If one of them is going to cry, likely both of them will actually cry, which makes me feel like my head will explode. I have almost no time to myself, ever. The diapers are endless. I often can't see the floor of my house. Sometimes I really, really have my "hands full" when I'm trying to manage a baby carrier, a toddler, a huge diaper bag, and whatever other 17 reusable bags filled with crap I somehow always have.
But, but! I feel happy. This morning when Melby woke up, the first thing she said was, "Baby sister's sleeping? I wanna see Bonnie!"
And that is everything. That is all the fear and the feeling lost washed away. That is grounding and nourishing and hopeful in a way I can't imagine anything else being. Somehow, for me, 2 seems almost easier, because it seems complete.
If you or someone you know is experiencing depression or anxiety during pregnancy, or in the postpartum period, contact the Postpartum Health Alliance warmline at (888) 724-7240, or Postpartum Support International at (800) 944-4773. If you are thinking of harming yourself or your baby, get help right away by calling the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, or dialing 911. For more resources, you can visit Postpartum Support International.