Six to 12 hours after a baby is born, Dr. Lee Engelbreth, a pediatrician at St. Joseph Hospital in Denver, Colorado, visits the parents in the nursery, also known as the mom-baby unit, and more often than not, as a hospital pediatrician, she's never met them before. Yet she'll be one of the first members of the larger world to hold and touch the newborn, and the first to offer guidance and advice to the brand-new family. She'll be one of the first to witness bonds growing, taking shape, gaining form. What does she see?
"Especially those first-time parents, you walk in the room and their new perspective is almost palpable," Engelbreth tells Romper. "You can try and anticipate what it feels like to have a new baby in your house and as part of your life ... but until that little one is in your arms and looking up at you, you can’t really fathom what that feels like." There's an incredible energy in the room, she says, made of excitement, anxiety, and joy.
Though I have a child myself, I couldn't tell you what brand-new parenthood looks like. The only thing I remember from those first few hours is a foggy, overwhelming sense of relief. And my partner is no help in jogging our memories. He thinks he felt proud, and also extremely hungry. When the doctor launched into her assessment, he proceeded to write down every word she said, and then promptly lost his notes.
It's not unusual. Engelbreth says the parents she meets are exhausted and overcome. Hearteningly, it's almost always parents — plural — in the nursery. "It’s uncommon for there not to be a dad that’s present and involved," she says. "Sometimes they’re shell-shocked, and sometimes not quite sure what to do or what their new role is, but it's one of the few events that gives people pure joy. And I think those moms and dads and grandparents, everyone is experiencing that."
As for what dewy-fresh parenthood looks like, there's a lot of half-hypnotized gazing, says Engelbreth. "They just can’t take their eyes off the new baby. They’re just mesmerized. And it’s constant eye contact with the baby, and then with each other, and it’s back and forth, this little triangle, this little family…"
Often, the parents say very little, says Engelbreth, and seem overwhelmed by emotion too strong and strange to put into words. "There’s this energy in the room, and this really intense eye contact with each other and with the baby."
As Engelbreth describes the moment, I can't help but remember that photo of Brad, Angelina, and Shiloh Jolie-Pitt published in People Magazine. (Forgive me.) He's looking at that tiny baby, and she's looking at him. It's like a little circle of love, and possibly the truest image People ever published. Yes, the Jolie-Pitts are wealthy, gorgeous celebrities — but there's something so universal about that photo, it's impossible not to stare.
One of the few things many moms do remember from the earliest days of parenthood is the frustration of breastfeeding. Shouldn't it come easier? Shouldn't it feel more natural?
Nursing is often an unexpected struggle, Engelbreth explains. Mom might be new to it, the baby is definitely an amateur, and everyone's too tired to think. "But these moms are so determined," she says. "And so that bond that occurs through the struggle and the challenge ... I think like a lot of things in life, those bonds are strengthened by adversity."
Another common element in the portrait of these new familes: a toddler sibling, hopping with excitement. They've waited nearly a year for this new addition, and that's a long time for a little person to wait for anything. You have to wonder what these young children see and experience, and whether they too feel that new baby energy, knitting the whole family closer together.
In that nursery room, one little boy insisted to Engelbreth that a new baby's name was "Garbage Truck." His mother explained that this was a great sign — at home, he waited and watched for the garbage truck everyday. In his own way, the 3-year old was trying to express something about expectation, the wait, and the joy of something wonderful now finally here to stay.
"I feel truly honored," says Engelbreth, of the trust new families place in her, and of witnessing families bloom. "I always say it’s the best job in the world. I know it’s cliché, but I can’t think of a single thing I’d rather do every single day."
You’ll never forget the birth of your child, but what does everyone else who was there remember? Find out with more from Romper’s look at birth, Stork’s Eye View.