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What To Really Expect When You Are Expecting — Everything I Wasn't Told

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I'm sitting in the corner of the sofa, a very tiny, very real, very living baby girl wrapped in muslins on my lap. We look at the time, do the math. It’s time for her to feed. Other babies may cry loudly at this time; not my baby. She was born low-weight and is very sleepy and weak. I learned a year later that low-weight babies are called Sleeping Beauties. I understand why. The operation begins. We unwrap the muslin, take off her onesie, change her nappy. Wet some cotton wool with warm water and run it along her cheeks. I undress my top half and put a nipple shield on, and my husband and I set about waking her, getting her tiny mouth latched on, getting her feeding, keeping her awake, all at the same time. Meanwhile, I am sleep-deprived, I haven’t had a poo for a while, it hurts when I wee, and I feel a bit like I’ve been in an accident. All I can think, through my foggy, emotional, fragile state, is, No one told me what I should really expect. No one told me motherhood could be hell.

You forget the birth as soon as it happens, you’re so in love with your baby, it’s so great to be home…

These are the comments I’d heard.

There was less of: You make up for not having a period for nine months and have it all in one go (the medical term for this is lochia), and you need to wear adult-sized nappies to deal with it. There was also a lack of: going to wee for the first time is very painful and stings: it’s best to do it standing up. And then there’s the postpartum poo, which might not come for days or even weeks. Do that standing up, too. And be warned: it’s like having another baby. Drink lots of water and eat some prunes, that will help. In fact, drink lots and lots of water. Otherwise you’ll get a urine infection and bleed through your urethra, and that will make going to the loo something you dread so much, about as much as you dread breastfeeding.

Because, yes, breastfeeding can be very painful and hard and may not come naturally at all. It’s hard. You may have inverted nipples (don’t worry, they’ll suck them out, eventually). The baby may have a poor latch. If they are low weight, they may have a small mouth and weak jaw, in which case you need to constantly stimulate them to keep them awake and feeding. Count to ten and hope the pain subsides by then. If you’re pumping to help your milk come in, don’t use a really high setting, your nipples will pay dearly. Use the setting that doesn’t hurt; that feels like a gentle tug. If you set your alarm during the night to feed, don’t go hysterical if you sleep through it. It’s OK. Just move the mobile out of reach and tomorrow night you’ll do better.

A new baby is a beautiful, magical, wonderful and terrible responsibility.

Your nipples. They may crack and bleed and the tops may fall off. Let the air get to them, sleep with no top on, use that natural cream made of sheep’s something or other, and put cabbage leaves on. Did I say to drink water? With time they will indeed heal and breastfeeding will, hopefully, feel like a gentle little tug. However, if that doesn’t happen for you and it’s too much: do not worry and do not drive yourself to despair. Breast is best? Well, fed is best, I read recently. And happy mother, happy baby is best. Your baby needs you and they need you healthy and well, so do your best, but don’t push yourself too hard. Be your friend.

Photo courtesy of Miriam Foley

While we’re talking about nipples, let’s talk about breasts. They’ll turn into huge bosoms when the milk comes in – do wear a bra. You’ll feel bad afterwards for all that gravity that was at work, otherwise. And be careful your baby feeds from the last one they left off from at the last feed. That way they drain the whole breast… because YOU DO NOT WANT MASTITIS. If you get red patches on your breast, it might be the beginning of the enemy — have the baby start the feed on this one, and try to position their chin in the direction of the redness. A midwife recently recommended using a vibrator to help unblock the blocked milk duct. Hot seed bags also help.

Your vagina. It may well feel weak, like the rest of you, and open, and tired, and bruised. Do your kegels. Go to see a pelvic floor specialist in good time. Imagine your back hurts — you go to see a physio. Do the same for your vagina. It’s one of your most treasured muscles, and just gave you your baby. If you didn’t have a vaginal delivery, this doesn’t change much, your pelvic floor still took a big hit and you would still benefit from seeing a professional.

Your mental health. Have I said you’re in hell right now? Like, every single bit of you is enduring the biggest test of your life. It’s The Hunger Games, a fight for survival. We’re talking possible tears and stitches, blocked milk ducts (possibly under the armpit), hemorrhoids, blood spots on the labia, lochia… all with a new life on your hands. When I gave birth to my baby, I wondered how I would ever go to sleep again, and the first time I did was for 15 minutes before the next feed was due, and I only slept because my husband was on BABY STAY ALIVE DUTY.

A new baby is a beautiful, magical, wonderful and terrible responsibility. Go easy on yourself. Take it one day and one night at a time. Sometimes all the decisions are as terrifying as standing in front of a 400-strong crowd and having to make a speech about something sciencey. Too hot, too cold? Hungry? Tired? Colic? What is colic? Who knows. Do the bicycle and hopefully they’ll do a fart and you’ll celebrate and maybe you’ll laugh and cry at the same time, because that little fart was a big triumph.

You’ve got this.

Check out Romper's new video series, Bearing The Motherload, where disagreeing parents from different sides of an issue sit down with a mediator and talk about how to support (and not judge) each other’s parenting perspectives. New episodes air Mondays on Facebook.