When I first got pregnant, I was pretty convinced that I would be the world's most awesome pregnant person. I got pregnant with twins on the first try (how's that for overachieving!), and in the first week or two after the positive pregnancy test, I felt so energetic and healthy and perfectly smug. I was going to do everything right: read every single parenting book, adhere to the world's healthiest and nutrient-filled diet, and sprinkle glitter everywhere I went. But I never got a chance to have the pregnancy I'd dreamed of — and no amount of parenting books could have taught me what I needed to know. Because when I went into labor four months early, there was nothing anyone could do but hold their breath.
Just after finding out I was expecting, I decided I was going to eat nutritious, organic, whole food meals I made by hand (in preparation for the homemade baby food I’d be making later, of course) and was not even about to consider putting anything into my body that could taint my pure, perfect fetus. I'd spend the next 10 months feeling so beautifully connected to my gorgeous future child at all times, and sit around all day reading all the parenting books ever written so that I could be a super-prepared, knowledgeable, A+ mama. Then, eventually, I'd give birth naturally in a birthing tub blown up in my living room with a midwife and a doula and it was all going to be incredible and I'd cry tears of joy at this unbelievable moment of connection with all of womankind and we'd live happily ever after.
(I know. I know.)
About a week later, the morning sickness hit. Hard. I learned that this was actually quite normal with twins, which I figured was totally unfair because, in truth, I really only wanted one baby anyway. One perfect baby that I was going to push out of my body without the assistance of drugs and then carry around in a hemp sling and breastfeed all day. And that baby wasn’t going to be the kind of baby that gives her mother morning sickness (yep, she was also going to be a “she”).
The next few weeks/months/eternity consisted of me sleeping until noon everyday with the windows wide open in the dead of a freezing cold winter because I was a children-incubating human furnace, and then waking up and moving myself to the living room couch where I sat and watched TV for the rest of the day with my dog, who I’m pretty sure was only sitting with me because she felt bad. My healthy, organic eating plan lasted about a day, after I puked my guts out and realized the thought of anything but Taco Bell burritos was basically revolting.
(Taco. Bell. Freaking. Burritos.)
Around the 18-week point, I started to feel like a human being again, and I thought that would be the time at which I could start anew, to get in touch with my glorious earth mother self who was supposed to be winning at pregnancy, and to ponder important issues like the best place to do prenatal yoga, or the merits of eating one’s placenta postpartum.
At my 20-week scan, we got to find out the sex of the babies. The good news was that we were having a boy and a girl, meaning my minimum quota of at least one vagina was met. But then, the bad news: My cervix was already dilating. I knew, of course, that this was a disaster, but do you know what my first deranged pregnant-lady thought was? “I can’t give birth now! I haven’t read the books!”
The books were a big deal for me. I had a tower of them, and they were all seemingly essential to becoming the mother that my children needed. I needed to the books to tell me exactly what to do and what not to do. I needed them to tell me how to prepare, and how to not screw everything up. I even had a book that was supposed to teach me how to self-hypnotize myself during labor so that I could skip the evil epidural. (Does it work? Who knows, I never even read the first page. I also got the epidural, and it was amazing.)
The thought that I was going to become a mother without having done any research felt like a reflection of my mothering skills, an omen forecasting my future. I hadn’t even given birth and already I’d done everything wrong.
Madeleine and Reid were born in the early hours of Dec. 14, 2012, almost four months before their due date, and in the wrong year. They each weighed less than 2 lbs., didn’t cry, and their eyelids were still fused. They could not breathe on their own.
The difficulty of becoming a mom in the NICU is that you don’t learn normal parenting stuff. You learn about oxygen saturation and nasogastric tubes and ventilators. You weigh each diaper when you change it, and you carefully measure their feeds and record their intakes. Now I know that not a single parenting book could have taught me that. I'd put so much pressure on myself to do everything by the book only to realize that the books couldn't have prepared me for this. They didn't teach me what I needed to know, which was how to navigate a life that felt like a movie, that felt like something so totally different than what I'd prepared for: a life that didn't even feel remotely like mine.
When it finally came time to take the babies home, the weight of my own parenting ignorance hit me. During one of my daughter’s feeds, I asked the nurse how I would know if she were getting enough milk at home if I couldn’t measure it out. “Alana,” she said gently, “if she’s hungry, she’ll cry.”
Oh. Of course. Babies cry when they’re hungry. Even the baby manuals collecting dust on my nightstand would have expected me to already know that going in.
The day before we were discharged, I actually considered asking if we could stay a few extra days. I felt I wasn’t ready. But in the end, we went home. And just like that, I figured it out. And I realized that, even if I had read the books, it wouldn’t have made a difference.
None of the parenting books know your baby. None of them can tell you that your son needs to be held still after he eats to keep him from getting reflux, none of them can tell you that your daughter will hate the infant swing. And nobody can ever prepare you for the person you will become once your child is born, the person who looks the same and maybe acts mostly the same, but is completely and profoundly different than she was the day before.
My kids are 2 years old now, and while I still read parenting advice online from time to time (toddlers are ridiculous mind ninjas), I know that no amount of expert knowledge will really ever solve any of my so-called parenting problems. We learn everyday, my children and I, through trial and error, by screwing up and then trying new stuff, and by trying to remember as much as I can that the goal is not perfection, but love, and trust, and letting my kids know that there are people in the world who will always have their backs. Helpful as they may be, the books don’t teach you that.
I always thought I was going to be an amazing mom. Now I realize that being a good enough mom is just fine with me.