One of the first things I did as the parent of a newborn was write a really forlorn letter to an advice columnist. I wasn't depressed about my baby, but having a baby had sort of puffed up a cloud of free-floating anxiety about living far from my loved ones, the way I was spending my life, and just generally, you know, *waves arms about in general direction of the cosmos*. I guess I didn't feel like I needed ~help~, beyond a 2000-word reply from Ask Polly. It is also true that I cried sporadically on and off during the early days as a new mom. No matter what tidbits you get from your friend's Google Sheet about all the things you'll need to survive parenthood, nothing can ever really prepare you. Early motherhood for me was a sort of constant low-key panic with spats of Terrence Malick interspersed. It was wonderful and precious and so so hard!
New moms are reaaaaaaaally just hanging in there. As many as 20 percent of new moms experience perinatal mood disorders — a global epidemic per the World Health Organization. Depression is receiving more attention, and the mechanics of "mom rage" are beginning to show a glint of recognition, but we have a long way to go (baby). Beyond that, according to my non-peer reviewed study of me and my two childbirths, our ideas around what is normal postpartum are wackadoo. After the birth of my first kid, I had low-grade OCD (I realize now), waking several times in the middle of the night and padding over to put my hand on my daughter's chest or under her nose to make sure she was breathing. Later, I would click the baby monitor on and squint at her stripy pajamas (mom hack!) to see the tell-tale pixel-blink of a chest puffing gently in and out. In some senses I was totally bananas, but in other senses I was doing "great" according to friends and family. I went for a mile walk with my baby on day four, I left the hospital speedily, I didn't have anything to ~complain~ about.
People congratulated me on being an "easy" parent who didn't need "extra" help. Except that I was waking up throughout the night to panic about my baby disappearing or dying or wrapping her swaddle around her head somehow. Given I had no confidence about my actual parenting skills, being told I was doing so well (because I hadn't called the doctor or a lactation consultant or a crystal healer) was weirdly satisfying.
But about that panic... I worried about SIDS night and day for a year. The rate of death from SIDS was 39.4 per 100,000 births in 2015, according to the CDC. Alarming, right? Then again, 26.4 mothers died per 100,000 births the same year. ALSO HIGH. But we find it much easier to project our fears onto our babies, right?
Moms, you know what I'm talking about when you see this:
In an amazing New Yorker piece about baby monitors, but not really about baby monitors, the novelist Karen Russell wrote, "Every time the app refreshes and shows an empty crib, I feel a stab of surprise." New parents know this feeling; if you click the baby monitor, for a second, it shows the last frame imprinted on the screen. So if you wake it in the daytime, you will see your baby disappear before your eyes, snatched away by the time delay. It's a neat little metaphor for the stray anxiety that new moms deal with as a matter of course — those who do and don't get help.
In fact, in the newborn period, I wound up with mastitis bad enough that I needed to have the blockage aspirated with a giant needle by a radiologist one horrifying day that took me from a lactation consultant to a breast surgeon to the radiology clinic, all while toting a screaming little five-week-old and nowhere near enough nappies.
The lump had been there in my boob for a little while, but I resolved to "keep calm" and "be rational" about it all (whoops!), spending a week raking it with a comb and doing dangle-feeding and hot compresses and so on. I even saw a GP who told me to just "monitor" it. This all happened well shy of my six-week "checkup" with my OB-GYN, so I really wasn't sure who to see for help, or how to even get there with a newborn. It is so hard to drive a car and also have your arm bent around into the backseat under your baby's nose at the same time. No one tells you!
It's hard to know what you should freak out about as a parent. If you open the floodgates, you sort of think, Well, shit, I'd be spending every day at the doctor with all my crazy questions.
Instead, you take it one nap time after another, relieved when your baby has survived another bout in the Twilight Zone of their crib.
After putting my daughter down as a baby one night when my husband was out, I decided to make myself a quesadilla. I cooked the thing, ate it in the nursing armchair (is there uterus-repleneshing iron in quesadillas I don't know) and, at some point a while later, found myself mosying back to the kitchen for a drink. The bad-news scent of gas met me halfway down the corridor. I rushed over to the stove, which was unlit but on. Fuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuck!
I opened the window, flapped my arms, did a series of impotent mimes on the spot, then ran into the next room to grab my phone and Google it. What if my phone charge sparked an explosion? What the fuck do I dooo? What do I do now I got my daughter to *sleep*, I panicked?
I called the local fire department.
"I'm terribly sorry," I told them with a confident, posh voice that wasn't my own, "I appear to have left the stove on and my kitchen smells a *tidge* like gas, which is dissipating, but... I'm not sure what to do?"
I added, "I have a small baby," as if that explained everything.
How do you know you're a mom? You know when you find yourself standing outside your row house clutching a blinking baby in footsie pajamas at 9 o'clock on a weeknight as two firetrucks strobe the neighborhood in disco lights and an army of helmeted men march up the stairs to your apartment to check that the stove knob is off-off.
I wouldn't have called that fire truck for me, but for my baby... the panic. Fuck.
In those first few weeks, I visited the pediatrician I think four times — week one, week two, week four, and an extra jaundice visit thrown in there somewhere. I didn't even see my OB until week six, when half the drama was old news.
Mothers hold it together because they have to. Their partners went back to work at two weeks postpartum, if not before, and they have a kid or kids to look after — they can't go letting the panic loose.
But we need to find away to focalize the needs of new moms. Find a way to make sure someone is monitoring them.
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