The truth in parenting

Two days before the birth of my first child, a little before 36 weeks of pregnancy, I was put on modified bed rest due to suspected preeclampsia. It hadn’t occurred to me that I might go into labor early (Mom Tip: If you’ve never done the whole having a baby thing, there are a lot of things you just can’t picture, so I’m telling you now – pack your hospital bag early). I even polled my friends and family to determine whether or not since the bed rest was “modified” that I could sneak out to my last movie before I was stuck at home with the baby.

For the record, everyone voted no, which was a good thing because I might have gone into labor on the spot while watching Twilight (don’t judge, at least I didn’t go!).  After two days of laying down at home, I was brushing my teeth at 10pm on an unseasonably warm November night when my water broke.  By 9am the next morning I was someone’s mom: Julia Ruth Cucinotta, all 4 lbs. 14 oz of her.

I had thought that when they put the baby on your chest your heart exploded with love and you were bonded for life.  Not me.  My blood pressure spiked during the delivery and they rushed the skin to skin experience so they could get her tiny little self to the NICU and get me on magnesium, literally the worst medication I have ever experienced, to avoid me getting eclampsia. Mom Tip 2: Did you know preeclampsia is not an actual medical condition but a set of symptoms that are a warning you could get actual eclampsia?  Again, the magical world of things you don’t know until you have kids!

For the next 24 hours Julia couldn’t come to me because she was in the NICU, and I couldn’t go to her because I was in hell.  On the magnesium, my body felt floppy and heavy, almost like I was paralyzed. I had to be catheterized because they can’t risk me  even getting up to go to the bathroom.  I wasn’t allowed to eat or drink in case I choked.  I begged the nurses in tears until finally I got a nice one to give me one or two ice chips in secret.  I was so hot my husband had to wear his winter coat to keep warm in the hospital room since we turned down the temperature so much, and still I needed cold compresses.  I was also practically delirious.

The next day,  after more than 36 hours with no food or drink, as the poison slowly subsided from my body, I was handed what looked less like a cute cuddly baby and more like a tiny chicken. I was cautioned that I couldn’t even breastfeed her yet because I might transfer the magnesium to her.  What was I supposed to do with this tiny mewling thing?

I’d like to tell you that after the drugs wore off and we brought her home that things were great, but they weren’t at first.  I was in a fog: afraid, sad, detached.  I am a lifelong anxiety sufferer and had a depressive episode in my early twenties, so postpartum depression was not out of the question. But I couldn’t articulate how I felt. I’m an over-sharer, but I couldn’t share this somehow. I mean, how do you tell people that you’re worried that you might have made a mistake?  That maybe you weren’t meant to be a mom because clearly you suck so bad at it and don’t really like it?  Even my well meaning family, friends and truly excellent therapist wrote off what they saw as the standard struggles of new motherhood.  But it was more than that.  I literally couldn’t believe it was going to be this hard.  And when would it get better?

It wasn’t until almost a year later that I realized I had suffered Postpartum depression.  And it wasn’t until long after that when I finally started opening up to people about the challenges I was (and sometimes still am) experiencing as a mother. I didn’t take to parenting easily and occasionally still don’t, even though I absolutely adore my kids (I have a son now, Luca, who is almost two.) My goodness what a difference it was to go through this stuff a second time, but we’ll get to that another day, don’t you worry!

A while back I started tagging Facebook posts where I shared my honest thoughts with the hashtag #truthinparenting .  The relief in posting my truth instead of trying to pretend I knew what I was doing as a mom was palpable. There was another upside – I started getting comments on my posts from people sharing their experiences, and then I started getting private messages, texts, phone calls and even in person chats with people who had read the posts.  It turns out a lot of people think it’s hard.  I get that not everyone’s experiences are the same, and that some people live for motherhood in a way I never will (and that’s awesome for them!).  But I am taking inspiration from what I’ve done on Facebook and bringing it to the longer form of a blog in the hopes that it will make some mom (new, expecting, or even an experienced one) feel better.  Because, Mom tip 3: we’re all in this together.

Life after birth

To be able to embrace motherhood, you need to mourn the loss of the person you were before you had kids. This is what I say to every pregnant woman and new mom I talk to, because it is the single most important piece of advice I’ve ever come across about parenting.  I stumbled upon this wisdom through a blog post by Renegade Mama when my daughter Julia was a little over a year old and it changed my world.

No matter how much you talk to friends and family, read books or consume media on the subject of parenting, there is literally no way to truly know what it is actually like day in and day out.  There certainly must be those who are better prepared.  I’d imagine the oldest sibling in a large enough family to have been deeply involved in the taking care of a newborn might have some idea.  Or perhaps labor and delivery nurses who see weepy new moms on the daily.

I  wonder, and hear me out on this for a second, if women who have been to prison might actually be the best equipped of all.  I’m not trying to literally compare being a new mom with the terrible experience of being incarcerated.  But I remember thinking to myself a lot in the early days of motherhood that I was in “baby jail”. From the moment you become a parent, your life is no longer your own, which is what I imagine life is like in prison.

Women are having children later in life than ever before which in theory brings a greater maturity to the table but also a much longer time to have lived a life that they defined. Taking care of a newborn strips you of that freedom.  Sleeping is not under your control.  Nor is the crying (the baby’s or yours – the hormones are intense). Even going to the bathroom requires making decisions – do you carry the baby while you go?  If they are crying, is it OK to leave them in the swing or crib to go pee?  Brand new babies sleep a lot (for small increments of time), so there are points where you can make little decisions – watch a TV show, read a magazine, maybe make something to eat.  But you’re so damn tired, all those small acts can feel like moving mountains.

For me, this was kind of shocking – not the tiredness, which I was somehow able to manage, but the lack of autonomy.  Sure, I had anticipated that my life would change.  But I didn’t truly get it, and I didn’t truly get “into it” enough to make it feel worth it for a long time.  I had postpartum depression after I had my daughter Julia (my firstborn)  which left me feeling a little detached from the good parts of having a baby, the ones that make the challenges more manageable.  From speaking to friends who didn’t have PPD and from the wonderful experiences I had with Luca, my second child, I get that this makes the experience more palatable.  You’re exhausted and frightened, but your heart is also swelling to explosion with love for the this tiny, cuddly being you made.  But that delicious little tyrant has turned your world upside down.

As you move through the first year and began to establish routines there is some relief in regaining at least a small sense of order.  But it’s all still revolving around your child.  The you before you had kids is gone or at least it feels that way. I fought this and fought it hard.  I think that’s what made my PPD linger and made me feel trapped in what I called “baby jail”.  I would sit in the playroom trying to think of something halfway interesting to play with Julia. After like 3 straight hours of shaking toys at her or reading her books she didn’t understand or doing tummy time that made her cranky, I’d be wishing I could just read a magazine for ten minutes.  What made me feel worse what that I wasn’t even a stay at home mom.  I still had my adult identity five days a work at week, so my life was split between the old me and the new me.

Then one day I came across the Renegade Mama article and instead of making me feel more depressed it felt like an epiphany. It just made sense:  If I kept feeling sorry for myself that I could no longer go to the movies every weekend or have a relaxing meal, I’d just be miserable.  First thing I had to do was work on accepting what my life was like now. If I adapted to it, it would no longer feel like such a burden and I’d hopefully be able to enjoy the good times a bit more. I’ve done that work every day for the last few years.  Julia is five now, and Luca is almost two. It’s not unusual for me to get up from the table anywhere from 3-10 times during a meal these days – whether it’s to pick up a thrown fork of Luca’s, refill Julia’s water glass or grab paper towels to sop up a spill.  The difference is I barely even notice.  What once created such resentment now feels just like routine.

The second and equally crucial piece was to remind myself that the reason my life is different is because I am someone’s mom, which is a privilege and not a punishment. I dreamed my whole life about being a mom, and I have been lucky enough to become one.  So what if I don’t love it every day?  I still love my kids every day, and that’s enough.