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It was 3am on Easter, my due date, when I felt my first real contractions. I’d felt them before, but now there was another and another. Soon my phone screen lit the darkness of my bedroom as I started to keep track of how far they were apart. I couldn’t believe it. My little baby bunny was going to be born on his Easter due date, right on time. I sat in my floral Sunday dress in church thinking I might not even make it to dinner time. Should I even bother to put that ham in the oven? I quietly sat through each new contraction in the pew and took note of the times between and couldn’t believe I was finally going to get to meet my new best friend.
Those cute and exciting little contractions got less cute and exciting as they continued at regular intervals through another two 3ams and two hospital visits. Each time they sent me away, not quite far enough along to stay. After 50 hours or so, my water finally, mercifully broke and I could be admitted. When it was only a hypothetical concept, I was a little intimidated at the idea of getting that epidural, but three nights of contractions that never got more consistent, but did get increasingly more painful were enough to make the sight of that anesthesiologist and his giant needle bring a happy tear to the eye.
My cheerfulness came back in minutes as the pain subsided and the excitement returned. He didn’t come on his due date after all, but now I was really going to meet him, this little buddy that had been reminding me of his presence with little kicks and twists and flutters for months.
Several hours later, when the time came to push, I was nauseous and starving, but ready (to be done). The pushing too went on for a couple of hours and even medicated, was probably the hardest thing I have ever had to do. I was sure the blood vessels in my eyes or face or neck or shoulders would burst as I tried to give it more than I had already given and get him past the point that he’d gotten stuck. My husband held one of my legs and counted for me as I tried and tried and heard the words “one more good push”, “just one more” over and over.
Now that I know this little boy and see his face every few hours every day and every night, it amazes me to think that there was a time that I didn’t know what he would look like and didn’t know what it would feel like to look at him. There were a few long moments with my eyes rolling around and an oxygen mask on my face that I couldn’t even imagine that all this would lead to a baby. Then suddenly he was out and they set him on my belly and he seemed enormous and I couldn’t fathom that that came out of me and he had the fullest head of hair and the tiniest fingers and it was beyond comprehension that he was mine.
The next two 3am’s were euphoric. Everyone kept telling me how I should get some sleep and I fully intended to, but each time that I pushed the button to lower my hospital bed to lay all the way down, I couldn’t manage to get past the 45 degree angle that lined my face up with his, in that little bassinet with that little profile sticking out of that little bundle. I couldn’t stop staring at him and I couldn’t believe how much I already loved him. And I didn’t get very much rest.
I was still so thrilled, as I pushed a cart of my things through the automatic double doors of the hospital on my way home, still wearing my pajamas, that the song exuberantly playing in my head was:
Hear me now
Oh thou bleak and unbearable world,
Thou art base and debauched as can be;
And a knight with his banners all bravely unfurled
Now hurls down his gauntlet to thee!
The joy of bringing this magnificent little someone into the world felt like the ultimate counterpoint to sorrow; the ultimate peak experience to overshadow all the low points. Take that world! I felt triumphant and victorious.
The 3am’s that have followed haven’t all featured such feelings.
Something I had never supposed about motherhood is how different it feels to hear a baby cry when it’s your own. Movie scenes where a baby is screaming and a mother is overwhelmed always make it look like that sound must feel like a blender chewing up something metal on the countertop and there is no off button. But hearing my own son and watching his face contort in discomfort as he wails, all I feel is “oh no, I love you so much and I don’t want you to hurt, what can I do? How can I help?”
It’s not always clear how I can help and sometimes we cry together.
Yes, the exhaustion of so many sleepless nights keeps my tears closer to the surface these days. In some ways, late afternoon begins to fill me with worry because I know another night is drawing nearer and the nights are just hard. But I realized during one recent 3am that I stayed up all night many times in college and it was nearly always because I was drawn in to a great conversation with someone I was anxious to know better and giving up a little of my sleep for them felt worth it.
I hope to get to know this little boy better than any of them, so I don’t mind giving up a few nights (or a few months of nights or a few years of nights) to do that. It’s a struggle, but now I have a good reason for it. Having him meant giving up my body too, for now. I made it through most of my pregnancy without stretch marks and then in the last three weeks of it or so, the area around my belly button exploded with lines inside of lines inside of lines, like watching the ripples that radiate from a stone thrown in a lake. I don’t feel much like myself, though carrying the extra weight I have always feared doesn’t look as bad as I imagined it would. But it doesn’t look great either.
Six weeks in, new motherhood already has some indignity to it. I expected spit up on my shirt, but I never knew that for the first few weeks, it wouldn’t even be worth wearing a shirt. My sense of modesty completely changed before I even left the hospital. Trying to learn to breastfeed, I was accidentally exposed to a host of food service people, room cleaners, and nurses not to mention that a doctor I never met before or since had to reach inside and rotate the baby slightly on his way out without ever so much as shaking my hand or saying hello.
It’s a new feeling to have someone rely on not only you, but specifically your body for their primary nourishment. It is both incredibly empowering and often overwhelming to hear that hungry cry and know that you are what he’s crying for, no matter how sore you feel or how nice a break would be. Oh, to have someone’s constant presence overwhelm you so much and yet feel like a piece of you is missing when a family member or friend holds him for a while or takes him to another room.
That new part of me and the face that smiles back from my arms has inspired an extensive study into the art of doing things one-handed. I was already a very proficient one-handed typist, but it has become a growing skillset with only the ability to butter toast one-handed alluding me. My knife slides the bread around on the counter and the butter remains unmoved and intact. Perhaps I could set the baby down more, but I love him so much and have begun to understand the impulse that inspires mother gorillas to keep their babies on their person for the first three years of their little lives even though they can walk for themselves after nine months.
And yet, at times my restlessness approaches hysteria and I manically search for movies set in exotic places to satiate the need to get out. But when my little guy falls soundly asleep on my lap and I could probably safely set him to sleep elsewhere and move about the house freely, I find myself wanting to just sit and stare at him instead. He is my new hometown. He nuzzles close and sleeps with a tiny, outstretched hand on my stomach or chest feeling my presence there and many times, I just don’t have the heart to move him. Even at less than two months old, I want him to learn and remember that I will always be there for him.
Another dear 3am sight is seeing my infant son tucked warmly into the chest of my husband’s robe in an attempt to finally settle him down for a night’s sleep and give me a break. It is the dearest sight to watch my two boys snuggled up together. Watching the man I chose and love become a father has been a tender thing to witness. I love hearing his voice from the other room, “well hello my little friend, we’re going to change your diaper” or “hey little buddy, we’re going to go on some pretty awesome adventures together someday.” His voice and mine fill with gasps and awws as we watch our son smile back at us and coo and squeal as if we three are sharing a conversation.
Yes, the best parts of motherhood are better than I ever thought. In fact, I’m afraid that the modern attempt to do a better job of being frank and transparent about the postpartum experience may have swung the pendulum too hard towards depicting it as an inevitable misery. I honestly entered this stage fairly reluctantly and have found unexpected magic.
That said, the hard parts of motherhood have been much harder than I predicted.
It would be well within my regular coping abilities if it was just losing some sleep, or just taking care of someone small and persistent and helpless, or just having your identity change or just losing a measure of the freedom and independence you used to enjoy, or just seeing your body through recovery from a major physical ordeal. Any one of those things in isolation wouldn’t be so bad, but all of them happening at once and layered on top of each other…is a lot.
How can I be accomplishing so little and still feel so overwhelmed? How can I feel like this is the smallest life I’ve ever lived and yet know that I’m holding a universe in my arms? How can I be stretched so thin and still feel so fat?
New motherhood is full of high-highs, low-lows and contradictions.
The future is foggier to me now because I’m not sure I’ve ever had the present demand so much of me; body (and sleep) and soul.
And yet 3am is starting to feel familiar and possible to me. In fact, 3am has become 4:30am as my baby boy sleeps a little longer and little longer. I am genuinely terrified to go through this stage ever again and yet when I put my son in his carrier this morning and saw that he has nearly outgrown the little newborn insert, I felt a poignant twinge and a sigh. Time is back on the runway, preparing to fly as it is wont to do.
I have longed for this pain and this exhaustion and these tears to be behind me and yet I don’t want to lose his baby days.
Though I’m only a mother of a few months, I’m beginning to see that this is what it will be like; to be desperate for a break and yet always hoping for just a little bit longer with this person that taught you a new kind of love. You’d give anything for more sleep and yet you’d give up as much sleep as it required if they needed you and kept needing you.
These last few months have been the hardest of my life by a degree I didn’t know was possible.
And yet I bless those 3ams.