When I was pregnant with my first child, ten years and a million sleepless nights ago, I went about pregnancy the same way I had gone about my college courses: by reading everything I could get my hands on, studying notes, attending classes, and joining message boards. I was always a great student — and definitely an overachiever — and now I intended to get an A-plus in Motherhood 101.
I diligently attended my birthing classes, toured the hospital, and dragged my husband to the breastfeeding prep class. I washed all the bodysuits and the gowns in hypoallergenic, dye- and scent-free detergent. I practiced my kegels.
Then, I had a baby.
And, like postpartum women everywhere, I found myself in my bed, body fluids oozing from far and near, stitches in places I didn’t know I had, my breasts growing at an exponential and alarming rate, my hormones crashing down around me, and all I could think was, “Nobody told me about this. There was no chapter that said anything about this!”
The answer is simple: because I didn’t want to hear it. The truth is, when I was pregnant, I only wanted to talk about pregnancy and childbirth and strollers and Diaper Genies. No one told me that birth was only, literally, the beginning. I can’t blame a universal motherhood conspiracy, though; I would not have listened.
1. The first time you see or hold your baby you might not hear angel choirs in the distance. You might have a doctor still halfway up your body stitching you, or a nurse pumping your stomach to help you deliver your placenta. You might be in a lot of pain. You might be more exhausted than you have ever been in your whole life. It’s okay if you don’t hear the angels. There will be time to have those magic moments with your new baby.
2. After you deliver your first trip to the bathroom will be an event. Don’t be embarrassed to let someone help you there; do not risk passing out alone. Be prepared that this is only the beginning of your loss of dignity as a mother. After all, you will have years ahead of you during which you will not be able to visit the potty alone. Might as well start now.
3. Breastfeeding is hard. It takes a little while to get used to the “holds” and find the one that works best for you and your likely hysterically screaming newborn. Whether you are doing it right or not, breastfeeding hurts at the beginning. Sometimes a lot. My nipples cracked and bled with my first baby. Engorgement was scary and extremely uncomfortable. My breasts radiated heat and actually pulsed. But my lactation consultant was my knight in lanolin-coated shining armor, and after the first two weeks, breastfeeding became more comfortable and much more manageable. Also: if breastfeeding is not for you or if it just doesn’t work out, that is — REALLY — fine. In the end, the way you feed your baby is inconsequential compared to the way you love your baby.
4. On your fourth day postpartum you will most likely cry. A lot. This is usually when your hormones crash. This is the day when you will be certain that your life is over, that your partner is a jerk, and that you cannot do anything right. You’ll cry just because. You’re allowed. (BUT — if you continue to cry and continue to feel down, seek help pronto.)
5. If at all possible do not put on real clothes for at least two weeks. Once you get out of your pajamas, people start expecting you to be competent. Wear clean, fresh pajamas if you must, but stay in our pajamas unless you want to cook and clean and entertain visitors along with the bleeding, oozing, leaking, and caring for another human life parts of the first two weeks.
6. Babies don’t always sleep. This is not the result of Something You Did Because You Are Already a Failure as a Parent. These same babies will, eventually, sleep. Promise. You cannot ruin them for life. Other parents will tell you their babies are sleeping. I promise you they are a) stretching the truth, b) defining “sleep” differently than you do, c) still due for sleep disruptions, or d) flat-out lying. You will face these same alternate versions of parental realities again when you talk to other parents about potty-training and reading further down the road. Seriously, babies are as different as adults. Some sleep better than others. But they all struggle sometimes. Your child will sleep sooner or later.
7. Don’t let anyone make you think you don’t know your own baby best and don’t let anyone make you think you’re not doing a good job. There is no one right way to parent and there are many ways to be a good parent. Related: You don’t have to do what your mom, mother-in-law, or grandmother did. Listen to your gut.
8. Find support neighborhood groups, breastfeeding groups, hospital new mom groups, whatever you can find. Networking with other new mothers can be a crucial lifeline, even if you go back to work after your maternity leave. Having a newborn is like going off to college for the first time — you need to find other newbie freshmen so you can all be clueless together.
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9. Don’t be a martyr. Kids don’t visit martyrs for the holidays when they grow up. Hire someone or beg your friends to come and hold the baby while you shower and nap sometimes. It’s not easy to adjust to being a mom. One day, you are a person just taking care of yourself; the next day, you can’t button your shirt straight. Don’t be afraid to say, “This is hard,” or “this sucks!” It is hard and it does suck sometimes. That doesn’t mean you aren’t 110% grateful for the blessing of a baby or completely in love with your child.
10. Take lots of pictures (and get in them), because you won’t remember much of this later. Trust me.
More than anything, I wish someone had told me this: The first year of your first time being a mother is like nothing you will ever experience again, no matter how many children you have. Every day is a miracle. Every day is a journey. Every day might seem like it lasts 100 hours. There are lights at the end of every tunnel, but you won’t know it. You will never again feel like you are getting an A-plus. You will be forever changed. At some point, you will realize that “nobody ever told you” because some things you have to experience for yourself; There’s no book or class or even little old lady in the grocery store who can tell you what to really expect when you’re expecting.
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