I have a confession to make: I don’t understand children. I used to – back when I was a young college student studying early childhood education (half a semester), I was a damn-near expert. I could spout off the facts I’d learned in books and pass judgment on any harried mother screaming at her kids in line at Walmart. I knew everything there was to know about kids and how to raise them. I knew exactly what I would and wouldn’t do with my own children when the time came, and seriously didn’t understand why everyone didn’t know The Proper Way to raise children.
One single, shining moment shattered all that parental confidence I’d had for years: the birth of my first child. During my pregnancy I was filled with a sense of security that I would be the perfect mother of the perfect child. After all, my head was filled with so much book knowledge on the subject that it was all I could talk about. But the minute El was born, I realized I had no idea what to do with this sqalling, slimy, wrinkled up creature the doctor had just handed me. I knew I loved her, and I knew I wanted to do right by her. But in that moment, all I could think was, “OMG A BABY JUST CAME OUT OF ME!!! HOW THE HELL DID THAT HAPPEN???”
And then it hit me: The very survival of this brand new little person depended on me. My actions and inactions affected her entire world. My life was no longer my own – it belonged to her just as much as it belonged to me. And that scared the crap out of me.
Even though I realized just how clueless I was right away, the full impact did not hit me until the next day. The first day of El’s life I was all excited and happy to finally have my little baby, after three long years of disappointment. I was on a new mommy high that may or may not have been enhanced by the Percocet. But the next morning, the doctor came into the room and said, “Good news! You’re going home this afternoon!” My initial response was brilliant: “Nuh uh. Not unless I get to take the nurses home with me.” The doctor started to chuckle. I started to cry. His assertion that I really did have to take the baby home without bringing half the hospital staff with me made me realize that this was it, the real deal. Miracle Man and I really were parents, and we really were totally responsible for nurturing our fragile little alien into a responsible adult human.
That first night home was a doozy. Poor little thing screamed her head off for most of the night. Miracle Man and I went down the checklist: feed her, burp her, change her little diaper, take her temperature, gently rock her, put her in the baby swing, take her out of the baby swing, hold her close and sing to her, hold her at arm’s length and look at her, turn on the baby-calming CD, turn off the baby-calming CD, and then finally make an emergency call to the on-call pediatrician at 4:00 in the morning because we could not for the life of us figure out how to make the crying stop. The doctor’s advice? “She’s only been crying nonstop for two hours? Ok, call me back when she hits the fourth hour.” Thanks, doc.
At some point the next day Miracle Man figured out what El had been trying to tell us – she wanted to be swaddled. Unswaddled, we had a screaming bundle of rage who was probably cussing us out in baby language. Swaddled, we had a sleepy little burrito who was relieved to finally be all tucked in.
A day or two later we found out that swaddling was only a piece of the puzzle. Our little burrito was also quite hungry. A militant breastfeeder who had taken a class and everything, I could not get the baby to latch on to save my life. Or hers, for that matter. Every time I tried, she staunchly refused. She even stuck her tiny little fists out and pushed herself away from my, um, milk delivery system. Of course it was a weekend, which means I could not get a
milk nazi lactation nurse on the phone to help me figure out how to feed my baby. (I guess the folks at the hospital figured babies don’t need to eat on weekends.) After El had not gotten anything into her tummy for at least 8 hours despite my best efforts, we rushed her to the nearest pediatric urgent care facility so they could tell us what was horribly wrong with our daughter. During the doctor’s examination, she latched on to everything that came within sucking distance of her mouth. The doctor was affiliated with the hospital where I delivered, so he knew the pro-nursing ideology that had been beaten into me training I had gotten. He cautiously looked me up and down and asked as respectfully as he could, “Will she take a bottle?”
A bottle!! OH-EM-GEE, why hadn’t I thought of that? I mean, besides the fact that the nurses at the hospital had convinced me that pacifiers and bottles were evil and that anyone who tells you otherwise was sent straight from the Devil Hisself to test your faith in human milk. The doctor stated that as a father of four nearly grown children and an experienced pediatrician, he didn’t think trying the bottle would kill the baby. His exact words were, “Your baby is healthy. And she seems very hungry to me. If she won’t take the breast, you might just want to give her a little bit out of a bottle to get her over the hump. Don’t give up on nursing – you’ll both get the hang of it. But all three of you will be a lot happier in the mean time if you supplement.”
(Yes. He spoke very eloquently and with punctuation. In retrospect, I’m pretty sure he also had a halo and a chorus of angels humming softly behind him.)
On the doctor’s advice we mixed up a batch of the formula we’d gotten in the swag bag from the hospital. El happily sucked down an ounce and then burped like a big, burly man. And with that, our cranky little newborn was a content ragdoll in my hands who went on to sleep peacefully for four hours straight.
Thus began my first case of Mommy Guilt. Or as I like to call it, The Strongest Emotion Known to Womankind. Not only had I been unable to figure out something as primal as feeding my young with the tools God gave me, but my sleep-deprived and hormone-riddled brain had not even considered troubleshooting the issue with a bottle or an eyedropper. Seems like a no-brainer now. But at the time it was an ingenious revelation that made me feel like I’d already failed motherhood because following textbook instructions (yes, I really did have a textbook) did not yield a full and happy baby.
Mommy Lesson #1: The baby didn’t read the same books you did. She might not respond to you the way the book said she would.
Mommy Lesson #2: Get over yourself. Adaptation is a beautiful thing.
It has been almost 11 years since El came into being. I still haven’t really figured out how she works. Every time I think I’ve got the parenting gig all figured out, she hits a new developmental stage and changes all the rules on me. Em seems a little easier by comparison because I recognize the developmental phases she’s going through from when El was there. But still, they both throw me curve balls like it’s their job or something.
But with every curve ball, they offer me a glimpse of the women they will be one day. Each moment of defiance is a step toward their own selfhood. (I try to keep that in perspective to keep from wringing their precious little necks when they’re being especially willful.) They are only beginning to spread their wings, and I’ll be honest: I don’t know if I’ll ever be ready for them to fly. At the same time, I look forward to the day I can watch them soar. Only then will I start to believe that I did something right. Until then, I’ll continue to worry and second guess myself day by day. Like all good moms do.
And on that note, I'd like to give a little shout-out to all the rest of you who are muddling through the motherhood experience like me: confused, bleary-eyed, and one spilled glass of grape juice away from the loony bin. May your Mother's Day weekend be full of tight hugs, slobbery kisses, handmade whatevers, and all the joy your kids can give you.