Any woman who’s ever been pregnant has heard the spiel (speech) from, well, any woman who’s ever been pregnant. You know the one I’m talking about, the one that starts, “You have nooooo idea….” and continues with various combinations of the following: “You have no idea what you’re getting yourself into/what the meaning of tired is/what being worried means/what levels of self-doubt you can reach,” and on it goes.
Still. There were a few instances in early motherhood that took me entirely by surprise. Heck, between me and my husband, I have 26 nephews and nieces and yet I still experienced my fair share of “huh?” moments.
1. The post-birth high: People talk about post-natal blues but no one seems to mention the high that some women get after giving birth. Apparently, there are physiological reasons for it (the body releasing oxytocin, prolactin—basically like everything else, hormones) but in some cases the high continues for a few days. Four days after my daughter Elie was born, I found myself once again feeling the rush of adrenalin surge through my body and I leaned over, shook my husband awake, and said excitedly, “Don’t look now but you won’t believe it: There’s a baby in our room.”
2. Uttering the words “my daughter” for the first time. At the beginning, I kept referring to her simply as “the baby.” Then one day, some lady pushed in front of me in the line at the pharmacy and almost instinctively I reprimanded her saying, “Hey, me and my daughter were here first!” I was so taken by surprise by the words that came out of my mouth that I forgot my anger and laughed out of pure joy. For her part, the woman just stared at me bewildered and let me through.
3. Baby noises. I don’t think I ever knew just how loud babies’ digestive systems can be. Be it burps, poops, or of course, the ubiquitous farts, these primal noises take me by surprise every time. Not to mention the sheer pride I feel when my baby emits an exquisite burp of Henry-the-Eighth proportions.
4. The realization that I need. I always knew of course how much my breastfeeding baby needs me but I never realized that particular connection was a two-way street: I also need her. I discovered this the first time I was away from Elie for more than seven hours. My breasts felt like they were about to explode. The milk ducts were getting blocked and it really hurt. Even pumping didn’t help. Only after a few nursing sessions did my breasts return to “normal.” I’m not one of those women who connects with breastfeeding in a profound way, but that particular episode made me marvel at the symbiosis of our relationship.
5. The insane amounts of sweating that occur in the first few weeks. Every night I’d wake up wet from head-to-toe; changing the sheets twice a day was a regular occurrence.
6. It isn’t “baby” and “me.” It’s “baby and me.” It took me a while to wrap my head around this, but once I did, I found the challenges of looking after a newborn infinitely easier to bear. Babies don’t exist as isolated entities; they always exist in partnership with another human being who is the primary caregiver—usually the mother. Once I understood this, I stopped asking when is she going to sleep entertain herself so that I can do the laundry. OK, so that’s not exactly true, I didn’t stop asking entirely. But I began to understand she is supposed to be with her mother pretty much always. And it’s up to me to accept this fact.
7. The first time she smiled at herself in the mirror. I didn’t know babies did that! When Elie was about 6 weeks old, I was standing in front of the mirror holding her in one arm and applying make-up with the other. She caught her reflection and just beamed. I was so touched and I whispered in her ear my one wish: For as long as she lives, her reflection will always bring a smile to her face.
8. The reason why mothers coo at their babies. When I was single and out with friends who were moms, it would irritate me how they would constantly turn to their baby and speak in that dumb baby language. Here I was, mid-sentence, unloading some boyfriend crisis to my friend’s listening ear when she would rudely interrupt my train of thought, turn to her stroller, and in a sing-songy voice say something inane like, “Isn’t that so, coochie coochie? Yessssss, baby completely agrees.” I swore I would never be like that when I was a mom. Now I realize that the cooing is a preventative measure. Mothers instinctively know when their babies need attention. And if you don’t keep feeding coals of encouragement, the baby will eventually become hysterical.
9. I don’t know what I’m doing—but neither does anyone else. When I came to this realization, it was pretty comforting. As parents, we’re always trying to problem solve: She’s crying because she’s gassy, hungry, teething. I need to be holding her like this, patting her like that, telling the doctor this…but ultimately, we don’t always know and we aren’t supposed to. Sometimes, at the end of an exhausting day, I pat myself on the back just for keeping ahead of the bottom line: I kept my baby alive another day.