I didn’t like my baby son. There, I said it. He was a scrawny, squalling, insatiable little thing, rightfully incensed by, and impatient with, my parental incompetence and self-pitying despair. His arrival heralded my first, unwelcome foray into surgery, as insouciant doctors sliced open my midriff, along with my dignity. Neither has recovered.
I was the first of my girlfriends to procreate, and so they peppered me with questions: What’s it like?! How does it feel?! Isn’t he gorgeous?! Are you in love?! Despite my wincing in the aftermath of my C-section, I, ever the people pleaser, fumbled around for something positive to say: Umm… he smells nice and his skin is very soft.
The baby spent a fraught fortnight in the NICU, and emerged in rude health. My mother, sympathetic yet pragmatic, volunteered some perspective: He’s healthy, you’re healthy — that’s what’s most important. Grateful as I was, though, it did not improve my mood. Mere reference to my parents’ flight home left a dead weight on my chest, even when my increasingly corpulent son wasn’t nursing on it. As a freelancer, I knew I was lucky to have indefinite leave, but there was no return to civilization in sight.
I regarded this dark-haired, dark-eyed infant with bewilderment: I thought your spawn was supposed to look like you? It wasn’t socially acceptable to voice it, but frankly, I preferred my cat: She was quiet, predictable, undemanding, and less inclined to projectile vomit on my Kindle.
I mustered my British stiff upper lip and replied to everyone who asked: I’m fine, thanks, how are you? But I was not fine. Whenever the baby cried, I cried. I hated him and I loved him — and I’m pretty sure the feeling was mutual. Leaving the house was an arduous challenge, plus I had nowhere to go. So I paced back and forth in a vain attempt to soothe the baby, lonely and bored.
Occasionally, we went to the mall. In hindsight, I found it reassuring to witness other moms also pushing strollers, whiling away the hours. They all seemed so at ease. Then again, I pretended I was, too.
My husband took to fatherhood like a duck to water. He slumbered blissfully beside me as I wrenched myself from sleep every three hours to breastfeed. Given that I was nursing, it seemed churlish to rouse him for a perfunctory diaper change. Instead, each night I resisted violently kicking awake the man whom, at one point, I had liked enough to get me knocked up in the first place. Netflix was my solace, my company, my spotter that kept me semi-conscious. I tried reading, but I had neither the concentration required nor the hands available to turn pages, and you remember what happened to the Kindle.
My husband would bounce through the door at the end of each incessant day. He’d pluck the bellowing child from my arms and silence him with a flourish, proclaiming himself the “Baby Whisperer.” Meanwhile I went to the corner to scowl. How could he have the audacity to leave me alone with this tiny alien, whose language I did not speak?, I fumed.
In retrospect, of course my husband was the Baby Whisperer — he arrived home relaxed and brimming with enthusiasm to partake in the last 20 minutes of the baby’s day. Like dogs, infants can smell fear, and they adjust their temperament accordingly. I positively reeked — both figuratively and, let’s be honest, literally, since showering was a sporadic luxury.
I’m the kind of person who, if I got 92 percent on a test, I’d worry about what happened to the other 8 percent. The textbook was gospel — hard work brought measurable success. But apparently motherhood did not work accordingly. A lifelong perfectionist, I had to be reminded by my mom that you can’t get an “A” in this. The absence of a clear linear relationship between cause and effect was disconcerting. I agonized about Every. Little. Thing. Not surprisingly, it was utterly futile.
So when did the baby start to grow on me to the extent that I was crazy enough to beget a second? There were a few major milestones that were never covered in What to Expect: The first hint of hope came when the baby started smiling, a mild improvement on a formerly amoebic blob. By five months, he’d gained enough chub so he no longer looked like a generic, ugly newborn (if I ever tell you I think your infant is cute, it’s a bald-faced lie — they all look the same to me). As a self-professed epicurean, feeding the baby actual food turned him into an entertaining science experiment, and it meant my body was finally mine again, even if it didn’t look the same (to my chagrin). And when he finally slept through the night, I became a nicer person and decided that he was, too.
Also, you know the way that immunizations work? In order to combat a pernicious disease, we introduce that very disease into our body, so that our immune system can fight it and emerge more resilient. OK, it’s not a perfect metaphor, but having another baby actually made me less stressed.
When you have another child, you can’t focus all your energy and angst on the newborn, because their older sibling is ravenous, or pooping, or stealing back attention via some other cunning ruse. You don’t have time to repeatedly re-swaddle, to create Michelin-starred meals, to spend hours reading the baby Dickens. You no longer stop driving if the baby screams, because you now know that everyone will be fine — most of all, you.
The second time around, I was better prepared to embrace the carnage, and it prompted an entirely different parenting experience. I realized that my firstborn sensed my anxiety like he sensed my fear — he fed off me not just physically but emotionally. As a recovering perfectionist, it’s actually liberating to give less of a crap. When that finally happened, I started to like my kids — and myself — far better.