Poof! I’m a mum.
I have a daughter. A teeny tiny little human who needs everything I’ve got all day and all night.
She is relentless.
She is merciless.
She is the most demanding and least rewarding boss I have ever had. But truthfully? She’s also the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen and I cannot believe I made her. For real.
It’s hard. Oh, they tell you it’s hard but you don’t believe them. You are naive, you are dismissive, you are blissfully unaware of just what you’ve signed up for. You think other mums are exaggerating, mugging for their audience, trying to win your sympathy. Pre-parenthood, you visit with friends who have recently given birth, nodding along with their tales of sleepless nights and their blatherings about nursery waiting lists. You gingerly hold their baby while they gleefully vent about their new, challenging life as a primary care-giver. You inevitably zone out, gazing down at the milk-drunk bundle in your arms being described by his new parents as a malevolent dictator akin to Mussolini and you think to yourself:
“This guy? Really?”
You’re quietly convinced that there is a breed of New Parent that comes with a built-in excess of martyrdom. The kinda person who believes that their life did not in fact even begin until they had a baby and who firmly subscribes to the school of thought that nothing (and I mean nothing) is as difficult or worthwhile as raising a child.
Worry not. I’m not gonna tell you that I am now, in fact, one such martyr. I did not have a lobotomy to complement my C-section. I still believe that one can achieve various heights of brilliance and fulfilment without becoming someone’s mum or dad. Indeed, it is almost certainly easier to reach some career goals without taking nine months and eighteen years “off” to have a family. I still do not believe that any life worth living begins and ends with a baby (although, obviously, all life kinda begins with being a baby).
But it is hard. There are many, many women who had tougher starts at motherhood than me. Let’s face it, I’m a middle-class, privileged, gainfully employed white woman living in the Western World equipped with supportive family and hands-on husband. WHAT have I got to complain about? Arguably, nothing. But equally, there are plenty who had much gentler introductions than I did. I write this blog not as a cautionary tale nor as a dark kinda brag that feeds into the weird one upmanship that seems to accompany many birth stories (“You had a C-section? Well, at least you didn’t give birth on the kitchen table in the middle of a hurricane…beat that!”) but simply as a story of how it went down for me.
“Your baby needs you.”
My daughter’s first five days in the world were spent on a crowded maternity ward in Torbay following a forty-five-hour drug-addled labour with an emergency C-section to finish. My temperature had spiked during the hour and a half I spent fruitlessly pushing, making the doctors extremely reluctant to send us home. These days, C-sections are a dime a dozen. In the grand scheme of things, one woman out of the billion or so that will have given birth around the globe that chilly January night having a C-section is not a big deal. But when it’s happening to you, it suddenly becomes a huge deal.
I was completely unprepared for the recovery that follows a major operation. The morning after, I woke from a fitful forty minutes of sleep, feeling horribly hollowed out and sore, to hear terrible, rasping sobs. My baby had cried herself hoarse waiting on me to feed her. A midwife was nudging my shoulder to wake me, urgently muttering: “Kathryn, your baby needs you!” Apparently, I’d passed out as soon as she’d gone to sleep and had, it would seem, been worryingly difficult to rouse. Once she’d successfully woken me, the midwife stayed with me while we tried latching and, eventually, the baby began to suckle like a little pro. Success! The relief! I was elated: I was obviously going to be one of those women who breast-fed easily. My baby knew exactly what she was doing and we were surely now on Easy Street. Praise be!
Even though my baby knew what she was doing, my body apparently did not. She would feed, sleep for twenty minutes, then wake up screaming to be fed again. The midwife’s best guess was that even though the baby was getting the precious colostrum (the yellowish liquid gold that new mums make pre- and postpartum just before their proper milk comes in), she was a big baby and needed a fuller belly in order to sleep. When my milk still hadn’t put in an appearance by Day 4 (“When it comes in, you’ll know!”), we could only surmise that my body was still traumatised from the op, so had effectively gone on strike. I took the news badly. With my starving baby screaming the whole ward awake all night, my body and mind juddering from being awake for nearly five days straight and still smarting from the op, I just couldn’t pull myself together. I felt shredded and pitiful, counting down the minutes to the scant one hour a day that Woody was allowed to visit me due to lockdown restrictions. When he was with me, it all felt manageable but as soon as he left I felt like a drowning woman. My daughter had not even been alive a full week and I was already failing her.
Finally, one of the midwives gave me a small pre-mixed bottle of formula which the baby lapped at gratefully like a little kitten while I sobbed over her. She was so, so hungry. I was briskly advised that formula was a last resort and that I should really persevere with breastfeeding, that my milk was bound to come in eventually. I remember thinking, “But what do I do in the meantime? Watch her starve?!” Deprived of both sleep and fresh air (patients could not leave the hospital and come back in due to Covid-19 restrictions) for six days now, I was a mess and not fit to listen to any kind of reason or logic.
Every day I begged to go home and every day a kindly midwife or doctor told me that it was not yet safe. The pair of us were at risk from infection and they wanted to keep us in, repeatedly flushing our systems through with antibiotics via IV drips until our blood work started to look more promising. My daughter had the tiniest little cannula taped to her little hand; it made me burst into tears every time I thought about it too long. By the time we were eventually discharged, I had had so much blood taken and so many fresh cannulas dug in and out of my arm that the midwife could no longer find a vein that worked for my final round of antibiotics. My arm looked like it belonged to a particularly dedicated heroin addict.
By the evening of Day 6, I was borderline deranged and completely unreasonable. I collared Jackie, one of the more senior midwives, and told her I had to go home and that was all there was to it. I didn’t care what my latest bloods indicated. I was exhausted, I was broken and I needed out. I had to take my baby home. I must have laid it on pretty thick because the following morning, after days of making hard-working medical professionals deeply uncomfortable with my noisy, tearful begging, we were told the end was in sight. A full week after I had left my home in the throes of contractions, my favourite midwife Maggie (Irish, motherly, stark raving mad) popped her head around the curtain and told me that the doctors were satisfied that the antibiotics had done their work and that we were, at long last, going home. Just for a change of pace, I cried. If we hadn’t been in the midst of a global pandemic, I’d have certainly kissed her. I packed at lightning speed, jabbering down the phone to Woody to come and collect us immediately.
No place like home
I cried all the way home. I cried when I held my baby in my living room for the first time. I cried as I screamed at Woody that the house was “TOO FUCKING COLD” for the baby. I couldn’t stop shaking. I was in bits. Shortly after arriving home, I remembered to tell Woody that I wasn’t actually producing enough milk for her and I’d been using formula in the hospital. He started at me blankly.
“So…what do we feed her tonight? We don’t have any formula. And it’s half past twelve at night.”
I started to cry again. Woody got in his car and drove to the nearest place that might be open and selling baby formula: a service station near Exeter, some ninety odd minutes away. He returned three hours later to find me still fully clothed in bed, awake but vacant, cradling our screaming baby, asking him in a low ominous whisper what the fuck had taken him so long. Honestly, I’m a little surprised he didn’t hit Exeter and just keep driving to get away from me.
It was not a good start.
The Sleep Diaries
The next day, we did a little better. Unable to believe our stupidity at not buying any formula ahead of bringing her home, we went out and bought several tubs of Aptamil. We slept in shifts, trying to restore a little energy. We ordered a bottle prep machine to make the night feeds easier. I lay in bed with her curled up and naked on my torso, the pair of us snug and warm during those cold January mornings. We cracked breast-feeding, settling on a combination of both breast milk and formula which seemed to satisfy our little tyrant. She began to sleep peacefully. I began to feel like me again…or, at least, some version of me.
Now, she’s six weeks old. I can drive a car again and take her on adventures to the supermarket (the thrill!). I have mastered the stupid bloody car seat. I take long walks with both pram and dog. My mum visits once a week to help. I’ve started to do little bits of work while the baby sleeps on Woody’s shoulder in front of the rugby. On the bad nights, she wakes up four or five times and we find ourselves bleary-eyed, cooing nonsense at her and smoothing our palms over her little tummy to help her expel wind for hours on end. On the good nights, she sleeps right through for blissful six-hour stints and we wake up feeling like brand new humans. There’s no predicting her.
But I no longer fear her. I worry about her constantly, but it’s the good kind of worry. The kind of worry that comes with the job. But I no longer fear that I wasn’t meant for this job, that there was some sort of clerical error that left me with a baby that was actually meant for someone else. Someone more capable and less inept. I have now accepted that only I can be this particular baby’s mum and with that acceptance came a surge of confidence that I try to tap into whenever I feel like I’m failing (which is often).
The weirdest thing? I can’t remember not having her. I had thirty-five years without her, yet I can’t remember the sensation of her not being here. I can’t remember the feeling of not being needed the way she needs me.
Motherhood. It’s a total mind fuck.