I first saw her at twenty to one in the morning, at the end of 30 hours of labour that culminated in a forceps delivery in an operating theatre. I was very unwell from the spinal block, uncontrollably shaking, and I looked at this little face and felt she was a stranger. A stranger I was to mother, beginning in such a bad physical and emotional state I couldn’t even bear to hold her.
Several hours later, recovering on the ward, we began getting to know each other. Gazing at each other for the rest of the night, we began to be enveloped in the primordial mother-baby love that, biologically, predates and underpins all other loves. A love that I was primed for by the cosiness of kicks and stretches distorting my pregnant belly, but that is still surprising at turns.
A peculiar possessiveness in which I resented the constant stream of visitors and the social obligation to hand her around. An acute, aching sense of her vulnerability and the continual wondering if I was taking care of her adequately. Remembering the hospital midwife’s comments that she was a great little feeder and was desperate to feed, and crying my eyes out at the thought that I might have been letting her down somehow.
So much crying (me, not her); missing the hospital stay, in which me and her existed in a little cosy bubble and were taken care of; feeling grief at being discharged from the community midwife who had been seeing me weekly – somehow it hadn’t occurred to me that this would come to an end and feel like a loss; welling up uncontrollably at an animated film in which a baby was left by his mum at an orphanage, and again at a book in which a brown hare tells its baby “I love you to the moon and back”.
Saying goodbye to my mum who had stayed with us for 10 scorching summer days. Then being left alone with baby at 4 weeks when her daddy went back to work, which was so overwhelming I spent the first few days in tears.
Missing my “old” life, not for any particular thing, but just longing for the familiar and safe.
Figuring out how to take basic care of myself while caring for her, which just seemed impossible. Debating whether I could justify taking two minutes to put cream on my horrendous post-birth haemorrhoids after a shower when she was already crying out for me. Wondering what kind of sick society leaves a new mum so unnaturally alone to care for a baby, which did not seem like a realistic one-person job – but knowing that having maternity leave at all is actually fortunate.
Figuring out how to get myself and her out of the flat… one of the first such attempts resulted in uncontrollable crying in the chemist’s and having an audience of staring fellow patients as I tried to console her. I grew to hate all attention we received, especially when she was upset. Hating the starers, hating the people who would look over sympathetically at the baby and ignore me, and hating those who came up to indulge themselves and coo over the baby with no sensitivity to the fact that she was in distress and so was I. Hating the commentary some people would give me, the inaccurate interpretations of my baby and unsolicited advice. “He’s crying for his bottle!”
Breastfeeding. Getting through the toe-curling agony initiating each feed that would go on for the first few weeks. Trying to assimilate confusing information: finish the first breast first, before offering the second, so baby gets the calorie-dense “hind milk” – but when is the first breast finished? Does it really take 30 minutes regardless of breast storage capacity, flow rate, and baby’s feeding efficiency? Then, fire-fighting engorgement and lumps and having to forget all about fully emptying either one of them. Suffering a bout of mastitis weeks after I thought it had all settled down.
Dealing with a flow so fast it frequently choked her and sometimes resulted in vomiting the entire feed back. Then weeks later, after she’s learned to cope, dealing with her being easily distracted, coming on and off every few seconds, so that I find myself flashing a milk sprinkler, making a huge mess again, and avoiding having to feed in public because of this.
Night feeding. Dragging myself out of slumber, often drenched in postnatal night sweat, anxiously wondering if I am ill again or just feeling it because my body wants to be left asleep. Lifting her into the bed beside me, lying down and letting her drink her fill and fall back asleep. Picking her up for a precious sleepy cuddle before tucking her back in. Then trying to resettle myself and my confused circadian rhythm.
Staying in bed as late as she will, sometimes as late as 10am. Often not finding a suitable moment to have a shower and get dressed before it’s lunch time, as she only naps in my arms or out in the pram (so much for “sleep when baby sleeps”). Not much liking this slow, lazy pace of life that’s forced on me.
Light and carefree summer walks with the pram, discovering parks and cafes I hadn’t known were on my doorstep. Enjoying walking again after the heaviness of the third trimester had slowed me to a snail’s pace. It benefits both of us to leave the four walls behind, even if we never go very far. To the nearby shopping mall several times each week, just to walk around or get a drink. Lifting her up to watch the people roller skating and see the disco lights.
How unbelievably gorgeous she is. Her perfect little button nose and triangular mouth, the way her bottom lip twitches as her tongue plays in her mouth, as if she’s mouthing some unheard story… the way her face blossoms into the most beautiful baby smile. The innocent curiosity as her beautiful face looks around at tree branches from her moving pram. The wee hand that is ceaselessly, playfully exploring, doing its own tiny dance even as I feed her. The way she kicks vigorously while playing, with such a determined expression on her face. Her developing sense of humour, the delicious little chuckles as I make silly noises and faces and blow raspberries on her bare tummy.
The sensual decadence of cuddles, kissing her soft cheeks, letting her nap splayed out on my front. Going round Tesco with her sleeping in a baby carrier attached to me, her head resting on my chest, the pure luxury of getting this continuous warm hug while grocery shopping.
Being intimately acquainted with what her bowels produce; having her little mouth leave its saliva on my nipples… the unexpectedness of these physical intimacies. Finding it perfectly natural to pick bogies out of her nostrils or wax from her ear lobes, things I would never do for anyone else, as if she’s almost an extension of me.
Slowly getting to know some other new mums living nearby over coffees. Wondering how on earth to cultivate deep, supportive friendships through a haze of sleep deprivation and in the presence of a fussing baby.
Finding myself creating the stability and security I crave, in strange, desperate ways: always having everything I need in exactly the same spots around me – glass of water, lanolin cream, notebook, tissues, muslin cloth. Watching the same Disney movie over and over and over, day after day, then eventually trying another one and watching that over and over and over again. Making the same banana jelly dessert again and again. Eating the same protein bars every day.
Feeling unsettled by the changing season and the earlier darkness. Anxiety crippling me, drowning me in a general dread of future motherhood challenges I fear I am not going to be able to deal with. Getting worked up about her immunisations and how unwell she may feel afterwards. Worrying about my own health, picturing medical crises and engulfing myself in silent, sweaty panic in the dead of night.
Telling myself to think of some point in the future when things will be easier. Then feeling awful for wishing time away.