Congratulations, reads the first page of the self-help book, you have survived all of your hardest days.
I can't help but laugh.
My precious little Lucy is six weeks old. She cries, wails and bleats her way into the early evening. Recently, like a week ago, she awoke to the world. She became aware of this unpleasant reality, no longer sheltered in my warm, tight womb. It's cold out here. It's bright. It smells funny. It's dry. It's too noisy at times and at others, not noisy enough. She has decided that she doesn't like it. Not one bit. And to be completely honest with you, I don't like it either. It's not been a great introduction to each other.
After a preamble about how it can't promise to make you happy (only slightly less sad), the self-help book invites me to make a list of things I am good at, things I am proud of about myself. Lucy is now snoring and gurgling her way through a post-feed slumber. Sure, I've got five minutes.
I have perfected the art of the souffle and can host a great dinner party. I have always held down a decent job. I can hold a conversation in a non-creepy, non-threatening way with a total stranger. I have addressed my childhood traumas, am independent and emotionally healthy. I have travelled wide and far successfully (i.e without being robbed, assaulted or arrested). I have good general knowledge, enjoy reading and am up to date on current world events but don't impose my views on others. I am fun, and funny and have excellent taste in music, films and TV.
My list reads like a dating profile. Baby Lucy is crying again.
I always do my best. I always try. I never quit.
When she's hungry, Lucy screams like the world is ending. Her little face squeezes up, tears fighting their way out of clenched eyes, her skin the colour of beetroot. I seem to always miss the warning signs that she is hungry. The 'rooting around'. The 'fist to mouth'. The 'sucking noises'. I've resorted to an app on my phone that counts down the hours between feeds. But right now, as always, I'm late and I have to calm a very angry little beast before attaching it to my breast in the hope that maybe, this time, she will feed.
I take a deep breath and steady myself. Breast is best, give it another go. Be present and in the moment. What happened before doesn't matter. Do not add your story to it. Do not bring your baggage. Reset, refocus, readjust, restart as many times as you need to.
We fight to get into position. I fumble, terrified of manhandling her. Dropping her on her head. Dislocating a shoulder. Unreasonable fears.
We fight to get a latch. Her mouth is too high up, too low down, not open enough, too open, her nose is mashed into my boob, her arm is in the way. And goddamnit, when she does get in position, it hurts.
And then we 'feed'. I start the timer on my app. Every article, book and website I have read, every midwife and lactation consultant I have spoken to says 15-20 minutes per breast. So begins the agonising wait. Lucy squirms. She kicks. She sucks fiercely. When she lets go to cry and fuss, I can see milk in her mouth, so something must be happening. But I don't have the magical tingling 'let down' everyone talks about. I don't feel a surge of endorphins as she sucks, huge eyes looking up at me lovingly. It doesn't feel nice. It doesn't feel natural. And she doesn't like it. Not one bit.
After 10 minutes on each breast, I give up and give her to my husband for burping and changing and settling.
I know she isn't full and she isn't happy. I am doing absolutely everything right, exactly as the experts say. Everyone is telling me things are just fine, but they aren't. So I come up with ideas. Maybe she is lactose intolerant. Maybe I have no milk. Maybe she hasn't latched properly. Maybe she is a super efficient sucker. Maybe she's just not a big eater. Maybe she is starving, just a little. Maybe we haven't got our rhythm yet. Maybe it's me. I'm a terrible mother. I leave the room and lie down on my bed and cry.
Repeat this exact situation every three hours every day.
I am good at changing diapers.
Except for all the times I don't put them on properly and she leaks through. I have to take off all her clothes. I fumble with her arms and legs because I don't want to break them. God help me if I can ever work out how to pull a bodysuit over her head, I've tried everything. Stretching it wide, pushing her head through, pulling, one side then the other. Front then back or left side then right side. Holding her neck very, very carefully. If I don't put it on she'll be too cold. It ends with her screaming, the colour of a capsicum, and me hyperventilating but, goddamnit, this baby is dressed in an appropriate number of layers for this exact temperature as per the guidelines. A little victory.
And I suppose there was the time I didn't get the timing of the diaper change right at all. I yet again misread her signs - the grunting, straining, drawing her legs up in a strong, almighty act of defacation. Mid-diaper change at 2:30am, I had to catch a slow whippee of green soft serve not once, not twice, but three times, followed by a burst water main of wee before I was finally able to get a fifth diaper on.
Repeat absurd diaper adventures and fecal analysis about twelve times a day. Insert laughter.
I get out each day, even if just for a little bit of sunshine.
I feel an intense need to do something each day, even if I haven't slept the night before. And I insist on taking Lucy with me, on principle. We go everywhere together. It's a learning and bonding experience. We go to the supermarket almost every day now. We have walked so many laps around our local park they're about to name a bench after us. Every outing is an expedition. It takes me at least half an hour to pack everything I anticipate we could need, even if our destination is a mere 5 minutes walk from the house. Who knows when a poonami might hit, or a bout of vomitus, rain, hail, or an unexpected and immediate need for her to eat. Bibs and wipes and diapers and pacifiers (in a variety of shapes and sizes), swaddles and blankets, a change of outfit, hand sanitiser. And the diaper backpack needs to be packed each time we go out, just in case of... I have no idea why, but it just does. Doomsday preppers have nothing on me.
Then there's the timing. I am deathly afraid, bordering on phobic, of feeding her in public. I am not one for getting my ta-tas out on the train or at the table, call me an anti feminist or what you like. I'm more worried, though, about missing her warning signs and Lucy dissolving into a wet, sobbing and screaming mess of a baby in public before I am able to get us somewhere quiet and private enough to get disrobed (because I just can't 'whip out a boob'). So we can't go out if we are even an hour or so within the window of 'food time'. If all the conditions are right, we go out each day. Even if just for a little bit of sunshine. And if she happens to fall asleep while we are out, I walk the pram up and down our block until she naturally awakens, because I simply cannot face the trauma of resettling her back inside the house, if she might wake up when I lift her from the pram.
Yes, I know I need professional help to address these issues. I'll get around to it.
I have a village I can depend on. Friends I can talk to. A partner who supports me.
'Are you okay,' my husband asks from across the room. He is playing a computer game, waiting, eager to help me. I am sitting on the couch facing away from him. It's 2 o'clock in the afternoon and we've just finished another traumatic feed. Lucy is has passed out in my arms. I am crying again. He can probably hear my sobbing.
'Yup! Yes...um... I'm okay, I'm fine. Really. Just having a moment.'
I don't know why I tell him this.
Unconvinced, he replies 'Just let me know if you need anything, if you want me to bounce her. If you want a break.'
I want a vacation in Tahiti with unlimited mojitos. Call me when she's older and gorgeous and we can dress in matching outfits.
'Yup. Nope. I am good. I've got it.'
I'm not good. I haven't got it. I have no idea what I need or how to ask for it.
He goes back to his computer game with a barely audible, weary, sigh.
I am racked with guilt. He wants to help. He wants to enjoy this time. I am robbing him of that opportunity, hogging this unhappy, gassy bundle of bones to myself. He is so much better at all this than me. He has that natural intuition - oh her diaper needs a change, oh she needs to burp, poor little thing is too hot.I resent him and his mothering abilities. I just stand there, staring at her, wishing she would stop. I'm a terrible person.
'Thank you,' I say.
Repeat at least thirteen times a day, in a number of variations.
I go with the flow. I enjoy the little things.
But I am not enjoying this. Anyone who says they enjoy this is full of shit. Sleep deprivation? Body destroyed? Hormones raging? Sure, sign me up. Worse, the chemical change that's taken place in my brain since Lucy was removed from my body. Anxiety manifests as a quiet, monotonous commentary that undermines my every action. Believe it or not, I was decisive and I was confident pre-baby. I know better than this. And I hate it.
I hate knowing that babies don't come with an instruction manual, that every baby is different, that there are no rules (except the rules you see published on blogs and in books, or the rules spouted by midwives who would spend all of five minutes looking at me and announce everything is fine and I am doing a great job, just keep trying the breastfeeding). The rules that I know do not exist and yet for some reason I can't help but search for, as some kind of validation that what I am doing is right, some substitute for my own absent 'mothering instinct'.
The rule that says, 'your child is hungry, give her formula, it's okay that breastfeeding doesn't work out for you'.
Stuff it. I don't need a rule. That's my instinct. I'll buy formula tomorrow. We're doing the formula. A happy baby's a full baby.
Queue the anxiety, 'You're just giving up? Just like that? What kind of mother are you. But maybe the next feed will be better. Breast is best.'
I am shattered by the conflict between knowing and feeling. I am sinking. I am drowning.
I am worn out by the repetition of our daily routines. The three hour cycles, which sometimes become five hour cycles, or two hour cycles of feed-change-settle. I dread the next feed. I dread counting the minutes to the next feed. I dread diaper changes and bathtime. I dread the settling, the swaddling and incessant bouncing, pacing and walking in circles. I dread looking at Lucy's face while she is asleep, wondering if she is breathing, angry at myself for not having her appropriately swaddled, frightened she is going to somehow flip over and suffocate herself on a blanket. I hate not being able to sleep, because she is there and I can't 'just sleep' when she sleeps.
I hate knowing that I should ask for help and that I am lucky enough to have help. My husband knows what to do. My mother in law knows. My mum knows. My sister knows. The old lady next door knows. But I don't know what to do, and I need to learn. I need to work this out. I need to learn how to swim.
But, as always, Lucy is crying, and I am just standing here, looking at her. She cries louder and louder and louder. I am seized by indecision. Caught between knowing what to do and fear of doing it wrong.
Repeat ad infinitum.
I am a mother.
Lucy looks at me with enormous blue eyes, flecked with azure, sapphire and grey. A universe in her eyes. They sparkle and light up as she sees me, really sees me. Me, imperfect, slightly mad, barely holding it together, not really surviving, definitely not thriving. Sinking and swimming, what a combination. In her eyes, her mother who cares and loves her, who always shows up and always does her best. Good enough.
A faint trace of a smile plays at her lips. The books, the websites, the whole world says she can't see me properly, that her smiles are just gas trapped in her underdeveloped digestive system. I don't believe them. She looks at me and studies me, she always has since the moment she emerged into the world, eyes focused right on me as if to say, 'So, what qualifications do you have for this position...'
I love her.
She is beautiful. Delicate. Magical. She has little lovely fingers with a thumb shaped in miniature like her daddy's. A nose like mine and my mother's. A heart shaped face and big fat cheeks. Lips like my husband's, thick and full. A heartbreaker in the making. When she is asleep, truly asleep, her mouth falls open and there is nothing more peaceful or serene or beautiful.
When I hold her, I am crushed by all her glorious potential. This baby who will become a precocious and defiant girl child, venturing forth into the world, learning it's ways through games and play. A mind that will absorb knowledge, be shaped by experiences and learn from mistakes (slowly if she is anything like me). A wild spirit that will be moulded by rules and social structures. Knees that will be grazed. Bruises that will fade. A heart that will be broken and healed and become stronger for it. A spirit I hope I can teach to bend and not break. A person who will take no shit, but do no harm. How am I in any way adequate for this undertaking?
I've never known fear until I fell pregnant. I've never known anxiety until it became my constant companion. I've never known love till now.
Little Lucy, be patient with me please, while I learn to be your mother. I know I am sinking at the moment, but I am actually quite a good swimmer. Just let me get my act together. Love, your mama.
Repeat, every heartbeat of every waking moment.