(As always, please forgive any mental gaffes, typos, etc. below. I wrote this very quickly with ample distraction!)
My baby brother, who is actually only 18 months younger than I am but will always be my baby brother, and his beautiful wife just welcomed their first baby into their lives and the world.
Meet sweet Ellyn Jane and the proud, new daddy.
Ellyn was born on Pentecost Sunday, so she is in good company as far as birthdays go. She’s also my goddaughter and first niece. Nine-year-old Madeline used to complain about only having furry cousins since there are some cats and dogs in the extended family, but Ellyn’s debut marks the arrival of the very first first cousin. The kids haven’t met her yet and weren’t too happy with the hospital policy of no kids under 12 (unless they are siblings of the baby) being allowed the visit. I was talking about how cute Ellyn was, and Madeline said, “Don’t rub it in.”
As I held her, my eyes pricked with tears, and I couldn’t help but remember the day I became a mother and held my first tiny treasure in my arms. Dave and I laughed about how excited he became when a geyser of thick meconium bubbled out of Madeline’s butt. “She works!” he exclaimed.
She did work, and so did I. The mothering thing wasn’t as impossible as I might have thought. Of course, I can say that now. I can also say that yes, I did sleep again, but there was a long stretch of time when I thought sleep was a luxury I’d never again enjoy (my firstborn was a complete insomniac and to this day has the energy of a hummingbird). I can say now that I should have sometimes slept when the baby slept, but I hated it when people told me to sleep when she was taking a short snooze. I didn’t want to just be a feeding machine and a catnapper. There was more to life. Wasn’t there? Yes. I can say that now, too. I can say a lot of things. That babies bring joy, but they bring a whole mix of other emotions as well.
After my first, I was fortunate to be basking in baby bliss. I remember experiencing a sort of mania and baking banana bread the first day I arrived home from the hospital. I remember this because a wise relative gently advised me that I might want to take it easy and warned that I might hit a wall. I poo-poohed her advice. I felt great! I had a baby! I was a mother! Life was grand! I was one of those weird. new moms, I suppose, who was deluded into thinking those happy, endorphins would last forever (trust me, I was not this way postpartum with all my babies). But, in fact, I didn’t end up hitting the wall until my baby was around six months old and still waking to nurse about every 45 minutes. But still. I was so happy. I was a mom! (I repeated that a lot in that first year or two because sometimes it still seemed surreal after two years of waiting and wondering when I would join that elite crowd of mothers). It would take a subsequent child to discover the darkness of postpartum depression and to become mired in sadness and guilt because I wasn’t overcome with joy. But with my first – maybe because it took longer to conceive than I’d hoped or thought would be my reality – I was very, very happy.
But beneath the joy, there was something else less rosy. Fear. I was terribly afraid that if I didn’t do everything right, I would mess up this beautiful child of mine. This wasn’t just a plant I might forget to water (I have a bad track record with green things). This was a human soul, a vessel of hopes and dreams, and she was entrusted to anxious, quirky, and imperfect me. I could do so much damage. I could inflict so much pain. If she didn’t bloom, it would absolutely be my fault even if it wasn’t. Because it’s not a mother’s fault if her baby isn’t gaining the right amount of weight while breastfeeding or if the child doesn’t meet her milestones right on schedule. We moms blame ourselves for a lot of things that aren’t really all that much in our control. On the flip side, we sometimes take credit for things that have little to do with us and everything to do with our children’s natural bend and God.
If I could write a letter to my new mother self, I’d tell me to lighten up, to cuddle more and to worry less, to not feel guilty for longing for a break from the never-ending cycle of feeding, sleeping, and changing diapers. I’d praise myself for giving my best, and I remind myself that forgiveness is a beautiful gift and you start receiving its fruits by forgiving yourself for when you fall short as a mother or a friend or a wife. I’d remind myself that a lot of things – dare I say most things? – aren’t really the parents’ fault, especially if the child is born to parents who worry that everything will be their fault. If you’re anxious or worried or afraid or full of remorse after you yelled at your child or walked away from your screaming baby just because you needed to collect yourself and breathe normally for five seconds, then you’re probably a good enough parent. Oh, I’d have a lot to say, actually, so I’ll say some of it now for my sister-in-law and for my brother, too, and for any mother who is waiting on the eve of first-time motherhood.
Congratulations! Your baby is beautiful. She’s also a lot less fragile than you might think. You’re not going to break her (although she will break a few of her bones all on her own years from now and it will break your heart, but she will survive and so will you). Have fun with her! Don’t take mothering so seriously! She loves it when you act goofy (and even when she gets older and starts rolling her eyes at you, she still like it when you are goofy and pretend to be Roger Coopahoo). Yes, she’s a beautiful, little girl, but you might want to stop putting her in those frilly frocks. Seriously. Aside from the fact that those buttons are ridiculously small, and you’re tired, and your little model is wiggly and you’re just wasting your precious energy dressing her up like a doll, your daughter is going to grow up hating the color pink and wanting to play soccer. She’s going to cry at ballet class because it’s just not her thing but break into a nonstop grin when she finds her way to a soccer field (she’s inching closer to the ten-mark and still hasn’t stopped grinning when she’s outside with a spread of grass and a ball). She’s going to ask for a pirate party in lieu of a princess party. But she will be no less beautiful. She’s going to make you laugh and beam when she smiles and jokes around and when others tell you that she’s such a nice girl. She will always be a princess to you as will her sisters, and her brother will be just as cherished and special. There’s somehow always enough love to go around, although it would be nice if you had a few more arms.
While we’re on the subject of beauty, you know what? You’re beautiful, too. You may not see it now. Yes, you’re redolent of Eau du Breastmilk, and I do believe that’s a streak of diaper ointment in your hair, and WARNING: That is NOT a drop of green smoothie sliding down your arm so do not even think of licking it, but you possess a new kind of beauty. It doesn’t matter that you haven’t lost your baby weight or that everything has shifted. Be patient and kind to yourself, will you? You just grew a human being in your body, brought her into the world, and now you’re in charge of meeting all of her basic needs. Cut yourself some slack. Look in the mirror. Do you see the beauty? This is the kind of beauty that has little to do with aesthetics and nothing to do with how well you fit into your skinny jeans. That baby of yours looks to you for her every need and even when it would be easier to run and hide or at least put a pillow over your head and cry in exasperation (it’s perfectly okay that you do that from time to time, you know), you are there to meet her needs. When she cries, your total body responds. Even when she bawls for no apparent reason and you walk aimlessly around the house drunk with exhaustion gently jiggling her in your aching arms, you are there for her. Are you not aware of your power to nurture and to love? There you are, looking beyond yourself, your own needs and wants, and the outer shell of chic hair and curves, and you’re catching a glimpse of what it means to truly give of yourself. And that, dear Mother, is what makes you perfectly lovely.
Oh, Mama, I know you sometimes mourn your old life (and then feel terribly guilty for doing just that). I know you sometimes feel shut out from the world and powerless, especially when your arms, your milk, nothing can make that sweet baby stop crying, and just wait until baby three comes along and cries every day from 8 pm to 1 am unless you’re nursing or holding her and walking endlessly whispering, “Shhh, shhh,” when you really want to be screaming, “Will you please shut up?” It’s not easy. No. The people who say being a mother is easy have forgotten or they outsourced the tough work or they had children far different than your wonderful but spirited ones. It’s in the hard parts that you really become aware of what you’re made of. Mom, you are stronger because of that child. Your arms no longer ache quite as much as they used to when you carry her for hours at end, do they? And did you ever think lover-of-sleep-that-you-are that you would be able to survive on this little shut-eye? You may not be running marathons any longer, but you better believe you’re an endurance athlete.
But let me tell you this, too. You NEED to understand this and embrace this: It’s okay if that baby cries a little. You will not ruin her. You are so afraid – so desperately, absurdly afraid – that if you don’t jump and respond to even the briefest bleat, your mother-daughter bond will break, and it will your fault if she ever has any inner demons to confront. What you are really afraid of was that if you don’t do everything right, she might end up with a drug addiction like someone you love very much.
Stop being so afraid. You know how you trusted that your body would know what to do during labor and lo and behold, it did? You’ve got to start trusting now. You’ve got to relinquish control. There are no guarantees in anything you do as a parent. No parent can save her child from every ill, from every heartbreak, from shedding tears now and then.
There is no saving embrace – except that of God’s.
Nothing is going to hurt my baby. Nothing. That’s what you’re saying now. That’s what all parents say. It’s instinct. We want to protect these babies of ours.
But in time, you will see that things hurt your babies all of the time. Sometimes it’s even – gasp! – you who’s doing the hurting, by gently but firmly saying no to their pleas. There are rainy days when it’s supposed to be sunny so you can venture out to the zoo. There are dinners not followed by dessert.
One day, your kids will likely face much bigger disappointments – broken hearts, rejections from colleges and employers, backstabbing friends, missed opportunities, and maybe worse.
There’s no escaping it: Pain is a part of the human condition. Welcome to life, kiddos. It’s full of disappointments.
The world is chipping away at your children’s innocent hearts every day. And yet, as tough as it is for a mother who is designed to love her children fiercely and deeply, guess what? It’s not your job to inoculate your children against all the angst of life.
Thomas Paine said, “What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly.”
And didn’t God say something very similar when He sacrificed His only Son for us so that we could have life? One drop of Christ’s blood could have saved us all, yet He freely chose to shed every last bit of it. He gave what is beyond sufficient, so that we might recognize the power of sacrificial love. This is also known as tough love, and trust me, it’s not easy to dole out, but it is necessary.
Of course, you won’t spoil her, either, by carrying her in your arms every waking hour if that’s your heart’s desire or if your leaky boobs are telling your to nurse her again. Don’t listen to all the “experts.” You’re the expert. God gave that baby to you. If parenting books, articles, blogs, advice from others, etc. make you feel more at peace and better equipped, then seek them out. However, if anything makes you suffer from the slightest twinge of inadequacy, step away and ignore it. While you’re at it, don’t compare yourself to any other mom, and definitely don’t compare your child to another child. Just don’t do it. There will be babies who meet milestones more quickly than yours. There will be babies who blissfully start sleeping through the night in a couple of months. There will also be babies who don’t seem as good-natured as yours. Don’t get smug or jealous. Like your good friend has said, when you compare, no one wins. You either come off feeling like a loser mom to a child with a more challenging temperament, or you get all high and mighty, thinking at least your baby is not as (cranky, demanding, insert negative adjective) as So-and-So’s child, and at least you don’t wear sweatpants every day.
I know you’re tired, but you’re trying to convince the rest of the world you’re a super mom. Why? Why not just try to accept that you’re an imperfect human who depends upon supernatural grace? Don’t forget to pray. When you find the hosue dark and quiet, and you are awake with your little insomniac, offer it up, pray that your love will be enough to raise a happy, kind child, but when it’s not, that God might fill in the gaps. His light shines the best through your cracks. Remember that. You always try so hard at everything you do, but motherhood isn’t some project you can manage if you work hard enough. This quest to be the best is admirable, but it’s exhausting, too. It’s exhausting to make perfection your goal. It’s prideful, too. Remember, what I just told you: You’re not in control. That child of yours is going to hold her poop in for 15 days when she’s a toddler. The pediatrician will tell you before this happens that it won’t be possible, that you and Mr. Miralax will be able to make her poop; yet, despite your dedicated run as a poop doula (“Push, Love! You can do it!”), despite her tears and your own, She. Will. Not. Poop. And one day as you sit in the bathroom for the billionth time that day, you finally throw in the white flag of surrender. You scream in frustration and then you let it go (one day a very popular song with those same lyrics will play over and over in your mininvan, and you’ll have to let that go, too). You’re not giving up, but you’re ready to give up trying to control your daughter or to see her choices as a reflection of your worth as a mother.
Also, you don’t have to be as focused on that little one as laser beam – so much so that you forget to do some of the things you love. You read that stupid article in a parenting magazine about how one mom decided to never read a book while nursing because she felt like she wasn’t giving her baby her full attention, and you suffered so many pangs of guilt that you stopped reading while nursing for several months even though you’d really enjoyed reading while nursing, and you also started feeling guilty about the long walks you took with the baby in the stroller. Maybe she needed more tummy time. And what would the pediatrician say if she knew you bit her paperthin nails rather than clipping them because you were afraid you might nip the skin, which you spared your first daughter from but you made your second baby bleed and she wailed and so did you, but she still loved you, and she didn’t end up emotionally or physically scarred because of your mishap. You know what? Focused attention is important for children, but so is keeping your sanity. Read a damn book when you nurse. Don’t worry: you’ll read plenty of books with your next three children, and you won’t even feel guilty about it. Seriously, you nurse for hours and hours every day. Sometimes you gaze into those sleepy, steel-gray eyes of your little love, but sometimes it’s okay to avert your gaze to a book.
And the book doesn’t have to be something literary or scholarly either. If you want to read some superficial but fun chick lit, go for it. You have a whole lifetime to share your love for great literature with your children. Same goes for music. There’s that strong message from society that need to give our kids a head start. Start playing Mozart while the baby’s still in the womb. Pull out the flashcards at birth! Whatever. You have always thought all that push for more activities, stimulation, flash cards, etc. is stupid, but you second guess yourself sometimes because so many moms seem to be enrolling their babies – yes, babies! – in enrichment classes, but the only one who probably really needs the enrichment is the poor parent who is weary of reading books with monosyllabic words. Your baby will be just fine playing with measuring spoons you hand her while you’re baking. Listen to The Beatles if you want. And don’t even think about buying flashcards. Tell your baby about your day. Point out the little joys around you – see that sunny daffodil, little one. Hear those church bells. Smell that coffee.
Ah, yes, coffee.
You refused to drink it while pregnant and nursing with your first. What if something went wrong? Thankfully, it didn’t, but when you lost a baby to miscarriage, do you really think it was your fault? That drinking that one or two cups of coffee in the morning took your baby from you? Of course, give your best. Make smart, healthy choices most of the time. Eat well. Be well. But one glass of wine after you nurse or a cup (or two!) of coffee in the morning are okay.
Oh, and that was nice of you to make the banana bread for all of your visitors when your baby was less than a week old, but it wasn’t necessary, and I’m pretty sure a few people thought you were more insane than Martha Stewart-ish. Your baby needs you more than your guests need a homemade breakfast. Your baby needs you more than the furniture needs polishing. Everyone has been telling you that babies grow up so quickly and to enjoy these precious first few months, and you mostly appreciate this wisdom, but sometimes you wish they’d just be quiet. I know, I know. But maybe I’m just a little excited for the next stage! You do enjoy your baby and you take a thousand pictures of her every day (you’ve taken a fourth of that amount of your fourth child, but he still very much loved), but you also can’t wait to not have veiny boobs the size of cantaloupes (just wait, dear, they will soon be back to their small size and you miss the melons a bit). You can’t wait to sleep more than three fragmented hours a night. You can’t wait to witness your baby’s first smile, belly laugh, and toddling steps. Patience has never been your strength. You’re always racing ahead. Your enthusiasm for life is wonderful, but slow down a little. It will take the fourth baby to really teach you this. When he arrives, you finally start napping some. You finally feel okay about just sitting around and doing, well, nothing. You finally give yourself permission to pursue things that truly make you happy instead of doing things you think should make you happy or the things you think make you look like an uber mom.
Likewise, it will take a few more kids to reveal to you that you really are a baby person. Some moms don’t like that lump stage so much (your husband used to say that newborns are one big, cute GI tract; food goes in and then it goes out), but you love it. Maybe because of its beautiful simplicity. A baby’s needs and wants are the same. This can be exhausting, but it’s also more straightforward than dealing with older children, and it’s more physically taxing than emotionally so. Things get more complicated as that baby grows up and starts exerting her (strong!) will on you and the world. Just wait until she gets older, and you’re not sure if she’s really thirsty or if that “I need a cup of water” is a ploy to stall bedtime either further. Wait until you can’t make her feel better after someone hurts her feelings with just a hug. You’ll discover soon enough that you can’t kiss away every tear or boo-boo.
Perhaps you also love having a baby around because it gives you an excuse to say no and to accept your limitations. The good news is you get better and better at protecting your primary vocation as a wife and mom and learning to set boundaries and to not say yes to too many commitments outside of the home.
I wish you could have started learning some of these lessons earlier, but you can’t force growth. You needed to be pruned, and boy, has motherhood pruned you. There was a lot that had to be cut away – your desire for control, your busy, worker bee mentality, your impossible quest for perfection in your mothering and your children, your stubborn refusal to sleep when a 20-minute power nap would have done wonders for you and your family – so that you could grow, progress, and bear great fruit.
But here I am getting all serious on you. There are few other things you need to know. First off, if your baby is doing something cute and you pull out the camera, she will stop doing it immediately. You will try over and over to get her to do that cute, little thing one more time or to look at you in that wonderful way one more time, and it will not happen – until you put the camera away. Get used to it. It will happen over and over with every single child. Also, that little baby is more portable than you think. Now it’s true that she doesn’t sleep as much as “normal” babies (filled with fear when your second is born and sleeps all of the time, you call your mom and tell her that you’re worried because she sleeps ALL OF THE TIME, but your mom reassures you,”That’s what babies are supposed to do.” Who knew? You certainly didn’t after Madeline was born.) Don’t be afraid to go to your favorite coffee shop with your baby in tow or to enjoy a picnic with your husband. There’s no need to be holed up at home all of the time.
Oh, and when others offer advice, kindly thank them and then do whatever the heck you want or think is best for your baby and for yourself. That man who went on and on about how fat your baby was and how he (“She,” you informed him) looked like a linebacker should not have worried you. You can’t nurse a baby too much. That fat, roly-poly baby is now a super-tall, athletic girl, and there’s no sign of the Michelin Man in her anymore. And that other person who said your baby needed a hat on because it was cold outside obviously did not see the back of her head, which was sticky with sweat. You’re doing just fine. You know your baby well.
And that well-meaning mother who told you you needed to sleep train your baby if you wanted to get any sleep, she shouldn’t have made you second-guess yourself. Do you remember the one night you tried to let her cry it out and how it made you fall apart and your boobs felt like achy rocks? Your baby cried; you wanted to respond to her. And so did Daddy. You guys are wimps. Do what your gut – and heart – tell you to do. You enjoy sleeping with your babies (um and kids), and it doesn’t matter if others think your marriage must not be as strong as others because you share a family bed. Don’t worry about what anyone thinks of you or your parenting choices.
A very practical tip: Stock your car with extra diapers. The “Poopenator” may go through diapers with amazing alacrity. Best to be prepared. An extra wardrobe change is prudent as well and when she gets older, be sure to stock the car with snacks and extra water. Your kids will be the kinds that are always hungry, especially if you have just given them a snack and headed out to run errands.
You don’t know everything, but you know a lot more than you think. Remember what I said earlier? You really are the best expert when it comes to your child and how to parent them. And just so you know: You are going to mess up. A lot. Oh, for awhile you get kind of smug. When you were still pregnant with your first, you were at Target, and there was a little boy who kept asking his mom, “Why?” She tried to answer his endless queries until she finally snapped, “I don’t know ‘why’! Would you stop saying that?” You inwardly winced and thought to yourself, “I will never squash my children’s natural curiosity.” Ha. Fast forward a few years, and you’re pretty sure you’ve sighed when a child has asked yet another question. “I don’t know. Go Google it.”
“Mommy, look at this bug!”
It’s the fiftieth bug your intrepid bug catcher has captured in the last two minutes as you’ve attempted to coral everyone at the soccer fields, so you can get everyone home, fed, and bathed before midnight (you’re a little like Cinderella and turn not-so-pretty if you don’t have any quiet, solo time before midnight), so you don’t really look at it and mutter, “Oh wow.”
She detects your lack of enthusiasm. The poor bug probably does, too. “Hey, Lady. I might die during this little exhibition. The least you could do is take a good look at my intact awesomeness.”
Your daughter isn’t as nice as the bug.
“MOMMY! LOOK AT MY BUG!”
So you look a little harder, but it escapes and zips away. “NOW IT’S GONE! NOW I HAVE TO CATCH ANOTHER ONE TO SHOW YOU BEFORE WE GO HOME!”
“No, you don’t you say,” and you scoop an angry child into your arms and dodge her windmill legs and arms as you stomp over to the car.
Oh, dear mother at Target, I am so, so sorry for judging you!
When your first baby is on the cusp of toddlerhood, you’re at a playdate, and you hear a mother tell her child that if he hits again, they will have to leave. The child bops another child on the head. They don’t leave. Inside, you’re tsking, tsking that poor, weary mother and are convinced you will always be consistent and carry through with discipline. You won’t ever spank or yell. You will be gentle but firm. You’ve got this. But one day you don’t. Your husband has been MIA, working long hours. You’re recovering from a violent stomach bug. Your 15-month-old has stopped taking even her quick 20 minute naps. She sometimes falls asleep in the car, though, so you decide to take a little drive, hoping she will finally succumb to the Sandman. The little drive turns into a long one. You live in South Carolina. You eventually find yourself in North Carolina. Your little lark is still chirping away, eyes wide open. You park the car, and you start to cry. Then you yell, “Why won’t you just go to sleep?” Your child’s lower lip begins to tremble, and she starts to cry. She hides her face from you. She’s afraid of you. You’re an awful mother. Only you’re not. You’re a human mother. Soon enough you will learn that you do sometimes yell. You don’t always dole out compassion when that is exactly what your child needs. You struggle with anxiety and depression but are afraid to admit because, damn it, you should be happy because you are living a charmed life. Sometimes you think every other mom out there never loses her cool, is always gentle and kind, and doesn’t ever feel that being a mother is the most wonderful, terrible job in the world. But one day that firstborn of yours will grow up, and she will come up to you and pat you on the back and tell you that you can’t do anything to take away her love for her and you don’t need to earn her love either. And another child will write you a beautiful, “just because” letter telling you that you are like a flower that everyone wants to be around, and your son will thunk you on the head (affectionately, of course), and your other little girl will tell you that you are very pretty, and you’ll feel that maybe just maybe you’ve done a few things right after all, and maybe just maybe a divine kind of love is glorified through your imperfections.
Just a few more thoughts , new mama. When you’re in a rut, remind yourself, “This too shall pass.” You will sleep again. You will feel human again. Your child won’t always wear diapers, scream at you because you cut her sandwich into rectangles instead of triangles, draw on your walls, pick her nose, etc. It will get easier and harder. No stage of parenthood is simple, but none of it lasts for forever either.
Last but not least, soak up these precious moments with your baby. I know everyone is telling you that, but try to remind yourself that all those people who kind of annoy you by saying that you’re going to miss having a baby someday actually are right because a decade from now your youngest will be two, your oldest will be almost 10 going on 30, and you won’t have a baby in the house, and your heart will feel a little bit empty. And you’ll hold your sweet, new niece, beautiful Ellyn, and you’ll start to cry out of joy for the miracle that is her, and out of gratitude for your brother and his wife who are starting their own incredible parenting journey, and there will be some tears thrown in there that are wistful and full of longing. “I want a baby,” you’ll say out loud, by mistake. Everyone laughs in the room, and you laugh, too, because you know you are blessed to have four beautiful children, but you also know you’ll never regret the child you have, but you may find yourself wondering, hoping, dreaming for the child who didn’t make it into your arms. You silently tell your ovaries to stop twitching. What will be will be. All you can do is embrace the now. Don’t look back, but don’t be afraid of a future that might not have what you think you want or need. Yes, your bedtime routine with your first was ridiculous. Remember how you held her hand for hours even when she was three years old? That was a little over-the-top, wasn’t it? But make sure when that big girl asks for you to give her a backrub or lay beside her that you do it because one day she will be gone. Poof! Like that. Every baby you will ever have will grow up. There’s no stopping it, so just enjoy those sweet children entrusted to you, and always, always remember you are a good enough mom, and one day you’ll have a chance to be a good aunt (and God-willing grandmother!).
Babies don’t keep, but thankfully the memories do. Now go make some with that baby of yours. You are going to have a great life together!