Parenting between love and fear
Hold onto your rattles, because the baby boom continues: I’m an aunt! My sister and brother-in-law welcomed their daughter, Autumn, on May 5. You’d think I’d never seen, held or sniffed a newborn before, friends; I’m obsessed with her. She is squishy and blue-eyed and perfect.
Kate was a trooper — particularly at the end. She called me Wednesday, thinking she was in labor; her due date was the next day, and we’d all been bugging her about twinges. I was so excited I could barely sleep.
Little Autumn didn’t arrive for another two days: finally making her entrance at 5:38 p.m. Friday. I couldn’t relax before then, waiting for scraps of information from my brother-in-law; I had to keep moving. When pacing around the house didn’t help, I started cleaning — and wound up digging through old boxes gathering dust since our last move.
That turned out to be a terrible idea. These were mementos from childhood: photos, notes and journals filled with memories I’d shared with Kate, my baby sister. Now a woman welcoming her own baby.
When I couldn’t take it anymore, Spencer took over with our kids so I could wait at the hospital with Eric’s parents and my mom and dad. I’d never been on that side of a maternity wing. Waiting in a small, hot room for slivers of information was maddening. Eric’s dad and I jumped up when we thought we heard a baby cry, pressing our ears to a door. My brother-in-law soon arrived with the great news, and our world changed again.
I’m so proud of Katie. The relief I felt seeing her and my healthy niece was overwhelming. Autumn was 9 pounds, 1 ounce with a slick of dark hair: beautiful.
Sunday was Mother’s Day, and we got our three kids together for the first time. When an infant cried out, it was impossible to distinguish between the girls; we all jumped up. It’s crazy to see them side by side, sleepy heads tilted at the same angle.
It’s one thing to know a life-changing event is on the horizon. Quite another to experience it.
Those early days of parenthood can be beautiful and scary and tough. They were for me. I try to be honest about my postpartum “journey,” if you will, because it helps no one to act like the transition was painless. I was exhausted and overwhelmed as a new mom, and filled with little of the joy I’d expected. I was ashamed by my unexplained sadness and loneliness, especially since I had nothing to really feel sad about . . . so I kept it to myself. The worst thing I could have done.
For the better part of a year, I had to remind myself that I was “mom” — that Oliver was really ours to soothe and feed and bathe. My husband is a very devoted dad who embraced those responsibilities, making it both easier and harder to deal with how I was feeling; while Spencer is a natural, I was scared to even lift our tiny son. My heart would pound every time Ollie cried. I hated leaving the house with him because I worried he would fuss in the car, where I couldn’t soothe him, or be exposed to germs. So we stayed in.
My very first Mother’s Day came three days after Oliver was discharged from the NICU. The first picture I have of the two of us shows me awkwardly balancing him in my arms with tired, wary eyes. All we’d wanted was to bring him home — but when we left the sanitized world of the hospital, I was overwhelmed by even his minimal needs. What was wrong with me? Anxiety. It lies to you. I certainly don’t want Oliver to someday read this and think I was unhappy to become his mother. I love him beyond measure. But in the beginning, that love felt foreign — even scary: the joy at being a family also stained with worry. His careful nursing staff had taken such good care of him . . . how could they trust him to me?
In hindsight, I was in the throes of postpartum anxiety and grappling with post-traumatic stress. I tried to adjust too quickly, putting pressure on myself to embrace a “new normal” that felt anything but comfortable. Spencer and I had to get to know Oliver, and he had to get to know us. I had to heal — physically and mentally — from my experience with preeclampsia and come to terms with Ollie’s early birth.
Most of all, I needed to cut myself some slack.
That turmoil boiled over eventually, as it usually will. I started acknowledging my struggles: first to my husband, sister and parents, then my doctor. Light began to seep beneath the door of the dark mental space I’d occupied since April. By the fall, I was ready for help — and by Christmas, all the “normal” feelings of new-parent happiness that had eluded me were so strong, I’d randomly cry with relief. I wasn’t broken after all.
Two years later, the darkness is long gone. Oliver is our buddy, hilarious and sweet; he and his sister, baby Hadley, are my world. I’ve stayed on top of my mental health and now practice far more self-care than I did in 2015. We want to give everything we have to our children, so we do — but it’s true that we can’t pour from an empty cup.
This wasn’t easy to write or share. But seeing my sister become a mother — an awesome, loving, very capable one — reminded me of how much it would have helped to know I wasn’t crazy or alone when I personally struggled as a new parent.
So if that’s you or someone you love, this is my hand for you to hold. Reach out: to your doctor, significant other, a friend, your parents. (Of course, call 911 if you experience thoughts of harming yourself or your child. The Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255.)
You can be both scared and grateful, anxious and optimistic. Enamored with your child but still missing your “old” life. You have a right to your feelings. We’re human.
Devoted sibling, loving parent, joyful aunt or uncle. Adjusting to one role may take longer than the others.
Just crack open that door. So much love is waiting on the other side.
Autumn and me