I knew full well that my life would change dramatically when James came into it, and this year, at 33, I was up for it. I wanted nothing more than to care for and give all my love to our baby boy. I prepared in every way I could. I read books on sleep and childhood development. I watched YouTube videos to get a sense of what to expect during and after labor, read parenting blogs, listened to parenting podcasts, and spent hours at night reading forums for new moms. They said it was hard, of course. They said it would change my life, in good and challenging ways. They mentioned the little to no sleep I’d get—many times in fact. And still nothing, and I mean nothing—not a single thing in the whole wide world—could have prepared me for the reality of having a newborn baby.
I braced myself for one hell of a challenge. I could live without being able to get up and go on a whim—to restaurants, the movies, to grab a coffee. In time, I could learn to adapt to the change in how much and when and where and IF I slept. As hard as it would be to essentially upend our life, I wanted it.
And as someone who has struggled with depression off and on for many years, I was aware that I might be inclined to struggle with postpartum depression. The possibility of it didn’t scare me or fill me with dread. I talked openly about it with my doctor before giving birth. Daniel and I talked about it many times, kind of marveling at how good my pregnancy had gone, how good I’d felt mentally the whole time, even after tapering off of my antidepressant in the second trimester. But who knew what would happen when my hormones changed again after I gave birth?
The moment James was born, I felt this intense rush of love and excitement wash over me. Here he was finally. I kissed him and snuggled him and wept through a thousand I love yous. I was so relieved he was out after the grueling labor we’d had.
But in the days that followed, that warm, cozy love feeling stayed and the excitement began to wear off. As happy as I was to have my baby boy, I was realizing that life with a newborn was so hard—harder than anything I had ever done.
The first night home from the hospital, James was utterly inconsolable, unable to be put down anywhere for longer than a minute. The second night was the same, only he wanted to nurse constantly, which I understood. He’d just spent nine months in my womb; it made sense that he’d want closeness and comfort. I did the very best I could, which meant staying up all night every night and sleeping for an hour or two in the day while Daniel held him. Those nights were so lonely. Daniel would attempt to stay up with me, but it just seemed crazy to me to keep him up, when I was the only one who could feed James.
The trouble was, I wasn’t so sure I even was feeding James. He struggled with latching then unlatching and seemingly forgetting how to feed at all. For hours and hours, he’d find his latch, push away, then struggle to remember how he latched in the first place. He’d scream the whole time, too, which left me confused and feeling desperate. I was so scared that something was wrong, that maybe he’d never settle down at all, or that he wasn’t getting enough to eat—a feeling that had plagued me since the night we began nursing. It was impossible to know how much colostrum he was getting since it’s such a small amount that your body makes overall (the nurses at the hospital told me time and again when I looked to them, worried that he wasn’t getting anything, that his stomach was only the size of a cherry. He didn’t need much, they said). I couldn’t shake the feeling that something wasn’t right.
And yet, I didn’t want to give up on breastfeeding. My nipples were raw, cracked, and crusted with blood but that was fine, as long as he was fine. I told myself that I’d eventually get used to the pain and that my nipples would desensitize and adjust. This is what all breastfeeding mothers go through, I reminded myself over and over. But there was something about the way he cried, the way he thrashed, the sort of desperation in his latch. My gut said he wasn’t getting what he needed. We went to the pediatrician three days in a row that first week, hoping that he’d begin pooping and regaining the weight he’d lost after birth. We were told to keep coming back until he’d made some progress. I met with a second lactation consultant, who encouraged me to keep on keeping on. And I did. I tried pumping, as she’d suggested, and didn’t produce more than a few drops.
I felt isolated, all on my own with this perfect, precious newborn I loved so much, who didn’t sleep at night and only cat-napped during the day, who I could barely breastfeed, who couldn’t tell me what he needed when he wailed. Of course I had Daniel, who’d do anything for me, and that relieved me some. But I was James’ mother. I was the one he knew. I was the source of his comfort, the one who could feed him. And maybe that role wouldn’t have felt quite as daunting IF I felt confident that I was indeed feeding him, but breastfeeding was a war, and I was losing.
Friends and family came and went, visiting us and meeting James, and I remember how incredibly alone I felt. I remember looking at them, feeling desperate, wanting so badly to cry out, help me please!, and then shooting myself down. But what could they really do? Could they feed him? Get him to sleep?
I cried. Every day, at least once, for a week and a half. I lived with a constant feeling that at any moment all the tears in my eyes would come spilling out. One half of me was filled with this potent, profound love for my baby boy, and the other was filled with something I couldn’t even define—some murky mix of fear, isolation, and at its worst, a hopelessness that it would always be this way.
What plagued me was the endlessness of it all. It was so hard to believe that it would get better, so hard to take comfort in reading about how much easier newborn life would be by the time James was six weeks old because we were living minute to minute, crawling our way through one day at a time. Six weeks might as well have been a hundred years away.
But look at how lucky you are! I told myself over and over. I couldn’t help but acknowledge that the circumstances of my life were overwhelmingly positive. I had a husband I adored, who was eager and available to help me in any way. We lived in a safe home, in a place we loved, with family 8 minutes away. My baby was healthy, for God’s sake! I had it good, I repeated, like a mantra. It only deepened my shame.
Ten days in, I looked at Daniel with tears pooling, lip quivering, and revealed my worst, most shameful fear: What if—what if maybe we…what if we made a mistake having a baby? It was a gutting thought to have, even worse to say aloud. I didn’t want to wonder it much less say it. All I wanted in the whole world was to be a good mother, a whole-hearted mother, and here I was on day 10, failing.
Daniel reached over, took my hand in both of his. Of course he understood. He was having just as hard a time adjusting, he said. He told me he’d had the same awful, frightening thought, and it was the first time I felt anything but alone since James was born. I didn’t want either of us to feel like we were drowning in parenthood, but sharing our struggle divided the pain by half.
I started taking my antidepressant that day.
Daniel and I worked out a schedule of sorts (more of a shift system) and divided up our tasks. I felt supported and bolstered and he felt good being able to help. He grew even closer to James. We both got more sleep.
Daniel called his sister, and asked for help. She began coming over once a week to spend the night. She got up with James overnight while we got a full night’s sleep. It saved us both.
I came to terms, finally, with the reality that I just wasn’t able to breastfeed. I couldn’t will my milk to come in, no matter how I tried. James was still rooting constantly. I was terrified he was hungry when I heard his stomach growling, despite having nursed pretty much all night long, so we decided to give him 10ml of formula (the amount we tried in the hospital when I insisted he was hungry). After he ate, it was as if we had witnessed a switch flip inside him. He stopped crying, allowed himself to look around and “play” without constantly searching for my nipple, and even slept in his bassinet for two whole, uninterrupted hours.
Once we began giving him formula, his behavior, his temperament, everything—changed overnight. He went from not sleeping at all to sleeping peacefully. And when he was awake, he was calm. I no longer had to hold him around the clock. At long last, I slept.
I surrendered. I asked for help. I couldn’t be the hero mom I wished I was in my mind, who didn’t need rest and didn’t complain. I was just a mom.
I look back and realize that so much of the suffering we all endured in that first part of James’ life was due to him being hungry, desperately trying to feed at all hours with nothing to eat. It breaks my heart to think about that now.
When mothers describe new motherhood as hard, they never leave it there. They’re quick to add a “but it’s the best, most rewarding thing in the world.” “Savor every second,” they tell you. “I miss it,” they say to you, as you’re dying. How can I savor this time, you wonder, when I’m barely surviving? You question whether or not they ever had a newborn.
For the first two weeks of James’ life, I thought other moms had kept the truth from me, about how devastatingly trying it is. “Hard” doesn’t even do it justice. “Do they just not remember?” I asked Daniel. “Is it like how women can completely forget the pain of labor in order to do it again?”
Today, James is 10 weeks old and I understand. I understand because with every single day that goes by, I love him exponentially more. Just being with him brings me enough joy for three lifetimes. Those mothers had perspective, something you can’t always know without time and distance. Their memories of sleepless nights and wailing babies had softened and faded into nostalgia. They could reminisce because they know their children were worth every single struggle that raising them entailed. I understand that now.
With my brain no longer functioning on fumes and hormone surges, I feel really good. Sometimes I wonder if it really was postpartum depression that I experienced in those first two and a half weeks, or if I was just grieving. Grieving breastfeeding, grieving my own expectations of the way I’d feel and the mother I thought I should be. It doesn’t matter, I suppose. I’m already beginning to feel a little wistful for those early days. I can even imagine doing it all again, something I truly never thought I’d say two months ago when Daniel and I were in the thick fog of having a newborn.
This is motherhood.