“This is what being a parent is? This is horrible,” my husband cried, standing in the kitchen in the middle of the night, fumbling with a bag of breast milk. I sat in the kitchen in mesh underwear, crying, examining my wounds from the emergency C-section and the lacerations from the first breast-feeding attempts. The baby screamed. None of us had slept in two days. I’d stopped distinguishing between “weeping” and “not weeping” as discrete states and merely crept around the house naked and leaking tears, struggling to keep up with the pumping/feeding/changing demands of a 1-week-old. Since the delivery, I’d run a fever that I couldn’t get my OB to take seriously. A sort of bleak despair settled over us.
“I guess this is what being a parent is,” we said. We felt like the rest of the world had played a big joke on us with their Facebook first-day-of-school pics and smiling holiday cards. For us, so far, parenthood had been nothing but pain, fatigue, worry and fever.
It passed, of course. The newborn is 5 now, a happy, healthy kindergartner. But I realize, in retrospect, that a major part of the horror of the newborn stage is that we didn’t know when it would end. We thought that the unrelenting demands of a 1-week-old, or even a 1-month-old, were how our lives were going to be from then on, which is to say, really fucking miserable.
Every day brought fresh horrors: the C-section pain, injuries from nursing, the subsequent pumping, my spiking temperature, and the unrelenting diaper-changing. That dreadful stretch of time, which my husband dubbed Antietam after the bloodiest battle of the Civil War, lasted three months—three months until the baby started sleeping longer stretches, all my wounds healed, and our spirits improved.
What do I wish I had known? That things get better in two-week increments. That’s what made the second baby so much easier: We knew exactly how long each stage—even each micro stage, like the scary umbilical cord cleaning—lasts. Before kid No. 2 arrived, I rehearsed those first few days and weeks mentally, coaching myself for the upcoming ordeal: The C-section pain gets better after two weeks, and don’t be afraid to take the Percocet. The nursing gets better after three or four weeks. For some reason, the eight-week mark is a big turning point, and we’ll all feel a lot better. At 10 to 12 weeks, he’ll be able to hold his head up, and he will become less wobbly and fragile. Fourteen weeks, if we’re lucky, the whole sleep thing will get a little better.
I repeated my pep talk in the early days of No. 2: On the first day after the C-section, I mumbled to myself, “It gets easier after two weeks.” In those first painful days of nursing, I reminded myself, “Just hang on till week four and then you can quit if it’s still bad.” The miserable nighttime wake-ups? They were still bad, but I knew the stretches of sleep would get a little longer after a little while. Sure, those first few days and weeks dragged. On day 11, I grimly said to myself, “This is day 11,” about 40 times. But knowing that every stage has an end was immensely comforting, and it made the newborn stage with our second kid vastly easier than the one with our first.
My dear friend, right before delivering her second child, wrote herself an email and scheduled it to be sent at the two-week mark, which in her experience was the absolutely hardest moment. She reminded herself that this was the lowest point, and it only gets better from here.
So if you have a newborn, I hope this is some comfort to you. In my experience, things get better in two-week increments. It gets a little easier when the baby is 2 weeks old, a little more at 4 weeks, still easier at 6 and 8 and 10 and 12. (I don’t mean this to be blasé: If you’re feeling pure despair or misery or overwhelming anxiety, irritability or depression, please, talk to your OB immediately.) But for the ordinary newborn struggle, there is a light at the end of the tunnel. This stage will end—in just about two weeks.