“You know, I fed you formula and you didn’t die.”
My mother said this quietly, as much to herself as to me, while I sat in my tiny kitchen, nursing my infant daughter for the seventeenth time in a half hour.
I waved a hand dismissively and focused instead on aiming my nipple at precisely the right angle to the baby’s lips, while trying not to get any of the sweat pouring off my forehead into her eager little mouth. It had been several weeks since I’d brought Lily, my precious newborn insomniac, home from the hospital to our doll-sized New York apartment. Since then, I’d devoted every moment to building our parent-child bond. This included co-sleeping, nursing her on-demand, and keeping her constantly strapped to my person in a variety of ergonomic, organic cotton carriers.
During my pregnancy, I pored over books on attachment parenting, thrilled at the idea of keeping my baby close and wearing her all over New York City. I’d point out landmarks and smile at colorful homeless characters on the subway while sipping a decaf latte and rubbing the little bald head snug against me in a sling. Plus, the dilemma of where to put the nursery in our one-bedroom apartment was easily solved. Screw the crib! Co-sleeping it is.
I was planning a natural childbirth, complete with a carefully conceived birth plan, which was xeroxed and handed out to everyone who might show up for the event. It stated that I was not to be given drugs but massages. I had packed my hospital bag with aromatherapy vials and mix CDs (Sarah McLachlan for early laboring, Ani DiFranco and the “Rocky” theme for the big finish). I had poetry books and lavender sachets. I was READY.
Of course, none of these things were necessary, because Lily’s birth was a complete trainwreck. I labored at home most of the day, but by the time I reached the hospital, I felt like I was being ripped apart by wild dogs. My resolve vaporized, and I was screaming for an epidural by the time I hit 6 centimeters. I remain absolutely in awe of women who naturally deliver babies. You are all amazing. Seriously. I, however, am a pussy.
Once the pain meds kicked in, we were all so relieved and exhausted that no one really noticed that six hours had passed.
The labor nurse had been paging the doctor, but rumor had it he’d fallen asleep in a broom closet or something and it took a while for him to show up. By the time he arrived, my daughter was swimming around in my uterus in a sea of her own excrement, which she promptly inhaled when she took her first post-birth breath. She was rushed to NICU, placed on a ventilator, and for two weeks we didn’t know if we were ever going to be able to bring her home. Afraid of a lawsuit, probably, doctors wouldn’t even make eye contact with us at first; it was torture. Looking like a giant monster baby amongst all of the tiny preemies in NICU, Lily would cry with no sound because of the tube in her throat. I couldn’t pick her up, only stroke her arms and legs and whisper to her through the windows in her glass encasement. My milk came in one night as I slept on a cot in the parents’ room of the hospital, and instead of rolling over to nurse the sweet sleeping infant laying next to me, I attached my leaking breasts to giant vacuum pumps every hour while sobbing over tabloid magazines.
Finally, Lily was healed enough to come home, but I was terrified to let her out of my sight, let alone put her down. The $300 jog stroller my officemates had gotten me sat by the front door collecting cobwebs. I held her around the clock, refusing to let her fuss even for a second. This was especially challenging because she had the sleep habits of a meth addict. Well-intentioned family members tried to help, but I’d always be hovering, watching like a weirdo stalker, waiting for her to make a peep so I could snatch her back.
I even found (I have no idea where) a waterproof baby carrier. Really. Made of nylon and terribly uncomfortable, the contraption allowed me to shower without having to put my baby down. I would strap Lily to my naked body and sop dried breast milk out of my crevices without having to feel guilty about her crying in her bouncy seat for ten seconds.
As time went on, my fierce desire to protect and connect grew. We never babyproofed anything, because I was always, always watching. I started getting obnoxious. I judged other moms for pushing their babies in strollers and feeding them ‘toxic’ formula. I couldn’t imagine leaving my child in the care of a babysitter just so that I might ‘take a nap’ or ‘go to therapy’ or ‘work’.
When my mother suggested that it would be okay for Lily to cry every once in a while, I robustly responded, “IF CRYING IS GOOD FOR THE LUNGS, THEN BLEEDING MUST BE GOOD FOR THE VEINS, HUH???”
I started to get a little bonkers. Okay, pretty nutty, actually. I lost all of my baby weight and then some. My eyes got sunken into my head and my hair was falling out. I think I even felt my teeth getting loose in my mouth at one point. Was that possible? I didn’t sleep. I was starting to kind of lose it.
One night, when Lily was about 10 months old and had learned that if she woke up every hour to nurse, she’d get to hang out with me all night, I rolled over for about the 12th time and roughly pushed my nipple at her. “HERE,” I hissed, “HERE, TAKE IT. TAKE IT. TAKE IT ALL. YOU ARE KILLING MOMMY, YOU KNOW THAT? YOU. ARE. KILLING. ME.”
She drew back, surprised. I couldn’t believe myself. I was appalled. What the hell was happening to me?
So yeah, that was probably a turning point of sorts.
While I continued to nurse my daughter until she was old enough to use perfect grammar to request it, and while even to this day the kid is in my bed more than she is in her own, that night it became clear that exhaustion was soundly kicking my ass. My desire to rear a securely attached child was bordering on obsessive, and in the process I’d started to lose myself. I would be no good to my daughter if I didn’t start practicing a little bit of self care.
I learned that a well-rested me with (sometimes) clean hair and recharged batteries was a much better mother than the one who poured everything into her baby and left nothing for herself. The instinct to do this is a powerful one, especially for those of us whose babies arrive under less-than-desirable circumstances. There’s no way to prepare for the ferocity with which we love and want to protect this creature that grew inside of us and is now in the big, crazy world.
Mothering is a continuum, a long road with many twists and turns. I’m still learning all the time. But I think I’ve definitely figured out how to enjoy the ride.