“Why didn’t anyone warn me?” I wondered to myself over and over in the early days with a newborn. How could having a baby be so hard, despite attending breastfeeding and infant care classes? How could two educated parents be so clueless?
The answer, I have come to realize, is three-fold. For one, friends did reveal the truth to me to an extent, and so did the birth and baby books I read. But like anything that’s hard (like training for and running a marathon, or making it through medical school, I imagine), people can’t fully make you understand it with words and warnings. Going through it yourself is the only way to truly “get it.”
Second, when I was struggling, I wanted to talk to others who had struggled. Crying on the phone to my childless friends about being tired, feeling trapped and not producing enough milk just wasn’t as comforting (or baggage I wanted to unload on someone who was hopeful to have children some day). I needed to talk to people who could relate, who could promise me I would come out the other end of the exhaustion and struggle. I think this means that we don’t get the real scoop before having a baby.
The third reason is that I have a few friends who have had their babies and everything has been dreamy – they had easy labors and deliveries, their babies were perfect little eating and sleeping angels, and for these friends, life was just beginning. (Haters.) Every family’s experience is so different, even from child to child, that trying to warn people about how bad it could be doesn’t make sense.
All of that said, there are some aspects of becoming a parent that are universal. So, if you want to know what to expect (no matter what), here’s what I can promise:
1. Bleeding: I was left in wonderment at how I was supposed to think missing 8 periods was so glorious when, once I had Eliza, I got all 8 missed periods in a row (and then some). Having a baby makes you bleed. A lot and for a long time. I’m talking about gelatinous clumps in the first 24-48 hours that make you wonder if you’re going to lose all your blood. (And you can’t use tampons.) The good news is that you get these really cool disposable net panties from the hospital or birthing center that you can throw out along with the elephant-sized pads you are provided. This is one of the reasons many postpartum women are anemic, so it’s important to continue taking pre-natal vitamins for the first few months, even if you’re not breastfeeding. (As a side note, my friend who just had a C-section was under the impression that she wouldn’t bleed because when they went in after the baby, they’d get that out, too, along with – in her dream world – a few pounds of extra stomach fat. She had no such luck.)
2. Pain: Whether you have a C-section or a vaginal birth, there is pain after expelling another person from your body. It’s not like the baby comes out and you prance out of the hospital like the sugar plum fairy. They wheel you out in a chair for a reason. And healing takes time, too. You might be on acetaminophen, or you might get heavy duty drugs. If you get heavy duty ones, they might be powerful enough to make you forget that you are wearing the aforementioned netted panties.
3. hormone changes: Some hormone levels drop instantly after a baby is born, and some take a few months to normalize. Almost all women experience some form of “baby blues” (isolation, fragility, and crying) for the first couple of weeks. If you are one of the few who doesn’t, you’re also a hater.
4. Engorgement: Whether or not you end up nursing, your breasts will assume you are. Thus, you will experience engorgement, which can be described as a burning hot pain along with super rock-hard breasts that have filled up with milk. If you don’t want to nurse and you express the milk by pumping, your boobs will keep making more milk, so you just have to suck it up and let them leak and cause pain for a few days. If you are nursing, you will go in-and-out of engorgement as your body tries to figure out how much milk to produce to meet your baby’s needs. It’s really awesome when your newborn starts sleeping longer stretches (like 3 or 4 hours) but your boobs wake you up anyway because they’re engorged, anticipating a feeding.
5. No exercise or sex: At the time when you’re in physical pain and hormonally imbalanced, when a good surge of endorphins would certainly help, you can’t exercise and you can’t jump your husband. The truth is, for the first 6-8 weeks, you won’t really feel like doing either anyway. (And if you thought you didn’t want your breasts fondled during pregnancy, it’s a whole new ball game if you’re nursing, seeing as you could leak or spray milk at just about any time.)
6. You will be able to see your vajayjay again, but you’ll be sorry you looked past your flabby, gelatinous belly to peek at it: No further explanation is needed.
7. Eat, sleep and poop: Granted, your child might not do them in that order, and the frequency of all three ranges from child-to-child, but for the first 6-8 weeks, it’s really all they do. Then they add smiling to the mix. (Yeehaw!)
8. Eating is the most important: Oh my gosh, a newborn’s stomach grows from the size of a marble to the size of a walnut in the first week of life. Then the growth spurts start. The old saying, “Let a sleeping baby lie” is detrimental to your child’s health in the early days. You have to wake them up to feed them sometimes. They must eat at LEAST 8 times a day, but it’s normal for them to eat as many as 12. For several weeks.
9. You will fear the baby is not getting enough to eat: It is unnerving to be responsible for the survival of another human life, and not knowing how much a child is eating and only being able to gauge it by whether the thing is peeing and pooping can be anxiety-inducing, especially for type-A folks. Your pediatrician and/or lactation consultants can help you, so don’t be afraid to ask.
10. You will be afraid you are going to hurt the baby: On our first pediatrician visit with Eliza, Kathy, our lactation consultant, was hurling our baby around as if she were Gumby, bending her into different poses and manhandling her. She was trying to show us how sturdy our love bundle actually was, and that it’s pretty hard to hurt them when they’re so nimble.
11. Exhaustion: Because of 1-9, you will be more tired than you’ve ever been in your life. (Thanks Dana!)
12. Love overload: Yet despite all the above, it is impossible not to be in awe of what God has created through you and another person. There is so much warmth inside on an entirely new level when you nurture a newborn. There’s no way to recreate it and bottle it up, because if I could, I would, and then I’d sell it on eBay and become a bajillionaire. And I believe you still experience this, regardless of your level of postpartum depression (it just might be more in moments than all the time).
There you have it. And I’m sure I’ve forgotten a lot because I’ve read that some of those hormones make you forget how hard it can be. (Please feel free to fill in my gaps by commenting.) To the childless, consider yourselves warned.