You’ve planned to have a baby, you’ve spent a year or so preparing yourself for this, and yet when you find out that you’re pregnant you wonder if it’s true. I’m pregnant? We got pregnant? How did my body know how to do that? You take a test. Then, because you’re a bit crazy, you take three tests. Then you go to a doctor, just to make sure… yes, Ma’am, you’re five weeks pregnant. Wow. That’s amazing!
Then you start to wonder what this tiny little person will look like. And sound like… and you know he’s a boy, because that’s what you asked for: a little boy who is just like his father, because you’re in love, madly in love, with his dad.
You eat really well, you try to exercise but you’re so tired and you can’t get past the vomiting to make it to the gym, or to yoga. But you can ride your bike, so you do. You ride your bike and throw up, and then, when it gets hot, you go to the pool and lay in the shallow end and daydream about what next summer will be like, when you have this beautiful baby in your arms instead of your belly.
You can smell every little thing: you vomit in the middle of the street, in shops, on the kitchen floor, over the edge of your bed, and in many, many bathrooms. When you’re not vomiting, you’re drooling. You know that this baby is kicking your arse because he’s stronger than you, and you’re already proud of him.
Then you start showing and you wonder what your birth will be like. You read lots of books, talk to people, try to ignore the ones with bad advice (there are so many like that), and try to visualise a world in which passing this child from your womb, down your birth canal, and out of your vagina, doesn’t hurt. You meditate every night so you can picture your baby, commune with the life that is growing inside you, and you feel pretty peaceful about the fact that you can do this. You can do this.
You count the weeks, pee in a cup, stand on a scale, give your blood, take your vitamins, eat the right foods, get lots of sleep, commit your affirmations to memory, hold your nose, cross your fingers, and expand. You read books, take courses, love your husband, and have a visit from your dad that breaks your heart with joy.
Finally, after classes, and mishaps, and more riding your bike, his birthday arrives. Of course it’s not like you planned, and it’s earlier than expected. It's a dark and stormy night (no kidding), and although it isn’t what you pictured (candles, a jacuzzi, a big, comfortable double bed), you make it to him and together you conspire his release. He’s not ready but you talk him into it and he starts your labour, and the medical residents come into your room while you’re riding the wave of back to back contractions, and taunt you with horror stories of how long this will take, and try to give you drugs, but your husband whispers to you that you don’t need them, that you’re doing fine.
After a while your doctor comes in, takes one look at you and smiles broadly whilst incredulously announcing that after just 1.5 hours of contractions, you’re ready to push. PUSH!
Then he’s there. Waves of joy, disbelief, protectiveness, and excitement wash over you. You can’t even call it love because it’s so much more and so much stronger than that. It’s primal and breathtaking. Shaking uncontrollably, you hold him close. You can’t quite believe what you’re seeing: the most perfect little face with an open mouth and deep, staring eyes. You can’t cry because you’re bubbling with happiness. You want to hold him close forever but instead you just feed him and stroke his beautiful, white skin and the two of you are glued together in a bloody, sticky mess. He knows exactly what to do and you can’t believe how smart he is, and how beautiful he is, and how much he looks exactly like your husband. Just exactly like him.
The very next morning you take him home. You handle him carefully because he’s so tiny, so early, and you’re exhausted but you can’t sleep. You’re high on joy, and your mind is racing and you just want to show your family and the world your beautiful son. You’re scared because you don’t quite know what to do with him, and you don’t have anyone to teach you, to help you, to show you. You ask him silently to forgive you for being so hopeless in these early days. You reason with yourself that if he’d wanted an experienced mother he’d have chosen one, but no, he chose you. You cross your fingers that you’ll do ok.
Then you hit a wall. Apparently this happens a lot. A few days in, your hormones crash and you cry and cry and yell and scream at your husband, “Please don’t leave me. Don’t ever leave me!” You cry and your nose bleeds and your son sleeps through it, like he somehow knows everything will be alright. Maybe he’s seen this before?
He doesn’t stir. You worry that your milk isn’t coming in, so you have a lady come to the house and she puts her hands on you and you weep with relief that someone cares (even if you are paying her $300 for her trouble). She squeezes your breasts and says you have milk, silly, and teaches you to feed him lying down. You never want her to leave because you need her so much – you need your women but they’re nowhere to be found. They live on the other side of the world and you’re on your own in this and you have to figure it out. Your son will teach you, just watch him and listen to him.
So you concentrate on your boy. You feed him all day every day. He seems to be hungry all the time, and yet he never cries, instead he waves his arms. He is content just to be near you, so you wear him in a sling, and you take him everywhere you go – feeding him every hour and a half or two hours, and it feels like all the time. He falls asleep on you, and he sleeps between you in your bed with your husband, and when he wakes up to feed he doesn’t cry, he just finds you. He feeds and sleeps, and you sleep too. He’s so relaxing and relaxed. He just wants to be near you.
Despite all his eating he doesn’t gain enough weight. Your mother comes to visit and she says, “Don’t worry, I didn’t have any milk either – you’re just going to have to give him formula”. Just like that, but you think you might kill her. You want to scream and throw things at her for even suggesting you give up breastfeeding him. You slam a door in her face. You need her help, but she thinks she’s in your way and tries to make herself scarce. All you want is reassurance and guidance, but it’s nowhere.
Every night while he sleeps you write to your sisters, reaching out for to your tribe. You feel that if you give up breastfeeding him you have failed and that he will never love you, and that he will be sick and never grow, and never trust you. So you feed and you feed him, but he doesn’t grow. He keeps eating, and pooping, and peeing.
His paediatrician, at his weekly visits, doesn’t say anything except “he’s perfect, don’t worry.” Then you take him for another check-up and his paediatrician says, casually, “next week if he hasn’t gained considerable weight, we should start him on a formula supplementation,” and you leave there totally horrified. You’ve read ALL the books – and they all say that if he’s pooping and peeing all the time, and feeding 8-12 times a day and not crying that he’s getting milk. What could be wrong?
You take him to this place full of women and they weigh him and then you feed him and they look concerned and they weigh him again. Then they tell you that’s he’s ‘happy starving’ and they send you home with a hospital-grade breast pump and instructions to use it eight times a day, and to drink teas for milk production, and take tinctures, and eat all kinds of special foods. You don’t make good milk. You just don’t. You cry and cry and cry and feel ashamed and hopeless and less than half a woman. You apologise over and over to your happy starving baby and cry into his neck. He looks up at you and closes his eyes when he feeds – he just wants to be next to you. You’re so scared that when you supplement him he won’t want you anymore, but you underestimate his love for you.
You start him on the disgusting formula. It tastes so nasty you can’t even put it on your tongue to make sure it’s the right temperature, and he LOVES it. He wolfs it down, all the while looking into your eyes with so much love, and then he goes straight back onto your breast after his bottle, and falls right to sleep. He doesn’t care where he gets his food from, he just wants to be next to you.
He starts growing like a weed. He gains 3lbs in the first few days. Your breasts are so sore (pump trauma!) that you cry and it hurts, and you curse and you cry, and you nurse and you nurse and you pump and you don’t give up. You drink all the teas, you have acupuncture with him lying on your chest, and you pump and you pump and you pump. He sleeps and you get up and you pump with your eyes closed. You don’t stop. And eventually you win: you save your milk. Your supply starts to rise. One night you make a whole 5oz bottle from your pumping returns and you photograph it with delight and email it to your sisters. You’re figuring it out on your own, against the odds, watching your son turn into a big, healthy baby.
He keeps growing and growing, and smiling and loving you. Everywhere you go with him people exclaim, “Wow! What a happy boy!” and you joke that the next time someone says that you’re going to charge them a dollar and get rich quick. They’re right: he IS a happy boy, and he loves you, and he’s growing and you’re feeding him the nasty formula and he loves that too.
When he’s seven months old you start feeding him solid food and he loves it. He eats everything you ever offer him, with relish. He eats it all. He never, ever says no to food. He will play with his toys and look the other way, but every time you offer him a mouthful he will turn to you and take it.
You learn how to stew and puree all kinds of foods. Every Sunday you take off your shirt and cook in your knickers: you turn your little kitchen into a sweaty festival of steaming pots and pans and colanders and sieves, and you slave away turning them into little pots of organic loveliness for your hungry boy: nectarines, apples, prunes, peaches, pears, broccoli, cauliflower, spinach, sweet potatoes, and butternut squash - little jars full of love litter your fridge, and take up precious shelf space that once housed take away containers from two weeks ago that you never threw out – but that was the life you had before you were a Mum.
He still sleeps between you, and you’re still just figuring it out. He can’t crawl yet, but he can clap and wave and say a few different words. You play on the floor, and take him to the park, push him on the swings, and visit with his friends. You move into a new apartment that has carpet on the floor and he rolls everywhere, and he tries to crawl. He learns to sit up on his own, and when he does he loves to bash things together and hide stuff in boxes and then find it again. He really loves to play in front of a mirror and laugh with himself. Sometimes when he’s doing that and you’re checking your email beside him you’ll notice he’s gone quiet and you glance over at him and he’s just sitting there staring at you. When you meet his eyes his face splits into the biggest smile you’ve ever seen and you laugh and fall just a little bit more in love with him, if that’s even possible.
No one can prepare you for what this is like. People offer advice, question you, judge you and compliment you. They barrage you with a litany of ‘shoulds’, and yet they don’t know your son at all. They question you, argue with you, approve and disapprove of you. But they don’t know the fundamental thing that, despite your choices and your strange ways of doing things (if only they could see you stewing fruit), you know matters most. It’s the whole point, and you’ve felt it all the time since he came into your world; it isn’t something that you think, it’s something that you FEEL (and would do well to never forget):
Everything’s going to be ok: he really just wants to be near you.
“A gender-equal society would be one where the word ‘gender’ does not exist: where everyone can be themselves.”*
I’ve always been aware of gender conditioning and actively tried to combat any lingering prejudices or stereotypes in my own parenting, even down to encouraging dolls with my boys when they were little. It’s great to read people writing about gender issues they’re experiencing with their kids. For too long these subjects have been discouraged or silenced. I’d love to publish some more creative writing on this topic, especially if you are struggling with a child who actively tries to move away from gender normative preferences. A society where everyone can be themselves – thanks Gloria for those aspirational words.
* Gloria Steinem