The real first
three months

by Sarah Cooper

My son, now six months old, is a beaming tubster. He wouldn’t hold anything against anyone. He sleeps. And yet, for much of his first three months, I thought that having a child was nothing but an albatross around my neck, that other women somehow threw a brave face on it and were ten times stronger than I would ever be. I did not have postpartum depression. My first weeks were positively textbook. People said I was doing well—and I was, considering. But at the same time, I was flattened.

This is not a mid-morning story of my son’s throaty babbling at seven weeks, his muscular head-lift at three months, the mother’s group that felt like a panacea, the Bjorn walks that kept me sane. This is a middle-of-the-night story about the physical, visceral, illogical rawness of those first days and weeks with a child. I want to write it down before it fades into a happy haze of drooly smiles and slapdash confidence. I want to remember why the first three months matter.

My pregnancy was easy, my recovery routine. Still, the first week hobbled me. Two days of pumped antibiotics took their leave just after Noah was born, when I threw up on him. He had peed on me ten minutes before, so I called it even. For five days I couldn’t walk more than a quarter-mile without feeling my stitches pull or thinking about the witch hazel pads in my medicine cabinet. I had taken two Vicodin every couple of hours since the first throbbing night in the recovery ward, when I finally realized that pressing the call button showed sanity, not weakness. Six days later, I considered giving up the pills to thwart the remote possibility of addiction. Every choice those first days seemed immutable.

When I talked to a friend on the phone after a week, I had to lie on the couch and limit the call to ten minutes because it was so draining to do anything but feed and sleep. The hormones made me cry like an adolescent for twelve days straight. I couldn’t stand up straight at the changing table because I felt my legs wouldn’t hold my weight. I had read about this total lack of energy in books that implied, “Isn’t it funny that women have to recover from giving birth while learning how to care for an infant and getting no sleep?” Funny only because there was no alternative. When strangers at Starbucks told me that this was a precious time of life and I should savor it, sometimes I wanted to slap them.

And I couldn’t pick up my baby easily. At three weeks, after waiting in the orthopedist’s office for 40 minutes with an infant seat and a pumped bottle of milk, I discovered I had De Quervain’s syndrome, a repetitive-stress inflammation of the sheaths covering the wrist tendons that causes severe pain in the thumbs. Many new mothers suffer from this, said the doctor as she prepared cortisone shots. Is there nothing else I can do, I asked? Well, you can rest your hands, she said—but it’s not like that’s going to happen. So here’s the shot. Here are the hand braces. I aggravated my thumbs still further when I tried to position my latch-recalcitrant son to breastfeed with a nipple shield. I soon sent my husband to buy a velcroed breast-pump bra to hold the funnels: Madonna, circa “Blonde Ambition.”

Beyond the physical, there were other things I couldn’t name, couldn’t quite hold onto. Sometimes I felt I was dreaming awake, snapped to attention from a wispy train of thought. My sleeping dreams were all about who I used to be, the teaching career I had put on hold for the year. “But teaching goes to my core!” I protested to a dream companion who pressed me into staying home with my son indefinitely. My best friend from college visited at five days and also at eight weeks, and she said I had been some faraway person the first time and still hazy when she returned.

With such fatigue, the sensory loomed large, invading the body’s usual boundaries. Music provided a constant and sometimes maddening mental refrain: Frank Sinatra’s “The blues will taunt you constantly” jammed my airwaves. Bruce Springsteen’s “No Surrender,” once a lazy, sultry summer tune, now spoke to my bones with its sympathetic “You say you’re tired and you just want to close your eyes and follow your dreams down.” But I couldn’t. The heat of early September soaked into me as if I were arthritic, and when fog returned to our coastal city after days of brutal heat, I sank into a chair in gratitude. The golden-orange light that fell upon the baby’s room in the late afternoon was a benediction, a sign that the day was nearly over. Taste gave strong comfort because it was so immediate, so thick. A friend’s mother sent a homemade chocolate cake with cold, ridged frosting that I devoured lip-smackingly. Another friend stopped by with roast chicken, butternut squash, dill potatoes and sour-apple pie from an upscale grocery store. My husband and I fell on the spread like manna.

The most difficult part of the first weeks was not the lack of sleep or the feeling of free-floating incompetence. It was the rock-solid belief that all of this would last forever—that childrearing was a never-ending series of trials that people simply endured, never enjoyed. No one could tell me otherwise. My mother had said as I was growing up, “You’re the best thing we ever did!” I asked her over and over again, those first weeks, when she started to think so: “Oh, at three months.” The time frame should have given me heart—my mother, after all, suffered from postpartum depression so severe that when I was six weeks old she asked my father, who was taking a bath at the time, whether they should give me up for adoption. (Wisely, he said they could talk after he finished his bath.) But my mother’s encouragement only underscored how slowly the weeks stretched until month four.

While time clicked minute by minute—the red-numbered alarm clock mocking me at 1:57pm with four hours until my husband came home—my irrational worries multiplied by the second. During the first week, a friend bought us a 250-piece box of clear plastic silverware. I started calculating the inestimable money and environmental capital we would be spending on disposable serving pieces, since I obviously would not have the energy to do dishes ever again. For middle-of-the-night feedings, I pumped for 15 minutes after Noah went back to sleep. During this enforced thinking time, I itemized worries and brainstormed solutions. Use a pacifier! Don’t use a pacifier! Let him cry it out! Hold him close and cuddle! In the morning I couldn’t read most of what I’d written.

When I could decipher the scratchy writing, I obsessed about getting things done and tried to act as if nothing had changed. For the first month of Noah’s life, I kept a 20-item to-do list: pick up birth certificate, go to the market, buy bottles, reply to emails. No matter that the same errands stayed on the list for weeks, he cried in his carseat for the first three months, and I still haven’t picked up his birth certificate. I also prided myself on keeping up with newspaper headlines, as if anyone expected me to know what was going on in the world. Current events linked me to the life I had previously known, and I would not be dissuaded, so much so that I asked my husband to read me the paper during 9.00pm feedings. When my friends said they were impressed that I responded to their emails within days of Noah’s birth, I didn’t understand. I figured that everyone was expected to maintain a semblance of competence, and I was just doing my part.

What I did get in those first three months, besides sallow skin and sore muscles, gives some justification for the laughable combination of physical recovery, severe sleep loss, and utter confusion that settles upon us after giving birth. A sense of humor at being saddled with a staggering responsibility. A new appreciation for the ability of friends and family to lift up one corner of the burden. The knowledge that I would protect my son from strangers and sunburn. The reminder that crying can lift all sorts of clouds, if only for the afternoon. The conviction that, if I just got out of bed, I might be able to make something better. But I didn’t realize all this in the moment. I don’t think anyone does. That, you might say, is the afterglow—long in coming and slow to leave.


© Sarah Cooper

“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.

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* Gloria Steinem