In the moment of birth it is not just a baby who is born but a mother too. For nine or so months we have been dreaming of this moment, the instant when we would meet our baby for the first time. It is a moment that can be filled with joy and delight, or in my case numbness and anxiety. Either way, in that moment we have begun what will be perhaps one of the most profound relationships we will ever experience – and it will last a lifetime.
Many mothers tell of those first few moments and describe them as akin to a long-awaited meeting of two lovers who have been kept apart through circumstance. There is elation at reunion, joy at that first touch, the feeling of soft baby skin underneath curious fingertips. The new mother whispers, ‘It’s okay, I am here.’ With tenderness and a primitive instinct she enfolds the baby in the warm safety of her arms. Those early stirrings of love, felt in the first few minutes of meeting, may well now become a tidal wave. They offer a wonderfully tender and joyous beginning to the journey ahead. The early days together feels like the slipping on of a favourite dressing gown.
It’s a comfortable transition. There is an instant bond. Feeding goes well. The mother feels tired but deliriously happy that she is at last a mother. The baby settles easily. Motherhood feels joyous, wonderful and easy.
For the rest of us (and given my story of the first few moments after Bronte was born this obviously includes me), the first few moments may deliver something unexpected; a mixture of emotions. In among the happiness and relief there may be numbness and doubt. And we may approach the first few days with an unspoken anxiety. What do I do with this complex creature?
If birth is the long-awaited climax in the nine-month story of pregnancy, the early days can feel like the beginnings of a second volume that hasn’t quite defined its characters and storyline yet. Having survived the arduous journey of birth the person returning to her hospital room is now suddenly a mother, complete with a helpless, sometimes crying and ever so tiny baby.
The first few days following birth provide a starting point for what will be potentially one of the steepest learning curves we will ever embark upon. There is so much to learn, not just about babies, but about your baby and the unique and complex creature he or she is. Sleep deprivation, breastfeeding challenges, conflicting information from midwives, feeling lonely … all are commonly experienced in the early days.
There may be a heady mix of joy, newness, sleep deprivation, hormones, stitches, advice, tears, the baby blues, visiting relatives, engorged breasts and celebration. Sometimes all at once. When we reflect on that, is it any wonder many of us feel overwhelmed?
The steepest of learning curves
My first few days with Bronte were all of that and more. From a numb beginning, the early days in hospital presented many new emotions to process. Confusion and self-doubt were about to become my new best friends. My husband, Stephen, and I arrived back in our room and began the first few moments of our lives together. As Stephen held her, he marveled at her softness. She was already the most beautiful baby ever born. I was feeling physically better, but shaken by the unpredictability of a birth that I had assumed would be straightforward. Before I had time to even share what had happened with Stephen, a midwife suddenly appeared.
‘Are you ready for your first breastfeed?’
‘Umm okay,’ I mumbled when really I was thinking, ‘Not really.’
The midwife took my daughter from my husband and was promptly met with a wail of protest as Bronte was woken from her post-birth slumber. She placed Bronte onto my chest and tried to persuade her to open her mouth. Bronte, already asserting her feisty spirit, was having none of it and let out another zesty cry. ‘Maybe next time,’ the midwife sighed as she bustled out of the room to attend to another mouth and another set of breasts.
She came back an hour later. ‘Let’s see if we can get this baby to feed.’
Arms were placed at weird angles, pillows shoved under arms; it felt as if poor Bronte was literally clanged onto my breast with all the delicacy of a set of cymbals.
I told her quietly that it didn’t feel quite right, in fact it was really hurting. The midwife inspected the baby’s mouth position and declared, ‘No, she looks fine. See? Her mouth is open, it shouldn’t be hurting.’
She was right. What did I know about breastfeeding?
That night, alone in the room with my baby, the first wavesof anxiety began to appear. There was no space for my husbandin the room, not even a chair to curl up in, so he had gone home to get some needed sleep. I secretly wished he didn’t have to go and for a moment considered begging him to stay. The thought of being left alone with the baby for the next twelve hours filled me with dread. But I didn’t want to appear needy.
‘Will you be okay?’ he’d asked.
‘Sure we will,’ I said as I waved him goodbye and settled back onto the bed in the suddenly quiet room.
But I wasn’t okay. Every gurgle, every snuffle made my heartbeat faster. Bronte began to cry. Recovering from a caesarean and unable to get out of bed just hours after birth, I wondered how I would pick her up. I pressed the buzzer and murmured to Bronte, ‘It’s okay, honey, someone will be here soon.’
After fifteen minutes I buzzed again. No response. It took almost an hour for someone to come. The nurse promptly placed the baby in my arms and left. After a while Bronte began to feel heavy. She had gone to sleep and my shoulders began to ache. It had been almost two hours and I couldn’t get up to put her back in the crib. I began to buzz. Finally a midwife bustled in. She took one look at the sleeping baby and shook her head.
‘Don’t you know co-sleeping is not allowed in this hospital? It’s unsafe.’
She lifted Bronte from my arms, in the process waking her up, and left the room. The baby began to cry.
The next day I had a different midwife who was warm and kind, but offered completely different advice as to how to attach the baby for a feed. With each day Bronte was dropping weight and seemed to be getting more unsettled. I asked yet another midwife if I should give her some formula. The midwife said I could if I wanted to but that ‘breast is best’ and I should just persevere. Resigned, I agreed. On the wall were posters outlining the importance of breastfeeding. ‘Breastfed babies are smarter’, ‘Mothers who breastfeed develop stronger attachments to their babies’, ‘Breastfed babies develop better immunity’. On the inhouse educational video program there was a constant stream of videos about breastfeeding, breastfeeding, breastfeeding.
Amid the endless video programs about breastfeeding there was one program about including fathers, and one that explored bonding with your baby. They screened so rarely, I always missed them. Nobody asked me how I was feeling about being a mother and how I was feeling towards my baby. I was tired. So tired. On the third night I tentatively asked if the nursery was open, all the while feeling tremendously guilty about abandoning my baby. The midwife bustled off with Bronte leaving me to turn restlessly from side to side, wondering if I’d done the right thing.
On the last day, a midwife began the process of discharge by completing a tick sheet of all the aspects of baby care that I’d learnt since being in hospital. Breastfeeding, tick. Settling, tick. Sleeping safely, tick. Nappy changing, tick. Postnatal depression screening tool, tick. My mind was whirling. How could I possibly begin to share the anxieties that gnawed at me? That deep down, I was terrified that I really had no idea what to do with this baby and was even more fearful of the reality of caring for her alone for ten hours a day. The bags were packed. It felt too late to raise my fears, and nobody had thought to ask.
In those first few days I was already painfully aware of just how much I didn’t know. The baby cried. What to do? The baby gurgled, snuffled and whimpered. What did those sounds mean? Should I change her? Did she need a feed? Is this how a nappy goes? What do you mean it’s on backwards? Is that light too bright for her and can she breathe okay beneath those thick, heavy blankets? She must be too hot. No, she’s too cold. Am I doing this right? Am I doing anything right?
Before Bronte’s birth I had held a baby exactly two times and on each of those occasions I had rapidly handed them back when they began to cry. What did I know about caring for a baby?
In the face of our babies’ needs, we feel driven to do something, but for many new mothers the ‘what’ to do is not so readily obvious. So often described as the most natural relationship in the world, the early days of the mother–baby relationship for many first-time mothers can be a fumbling, awkward process that feels far from natural. In fact, it can feel very, very hard. …
Thoughts for reflection
“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