Having a baby is a wonderful thing. I am not just saying that. I do believe it. I have to believe it. That’s what you are told and that’s what you desperately repeat to yourself after another sleepless night. And that’s what you know when she smiles at you and gives you a kiss. And you will eventually get through it…
But (and this is the best kept secret in human history – mainly because those concerned just refuse to believe those who know) having a baby come into your life is also a major trauma – not unlike a natural disaster – a hurricane, a tsunami a volcanic eruption or a similar experience, which leaves you with a perfect post traumatic stress disorder: shaken, physically exhausted, breathless, speechless, unable to think about anything else, and with the need to reconstruct your life from scratch, little by little. I believe you should actually date things from that moment (and you probably do) – as in BB – before baby and AB – after baby. And trust me, no matter how many books you have read, or how many babies of friends or family you babysat BB, you still can’t even imagine what your life is going to be AB. If you could you probably wouldn’t have had it in the first place.
There are stages to this phenomenon, like there are grief stages after you have lost a loved one. Because you did. You just lost your pre-baby self. You will never ever be that person again. So, look fondly at your pictures from before the baby and kiss your memory of who you were byebye.
Stage one – Shock and exhaustion
Description: At first, you are just exhausted and overwhelmed. You are happy to take a shower, go to the bathroom for a quick pee and you try to scrape enough time to make yourself a sandwich or microwave a piece of pizza. You wonder how you will ever survive on so little sleep and food. You are drowning, disbelieving, shocked and alarmed – thinking… if this is it, I will never ever be able to cope with this long-term, this is not humanly possible. The luckiest of you have help at hand, but you still panic… the sheer responsibility for this little bundle with its tiny hands and feet whose only means of expression is crying softly or not so softly…
Symptoms: You think about baby all the time. When you are awake, when you sleep (if you sleep). Thoughts of baby wake you up even if the baby herself is sleeping tight… Any little noise she makes wakes you and makes you jump out of bed and run to the cot to check if everything is all right.You can only think hours ahead – to the next (breast)feeding, to the next diaper change, to the next nap… You don’t even have time to think about who you are. Your personality seems to disappear under the new burden – you are there to take care of baby – that’s it. You don’t feel like a distinct person. This is the fourth trimester. The baby is not in your body anymore, but the feeling of intense physical connection remains. Where baby goes you go; where you go, baby goes (sometimes even to the bathroom – and yes, peeing with a baby asleep in a carrier IS possible and you are not the FIRST to do it).
The relationship with others: what others? no one seems to exist apart from the baby. Not even you. Instead of a couple, for the first few weeks at least, you will be two adults side by side, taking care of the baby. In the best case, you will have a tolerant and loving partner, who is secure enough to exist almost by himself for a time – as you only have your baby on your mind. If you are lucky, he is the strong male protecting the cocoon you and the baby live in for the first few months and slowly (slowly!) creates a space for himself next (and perhaps a little in between) you two. In the worst case, you resent him for trying to come between you and the baby and you fight him. In reality your emotions will oscillate between the two extremes (hormones are bastards). Your husband is just another prison guard who takes over when you are too exhausted to go on and you faint.
Duration: The duration of this stage varies from a few days, to weeks or months. For me this was about a month of strong shock and then gradually fading out over almost five months. Apparently it gets better with the second baby.
Coping strategies: A good support system in place before the birth – and not thinking that you will do this by yourself – like you handled everything until now. Frozen and delivery food, finger food and anything that can be eaten with one hand (baby is on the other arm of course), cleaning lady, babysitter, family helping out. A comfortable baby carrier – to facilitate your getting out of the house. Moderate plan of activities – remember: no more than one objective a day – outside of the home, to start interacting with the world a bit. Friends, the prospect of going back to work in a few months, a Kindle (or another reader), internet access and home delivery for shopping…
Misc: for me, these first months have also come with a few new “disabilities”. I was unable to drive with my daughter in the car for the first few months, scared that she would cry. I was afraid to leave her to a babysitter for more than an hour until she was six months old. My own anxieties and hypochondria multiplied by a hundred.
No time to take care of yourself, no motivation (or very little). Sports, hairdresser, shopping for new clothes… waste of time.
Stage two – Anger and rebellion
Description: You are angry at everyone and everything. This is torture. This is ridiculous. You are not this person in mommy jeans with a bad haircut mopping baby vomit off the floor for the third time today. How come no one told you it was this difficult? How come you – a responsible and independent adult who has been able to deal with so many things BB are now crumbling under such simple tasks as changing a nappy ? You are ashamed or yourself. You start to doubt your couple, yourself, your sanity… You haven’t read a book in weeks and you can’t concentrate on the news bulletin. You consider getting a live-in nanny because you clearly are just not cut out to deal with this s… You want to dump the baby somewhere (safe) and run away five times a day. But you don’t.
Main symptoms: Emotional rollercoaster. You fight with inanimate objects, you get angry at your partner for anything. You cry in frustration. You crave chocolate and hugs (and sleep, but that’s not in the cards, so stop dreaming.)
The relationship with others: You hate them. They don’t understand what you are going through. Everyone who doesn’t have to get up at three, then at five and then can’t even take a shower in peace… You resent your partner because he can go out and work and you are stuck at home obeying to the whims of a baby. You hate the other moms who look like they cope so much better than you. You resent your pediatrician because (you think that) she implies that you are a bad mother if she notes that the baby is not gaining as much weight as last month. You hate your mother-in-law, because she thinks you are fussing too much about these things. You think that everyone is judging you and you are angry at yourself for caring and for being such a mess.
Duration: Sometimes starts before the first stage ends. Comes and goes in waves. But eventually the anger subsides when you talk to some other parents and realise that they look OK on the outside (although the bags under their eyes betray them a bit), but underneath, the mess is the same as in your house (and sometimes worse). Confidences on being an imprefect parent are then sometimes exchanged in low whispers.
Coping strategies: Chocolate. Masochism -reading blog posts about how babies destroy your body, house, life… Schadenfreude – when you realise that some of these people are even worse off than you (remember, some people have TWINS!). Meditation, alcohol in moderate amounts (in the evening, once the baby is in bed, and only if you are not breastfeeding), comfy pants, that are both maternity, elastic and still somehow manage to remain a bit stylish too (I DO believe they exist, I have heard of them).
Misc.: Although you have found basic ways of coping with the main baby related tasks, you start taking chances – such as extending times between feeds, going out and staying out at nap times, letting the baby cry a little bit longer hoping it will settle down again without you… testing the limits of this new prison. Like a teenager… some of these will work and some will backfire big time (no sleep during the day, no sleep at night).
Stage three – Acceptance
Description: OK, so you are maybe not managing perfectly every single time, but most of the stuff you got covered. The baby is happy and reasonably healthy, and although she bumps her head on occasion, you don’t panic and rush her to the hospital each time. The nap time is more or less respected. You propose food approximately at the same time as the crèche. Tomato sauce counts as vegetable. You stop counting how many spoons of food actually got into her mouth. The kid is dressed and you manage to wash and dress yourself (nothing too stylish though) before leaving the house. You stopped stressing about bedtime, because you know it will take hours anyways and stressing about it just makes it worse.
Main symptoms: You actually start to enjoy the moments of forced inactivity. You use the long hours of breastfeeding, holding the baby while it sleeps or walking outside in the rain with a pram – for reading (oh, yes you will learn how to read while walking ! no problem!), listening to YouTube videos or audiobooks (headphones!) or sleeping (if you are lucky and the little monster allows you to sit down). Otherwise it is the perfect occasion to learn to meditate, or compose poems in your head.
The relationship with others: The cat is still alive and you still have a husband, who you eventually even talk to about baby unrelated things. The grandmas respect your way of doing things, although it is not the same as they have or would have done. (Or they may just be afraid of another meltdown as last time they criticised the colour of the baby’s pram… but that is almost the same thing.) Other moms are not the enemy, some actually help you out, pass on clothes or tips of how things worked out with their kids, they encourage you to be more adventurous. (the only exception are the moms of the kids who sleep all night and eat sooo well – you still hate those, but then, everyone hates those.)
Duration: from about six months AB until… (who knows ?)
Coping strategies: Self-hypnosis. Meditation (yes, the one with a T not a C). Your motto is respectively: This is a phase. She will grow out of it. She is just teething. She is too tired. She has a stuffed nose, so she did not sleep well… It is actually getting better (she is only getting up three times a night compared to five time a night three months ago). She will not let herself die from hunger. Finding small breathing spaces: even if it is just for 5 minutes on the loo.
Misc.: Undressing before bed counts as foreplay. But you still sometime fall asleep just before sex actually happens – but it’s the intention that counts – right ?
Stage four – Reconstruction
Description: Somehow, you realise that the baby is not a complete baby anymore and can do a lot of things without you (sleep, eat, play – at least sometimes). You observe her happily running to play when you bring her to crèche. Playdates at friends houses now allow for some adult conversation as well… You start reading books that don’t talk about babies, you start to read newspapers and try to keep informed about what is going on in the world. You plan trips with baby (and without). You try leaving the baby at the grandma’s for a whole day or even the night! You start building “quiet mommy time” in your day, you manage to shower, wash your hair, put on some make up and dress reasonably well and (almost) on time most days. You realise the baby likes to ride on the bike with you. You realise that long trips in the car are possible (although have to be prepared). You have maybe tried to go on holiday with a baby and you realise that – although different from your childless holidays – you still had fun. You get a new haircut and buy some non-maternity clothes.
Main symptoms: You slowly starts to exist again. You feel sad about not being one with your baby anymore, but you also appreciate the freedom it gives you and that you stopped hoping for. You encourage baby to be more independent. You remember what authors you liked to read. You order food you liked and have the baby taste it (sushi and pickles are a big success at our house). You sometimes dare to wear high heels although it is just to the office. You are becoming confident that the baby will be ok, even if your programme doesn’t always respect her routine. You start seeing childless friends again and are not such a bore anymore as you start being able to talk about other things than the baby. You are restarting to be moderately interested in your career again (compared to anxious to keep your job despite all the absences and the haunted look you carry around.)
The relationship with others: You feel a bit superior, blessed even, singled out – especially compared with your childless friends – you have survived the babycalypse ! You silently wonder if – like those who have older kids – you will eventually forget the trauma and live on so normally. You feel a lot of compassion for those about to embark on the same adventure and are extra kind to pregnant ladies.
Duration: I don’t know, am still at this stage now – I will keep you posted how it goes…
Coping strategies: Making plans of things that “you will do once she is a tiny bit older”. Make plans of travel. Get pampered – now you can finally enjoy it, because now you really know how precious this personal time is. Express all you gratitude to your spouse for sticking around when you were such an angry and self/baby-centered bitch.
Misc.:You try to rearrange the house so that it looks a bit less like you live in a kindergarten. You dare take out some of the more fragile things hoping that they will not be broken immediately (they will!). You make plans for evenings from time to time !
Stage five – A new equilibrium
Description: This is what I hear is the Saint Graal. Everyone has found their new place in the family. The baby (usually a toddler – speaking and reasonably independent – by this time) knows how to play by herself, and anyways spends a lot of time either at crèche or playing with friends. Parents start to remember that they are in love and that they are entitled to some romantic time off. They even plan a trip or a romantic outing without the baby.
For many couples it never happens as they use the regain of optimism and energy of stage four to switch to the advanced level – or graduate course on this – Baby number two.
Main symptoms: You and baby sleep through the night although the mornings are still a bit early. You take advantage of that to read the morning newspaper while having your tea and feeding the toddler his cereal (or porridge or scrambled eggs). If she feeds herself, you let her and let the cat “clean up” what falls on the floor. Cleaning the living room is done while listening to the radio. A trip to the store for groceries includes a stop over in the park for slides and sandpit. Grandma “babysits” on Skype on the tablet while you cook dinner or wash your hair. Dirty nappies, food stains or a runny nose do not distress you anymore. You don’t jump up when baby trips and falls, but let her get up on her own (but offer comfort if she comes looking for it). You start going to that tai chi class on Tuesday evenings, although it coincides with bed time (it is just going to be daddy’s special time now).
The relationship with others: You have a toddler now (and although you still remember how hard it was, you regret a little that she is not a “baby anymore”). She watches you constantly, especially if you kiss her daddy. You need to kiss the daddy a lot. He is the best. Not only a great partner, but a great dad. You are grateful. Not only for your couple who has survived this crisis, but for all those who tolerated your mood swings and still like you. For friends who remind you who you are and remark that “the little one is just like you” because she smiles a lot or seems to have another endearing quality…And the grand-parents are great too, they have so much to teach the little ones…You have a new appreciation for your colleagues and your boss, who tolerated your absent-mindedness and unplanned absences for the last six months.
Duration: I feel this phase is coming soon, I hope it lasts a bit. But sadly, judging from the attitude of my friends with older kids, the daily worries soon take over and other problems and challenges appear.
Coping strategies: Planning, planning, planning. Not trying to be perfect. Delegating tasks. Expressing your gratitude.
Misc.: When a new equilibrium is reached, remember that this is always temporary and very precarious. So enjoy it while it lasts.