I remember the day I moved out. The planning, packing, organizing, bustling; the boxing and unboxing; the moving out and then settling in. It all had an air of purpose and rightness, with a thick sense of excitement.
Then I was settled. With no fanfare, I was alone and moved out. I sat on my bed in my new room and cried. Now what?
I’ve had several of these now what? moments this week, only this time they’re punctuated by guilt. Now what? How dare I ask now what? Now I take care of this helpless, perfect, sweet human—that’s what. Now I’m a parent—forever—that’s what. There is no now what.
But that’s the thing about transitions in life. It’s not the planning, packing, organizing, settling in that leaves you breathless (and heaven knows I did plenty of that before Charlie was born); it’s the moment after: (an always anticlimactic) split second in which you go from one state to another—couple to single, single to married, with family to alone—person to parent.
I was another person on the before side of this transition. I’m different now. I was the minute I first held her. But I know I have to find ways to slowly meld the two. That, along with loving Charlie with everything the person I am has, is my now what.
I woke up at 4am, abdomen aching. This wasn’t unusual. After a week of “practice” labor, I wasn’t thrilled to be awake with contractions again.
These ones hurt, but I just stared at my timing app instead of obsessively hitting “contraction start” and “contraction stop” while practicing my breathing. I’d done it so many times. Instead, I rolled my swollen body out of bed and into a warm bath. I poured in a liberal amount of lavender bubble bath and rested my head on the cool tile.
The contractions were hard; I began to notice my stomach contorting into bizarre shapes at regular intervals. By 4:30, I broke down and started timing them, still jaded. Any minute contractions would stop, I just knew it.
1:34 long, 4-5 minutes apart.
1:45 long, 3-4 minutes apart.
In the notes section of my app: Hard. Painful. Real?
I promised myself that if I was still hurting at 5:00, I’d wake Jason. I wanted to wait longer, but the pain was nudging me out of the bathtub and toward believing that this could be it.
I shaved, pausing often at the enormous effort it took to lift my legs and work around my belly. By 5:00, it was all I could do to breathe evenly through the rhythmic tightening.
Shifting back into my nightgown, I woke Jason. “I think I might be in labor.” I know my voice had an edge of questioning and frustration. I added, “I don’t know, though.”
“Okay, how can I help you?” It was his typical sweet question throughout this entire pregnancy. I had a good answer for him now.
“Do the dishes.”
I wasn’t going to spend a night in the hospital with dirty dishes in my sink.
She’s ten days old. Perfect, tiny, sweet. Jason leans over to look at her, and says it again: “She’s so beautiful.”
He demonstrates by holding air close to his chest and scrunches up his nose. “I just want to squeeze her as tight as I can.” He laughs. “It reminds me of how I was about my cats as a kid—I just squeezed them and kissed their little noses over and over and over. It’s kind of like that.
“But I’ve never felt this way before.”
Jason loaded the dishwasher while I put on my neatly folded “going to the hospital” outfit—the one I’d already put on once before on False Alarm Monday. I had to take breaks between accomplished tasks to lean on the bed and groan. Standing became too much, and I leaned into my exercise ball and breathed deeply.
Jason asked me for the upteenth time, “Can I do anything for you?”—which is sweet except when you’re in labor—and I just told him again to clean the house and get himself ready to “maybe go.”
At 6:00, I wasn’t fooling around anymore with the “maybe.”
The drive was uncomfortable, to say the least, and having to sit upright was horrible. Jason, with a dazed and slightly pleased face, recorded a few minutes of silent video of me laboring with his iPhone.
We were admitted at about 6:30, and I immediately parted violently with the contents of my stomach. I remember the nurse saying, with a surprised laugh, “You are clearly in a lot of pain!” I wondered how many years she’d gone to school to diagnose a groaning, swaying woman with “pain.”
The next few hours were a blur of pain and throwing up. They monitored my increasingly strong contractions and attempted no less than five times to insert an IV in my hand. Jason held my hand and my puke bags for me, gently intoning, “You’re doing so well, baby.”
I remember trying to keep the panic out of my voice as I asked, “How long until I could have an epidural—if I wanted?” I tacked the last part on to make it seem more nonchalant. At this point I had been laboring on my back in bed, waiting for the IV fiasco to be over—knowing that after they inserted it finally, I would have to wait at least another 45 minutes in this excruciating labor position before moving around more comfortably.
I tried some mental games with myself. “Thanks, contraction,” I’d tell myself, “for bringing my sweet baby closer to me.”
“Breathe, breathe, breath into the tension. It’s not pain, it’s tension.”
“Don’t fight them. The birth coach said she can tell when women are fighting contractions because they don’t breathe and they move their legs. BREATHE AND KEEP THOSE LEGS STILL.”
My legs moved by themselves.
When the anesthesiologist finally came—the only man with the skill to locate and puncture my tiny veins, apparently—I had made it clear (as calmly as possible) that I wanted an epidural. “You know, as soon as I can have one.”
The pain was by far the worst I had ever experience. I had to keep my eyes away from the monitor screen so I wouldn’t tense in anticipation as my contractions stayed at 100% strength for 1.2 million years before sliding slowly down the other side of the peak. I’d started to make more sounds than groaning.
“What’s your most vivid memory of labor?”
His answer isn’t very romantic.
“You puking.” He follows it up quickly as I snort. “All the big parts, like seeing her for the first time, I remember now like they’re a movie—from the third person perspective. They’re surreal memories, not vivid.”
“I remember it being calm instead of tense. I remember worrying when she didn’t cry right away. I remember seeing my grandma’s eyes on my baby. I remember wondering why you got to hold her first.”
Meghan, our new nurse after the 7am shift change, introduced herself during my internal positive self-talk (which wasn’t going well). “Hi, Emily.” I tried to smile. She chuckled. “You don’t have to smile at me now—we’ll get you an epidural and then you can smile away.” I liked her.
As the epidural set in, the room came back into focus. The relief.
I started to enjoy the realization that I was hours away from holding the tiny baby I’d been longing for. My parents and Hannah visited, and I rested happily. The relief.
They didn’t want to check my progress until my second round of antibiotics went through—sometime around 11:30am. I waited happily.
“What’s your most vivid memory of her first week?”
“It was that moment when I first thought ‘I can’t do this’ because I was so tired. You had such a great attitude that night.” He gives my arm a squeeze and continues, his eyes on his coffee cup.
“I remember cuddling with her on the hospital bed when she was less than a day old. I remember you saying you were the happiest you’d ever been.”
The most satisfying physical work I’ve ever done was pushing during labor. After my second round of antibiotics and hour’s rest, I began to feel my contractions again—in fact, I was in pain again, but nothing like before.
Amy, the midwife, told me it may be up to three hours of pushing with a first baby, and gave me some brief coaching. “Don’t try not to poop,” she warned seriously. “You won’t have a baby if you try not to poop.” Good (or bad?) news for her: I wasn’t scared of pooping. Motivated by the thought that the time was finally here, I gave it all I had. (For the record: I didn’t poop.)
About thirty minutes later, Charlotte Anne Fisk was born.
Jason and I caught her together and plopped her onto my chest.
“Hi there! Hello!” In my surprised, bewildered, happy state, I could only greet her ecstatically.
June 18 - 10 days old
Jason: Okay, babe, I’ll be right there.
Me: Huh? I didn’t say anything.
Jason: Oh…I thought you asked for my help. I must have been dreaming. Wait…yeah, it was a dream. You were sitting cross-legged on my nightstand when you asked.
The first week of a baby's life is pure, visceral fear. You haven't known fear until you've woken up to a too-quiet bedroom and folded yourself in half to lean into your child's co-sleeper, listening with all your sleep-deprived might for breathing. I found the perfect level of white noise that still allowed me to hear the tiny nose whistles that told me my offspring still lived. For the first week, every time we woke up for our feed-burp-diaper ritual, Jason joked (mostly serious), "She's still alive!" It's like the comedian says: for the first bit you're just trying to keep them alive and they're just trying to die. Later you find out they weren't trying to die, you were just a delusional, tired new parent who was sure that baby acne was a rare liver disease.
That's the other thing about newborns. They do weird stuff that no one warns you about. Like baby girls can have mini periods (for the record, I was warned about this; still kind of freaked out). And they have baby acne (was not warned; called hospital immediately). And they take breaks from breathing for up to 5 seconds (was not warned; was sure baby was dying).
In between all the craziness and fear and one-hour spurts of sleep, there are these moments. Sitting on the porch, coffee in hand, snuggling this beautiful baby. The first week was littered with these moments; I'd stare at her in complete amazement. She's mine. She's ours. She's tiny and perfect. It seems useless to try to describe it here, because it’s a part of life that defies words.
The love you feel is messy and wild and huge. It's the kind of love that you need in these first hours and days and weeks, because it makes you ache to hold your crying baby instead of feeling the ache of your tired arms. I was never upset to hear her waking me out of my brief, brief sleep, because I had already started missing her smell and her fuzzy baby hair. People told me to take advantage of others who would want to hold her: sleep and shower and rest while they have her! they said. But I couldn't, because I was too jealous to leave her with them for long, and couldn't sleep through her baby squeaks and cries. The day my milk came in I used (very mild) breast engorgement as an excuse to hold her and nurse her all day.
There is an Almighty They in parenting.
“They say a fan in the room reduces the risk of SIDS.” I wonder if They think the fan should also be turned on—or if its presence alone is sufficient.
“You know, They say plagiocephaly is prevented by 30 minutes of tummy time a day.”
“They used to say that smiling was a sign of infant gas, now They say it’s a developmental reflex too.”
This Almighty They runs my life right now. Especially the little nugget, “They say to wait until nursing is well established to introduce a pacifier.”
The hardest night so far was the night I decided to ignore Them and give Charlie a binkie. She had gotten her hands out of her swaddle (again) and was waking herself up with her own uncoordinated, frantic attempts at connecting her fingers with her mouth. It was only night three, and nights one and two had left me exhausted and maybe a little judgment impaired.
I resolutely grabbed the binkie that I’d already sterilized in anticipation of her birth, thinking in smug satisfaction that They may say to wait, but They also say a pacifier reduces the risk of SIDS—and They weren’t talking about my excellent nurser, so…
She seemed happy with it for about 2.5 minutes. After that, it made her so angry that it was clear my attempt at getting ten minutes more sleep was a failure. In defeat, I picked her up out of her bassinet to nurse. Jason was fully awake at this point, so we settled in to start the (still grueling and painful) task of nursing.
Only she wouldn’t nurse. She would only wail a loud, open-mouthed cry, scrunching up her nose in anger. She knew I’d defied Them.
I broke her. I had a perfectly good nurser and I broke her. She skipped two feedings this way, not eating from about 11pm to 5am—a ridiculously long time for a newborn. I didn’t sleep the entire time. I offered her milk three times, hoping she’d taking it…always the same. When she finally nursed again at 5am, after hours of being awake and upset, I just cried.
Moral: They were right. And nipple confusion is a thing.
I've never prayed so much in my life. They're small prayers sometimes, like, "Please, help her sleep." Sometimes they're equally short but they stick in my chest: "Keep my baby safe, Jesus." Other times, they're tearful and longsighted: "Make her a strong woman. Keep her eyes forward. Help her find her way. Give her courage and gentleness and love. Help us love her well."
June 19 - 11 days old
Preparing for bedtime is like preparing for battle. The routine is long and absolutely necessary. I open the windows in the house, checking the weather to see how many I should open (I’m obsessed with keeping her the right temperature in the 100+ degree Idaho summer). I restock my nightstand and Jason’s: diapers, wipes, Lanolin, nursing pads, gas drops, burp rags, receiving blankets, water, snacks, my glasses, extra PJs for her in case of diaper malfunctions, swaddles..it’s an exhaustive list.
The preparation begins when she goes down for her last daytime nap—around 6 or 7. It feels frantic, although it’s getting less so. I’ve started to include a few rituals for myself and Jason: tidying the house, putting my hair in a comfortable braid, watching an episode of Suits. These things are starting to bring normalcy into my life bit by bit, and I’m clinging to them.
The nights are getting better. The last two nights have included three-hour stretches of sleep (bliss!) and she has been less gassy and fussy. I feel like I’ve started to learn her cues better, and that seems to be helping. The learning curve of the first two weeks if basically a vertical line.
Watching Jason as a daddy might be the best thing I’ve experience in our relationship. He loves her so well. It mirrors the overwhelming love I feel for her.
My organs hang uselessly inside me. I didn’t think I'd be able to feel the emptiness, the void of where she was in my womb, but I can. I feel spent. I miss being pregnant. Is that normal? I Google “postpartum depression symptoms.”
2 weeks old
Things get dramatic at 3am.
Jason is holding her, ready to put her back down in her bassinet after a midnight meal. He’s too worried, though, to put her down. I ask him what’s wrong. “She’s just so calm. I feel like maybe she’s calm because these are her last moments on earth.”
At 3am, that sounds plausible. So you just stare wide-eyed and bloodshot and bleary at your infant’s chest to make sure she keeps breathing.
One 3am dramatic time was The Last Night I’ll Ever (Ever) Eat Chili. Charlie was five days old, and we were in the throes of that first week, the week that included hours of deliriously happy baby-cuddling and hours of exhausting fear and doubt.
On Friday, Katie brought by her famous chili. When I say famous, I mean meticulously cooked from a recipe Katie created herself. This chili is a work of art. I don’t pretend to understand its mysteries, but I know it includes espresso, chocolate, cumin, and garlic. (Remember those ingredients…they make moving appearances in The Last Night I’ll Ever (Ever) Eat Chili.)
I hadn’t done much research up to this point on what They say about a breastfeeding mom’s diet, except remembering the golden rules of limiting caffeine and alcohol. But as Katie sat on my couch and told me about her secret ingredient list, I stopped scarfing my liberal helping and decided to nibble on cornbread.
That was the first night I heard Charlie scream. I don’t mean cry, I mean scream. It was also the night Jason and I didn’t sleep, and the night I spent mostly on my phone, googling phrases like “how calm screaming infant” and “gassy fussy baby help please stop.” Google gave it to me straight: espresso, chocolate, cumin, and garlic? What were you thinking, Breastfeeding Mother?! Not to mention the gastronomic nightmare beans. You fed your baby a stew of sleep deprivation and explosive diapers. Nice work.
At one point, Jason took her into the nursery to let me get some rest. I fell asleep almost instantly, and woke up minutes later (from a dream that I had a baby and she was crying). I could hear Charlie screaming again, and Jason talking to her in the tone he’d used with me during labor. He was saying over and over, “You’re okay, baby, you got this. You’re doing so good, baby, you’re okay.” I assumed this coaching was from the Google results that suggested ways we could help our baby pass gas, like pumping her legs and talking softly to her. When I stumbled into her nursery, he had tears collecting in his beard. “She’s in pain and I can’t make it go away.”
All three of us were crying.
Google did come through for us that night, and we eventually learned some new parenting skills for calming newborns and relieving gas. But really. It was The Last Night I’ll Ever (Ever) Eat Chili.
18 days old
It's amazing to see yourself in a tiny flailing human. Charlotte doesn't cry much, a trait courtesy of her laid-back dad. But she does grunt, something I recently discovered is courtesy of me. My mom says I grunted like an 80-year-old woman during any physical exertion until I was about eight: getting into the car, climbing stairs, getting out of bed. Charlie grunts almost the entire time she nurses, and announces her long stretches with a series of caveman primal communiques.
She's wrapped up in the blanket my mom says was mine when I was a baby. Apparently I stole it from another child though, an early indication of my future life of petty crime such as speeding and illegal downtown parking. It was a hand-me-down from one of the large families we knew, and when this family stopped by to drop off a meal, their five-year-old daughter stood over my bassinet and gasped. My mom assumed she was stunned by my infant beauty, until she said, "So THAT'S where my dolly blanket went!”
July 8 - one month old
Jason asks me what I’m writing. I’m typing with one hand, the other one cradling her. He smiles when I say I’m writing about us. He says, “Don’t forget to tell them I love that she falls asleep best on my shoulder.”
We’ve made it. She's a month old today and still alive. My organs have fallen into place—and so have the essential pieces of me. I felt the literal and spiritual plop when they found their old resting places. They’re not quite the same, these physical and spiritual organs, and I’m more stretched out than I was before. I’m showing the stretch marks of bringing her into the world and fitting her into my life. It’s a little messy, and far from sexy, but I’m marveling at the way we’re becoming family. It’s natural, and the now what moments have faded. I’ve gained a title—mother—and a wild love with it. That’s what.