Disclaimer: If you have access and finances to hire a full time nanny and/or au pair live-in nanny, this post may not apply. In fact, it will not.
Some of these recommendations are controversial – and so take them with a grain of salt. I’m just a new parent who types really really fast and likes to procrastinate. I am also convinced that people with older children (esp parents with teens) forget and/or block out the first few weeks and months of having a newborn. I’d take the problems of a teen – sex, drugs, rock n roll any day over this. Yes, yes. I say that now. You’ll have to check back in 10-13 years to see if it’s true. Amber and I always said we weren’t “newborn” people. We like to go – we are not sedentary. People who like to cuddle and stay in all weekend and have low key, low energy days would most likely be good “newborn” people. We are not those people. We are more like toddlers and even older – I can’t wait to have debates and be running around at sporting events and interacting with a separate human being who can communicate verbally and has a distinctive personality. If infants stayed this way forever, I don’t think people would have more than one.
Lastly, people say that every child is different and that what works for one family doesn’t work for another blah, blah. That is true – and what do I know – I’m only 100 days into this gig. However, I started making this list to actually remind myself what to do when (and if) we have a second and/or for new parents, much of it is regardless of what type of baby it is. People say “nothing can prepare you” and I never believed that. I’m a worst case scenario person. I want to know how bad it can get and prepare for that and then not set myself up for disappointment. I understand that you can’t know an experience until you have it – for example, sex, or living on your own or driving a car even, but I feel like current new parents can do a little better job at trying to explain not only the skills and techniques and products to buy, but also more psychological/mental health descriptions/recommendations as well as logistical / common sense tips.
I realized this “not preparing” was a facade when one of our friends, who stopped by in the midst of our sleep-deprivation and depression – I felt like I was dreaming – said, “I always struggle with whether or not I should tell new parents how bad it really is during the first few weeks.” We were like – tell us! We wish we would have been told!
This is my attempt at telling.
Sleeping in shifts. The first thing people ask you after you have a baby is – “are you getting any sleep?” Sleep is a medical necessity. It’s not optional. You start to get some serious-ass symptoms if you don’t get it. For example, depression, anxiety, extreme fatigue, more wrinkles, general crabbiness, clumsiness. It took us awhile to figure out, but we eventually decided that for us, it was more important that we slept than if we slept together. Also, we’ve heard horror stories of one parent (usually the mother) being up all night while the other partner (usually the one who works) sleeps all night. This also didn’t seem fair. After all, it’s MUCH harder to take care of an infant all day than go to work. But I’ll get to that later. Sleep is not a luxury. Therefore, Amber gets 4-5 solid, uninterrupted hours of sleep from 8 pm-1 am every night, and I get to sleep from 1 am – 6 am. I am so glad we set up this system before I went back to work. We both look forward to our shifts and know that regardless of what is happening with Benny – if she’s have a good night, if she’s having a shitty night, if she’s in some sort of weird sleep regression in future months or starts teething or 29089 other reasons she’s not sleeping, we will get our uninterrupted sleep. We get our REM’s and feel like different people. Of course, this requires you to have something to actually feed the baby during your shift if you are the non-breastfeeding parent (if you’re doing all formula feeding, then anyone can feed them, so you have the freedom!)
Formula as a back up plan (and/or pumping as early as possible). When we went to our birth class and talked to people, we were committed to exclusively breastfeeding. We read all the articles and books and knew the “breast is best” message. We did not even put formula on our radar. Big mistake. In the first few weeks, Amber really just wanted to know that if all else failed, if latching did not happen or Benny wasn’t getting enough or she just did not want to be attached to another human being who was dependent on her for her livelihood, she knew the formula was there. Even if we never used it, wouldn’t think of using it, it was there as an option. Further, our pump did not arrive until five weeks after Benny was born because we were on a free pump plan through our insurance and had to wait until Amber’s 5 week postpartum visit to get it. We were told not to pump anyway the first few weeks because Benny had to get used to the nipple, boob, etc. After a few nights of Benny feeding for 3-4 hours straight right in the middle of the night, we decided we at least needed to know that formula was there as an option, even if we never used it. We ended up ordering HiPP Organic Formula from a UK grocery store. Most US formulas have high fructose corn syrup as a first/second ingredient, and HiPP did not. We now use formula/breastfeeding about 50/50 (maybe a little more on the breastmilk end). Amber’s milk supply is not overly abundant (she does produce enough of what Benny needs, but doesn’t have an “over” supply), so it makes Amber feel like she is not the sole provider of food – less pressure, less anxiety, happier family. Plus there was a lot of “ways to bond” listed for the non-breastfeeding parent. For me, feedings were not as much about bonding as giving Amber a break. Pumping and formula allows me to feel like I can give Amber a break – it’s more egalitarian. I like it.
Breastfeeding is really, really hard. I don’t judge anymore. Whatever gets you through it. I understand how many working mothers – especially single mothers – choose exclusively formula. Whatever. gets. you. through. it. Seriously. So Amber and I had the privilege of having access to some of the best lactation consultants (home visits, groups, etc) and toward week 5-6, Amber said, “I’m actually kind of enjoying breastfeeding.” The key is to be easy on yourself. Amber’s goal was 3 months, and now it’s 6 months. She may even make it to a year. Who knows. But I was open to the fact – especially after I saw how stressed and tired and hard Amber worked on latching, on making sure Benny had enough, etc – I finally decided to let it go and know that no matter what, we’d be OK. I’m also glad I had the privilege of taking the first month off of work and being there, at home, 100% all in with Amber. It was still hella hard, even with two fully committed, energetic, knowledgeable parents. It was still hella hard. Someone warned us right after Benny was born that on days 3-5 would be a huge hormonal shift – and it came. Oh, it came. The first few days Benny was sleeping and breastfeeding was going OK – but when the milk started to come in? Watch out. Fierce mood swings. I would look over and Amber would have tears streaming down her face. For no reason. It was also horrible timing that I had PMS and my period AT THE SAME TIME as Amber’s milk came in. Of course. Let’s just say I’m glad we didn’t have many visitors during that time, and those who did visit got a glimpse of the reality of the postpartum mood and body. The breastfeeding classes we had taken were all about technique – latching, let down, positioning. Same with infant care – sleep, baby wearing, feedings, etc. A lot of data and products and “knowledge”. But there is so much more going on mentally. You have a new human in your house. All the time. Constantly.
Grieving life pre-baby (especially if you have been living on your own over a decade aka in your 30’s or above). This was one I really didn’t mentally prepare for. You hear all the cliches: “I don’t remember what my life was like before kids.” “Infant care is hard, but WORTH it. Just wait!” “It’s different with your own kids.” We believed the master narrative that yes, it may be hard, but you’ll just take one look into their eyes or stare at them all night, and you’re just in love! And that love will sustain you throughout the ENTIRE first year of their lives! Yes, Benny is cute. We love her. Sometimes I love her so much I don’t know where to put it – but that love and newness and awe did not prepare me nor negate the grief I would feel for my own life. After 17 years of being away from home and graduating high school, I know what I like to do. I know that I love going on impromptu road trips and Door County for my birthday weekend and write and socialize and go out to eat and try new places and spaces. I know what I like. I still know what I like. A lot of that spontaneity – freedom – was taken away when we had Bennett. There are limitations. There are schedules. And grieving that old life is a real thing that is often reserved for private, confidential meetings between new parents. No one told us that you have to allow yourself to grieve, accept it, and really be mindful that you loved your old life! And that’s OK! And that’s where self care and being able to be “alone” when being a new parent comes in.
Fiercely and aggressively protecting “self-care” activities (and knowing what they are). Being a new parent requires constant – hour by hour – attention to another living thing. The first days and weeks we were like – we got this! We know how to change a diaper! Yay! We put her down for her first nap! Yay. People were coming, visiting, giving us food, socializing. We went for a care ride the first time. Go us! The whole experience was a novelty, and we didn’t realize how much would change. Then, around weeks 3-4, shit started to get real. She wasn’t “going” anywhere. Every other kid we had ever babysat, nannied, taken care of – they always had somewhere else to “go”. You had them for a finite amount of time, and then you were done. There is no done with parenting. It goes on and on. I wouldn’t even call it a marathon; it’s a new life. You’re walking around in the walls of your old life – literally. Same kitchen. Same car. Same job, maybe. But it’s like you’re in a twilight zone – or as Amber would say, The Truman Show but there is no escape. The physical places are the same, but there is a BABY in them, and it’s not just a separate human. It makes YOU feel different in those spaces. I thought it was just because I was so sleep deprived that I was hallucinating, but it really is. a. different. life. There was a reason for my quasi-existential crisis prior to Bennett’s arrival: your life doesn’t just change. Your life is a different life. The way in which you associate and position yourself in the world changes. And this is why self care – protecting your soul, your essential self, is so crucial. If you know your coping mechanisms, especially coping and relaxation you can do alone (it’s much harder to find and pay for a babysitter if all your coping mechanisms involve your partner in particular). For me, it was exercise and going out with a friend for a beer. For Amber, it was going to a movie or concert and on long drives. Whatever it is, define it. And then DO it when you have a baby. Actually, we wish we would have booked MORE self care activities BEFORE to force us to go. Hair appointments. Massages. Therapy appointments. Whatever it takes. You can always cancel them. Even if it’s half-assed. Everything is half-assed when you’re a new parent. You have to lower your expectations of EVERYTHING more than you’ve ever lowered them. But still do it. The other day I decided my self care activity was going to take a bath. Bennett had been sleeping for two hours at this point, and it was during my shift, so I knew that there was a chance she would wake up. I drew the bath water, got in and experienced the initial heat that relaxes your entire body, and washed my hair. I was about 50% done with the bath when Benny started to cry. I didn’t get a chance to condition my hair or shave my legs. I got out, but realized it was better to do a half-assed self care activity than none at all. Same thing with any household chores or items. Doing dishes and laundry and dusting all made me feel BETTER about myself – like I had a (false?) sense of control, and it took me like 49089 times longer than pre-kid, but I still did it. And I felt accomplished. There are also different ways to rest.You don’t get to have the linear going-to-bed-routine – I’m going to take a shower, put my PJ’s on, read a book, and then settle in for a long night’s sleep. Nope. You have to get creative. In bed alone for 15 minutes. Deep breathing exercises holding a baby. Closing eyes during feedings. Meditation for 5 minutes. Breathing again slowly. Not dreaming, but still sleeping. You have to be ready to be interrupted at any time, but these innovative ways to rest are other methods to protect your “me” time – to protect yourself and make you feel more human. Lastly, in addition to our “solo dates” (going out sans baby alone or with a friend), we also planned romantic day and evening dates together. We’ve already went on over 10 of them – whenever my Mom or sister or someone else offers to take Benny for 1-2-3-4 hours, we take them up on it. We’ve never turned anyone down. Even when Benny was 10 days old and we were exhausted and walking around State St aimlessly – we were still holding hands sans baby. And it was amazing.
Being able to prioritize in the shortest amount of time possible. Ah, the gift of time. Honestly, going to work is a privilege. Driving alone in the car – privilege. Having coffee quietly in my office – privilege. Going to 40 committee meetings with adults – privilege. Staying at home full time is the hardest job. And it’s not even a job, really, because it’s unpaid and unrecognized as such and it just keeps going. 100 hours a day. Someone has to be watching the damn kid! But back to time. I used to have unlimited time. Do you want me to do some research on X topic for you? Sure, would love to! Do you want me to plan the entire itinerary for our trip to New York in a month? That sounds like fun! Should we go on a four hour impromptu bike ride because it’s a nice day out and that’s what I want to do? WHY NOT. Well, not anymore, friends. Not that everything has to be scheduled out – I still like to find spontaneity even in five minute spurts – but you are so much more aware of how many minutes there are in a day. And those minutes aren’t even the same – you don’t have the COGNITIVE CAPACITY to do anything that in depth – and apparently I am used to thinking about complex concepts and reflecting on experiences and contextualizing theory and practice. Ah ha ha ha ha! Yeah, someone asked, actually a few non-parent friends asked, well if you are around each other all DAY, of course you would have TIME to have a conversation about the birth or labor or etc? Not so much. Our cognitive capacity eventually returned, but the first few weeks we had very superficial thoughts. Did she poop? Did you poop? How long did she sleep? Let’s watch a movie. I felt like suddenly I had the reading and thinking level of a 3rd grader. Hey, I’m just telling it like it is. I also used to get 40 things done on a Saturday and have time to go out to eat, go for a five mile run, rake the entire yard, bake, make sweet passionate love, go on a day trip, and still have time to watch a movie or maybe two. Not. any. more. Every second can’t be wasted. I was folding some towels in the basement today and I remember thinking- do I really want to take up my TIME doing this? Or is there something better I could be doing? This is actually the silver lining that I (kind of) expected and wanted – kids give you a sense of urgency to get shit done NOW. To prioritize. You don’t get much idle time (what is IDLE TIME?), so you have to prioritize what is important, and a lot of shit isn’t important.
Things we use every day that we weren’t sure we would use every day. Now it is time to discuss things we should have bought (and not bought) pre-baby.
Slip-on shoes and work out clothes. The other day I was talking about the necessity for a comfy pair of slip on shoes. My sister actually made fun of me on day 10 when I had my non-matching red slip on shoes with jeans. They did not match. I hate that. “If we had known, we could have researched fashionable slip on shoes”. Reasoning? You don’t have time sometimes to bend down and tie a shoe to go outside to take out the trash. It takes too long. Yes, even that extra minute is too long. Slip on shoes. Still use them. Work out clothes, too. When I was on leave and now on the weekends, I want to feel like I have changed OUT of my PJ’s, but work out clothes provide the opportunity to fall asleep again, to actually work OUT (which I am proud to say I have maintained my work out routine and my weight since Benny’s birth – I was very concerned about that), or just be comfortable around the house but still maintain a sense of dignity. If I would have known, I would have bought at LEAST 2-3 fashionable and form-fitting work out pants and shirts before she was born. Something I could feel good in. Seriously.
Fisher Price Rock N Play. We were desperate around week 2 because Benny did not like to sleep on her back. I remember reading something about a 30 degree angle for sleep, but I had to . ask a friend again because I had forgotten. All the parents who talk about it swear by it. Now of course you don’t know if your kid is going to hate sleeping on their back, but it’s also helpful because it’s mobile so you can bring it to overnights for sleep, and then it’s consistent (they don’t have to change their sleep environment much).
Bottle warmer. Because we decided to do bottle feedings fairly early on, like weeks 3-4, I was getting really sick of putting a bottle under warm water or letting it bob up and down, up and down at 2 in the morning in warm water for 5 min to let it warm. I remember thinking, “I have a PhD, and I bobbing this damn bottle up and down with a screaming baby.” Bottle warmer.
Pump and Formula. See first suggestion above on having a formula as back up.
Blankets/wraps/sleepers. We used these a lot more than actual clothes/outfits. I never really thought about blankets because you can’t use them when they sleep, but we use them when we are on walks, or in the car seat, or in the house on the floor. Multi-purpose. Now I understand. Sleepers – same thing. We swaddled her during the first few weeks, but she didn’t like it. After a few more weeks, some other parents told us to try it again. She loved it. I think that’s the illogical lesson about kids – what doesn’t work one week may work the next. There are patterns, but they change constantly.
The Ergo more than the stroller. Strollers get a lot of air time. They suck. We have one, yes, yes. They are probably better in the summer b/c you can get sweaty with the baby in a carrier up against your body for hours at a time. For the most part, though, I. love. the. Ergo. I know I talk about immobility below, and that’s still true, but the Ergo has made me feel like I have some mobility – in and outside. I also feel like I can carry Benny around without having to push and maneuver another separate object. For example, we went to Mount Horeb for a day trip when Benny was about 6 weeks old. We were walking around the little shops initially in the stroller, but quickly realized we wanted to switch to the Ergo b/c we wanted to actually SHOP in the little shops. It was easier to move my body from store to store, we went a lot faster, and Benny sleeps a LOT better in the Ergo. Plus, there is a cute little pouch where you can put the pacifier, your keys, the phone, etc, so you don’t have to carry around an extra purse. Now when we go out, Amber carries the diaper bag and I have Benny in the Ergo. I love it. And it’s sport and has clips and good back support. I am not a wrap person, I realized. I hate Origami, and that’s what they remind me of. I have tried them, but prefer the sportier Ergo.
Multiple TV shows and movies. I remember asking this when Bennett was close to 5 weeks old when we figured out we were doing shifts. This is something I could have easily done before – look up movies and TV shows I wanted to binge watch during my night shift and/or on random days. I have so far done the L Word (almost twice), Transparent, Call the Midwife, and now I am on a every-Christmas-movie-known-to-humanity kick because it’s a different season from when Benny was born and time has progressed and it makes me feel accomplished that it’s almost Christmas, we still have a healthy, funny, laughing kid. That’s right – watching Christmas movies makes me feel ACCOMPLISHED. To that end, have a LOT of comfy blankets for YOU to curl up in on the couch as well if you don’t.
Dishwasher. When we first started trying to get preggo, Amber insisted on getting a dishwasher. Not only because of the potential bottles we would have, but because she did not “want to worry about one more thing” with a baby. God DAMN she was right AGAIN. We do at least one load a day, and it has taken a load off (ha ha). I’m getting punchy. Time to end this post.
Snacks and food. People said cook before and freeze the meals. That’s a great idea. I wish we would have done 2-3 of those. We did have a meal train and that was AMAZING during the first few weeks. Plus, we got to socialize, even if it was 5 minutes, with our friends and family, which was awesome and actually gave us energy. We weren’t sure if we would like people stopping by during the first few weeks, but we definitely LOVED it. Also, research snacks that you can grab and go. This works not only for the breastfeeding parent if you are breastfeeding, but really anyone in the house. I snacked a lot during my TV show binge watching. Amber snacks all the time when breastfeeding, but also when Benny is in her bouncy chair and you don’t have that much time but you need to get food IN your system. Seriously – research snacks. Crackers. String cheese. Easy easy things to grab and go. Then stock your fridge.
Stock piling for battle. I said this somewhat sarcastically in one of my facebook posts before Benny was born: I am stock piling toilet paper, paper towel, toiletries, pet food, cleaning supplies, etc! We are preparing for battle! But this was actually one of the better preparation decisions we made before Benny. Sure, we still went to the grocery store (to get those coveted croissant donuts or just to get out of the house – Amber goes to Metro Mart at LEAST 2-3 times a week for this reason), but it was nice to have those “staples” already here and KNOW that we didn’t have to worry about it. We had a foundation of goods already stock piled.
Immobility. Both physical and mental. I saved immobilty for the last item. At first I was just thinking it was being physically immobile, but it’s so much more. At times, still, it feels psychologically immobilizing, and I wish someone would have said these words to me: “Mel: it’s going to be a psychological JOLT and SHOCK to your system.” But let’s go with physical immobilization first. Being hands free or having the use of even one hand is a privilege. Sure, you can use wraps. Carriers. Mobys and Ergos and Mayas and all of ‘em. But when you have them on, realize that you have to still make sure the baby is breathing. You definitely can’t run with them on (I considered it, but Amber would kill me and I know, I know. It’s not safe.) I tried to make better use other limbs and body parts and adapt to still being able to do laundry, etc with the Ergo and/or with baby in one arm (good for the biceps, though). I even raked the entire awkward yard with the 12 pound Benny at the time in the Ergo. But in order to prepare for having an infant, you should not just attach an 8 pound weight to your body. I know some people who thought this may provide a glimpse of what it’s like to carry around and/or be with an infant all day. This is not reality. Having an infant is a physically demanding job, but not just because of the weight. It’s the combination of physical and mental TRAUMA to the body. It’s traumatic. It’s a psychological JOLT to the system. I was talking with a nurse practitioner the other day (cause that’s what I do now – I hang with nurses), and she was talking about how infant care is the real trauma that no one really discusses. The master narrative includes labor and birth and the technique/skills of infant care, but it falls short to explain the mental prep that you can and should do before having one. To really get a feel for having an infant, like a 5% glimpse, you should try to go about your daily routine, and set alarms at various and random times on your phone – sporadically like 3 minutes and then 8 minutes later and then 14 minutes later. When your alarm goes off STOP what you are doing immediately – even if it’s typing an important email or cooking dinner or having a heated conversation or making passionate love. Stop what you are doing and run to a different room with the lights off and stare at the wall for at least 15 minutes – no phone, no laptop, no TV. This gives you just a snapshot of what it’s like to be with an infant. Then do this for 30 days straight. 24 hours a day. It’s the constant of it that grates at you – that wears you down.
People tell Amber and me, “oh, you will forget. Has she smiled yet? As she laughed yet? That makes it ALL worth it. You will forget it.” I’m not saying we don’t love our daughter and want the best for her blah, blah. It annoys me that I even feel like I have to say that. Amber always replies, “oh, I will remember. I will remember.” This is my attempt at remembering – if nothing else but to start a conversation. If nothing else but to break the silence that infants are these fragile, precious angels that we need to praise. That we need to take the pledge of this selfless act of motherhood without ever thinking about ourselves. Taking care of an infant is a constant battle. It’s a test of faith, it’s a test of resilience, it’s a test of stamina, it’s a test of coping and self-care and energy. You have to trust your partner and yourself like you never have. There is little time for reflection. There is little cognitive capacity. You are stripped down to your basic self..
I’m not going to end this post with the oh, BUT these moments are precious and you will cherish them. Chances are, Bennett is not going to remember them. But we will.