My baby turns one! One year of motherhood

Last Tuesday, our son William turned one year old. Time really does fly! I’m starting to understand what Gretchen Rubin meant with, “The days are long, but the years are short.”

He is wonderful, fun, crawling all over the place, laughing, biting our noses (it really does hurt!), and always ready for a cuddle. But there’s something else worth celebrating…

A mother and father were born one year ago.

My husband and I became parents for the first time. We have learned a great deal about taking care of another human being and also about each other. I’ve discovered that Jacob can be surprisingly resilient at times when I have no more patience left. That’s amazing because it means that even if I’m spent, he has us covered.

And I also learned that I can (most of the time) understand and anticipate William’s needs and take care of him in a way that makes him feels good. I don’t always know the answer beforehand, but as things unfold, I somehow find answers. While uncertainty can be scary, I find it reassuring to have faith that we will somehow find a way.

A family was born one year ago.

I get the family feeling most strongly when we’re walking down the street with our baby in the stroller or hiking with William in the carrier on Jacob’s chest. It’s lovely to be together! It was still very pleasant when Jacob and I were a couple, but adding a child amplified the fun somehow. I can’t quite explain it, but simple, everyday things are more enjoyable. Even lying on the couch with the three of us feels like a special activity–family cuddle!

Happy birthday to William and happy birthday to our little family!

Mindset shifts of a new mom: A constant, fun companion

When I was pregnant, it was fun to think that my baby was my constant companion: he was with me wherever I went, and I could always rub my belly and feel like I was being cuddled. But at that point, I couldn’t yet see my baby. I could feel him move, but he still remained abstract in my mind, a bit like a little alien inhabiting my body.

This changed once William was born. Now I could clearly see his face as well as touch him and hear him, and he certainly made himself heard. During the first few weeks, we were apart only briefly. It’s strange to spend so much time with another person especially when you’re used to quite some autonomy. It can be unnerving or stressful, but it also grew on me.

I remember one time my mom took care of William while I took a nap. Upon waking, I had the strange, anxious feeling that I had forgotten him somewhere–that’s how unusual it felt to not have him next to me while sleeping.

By now, William is almost a year old, and I’m more used to being away from him for a couple of hours or for a day. But I’m also more used to being with him all the time, and it doesn’t feel so strange or anxiety-provoking anymore. He’s become a part of our life and a part of our family, and I miss him when he’s not there.

The truth is that William is really fun! He loves chilling on the living room floor and just playing with his toys. These days he plays with me when he hides behind the table, shows his face, and laughs at me. When I’m working, he crawls to me, pulls books off of the bookshelves, and plays close to me. While I’m exercising, he tries to crawl under me or climb over me (he makes push ups seriously difficult!). When Jacob and I are cooking, he joins us in the kitchen and plays by our feet. (He loves it when I empty or load the dishwasher! The moment the dishwasher is open, he crawls to it at top speed, shouting in excitement–the dishwasher is the most fun thing ever!)

I don’t mean to say that it’s all rainbows and flowers, of course. William sometimes whines and moans, wants to be picked up, or doesn’t want to play by himself. Sometimes he wakes up at an inconvenient time or doesn’t like an activity I thought would be fun for him. But, naturally, he is a separate human being and cannnot fit perfectly into my agenda. Really, nobody can carry out my plans flawlessly, not even I.

The funny thing is that I am someone who enjoys independence and control over my time, and I do appreciate child-free time. And yet, there’s something special about my son’s playing next to me while I write; it’s really pleasant to have him crawl around my feet while I cook. I’ve come to cherish William’s companionship, and I look forward to the many more activities we will be able to do together in the future.

Mindset shifts of a new mom: It’s not up to me

When William, my son, was about three months old, he started showing some character. I’d feed him, change his diaper, dress him warm, and put him in the stroller for a lovely walk outside. After a brief nap, he’d start screaming so loudly that it was painful to listen to. I tried walking faster, then slower, then singing a song… but he kept screaming. The only thing that soothed him was when I took him out of the stroller and held him in my arms. But once I put him back down, he continued crying and didn’t stop all the way back home.

I felt so bad. Was he hungry? Was he uncomfortable? Was he too cold? Was he too hot? What should I do to make him feel better? What should have I done to prevent him from crying? I couldn’t think of anything.

I was so worried every time we went out for a walk and awaited the time he’d start crying. I wanted to take him outside, so I kept at it, but it was seriously stressful and frustrating. I had imagined idyllic walks with my baby snugly tucked in his stroller, and this had been the case for the first two months when William slept for hours in the stroller. But now I had a screaming baby. Why this sudden change? What had I done wrong?!

This continued for a couple of months and started easing up around 5 months or so. He started enjoying the stroller a bit more and lasted longer before he started crying on our walks, and the crying was less intense. By now he’s usually fine for 1.5 hours before he gets frustrated (which I can understand; if I sit for 1.5 hours, I also get uneasy).

So what changed? How did I resolve this mind-boggling issue? Literally, the only thing that helped was TIME. He simply had to grow out of it. How frustrating and freeing at the same time! There’s nothing I could have done to fix it, I simply had to wait.

Now when I see parents out for a walk with a very young, screaming baby in the stroller, wondering what to do, I think, “There’s nothing you’re doing wrong. That’s just how it is right now, and it will improve over time.”

This applies to many other baby-related issues. Between 3 and 6 months, William was taking super short naps, 45 minutes max at a time. Four times a day. It was infuriating! I’d get him ready and put him to sleep, have 30 minutes to myself (if I was lucky!), and then there he was again, awake, ready to do it all over again! I read sleep books and blogs and followed their instructions, but nothing helped. What else was I supposed to do?

Seriously, nothing. Over time, he started taking longer naps, about 1.5 hours, and now he sometimes even naps for 3 hours! Nothing changed, just TIME.

We had so many examples of this. Breastfeeding. Leaving the house. Traveling in the car. Receiving visitors. Eating solid foods. And I’m sure there are things I’m struggling with right now that will also fall in this category after a few months (sleeping through the night, hopefully???).

It’s frustrating as well as freeing to know that there’s nothing more to do right now. On the one hand, I wish there were something I could do to fix things. On the other hand, it doesn’t all depend on me. Sometimes, things simply take care of themselves.

Mindset shifts of a new mom: Enormous responsibility

For the first two weeks after William was born, I had a similar dream every night: I was out and about, flying over mountains and slaying dragons, as one does in dreams, and then a wave of panic hit me, “Where’s the baby? Who’s taking care of him? Is he okay?”

A huge change had occurred. While being pregnant, I didn’t have to do much to take care of the baby. Then, when he came out of my body and became his own little being, I had to take care of him ALL. THE. TIME. And his father and I were responsible for everything that happened to him. That’s an enormous change to get used to.

I referred to this adjustment as “brain rewiring.” My brain had to make new connections in order to represent this new way of life and this new responsibility. Therefore, I tried to cut myself some slack and give myself time to adjust. If I was feeling overwhelmed, I’d just say, “It’s okay, my brain is rewiring,” which acknowledged the fact that I needed time to adjust to this momentous change and gave me some space in the here and now. At this time, I found this TED talk about matrescence extremely helpful because it normalized my experience.

During the first two weeks after William’s birth, I felt many new, very powerful emotions. In the evening, after a day of caring for our baby, Jacob and I would curl up on the couch together with the sleeping William on Jacob’s chest. This simple sight brought me to tears when I thought, “We’re a family now. We’ve made a new person! He’ll be our child forever, and we’ll be his parents forever.” This simple realization was sweet, scary, and overwhelming in its enormity.

I also experienced a lot of “split mind” (the phenomenon is discussed in the book What No One Tells You). Even when I was doing something else, a part of me was thinking about the baby, wondering what he was up to and how he was doing. I experienced this every time I went to the gym and left Jacob and William at home as well as when I went out with friends (it turns out it’s possible to be having fun with my friends and at the same be thinking about my baby). When I started working again, I thought about William throughout my work day, wondering what they were doing at daycare.

I was almost surprised but also very relieved to see that other people can take care of William just as well as I do, and that he’s happy when they do. That made my responsibility a little easier to carry and gave me breathing room. After all, raising a child does take a village.

Photo credit: Janina Pietersen

Mindset shifts of a new mom: Lack of predictability

There’s no way to convey the enormous change that occurs when you get your first baby. It’s not like anything you’ve ever imagined because your mind is not capable of imagining something you have no precedent for. But anyway, I’ll make an attempt of painting a picture for you.

You get woken up every ~3 hours in the night, and there’s no ‘good night’s sleep’ in sight; proper rest is not in your near future. You’re feeding the baby every ~3 hours, which is its own ordeal, and then the baby poops, so you change his nappy and maybe his clothes. When the baby falls asleep, you may think you have some time for yourself, but beware: he may wake up any second. He may sleep for 3 minutes or for 3 hours. You never know if you’ll have enough time to pee, eat lunch, do the laundry, call a friend, or all of the above.

A lack of predictability on the micro level

The toughest thing for me was the lack of predictability. It’s one thing that I like to plan out my days and have a routine–that was definitely out the window. The thing was that I wanted to be able to eat my breakfast without being interrupted, but if my son started crying, I had to pick him up, feed him, change him, etc. I could only return to my breakfast maybe an hour later.

It felt crazy to not have any wiggle room and to accept that whatever I was doing could be interrupted at any time, and, if that happened, I had to drop everything on a moment’s notice.

I’m talking about a lack of predictability on the micro level. Will I be able to finish cooking this meal? Don’t know. Will I complete my 10 minutes of exercise? No idea. Will I be able to brush my teeth or even pee? We’ll have to see. The biggest one was the shower. One time I got in the shower and 2 minutes later William started crying (I had just put him to sleep, and I was alone at home). I was all wet, with shampoo in my hair, and he was crying like crazy! I got to him as fast as I could, but I’ve never felt so guilty about taking a shower in my life.

It gets better with time

The good news is that it got better over time. After a few weeks or months, William no longer cried as hard when he woke up, and I didn’t have to feed him right away. In other words, I had more wiggle room: I didn’t have to drop what I was doing right that instant but I had maybe a couple of minutes.

The same was true for when he was awake and was gradually getting fussy. When he was really small, I had to attend to him immediately, pick him up and rock him, and I couldn’t put him back down at all. As he grew, the time from starting to get fussy to really fussy became longer and longer, which gave me time to, e.g., finish my meal or finish putting away the dishwasher.

Now that William is almost a year old, we have much more flexibility. He rarely wakes up crying anymore. Instead, he calls out to me while playing in bed. When he’s awake, he can sometimes play by himself for an hour, and I can do something, while checking on him and occasionally engaging with him. When I notice that he’s getting fussy, my strategy is to show him a cool toy to play with (opening and closing doors is his favorite right now), while I gradually finish up what I’m doing and get ready to take care of him.

The illusion of predictability and control

Life is slowly becoming more predictable for me again, but not entirely. Fortunately, William is keeping me on my toes by once in a while doing something unexpected such as being wide awake and wanting to play at nap time (or worse, at 2 am!). The good thing about this is that it reminds me that we can’t always predict events in our lives and we can’t control what happens.

It’s terrifying not to know what is going to happen to us. Will an illness cross our path? Will a terrible accident strike us? Or will we meet an amazing person who will bring joy to our life? Will we discover a new passion, a hobby that absolutely sets us on fire? Some people are excited by this range of unknown possibilities, but I tend to be scared by not knowing. The logical response for many of us is to try to control life, which is not always helpful.

A baby is exceptionally good at showing you that you can’t control what happens in your life. As I began shedding the illusion that I can predict and control my life, I was very uncomfortable, but I also found a new sense of openness. My heart became receptive like an exquisite musical instrument: I found my baby’s smile infinitely lovely; cuddling on the couch with my husband and son became my favorite activity in the world; seeing my son’s amazement at water flowing from the tap filled me with amazement too (not for the water but for my baby’s ability to learn about the world).

The truth is that none of these moments are a given, and I can’t predict what will happen next. So I’d better notice the current moment when it’s here because in an instant it will be gone.

Back to reality

Now, all this ‘appreciating the moment’ stuff is great, and I mean it, but it’s also not easy to appreciate the moment in the middle of the night when your child is crying and you so desperately want to sleep. Believe me, I’ve tried to appreciate that unpredictable moment, and it’s HARD.

That’s the truth about parenthood: it’s great, and it sucks, sometimes in very close succession. It’s really difficult sometimes, and especially the early months of no predictability are super tough for an adult who is used to mostly doing what she wants in a day (and gets mad when the line at the supermarket is oh so long, how is this even okay, it’s completely going to throw off my plans for the day!).

It’s super useful to get help from other people, so their lives can be unpredictable for a few hours instead of yours. Alone time is AMAZING at restoring a sense of well-being and self-efficacy, and so is doing something small for yourself such as reading a few pages from a book.

And the last thing I’d like to say is a cliché but a very true one: This, too, shall pass. It really does pass, even when you don’t believe it will. One day you may even miss it, or at least parts of it, so let’s appreciate those lovely moments while they are here.