Preparing for a newborn, again: Lessons from the first time

EC3I have a vivid memory of one of our first days home with Evelyn. She was nursing, of course, as she did every 2 hours, feedings that usually lasted almost an hour. I was recovering from a c-section, operating on very little sleep, and – to be honest- feeling a bit like we’d ruined our lives with this tiny gorgeous creature. I truly couldn’t imagine why on earth anyone would ever have a second child after making it through this once.

And, alas, here we are – less than 2 months away from welcoming another tiny gorgeous creature into our family. I learned a lot in my first weeks and months of motherhood – and I’m hoping some of those lessons make this time around a little bit easier. EC1

Babies cry, and wake up all night long. It’s normal, and doesn’t last forever.
People who have gone through it forget, and others seem to believe that babies’ sleep patterns should match adults’ sleep patterns. One of the biggest sources of stress for me was the sleep thing, and mostly because other people kept asking me “How much is she waking up at night?” and “Is she sleeping all night in the bassinet?” I wish that I’d just tuned all of that out and accepted that my baby slept when and where she slept, end of story.

She slept best in our arms, in the wrap carrier, or next to me on the bed. Occasionally in the swing. This idea that she had to sleep in the bassinet was hard on all of us. She didn’t sleep for more than a few hours at a time until she was 8 weeks old, and then her sleep habits changed every couple of weeks – sometimes longer stretches, sometimes less. I spent the first months keeping track of where and when she slept, scribbling notes at 3 a.m., feeling like a failure if she slept for short stretches or in my arms.  It made the whole thing far more miserable than it had to be. This time around, I’ll be more willing to accept my baby’s sleep needs, and do what works for us. I won’t keep notes, or even look at the clock.

The best advice we got on sleep was for mom and dad to divide up the night, so we could both get some sleep. I would go to bed early, and Patrick would stay up with her, bringing her to me for feedings, but taking care of diaper changes and soothing. I was able to sleep a little, and they had time to bond. Around midnight he’d bring her to me, and he’d sleep downstairs while I took on all the baby duties until morning. We will do this again (with the added complication of a 3 year old sleeping nearby), although I need to find some ways to feel less isolated during my shift – there were times when being alone and awake for hours in the middle of the night was a struggle.

Release all expectations.
Before having a newborn living in the house, most of us only see them in photos, when they are curled up and sleeping sweetly (like that photo at the top). Life with a newborn appears to be very glowy. Even those things you learn about in birth class or in books before baby arrives seem so simple.

In my experience, it wasn’t simple. Those sweet sleepy moments were real, but they were surrounded by a lot of other moments. Don’t get me wrong, new parenthood is so lovely in many ways. The soft weight of a newborn sleeping on your chest is one of the best feelings in the world. But. There’s also a fair amount of crying (from everyone), a major lifestyle adjustment, and a general sense of bewilderment. It’s impossible to imagine or prepare for in advance, really.

I found that any time I clung to expectations about how things should go, I had a much harder time when they didn’t go that way. Whether it was breastfeeding, leaving the house, doing laundry, or taking a nap – as soon as I let go of my own expectations about what would or should happen, a weight was lifted. Taking things moment by moment and adapting to whatever needed to happen was a much easier and more enjoyable way to go.   I’m hopeful that knowing and embracing that from the beginning will make the newborn months a bit easier.

Babies just want to be held.
Probably every new parent is made to feel guilty at some point for how much their baby is held, and how much their baby wants to be held – especially in the arms of mom or dad.  Whether the ‘spoiled’ word is used outright or implied, most of us hear it at some point.

Too bad for the guilt-trippers. I don’t regret a single moment of holding my baby. There were times when I wished she were more okay with being put down, but I learned how to use a couple baby carriers, which freed up my hands and helped immensely. I also learned that we’d all be ok if I put her in the crib for a few minutes while I used the bathroom. She never “learned to like it” – but I became more okay with it when I was ready.

Those comments I got about putting my baby down just made me anxious. I wanted to hold her. It physically hurt to hear her cry. And 3 years later, she loves hugs and snuggles but is certainly not addicted to being held – so I don’t think any permanent damage was done.

EC2Accept help.
I read a genius piece of advice about having a list of things that people could help with. I never did that, and we only accepted help when it was forced on us. Silly, silly new parents.

Lots of people will say “let me know if I can help” — be ready to take them seriously. Accepting help isn’t a sign of weakness or incompetence! When Evy was a newborn, one grandma cleaned our floors and vacuumed, both grandmas brought us meals, a friend visited from out of town and cleaned the house, friends stopped by with fruit and bagels and ice cream and juice. It was all a big help, and I am so thankful for what they did without being asked.

This time around, I might be a little more direct with asking for help, so get ready. This myth that we can care for a newborn and also keep the house clean, the yard maintained, laundry done, ourselves fed – it’s just not true.  It’s one of the many reasons we all need our village.

Communicate my own needs.
Most new parents are so focused on the baby that they let their own needs go untended.  It’s nearly impossible to avoid this for the first few weeks. But this time around I want to be better about recognizing my needs, and talking to Pat about how to meet those (the same goes for his needs too, of course).

When Evy was a month old or so, Pat was outside doing yard work. I was so jealous that he was outside, doing something that wasn’t childcare. I was at that point where I felt like all I did was nurse, change diapers, walk around the house, and I was ready for a break. Turns out, he didn’t really want to be out there – he was back to work at that point and wanted to be with the baby as much as he could.

After a (probably tearful) conversation where we both revealed what we needed, he stayed inside with the baby until the next feeding while I raked and cleaned up the garden beds. It was amazing how rejuvenating that hour was.

One of the hardest parts of parenthood is finding time for self-care and interests outside of parenting and work. It’s  something we still struggle with. But we’re at least aware that we both need time for ourselves, and we work with each other to make it happen when we can. I’m hoping we can keep that up during our transition to a family of four.

Breastfeeding is hard, but it gets easier – especially with the right help.
You can (and should) learn about breastfeeding in advance, but it’s impossible to really prepare for. We took a 3-hour class on breastfeeding and I still felt blindsided by the actual experience. I didn’t think it would be so emotional, or challenging, or take so much effort. I’m lucky that I had a good friend who had recently gone through learning to breastfeed, and helped me to understand that it would be hard in the beginning, and then get easier. I’m lucky that a new mom friend encouraged me to go to a La Leche League meeting. I’m grateful that Patrick was so incredibly supportive (even though we were both unprepared for this physical division of labor – after running a pretty equal household for years, that was hard to adjust to).

I really had no idea how all-consuming breastfeeding would be for the first couple of months. But I’m grateful I was able to do it (and continued to do it for 2.5 years). This time I’m feeling prepared to accept whatever the experience brings.

Get outside.
My sanity-saver during my first maternity leave was outside time: walks, time in the yard, sitting on the patio to nurse or eat lunch.  It was one of the great things about having a spring baby (except for the weeks after she was born when it rained non-stop).  We were both happier with some fresh air, and the exercise helped me through some of the tougher moments.

Be with other moms and babies. Talk to other moms, even if their children are older.
One of the major differences between this pregnancy and my first is the community of moms I’m a part of now. These are moms I met through La Leche meetings three years ago, moms I met through daycare, friends who have also become parents, and moms I’ve met through a wonderful local moms group that began on Facebook.

My early parenthood experience was made better by the women I met in LLL meetings. Those women helped me with breastfeeding, commiserated over life with a newborn, and welcomed me when I felt like I couldn’t even speak a complete sentence. The moms I know now help me feel less alone when I’m overwhelmed, reveal that we all struggle, help me focus on the joy even when it’s easier to feel stressed, and bring humor to this crazy thing we’re all doing.

I’ve also become more open to the experiences of our own moms and aunts and grandmother. Being a mom is a powerful connection. Baby showers used to be about passing on wisdom and knowledge of motherhood, welcoming a woman into that fold, reminding her that she’s not alone. We’ve lost that a bit as the focus has shifted to gifts and themes. It took me years to recognize that this community of women and mothers is an important thing.

With this pregnancy, I love hearing Pat’s grandmother talk about her pregnancies, I love having our moms feel the baby kick, I welcome their (non-judgmental) input on things we struggle with, and I love feeling like I’m a part of this incredible lineage of moms who have walked this road before me (even if they think some of my parenting choices are nuts)!

It might be one of the most important things a new mom does for herself: connecting with other new moms, as well as other experienced moms. We aren’t alone, but the village isn’t as available as it used to be – we have to go out and build it.

It’s all worth it.
This lesson isn’t hard to remember. Everyone says it, and it’s true: For all the difficult parts of parenthood, the boundless love and joy is unlike any other. I’m full of gratitude for this life, and I can’t wait to bring another little one into our family, to grow this love, to see Pat become a dad again, to see Evy as a big sister – I’m full of anticipation for all of it. Just don’t ask me if the baby is sleeping through the night and we’ll be just fine.

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