Maternity Leave is NOT a Vacation
When you're at the hospital, you have this wonderful option of allowing them to take your baby to the nursery so you can sleep. Not everyone takes advantage of this, but we did. They kept her there at night and brought her in when she needed to nurse. You can give them specific wishes such as “don’t bottle/formula feed” or however you want them to handle their awake time. After labor, you are SO exhausted, and getting the chance to catch up on some shut eye was something I wanted to take full advantage of while I could. Even though you're at the hospital for a brief stint, usually, you kind of get used to this. So, for us, when we were getting ready to go home, we thought, "OK, who's going to bring our baby to us when it's time for her to nurse?" I say this in jest, but, really, the thought of taking home this little bundle, who you realize you're fully unprepared to take care of alone, is daunting. For real. On top of that, you hope that at some point you'll be able to do something for yourself, like maybe eat or shower. They eat so frequently the first while that you really don’t have time to do much, so things like showering get knocked to the bottom of the priority list. Eating becomes something you do with one hand while you’re feeding them, and naps are short-lived. Don’t even get me started on cluster feeding. More on my breastfeeding experience another time. We were very fortunate because my parents came into town for a few weeks to help out. And I don’t mean in a “I’ll hold the baby for you” kind of way. Funny how people think that’s helpful. It isn't entirely unhelpful, but I would say a new mom needs help with bigger things. At least I did. My parents were actually helpful in a real way, like making food and making sure I ate, keeping the house clean, and whatever else we needed. They were not staying with us, which gave us some privacy, but they did come over every day to see what we needed. The fact that my parents, who are omnivores, fully respected our vegan home and made us vegan food every day was huge. I'm not sure either of us would have eaten much if it weren't for them.
Our first evening home from the hospital was not fun. We hardly slept because we literally had no idea what to do with our baby to get her to stop crying. I was TERRIFIED of her having a fever (we had to stay in the hospital a few extra days for testing because she'd run two fevers while we were there) and not having a doctor to make sure everything was OK. Not knowing what red flags I needed to look for makes the whole experience so stressful. You learn over time what to worry about and what not to just from experience, but, when you’re brand spanking new to parenting, it’s all so alarming. Ever seen that episode of Friends where Rachel’s pediatrician tells her he won’t be their doctor anymore because she calls so often and in the middle of the night about the tiniest things? Yeah, that’s how we all feel inside. Somehow we survived the night, and then another night, and then another. It took us a little while but we did start getting the hang of her very basic needs. Stick a boob in her face, change her, burp her, or see if you can get her to sleep. That was about it. If you try them all and she’s still crying, start over again with the same 4 basic needs until something eventually works.
For the first few weeks, she was constantly in our arms, especially mine and especially while sleeping. We most certainly did not always practice safe sleeping, but we also did not want to die of utter exhaustion. This was a level of fatigue I’d never experienced before in my entire life. And we felt like we were on the verge a few times. Some people put the baby in a bed in their room, some have a small bed in the baby’s room, and some have other sleeping situations, such as co-sleeping (all sleeping in bed together). We all slept on the couches for the first few weeks. It was the only place we could all sleep near each other and where we could figure out a way to sleep with her in our arms (again, this was NOT safe sleeping at all; this was purely for survival) I made it through the entire Friends series countless times before I moved on to the Office and Parks and Rec. That was it. I spent my days on the couch with my baby in my arms. At first it was OK, but I quickly became miserable. The monotony of it all and staying inside so much because you have such small windows between feedings really creates some cabin fever. Postpartum blues and depression can understandably be exacerbated by this. I knew I should have been cherishing the time, as they really do grow so fast, but I didn't know how to properly explain that I just needed to have both arms free for a bit before I lost my mind. I didn't want my baby to cry, but sometimes it just couldn't be avoided, like when I desperately needed a shower and had to put her down for a few minutes. Many parents don't mind having to hold their babies all the time, but it was starting to wear on me. Every day, I would put her in her bassinet for even a few minutes just so she could get used to it. I spent countless hours Googling suggestions. Do I swaddle? Do I not swaddle? Do I try a swing? What magic products are there that I could try? What am I doing wrong? I think I tried something different every day. I tried everything, but my baby was one of those weirdos who hated basically everything every other mother SWORE by. So, I was left with her bassinet and her Rock n' Play. Of course I wanted to employ safe sleeping practices, so I was determined to get her in her bassinet, but she really seemed to hate it. I was tempted to put her in the Rock 'n Play even though that was not indicated for "safe sleep." I kept going back and forth and back and forth, reading articles on both sides. Part of helping your kid is sticking with a routine sometimes. You have to give it time to work and then you can give it up if it really doesn’t. Luckily, she hated her Rock 'n Play anyway, so she made the choice easy. :) Unfortunately, it doesn’t get easier down the road figuring out what your kid likes. Between bottles, sippy cups, teethers, pacifiers, and water bottles, you’ll have to buy at least 10 different versions of everything to find what works for your kid. However, so far our baby seems to like any bottle and any pacifier, so that's a small victory for us--two things we did not have to struggle with when a lot of parents do.
Most of my biggest and best accomplishments came when I just said, "screw it. Nothing else is working so why not try this." One day, I decided I was tired of sleeping on the couch. I wanted to sleep in my bed like a normal person. I moved the bassinet into the bedroom and gave it a shot. The night's sleep was broken, but I did it. I slept in my bed, she in her bassinet, and I have not slept on the couch since. My baby's sleep continued to be broken, even though it did improve slightly, and I thought maybe I had a crappy bassinet. I'm pretty sure I did. I'm almost tempted to have a second child just so I can treat him or her to a more comfortable bassinet. Anyhow, in another "screw it" moment, I switched the bassinet out for the Pack 'n Play, thinking it would be more comfortable, and it worked wonders! I don't know what it was but she started sleeping way better, albeit still not much, in that thing. The most important thing was I felt like we made progress, no matter how big or small. And we never looked back.
That's how the months progressed. We (mostly I) got better and better at figuring out all her likes and dislikes. Slowly but surely, there were fewer naps in my arms because I was determined to get some of my freedom back. I started feeling like an actual person again! I was so tired of making food with one hand and she wasn’t always the biggest fan of baby wearing. Some moms don’t need this and don’t feel like it’s a priority, but, for me, a routine and a schedule were extremely important. I’m a planner and I need to know what’s going to happen before it happens, in any aspect of life. I started to take control of the situation and just hoped for the best. I became OBSESSED with getting my child to nap. I read many (too many) sleep consultants' websites and even signed up for a couple of programs. I ended up quitting them because they were affecting my mental health when I felt like they weren't working. I felt like I was failing. I did use some of their basic suggestions, as well a some of my friends' suggestions, and implemented an incredibly basic bedtime routine and an even more basic routine for naps. One friend in particular gave me really great suggestions and I started implementing them the next morning. I learned to lower my expectations a little and I suddenly felt free. I felt like my life was saved. She didn't teach me rocket science, but she still helped me immeasurably with her suggestions and by helping me understand that I was doing a great job and wasn't doing anything wrong. The suggestions didn't work like magic overnight, but I KNEW I had to keep at them because consistency was key. To this day, at a little over 6 months, we do the exact same routine, for the most part. Kids need predictability and consistency. They feel safe and comfortable when they know what to expect and I needed to give that to her. Small things have changed as she has gotten older, and we can remove some steps and add new ones. She sleeps in her crib in her own room, we don't swaddle her anymore, and we now give her a bath each night. But those are the only changes. Every single day, every single nap, and every single night before bed, the routine is the same. It has worked incredibly for us. Of course, that does not mean there haven't been progressions through the months. For example, initially, we would rock or bounce her until she was completely asleep before we put her down. Then we started working toward putting her down more and more awake, until we reached the point we're at now, which is that she is wide awake when we put her down and she puts herself to sleep. Every expert will tell you the greatest gift you can give your baby is the ability to put himself or herself to sleep on his or her own. I was so terrified of trying it at first because I just couldn't imagine it working. But it works. You just have to keep at it! Nothing happens overnight! But I will be the first to tell you that the work is worth every sleepless night and every moment of frustration.
Toward the end of my maternity leave, life started looking good again. While things weren't perfect, I did feel like I had a solid routine going, and that was so important to me. I felt so much better about going back to work knowing we had figured out our routines. I spent my ENTIRE maternity leave working on my baby's sleeping habits and it eventually paid off. I barely left the house, and I let a lot of things fall by the wayside. But all I could do was Google and Google and Google and seek advice from some close friends. This was extremely difficult for me and I was tired of my own thoughts and worries because they were consuming me. I don't regret anything other than HOW MUCH I stressed and obsessed about it. I couldn't think about anything else. I will expound on this and how things turned around in next week's post. I am incredibly grateful that I was able to take an extended time away from work to stay home with my baby, even though I was stressed out for most of it. Through it all, I did realize that I would never ever get that sort of time again to just be at home with my little girl. Because the time really is that short! I’m able to enjoy her much more now and I am able to be much kinder to myself.
Next week, I will write more about the importance of a new mother's self care, including truly leaning on your support system and recognizing that most mothers have gone through whatever it is you're going through. You are not alone.