By Olivia StrenUpdated Feb 21, 2017
At 16 days early and weighing six pounds, 13 ounces, baby Leo greeted the world with a soft cry—and a big yawn. As I lay in the hospital bed, my tiny brand new baby sleeping next to me, I felt weirdly euphoric. I’m no stranger to the blues, so I had expected (and feared) a debilitating case of them postpartum. But instead, I found myself floating in the pinks. The fuchsias, even. I slept for about six minutes, plunged in some exotic, altered state. (Joy?) I felt, for once, that I wanted precisely what I had.
That feeling, however, passed quickly.
Leo—as though in denial that he was ex utero—seemed to want to sleep all the time. This, I thought at first, was a tremendous stroke of luck. “He’s an angel! A sleep genius!” I told my husband, my heart puffing with maternal pride. That was, of course, until the nurses barged into our hospital room (what felt like every seven seconds), shouting: “Baby’s still sleeping? Time to wake up! Time to eat!” The poor little thing’s first days on Earth must have felt like the special hell of a transatlantic flight. My husband and I were instructed to wake Leo every two to three hours to feed him so that he might quickly gain back his birth weight. Essentially, this meant we were permanently awake.
I started fantasizing endlessly about the sumptuousness of slumber—the principal pastime of the rookie parent. I wasn’t fussy. I’d take anything: a nap, a snooze, a coma. As a seasoned insomniac, I’ve learned to function on insufficient sleep, and I assumed my expertise in sleepless derangement would prove choice training for early parenthood. But having difficulty falling asleep, it turns out, is a distinctly different torture than being denied sleep. “I know someone who didn’t sleep for more than 45 minutes in a row until her son turned one!” an exhausted new-mother friend told me recently with a gleeful touch of better-her-than-me fourth-trimester schadenfreude she was too tired to suppress.
During those first few pre-dawn feedings, I felt wrapped in some fuzzy netherworld of exhaustion—the kind of hyperfatigue that makes you feel both acutely sensitive and vaguely numb. I’ve read that lobsters and crabs slough their carapaces in adolescence. And as a brand new parent, I felt somehow like a shell-less teenage crustacean: vulnerable and ill-armed. Everything had changed, and I didn’t yet know the rules of engagement. The only thing that seemed clear in my foggy state was that surviving the so-called fourth trimester would demand Herculean endurance—on no sleep.
Along with those feelings of vulnerability came a shifting assortment of fears, worries about incompetence, insecurities and general alarm. Offhand, even well-intentioned comments would send me down a rabbit hole of panic and paranoia. There was the time my dad gazed at Leo slumbering in my arms and said, “He looks like a mob boss.”
“Excuse me?” I asked.
“He just looks so relaxed. When you’re a mob boss, you’re very relaxed, because you know your guys are taking care of everything for you.” I had thought the baby might look like his father or like me. Not like Don Corleone. I was beside myself.
“My dad thinks Leo looks like Tony Soprano,” I later told my husband.
“He was joking. Anyway, I think the baby looks like you,” my husband said, attempting to reassure me.
“Well, maybe I look like Tony Soprano,” I said.
These feelings followed me to a support group (I mean, dinner party) with a couple of new parents and their infants. When one of the mothers slipped her six-month-old into a sling, the baby commenced dining happily, and she wandered about with an enviably easy maternal grace. I, meanwhile, still needed to be sitting in the right chair, with the right pillow, with the sun at the right angle to the moon, et cetera, to nurse comfortably. I remember being on a safari in Tanzania and witnessing a gnu giving birth. Almost instantly, the baby gnu stood on its wobbly, spindly legs and began nursing. I don’t recall the mother gnu having to pause and fetch her breastfeeding pillow before nursing her child or calling in a prescription for nipple cream at the pharmacy afterwards. It’s natural and instinctive. How hard can it be? That gnu baby did it, I thought.
I was quickly disabused of these notions, as Leo had problems latching, and when he did, it was excruciating. Meanwhile, my milk was way past fashionably late, taking more than 10 days to come in (a delay, I was told, I could blame on my emergency C-section, the hemoglobin crash I experienced post-delivery and my advanced maternal age). So I struggled with feeling like a failure at motherhood in general, convinced my husband would be a better mother than I was. If the feeding has become less traumatic (for me), Leo is still certainly not lunching sling-side. “I hate slings,” another mother told me, “they’re too smug.”
Hating things, I’ve determined, is another key new-parent pastime. Because, as it turns out, sleep is critical for tempering emotion.
“I hate it when people just reach over and touch Isabel’s head. Like, hello?! Germs! I’m paranoid,” another new mom told me, as she stroked Isabel’s head with proprietary tenderness. My mind shot back to the day before, when Lemon (Leo’s feline sister) licked his toes and when a random woman in a café caressed Leo’s hair. “Oh god, I should be more paranoid!” I said, suddenly paranoid about my potentially reckless lack of paranoia. I’ve always excelled at doubts and questions—a liability in a realm where you apparently need to declare a militant position on everything.
And if you need to declare a position on everything, you also need a consultant for everything. So I asked my lactation consultant what her position was on cappuccinos. “A coffee a day is just fine, Mommy,” she said, as she hovered over Leo, who was lounging on a breastfeeding pillow. As the consultant appraised the baby’s latch, my husband asked about our feeding schedule. “Great question, Daddy!” she said. If the fourth trimester is the steepest of life’s learning curves, among the hardest things was learning to be called Mommy and Daddy by the lait-erati.
That may sound extreme, but I’m just emerging from the wilds of the fourth trimester, and I don’t yet have the calm or wisdom of hindsight. Going to Shoppers Drug Mart still qualifies as excitement, and when I head to the supermarket, I might as well be making my way to Studio 54. It’s an event. Things only get better, parents of older children tell me in gentle, reassuring tones. They’re right, of course. It already has. And there’s much to look forward to beyond this fourth-trimester haze.
“I can’t wait till he laughs,” I tell my husband. “He’s outgrown his newborn diapers. He’ll be sitting up soon. Then he’ll be, like, 25….”
“Yes, 25 years from now,” my husband says gently, giving me a hug, and I fight off the overwhelming urge to hoist him over my shoulder and burp him.
A version of this article appeared in our October 2015 issue with the headline,“Through the haze”, p. 96.