Baby's-eye view: Katie with Asa at six months.
I don't know much about parenting, but I do know this: All the books in the world couldn't prepare you for it. That's why it helps to know people one step ahead in the game.
I asked three friends who have recently become moms to tell me what it's really like on the other side. Their thoughtful and honest responses had me giggling and weeping and snotting with excitement all over my keyboard.
Katie Flagg, a Seven Days
staff writer, lives in Shoreham with her husband, Colin, and 6-and-a-half-month-old Asa. Julia Steen works for the Counseling Service of Addison County. She and her husband, Brian, live with 3-month-old Rowan in Salisbury. And Sarah Wylie is a community tobacco specialist at the Vermont Department of Health. She lives with her husband, Peter, and their 6-week-old daughter, Josie, in Burlington.
MEGAN: Is there anything you wish you'd been told before you had your baby?
KATIE FLAGG: Friends kept warning us, "Go out to dinner now! Go see movies now!" There was a part of me, based on those warnings, that really believed life as I knew it was going to be OVER after the baby arrived. What surprised me is how little things changed. Yes, it's exhausting. Yes, suddenly going to the grocery store is a lot more complicated. But, ultimately, my life still felt like my life, just with a little new person involved.
I did get one warning that I ignored and wish I hadn't: I wish I'd devoted more time to recovery after giving birth. I focused entirely on thinking about labor, and not enough on thinking about recovery. As a result, I think my recovery was more prolonged than it needed to be because I was too stubborn to take it easy in those first days and weeks after Asa's birth. So truly, Megan: Take it easy. Even if you mentally feel ready to be up and about — give your body some time.
JULIA STEEN: I wish I had been told not to buy any baby clothes. When Rowan was born, people just started sending us tons of stuff. We received clothes from people we don't even know — friends of our parents, friends of my grandmother, and so on. I would have saved a lot of money if I had known this would happen!
Otherwise, I almost wish people had warned me less. You hear a lot of horror stories when you're pregnant. People try to prepare you for the worst — "Get your sleep in!" Toughen those nipples!" Stuff like that — so I went into things expecting everything to be so much more difficult. In my experience, what those people leave out is that as a new mother, you are (hopefully) so overcome with love, devotion and excitement to have this little baby that the hard stuff is just par for the course and pretty doable.
Granted, not every woman has this experience (this is the therapist side of me thinking of women with post-partum depression), and I think I have a pretty easy-going baby, so I recognize that this was my individual experience.
SARAH WYLIE: Maybe I would have liked to know more about strategies for breast-milk leakage/squirting in social situations. Is there an advice column for this?
MEGAN: What surprised you the most about becoming a parent?
Those cheeks! Sarah and Josie.
KF: This one is perhaps very personal to me, so take it as you will. I've always considered myself a sort of high-strung, anxious person — anxious to do things right, to achieve, to please others. I worried that pregnancy and early motherhood would really amplify those qualities in me. After all, what could possibly be more anxiety-provoking than bringing a new person into the world, and then having to keep him alive at all times, and raise a good person, and not screw things up, and avoid the judgment of other parents? What surprised me was how intuitive I've found the process to be. I still experience the moments of fear and anxiety and worry that I'm sure every parent does. But day to day, moment to moment, I feel greatly at ease, even if I don't know all the answers and clearly am still very new at this. I'm so grateful for the confidence and calm I've found in motherhood.
JS: What surprised me most is how I feel toward Rowan. I've never in my life felt such an overwhelming love for another being in this world. It's absolutely the most amazing feeling I could ever imagine.
SW: How long it takes to do everything. I've always been a morning person, so it's a surprise to realize that I can't count on getting anything done before 10 a.m. Except several bouts of breastfeeding, of course. So much breastfeeding. All I can say is, I have a new appreciation for the NPR app that lets you listen to Morning Edition where it's still streaming. Feel free to quiz me on the news from Eugene, Oregon, any time.
MEGAN: What was the most valuable piece of advice you received? The worst?
KF: Sleep when the baby sleeps. I heard that a million times before Asa was born, and in the first weeks of his life. But I can't say it enough: Sleep when the baby sleeps! It's great advice, even if it's hard to follow sometimes.
JS: Katie actually told me that when people offer help, accept it, even if it feels weird to do so. That was incredibly helpful because I wanted to spend every second (and still do!) with Rowan. Knowing that I could do that and not worry about figuring out what we would eat, if there was a sink full of dishes, if we needed something from the store, etc., was so helpful. It enabled me to bond with Rowan the way I wanted to in those early days and weeks.
SW: Prepare yourself for the cheeze: To savor every moment. When your little girl is looking up at you adorably, quiet and alert, smiling, eyes getting bluer every day, it's easy to marvel at what a wonderful and unique time this is in both your lives. When she is screaming at 2 a.m. because she has gas or some other impenetrable infant need, it's much harder. During the hard times, I remind myself that this moment, too, when she needs me absolutely, will never come again. I didn't expect to take the "savor the moment" advice this way; you hear it from everyone, and I assumed it was only about the magical moments. But I think you need to savor the hard times, too, because reminding myself that they are fleeting helps me to get through.
The worst advice I received? I have this baby countdown book that has a different piece of information or advice each day as it counts down to your due date. Sprinkled throughout the book are incredibly pessimistic comments about how little support your significant other will provide, how to gird your loins for the challenge of being on your own with a baby, etc.
I say, screw that. Your partner got you into this mess, and they should darn well be there on the other side. Maybe I'm incredibly lucky in my choice of partner (OK, I'm definitely incredibly lucky: How many people have a live-in pediatrician who is also head over heels for their baby?), but it was never an option that I would be doing all the work.
I may be doing 97 percent of the feeding, but when I need a nap or a book club outing? He's there to give me a few hours off. When I've been up for hours in the middle of the night and just need a half hour to nap and keep my sanity? He says he's surprised I let him sleep so long and picks her up, even though he has to work the next day. They say having a child will be a strain on your relationship, and I'm sure at some points it will be. But right now, I think it's best to not assume he won't be there. Assuming he will
be there, and being open and honest about how I need him, has made our relationship stronger.
MEGAN: Can you recall the moment when you first felt like a mother?
KF: For me it's been a gradual process. There wasn't some lightbulb moment — though, after I spent the night before Halloween staying up after midnight, frantically knitting Asa's costume, I joked the next day that it's when I really felt like a mom.
Julia snuggling baby Rowan.
On a more serious note, I recently learned that Asa has a sensitivity to a protein in milk and soy. In order to continue breastfeeding him, I've had to cut both from my diet entirely. It was a big blow to someone who cherishes her lattes, her enormous bowls of ice cream, and cheese. (Oh, cheese.) I mention this because I think I always believed, at some level, that the sacrifices required of parents would just come naturally. And many did: I've given up any number of things for this baby — sleep! Time! My body! — more or less without batting an eye. Radically changing my diet has been much harder, and I did my fair share of pouting about it. (I'm not proud of that.) But it's been a good reminder that this isn't always going to be easy, and that being a mom will occasionally mean sacrifice that I'm not necessarily ready for or happy about.
And finally — Asa is now six months old. Seeing the way he lights up when I walk into a room, the way he babbles when I approach him, the feverish and almost comical joy with which he greets me — that makes me feel like a mother. Perhaps this sounds selfish or self-important, but for this time in his life, I am, bar none, the best person in the world to Asa. (Colin is a close second, but the on-board milk bar makes me a clear winner.) There is nothing more satisfying than that kind of unbridled love. It's a good reminder that even if I sometimes feel like an impostor or novice in this whole parenting thing, Asa doesn't care one bit.
JS: If I were to pick a single moment, I would go with the moment of delivery when all of a sudden, there he is, and I can see what he looks like, hold him, all that mushy stuff. Overall, though, I think I have been fortunate in that it's felt like a pretty seamless transition for me. Perhaps it just happened naturally over time, without my really noticing.
SW: it's been a gradual evolution. There was the moment in the hospital when Peter and I looked at each other and said, "What have we done?!" in an incredulous, excited and horrified way. There was when I came home from the hospital, went to take a nap, and ended up sobbing. Then there was the moment when Peter observed that Josie calms when she hears my voice and as soon as I pick her up. We've all seen this with other babies; it was amazing to realize that this is what I am to her.
There was the moment when my breasts were so engorged that I needed her to nurse, and I realized that she and I are symbiotic: I need her just as she needs me, both physically and emotionally. And then the absolute joy when she smiled socially for the first time, and it was at me. We've only known each other for a month, but the depth of our relationship surprises and warms me more each day.
Of course, Peter was a confirmed dad when he looked in the mirror at work and realized he had spit-up on his sweater. That works, too.