A newborn's cry is unmistakable.
The hearty, bleating squawk of a tiny human being announcing his or her arrival is a sound that etches itself into the cellular memory of a parent. My youngest has a cry that is 13 months older than his first heartbreaking shrills once were, and yet...
When you peeked around the corner of the breastfeeding center the other day, I already knew you were there. Your daughter, barely on the cusp of her 1-week birthday, was sharing news of the dawn of your motherhood in the way that only babies can. She announced your arrival with a primal yell... the one that sends mothers everywhere right back to the fog of those first unpredictable weeks.
I stood there with my 1-year-old on my hip, his chubby legs wrapped around the curve of my waist, his outstretched hand patting my chest as my milk suddenly let down. I took in your tired eyes, the slight glimmer of fear that danced across your face as you tried to figure out what would happen next. Crying baby. New environment. Where do I sit? How do I feed her? Does she need a paci? Who is staring at me? Did I remember to bring a diaper in? Shit, I am STARVING. Where the hell is my husband??
I watched your husband shuffle quickly inside the room, flushed from having just found a parking spot outside, and balancing the overloaded diaper bag on one arm and the unwieldy bucket car seat on the other. Your eyes filled with tears as you realized that he was a mirror of your own exhaustion. You handed him the baby, and turned away to take a breath. As the lactation consultant spoke to you in a gentle whisper, she called over her shoulder to your husband.
"Hold her out in front of you like this, and bend your knees as you bounce and sway."
A silence washed over the room packed with nursing bras and breast pump parts, lactation cookies and Hooter Hiders. Your daughter took a sweet, contented breath, and settled into her daddy's arms. "Now keep doing that, Daddy," the lactation consultant laughed, as a look of horror flew between the two of you.
Right. Just keep doing that. The squats and the swaying. The soothing and the shushing. The waking up and the carrying. The worrying and the agonizing. Just keep doing that.
And I saw your eyes fill with tears again.
This is new motherhood. You, on one side of the room, having just realized that you've traded your fashionable pencil skirts and weekly blow-outs for the last clean pair of maternity yoga pants and, well, daily blow-outs. You, with the breasts that are heavy and tender, itchy and raw. You, shuffling carefully as you try to forget that you feel barely held together by the stitches that tell your story like an unwelcome tattoo. Your eyes dart around the store, a quick, thorough assessment of the possibility of friendly fire. What will the strangers think about your crying baby? Will we shame you with our sighs? Will we judge you for the laundry list of heavy choices that you've already made, during the longest week of your life? For a brief moment, you wonder what would happen if you ran right out the door. Back into your old life. Where at least cranky bosses went home to their own houses, and deadlines were predictable. Where pregnancy felt beautiful, and special, and important. Where your husband could be counted on to fix things, and answer things, and help things.
And then you looked up, and your eyes met mine.
I had only stopped in to ask a quick question. I shifted Bennie to the other hip, and motioned to you with my free hand to continue talking to the lactation consultant. I gave you a shy smile, trying mightily to figure out how to give you 3,000 words of encouragement in one timid glance. I needed you to know that a year ago, and five years ago, I was standing there too. Trying to figure out how far and how fast I could run before my life would start to make sense again.
I wish I could tell you that it gets easier, but it doesn't. The secret is that you get better at it.
You get better at it.
You have only known your new, sweet-cheeked little human for a week. You are tired, and tearful, and terrified. You are suddenly responsible for absolutely everything, and have control over absolutely nothing. You are in love, and second-guessing your love, and drowning in your love, and overwhelmed by your love. Your motherhood is brand new. Your confidence is emerging like a flower that has finally been watered, stretching toward the sunlight as unexpected gusts of wind test how it bends and folds.
You will get better at it. The feeding and the night-waking. The dinners gulped down in 30-second intervals. The panicked calls to the pediatrician. You will get better at it.
You will never stop worrying, or doubting yourself, but you will have more proof that you are doing it right.
Each day that passes is another day that you get to take credit for. Every gummy smile that erupts from your daughter's soft features came from you. Every contented sigh as she feeds, every time she squeezes your finger with her tiny hand, every flutter of her eyelashes as she drifts into sleep, is a thank you to you.
You will never again be OK in the old way. You will never be as rested, or as energized, or as focused on the world around you. Instead, you will be OK in a new way. You will measure your success in hours instead of weeks. But as you worry, your confidence will grow.
It will give way to courage. It has to.
Your worry was born from love. It came flooding out of your body with the rush of water that preceded her birth. A birth of your own. The beginning of motherhood. Your worry will change over time, and, slowly, it will be replaced by strength. Every time you propel yourself out of bed in the middle of the night to soothe her cries, your courage takes root. Every time you reach down in the darkness to latch her on, every time you hold your breath as the nurse weighs her, every time you buckle her into the carrier and walk outside to face the day... every single time, you are planting the seeds of your confidence. You are walking forward bravely, courageously, into this new life that looks nothing like your old one. You will see the shadows of the woman you were before motherhood, and you will watch those shadows dance with abandon. You will reach for them. This I promise you. You will chase those shadows when you zip up your "hot jeans" and head out for a date night. You will reach for them when you settle back into a dining chair and drink a glass of wine with your best friend. You will learn to welcome them when it's time to let the light in, and usher them out when it's time to stand on your own.
Your capacity for mothering will grow as your child grows. You won't have to figure it all out at once. You have time to learn. You'll learn to hang in there when she spits up a fountain of milk. To hang back as she toddles on wobbly legs out into the center of the circle in music class. To hang out in the fresh air of a sidewalk cafe as you swap war stories with another new mom on a playdate. To hang it up when you realize you need to tap out for a break, and to hang tight when you know that you are the only person who can make it better. You are the mom. The only way through it is to go forward.
You will grow and change together. You have to. And you can.
I promise you. I promise you. I promise you. You can do this, because you already know how. Your instincts have already emerged in a birth of their own -- you just need to welcome them. Create space for them. Invite them in to dance with the shadows. We've all been there. The expectation that gives way to panic, the courage that welcomes a re-birth. The dance of motherhood is at once foreign and familiar. Upsetting and uplifting.
It won't get better. You will get better at it.
Until one day, you are on the other side of the room when you hear that shrill, shocking, newborn screech. You will look over at the new mom with the panicked look in her eyes. You will recognize the fear that marks the beginning of her journey. You will remember how you learned to feed with love, how you learned to trust yourself, how you learned to anticipate your baby's needs. Your impossibly tiny baby grew into a laughing, walking, loving toddler. A toddler who is patting your chest and making the sign for "milkies." Your heart will lift, and your pride will escape for just a moment. You thought you'd never make it, mama. And then you did.
Photo Credit Traci Bianchi