Becoming a Mother
When I was pregnant, I never felt closer to my mother. We talked every day and she was the first person I’d share my symptoms, cravings, and other pregnancy updates with. She listened enthusiastically and I knew in my heart that becoming a mother myself would only make us closer.
However, when Ginny Rose was finally born I was flooded with overwhelming emotions. I felt like I was swimming in the deep end with weights on my feet. It started with the postpartum care at our hospital, Brooklyn Methodist. They didn’t have any clean drinking water due to a legionella outbreak, which meant I couldn’t shower, wash my hands, or use the faucet for any reason. So for four days I slept, sat, and lived in my afterbirth. It felt inhumane and disgusting, like being trapped on an airplane for four days.
Screaming babies echoed through the halls, overworked nurses were slow to respond, and they ran out of baby supplies due to the holiday weekend. When my baby’s jaundice didn’t clear up the nurses rearranged our room and put in a giant incubator. For thirteen hours my little newborn baby cried pretty much non-stop in the incubator. Only three days old we were separated and she was left alone, naked, and flooded by unfamiliar bright lights in a big plastic box.
When I put my arm in to hold her hand or rub her shoulder she screamed louder. When I spoke to her, to try to soothe her, she cried louder. It was clear she needed me and not being able to comfort her made my heart crack wide open. When she cried, I cried.
I remember one of the nurses casually mention that I should have been feeding her more, that if she got more feedings in the jaundice would have worked out of her system naturally. But because breastfeeding was so painful, I wasn’t able to keep Ginny on my breast for long periods of time. So I felt like a failure, as if my inability to breastfeed was causing her trauma and putting her health into question and I blamed myself for our separation.
By day four in the hospital I was emotionally drained beyond belief. While being examined by one of the nurses I had to excuse myself to have panic attack in our contaminated bathroom. I sobbed uncontrollably while my baby, Sal, and my mom waited patiently our room. I was disoriented and emotional. But being home didn’t take away the anxiety I was feeling. Since Sal and I had decided to try to exclusively breastfeed for the first three months I felt like the health and survival of my daughter was on my shoulders.
In my mind I was living in a war zone. Hormones and heartache flooded out of every cell of my body, and sleep deprivation made me anxious and lethargic. I was overwhelmed. I was angry. How could no one tell me how hard this was? How could no one have warned me that breastfeeding would be so painful it would make me cry? That it would drain me to the bone until I was half passed out on our kitchen floor cramming any and all food into my mouth so I would make it to the next feeding. Or that loving my baby unconditionally wouldn’t be enough to know how to take care of her. Or how stressful going without sleep night after night would feel. I had accumulated a mix of depression, anxiety, and shame that felt like it broke me down every day.
I felt destroyed. And even worse, I felt disappointed in myself. I had wanted to be a mother. I tried to get pregnant for two years. I convinced Sal we were ready. My heart ached for a child. My bones, heart, and soul were ready to bring hers into the world. And yet, here I was.
Filled with rage and guilt I turned on my own mother. I felt cold and distant towards her. If I didn’t know who I was, then I certainly didn’t know who this woman was. All my energy and care went to keeping my head above water and caring for my new baby who I’m sure was trying to kill me.
Every day felt like a marathon. Every minute a year. Hour after hour all I did was breastfeed. I watched the bags fill under my eyes, my hair got darker, and my skin look greyer. When I looked in the mirror I didn’t recognize myself, so I stopped looking altogether.
As if sacrificing my sanity for my motherhood wasn’t enough I felt threatened by the joy my daughter brought to everyone else. People would pop by for an hour to hold my child and feel the warmth and the love I longed to feel from her. Each visitor was a reminder to me of my inability to bond with her, and every person in my home was another hour of sleep I’d never get back.
So for a while I turned on the world. I stopped saying yes to visitors and stopped trying to leave my house. I tried to create a sanctuary of safety for us. When that didn’t work I said yes to everything. I packed our schedule, lugged our stroller up and down three flights of stairs, and met mom after mom for coffee who said they were all doing fine. The cracks in my heart got a little deeper. So I started to see a therapist. I slowly started to abandon the expectation of my old life, and allowed myself permission to just let each minute unfold everyday.
Then my daughter started to smile, started to sleep a little better, and started to grow a little bigger. Slowly, day by day things started to change.
This little girl wasn’t just an angry and hungry little heifer but an alert, observant, cooing, wiggly person. She saw me. She spoke to me. Her eyes followed me around the room. When she cried a specific cry I could feel in my bones that she needed me. The bond I was looking for wasn’t gone, it just needed more time to grow. From merely being her food source to something better. Something more interesting, something full of love.
In four short months my whole life has been turned upside down and over time she has become my everything. And every day I get to hold her and rub her warm skin and kiss her puffy cheeks makes me feel grounded and alive and worthy. I know now that I couldn’t live without her.
I understand why my mother couldn’t sleep at night unless my brother and I were safe under her roof. Why when I was little she would wish away my pain or heartbreak. And that even now when I’m sick, upset, or not feeling like myself that my mother will always makes me feel better. I’ll never stop needing her. And her mother bear instincts of love and protection are hereditary. I’ll pass these traits on to my daughter the way my mother passed them down to me. And despite pulling away from her during the beginning of my motherhood journey I know we’ll be okay because I’ll always be her little girl.
And when I talk to her about how hard it’s been she meets me with compassion and empathy. It’s so hard to prepare someone for the transformation you undergo once you become a mother. The rebirth is real, and it’s painful, but it’s worth it. I feel like I’m becoming the person I was always meant to be.
Written by Erin Bagwell
Copy edited by Diana Matthews