The First Year, The First Child

“We need help,” he blurted into the phone, “Tonight works. If you can.” Sometimes I do private consultations with parents who need help understanding their options regarding child care.

When I arrive at their home, I am greeted by one of the most beautiful women I’ve ever seen, her dashing husband, a spirited (and tiny) dog in a sweater, and their first daughter – a smiling 8 month old zipping around in a Baby Einstein walker.

Picturesque as they might be, they are also (just like Lyndon and I – just like every happy couple with a smiling new baby I’ve ever spoken to) struggling. The first year of the first child ain’t easy.

She, like me, is terrified that she’s not doing it right. She is haunted by self-doubt, by the imagination of her failures. She is shivering with tension. And her husband, like Lyndon, is transfixed on the idea that the baby might hit his head or stop breathing. He can’t bring himself to leave the baby alone – even in a crib. Even at bedtime. No one is sleeping properly. The dog barks. The baby cries. Mom makes a funny face at the baby. Dad shakes a toy for her. They clap, make baby sounds, the baby smiles. The dog sits. The pressure is released. Until the baby cries, and it begins again, only a little more depleted this time.

This is the first baby, the first year. Welcome to for better or worse.

It’s sleep deprivation; it’s postpartum hormones. It’s snapshots and blowouts, crying and blaming, bottles and “No Blanket! No FUCKING Blankets!!” And it’s not your fault. The first baby, the first year is a massive slap in the face. It’s the ice bucket challenge over and over and over and over. It’s not you, new moms. This is that thing other mothers warned us about and we thought we got it but we never truly understood until it was too late. Until maybe, today. This is that thing that we too will later attempt to explain or write essays about or whisper into the ears of our sisters. It’s the despair and the elation. It’s the shadows. It’s the intimacy.

And it gets better. You get better. Every year you get more time back in your day. Someday she will sleep. Eventually you will too. She will use the bathroom on her own. She will eat with a fork. She will call you mama. She will make you laugh. You will play Candy Land and eat pizza. I promise.

I suppose some people are good at mothering babies. I wasn’t. Maybe you aren’t either. That’s ok. It’s not a contest. I googled “Why is my baby crying” at least a ninety seven times. Other mothers and doctors assured me I would get it. “It’s instinctual,” they said.

The instincts missed me. I had no idea why my kid was crying. “You can tell by the type of cry,” they told me. Nope. I fed him – he cried. I changed his diaper – he kept on crying. I swaddled him. He continued to cry. I burped him – nothing came out. His unsolvable crying unhinged me.

Part of the new mom trouble (aside, of course, from the sleep deprivation and the physical trauma we’ve just endured) is that our perceptions are off. We think, for example, that when the baby is crying, that means the baby is sad. Not true. The baby is not sad. The baby is crying because crying is her way of talking.

To make matters worse, when a baby cries, we have no real sense of time. The baby might be crying for fifteen seconds, but to me it felt like 15 minutes, and it circulated like steaming blood into every cell of my body. From my toes to my necks, I felt constricted, short of breath, and physically compelled to pick him up. To solve it. It felt like an emergency every time.

Changed perceptions can begin by setting a timer. When the baby starts to cry, start the clock. See how long it lasts. You’ll be surprised how fast she settles. And then next time, try to remember the previous number. Tell yourself that in four minutes, it will feel better.

But even more important, perhaps, is awakening your consciousness to the idea that even if the baby is sad for whatever reason – (maybe she wants to sleep in your bed, or maybe she hates baths, or if she’s anything like mine, she wishes you would just RUN THAT GODDAMN RED LIGHT already) – you need to know that you can’t control your baby’s sadness. Moms can’t fix red lights for the convenience and comfort of our seemingly angry babies – even if we want to.

Know that her emotions are not yours to manage. You can’t help it that you’re sitting at a red light. Red lights are a part of life. Your child will be better equipped than most if she can learn, at some point, how to manage unpleasant (and unavoidable) feelings. Human beings are sad sometimes.

I am. We all are. The first year of the first child ain’t easy – but it does get better. And if my opinion means anything, anyone who cares enough to call must be doing it right already.

Posted by

Mel Kozakiewicz a professor, editor, writer, and mother of two.

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