The Eyes Have It

Eyes

There’s an article that I just read from the BBC about a project called “One Day Young” from London photographer, Jenny Lewis, who for the past seven years has been capturing a stolen moment in time in the lives of new mother/baby pairs within 24 hours of birth. I encourage you to look at all of the photos she’s taken for this project. Then come back and read the article and see if you agree with what I’m about to say.

All of her photos are mesmerizing to me and I recognize my own self as new Momma in the disheveled hair, the still pregnant looking bellies, the exhaustion visible in every pore. I love that the photos are not retouched and appreciate that the photographer has really attempted to show a more realistic image of new motherhood.

But to be sure, I see myself more in the faces of the women who have a slight smile on their lips, maybe a bit of a gleam in their eyes – those women who seem to be thinking, “I can’t believe I just did that! I’ve got a secret… I totally kick ass, and this baby is my proof!” At least that’s how I felt after the birth of my first baby and I’m pretty sure a picture taken at that time would have reflected my inner rock star.

Eyes2

(Photo by Jenny Lewis)

But the images that linger in my memory, are ones like this:

EyesHaveIt

(Photo by Jenny Lewis)

“I am not entirely sure who is to blame for the rose-tinted vision of motherhood. It doesn’t matter how many times someone tells you how tough it is to have a baby. Before you have one, you never quite get it. I often think about vulnerable mothers in tough circumstances and how they manage.”

Gitta Gschwendtner, mother of Til

There are photos in this collection where there are no Mona Lisa smiles. These are the ones that show a different set of emotions: “I have no idea what I’m supposed to think of you, let alone how to take care of you.” Or, “My birth was traumatic and I feel ripped off!”

You can sense the fear, anxiety or anger behind those eyes that are averted or avoiding direct eye contact with their baby. And while there are only a few pictures from the entire collection that have connected narratives in the original article from the BBC, they seem to complete one another perfectly. The image and words just fit for that baby’s first day of life, that woman’s first day of mothering.

But this leads me to ask a question… Oftentimes, new Mommas suffer from PMADs (Postpartum Mood and Anxiety Disorders) in complete silence, their outside demeanor belying what hell they’re going through on the inside. How does this happen? If during those first 24 hours a photographer can capture these images, what are we missing? Because I’m sure you’ve seen the photos of women who’ve been struggling with a PMAD months after their baby’s birth and in all the pictures from that time, you’d have a hard time knowing it: they look joyful, happy, as though everything is wonderful – while inside they’re falling apart.

But in these One Day Young photos, the difference between the women who are suffering and unsure, versus those who look eager and excited to take on their new roles is obvious.

It’s purely speculation on my part, because I haven’t interviewed any of these women and have no idea about their medical history or how their births turned out, but I would be willing to guess that unmet expectations definitely played a part and contributed to their looks of disillusionment and overwhelm.

This is not their fault. Like Gitta says above, there’s a rose-tinted vision of motherhood that is pervasive in our culture and this doesn’t do anybody any favors.

Parenting is hard. It’s the hardest thing that I’ve ever done in my life on every possible level. And we need to be sharing this message with more people and more often.

There might be naysayers who cry out, “You don’t want to scare them!” But realistic expectations are not scare tactics. Different aspects of parenting will be more or less challenging for each individual (as an example, for me,  it was the entire year each of my children turned three…) Knowing that it’s not all rainbows and unicorns allows women to understand what they’re getting themselves and their partners into.

Even though I’m just supposed to be talking about getting a baby born in my classes, I throw in some info now and again about the realities of life with a newborn, so that they’ve at least heard it from one person before the baby arrives.

This is going to be hard. There will be days that you hate it. There will also be days that you can’t believe how much you love it. You’ll be stretched to your absolute limit – multiple times. You’ll have a mirror held up before your face every.single.damn.day and even though you try your hardest to be the best version of yourself, oftentimes you’ll fail and be a version of yourself that you really don’t like that much. You’ll compare yourself to others, but why? You, your partner and your baby are unique and the only “right” way to parent your baby is the way that’s working for your family – today. Because, it’s not going to work a month from now. You will never “arrive” as a parent. Because it never ends. There will always be a new challenge to learn from.

The photos of these women in their first 24 hours with their babies are raw, they’re real, and these women have just gone through the most intense transformative experience of their lives and they’re not able to mask their true emotions and vulnerabilities.

And I think we need more of that. All of us. We need to put down our armor and share openly, first with ourselves, and then with those people we love, about what’s really going on inside. But then, that circle needs to expand.

We need to be willing to share with other new parents our highs and our lows of parenting. I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating: Find your tribe now. Find that tribe of people who will celebrate your parenting successes, and listen to your parenting fails – followed up by sharing a few of their own.

Knowing just how challenging this parenting job can be and having realistic expectations about what’s to come, is empowering to new families. When they feel prepared and armed with realistic expectations about their roles, unfettered by rose-tinted visions, they’ll end up feeling less isolated, alone and incapable and more able to partner and parent with confidence: all the things we should want for our new families.

How can you bring more realistic expectations into the work you do with new families? If you are a parent already, how could you help expectant parents have more realistic expectations about this time in their life? If you are a new parent, how could you reach out to other parents to find your tribe?

Crash Out, Please!

Crash

I just spent the last several hours talking to four different groups of expectant parents about how important it was after the birth of their baby that they crash out when their baby does following birth. This may sound like a no-brainer, but it’s really, really vital to getting your new parenting off to the best start possible.

There’s an energy surge that occurs right after a baby is born that kind of buoys new parents up. But it’s really only happening so you can all gaze in wide-eyed wonder at each other for awhile. Then after that first feeding and any newborn procedures that they might receive, your baby (who is completely brilliant, I might add) will fall into a very solid sleep following their incredible journey into this world. I suggest you try and do the same.

Why?

Because your baby has been inside of you for months and while you are up and about, it’s like they’ve been hanging out in a little hammock all day long. They’re in a perpetual state of drowsiness until you stop – or lie down to go to sleep. You already know what I’m talking about. When you’re busy throughout the day you might not notice too much movement from your baby, but when you’ve settled down for a good night’s sleep? That’s when they start dancing, or playing soccer, or whatever it is they’re doing inside of you that keeps you awake for hours on end.

This doesn’t change just because they’ve been born – your baby’s idea of day and night will be mixed up for awhile, and you’ll do so much better if you try and match them and sleep more during the day. Because you know you’ll be sleeping less during the night. And no amount of whining, or wishing it to be different will change this fact. It’s just how things are with your baby at the beginning. But especially in the first 48 hours.

I’m not sure if this is true just because it’s all so new, or because you’re away from home, or if it’s because your baby is experiencing hunger for the first time and needs your body to start producing the good stuff, but it’s hard. So I implore you to follow your baby’s lead and crash out when they do.

Try very hard to resist the temptation to stay awake watching them dream, counting each individual eyelash, marveling at their impossibly small – but fully formed – nails. And, please, please, please – don’t invite your family and friends to come and visit for those first few days. (Weeks, perhaps?) Everyone “forgets” that babies sleep during the day and are awake at night. They will be all too ready to hold your darling angel fast asleep in their arms during the day, but watch how quickly they will turn over your crying baby as evening comes on and they begin to awaken. The learning curve for new parenting is incredibly steep, but it can be unnecessarily steep when you’re trying to learn without any sleep.

I know I’m not the first person to say it, and I’m sure I won’t be the last but: When your baby crashes out so should you!

Did you sleep at all in those first couple of days? Do you remember what it felt like if you tried to sleep more during the day initially? Was this helpful for you?

Silent Night

Silence

I used to look forward to the silence that would surround us at 2 am when my baby would wake to eat – again. The whole world was asleep and we were the only two beings on earth locking our eyes on one another in that moonlit room. This was not always the case, mind you. No, the first several weeks of breastfeeding were pretty terrible. It didn’t matter that I could teach someone how to latch a baby on correctly. I had no practical experience of actually doing it myself.

I had the great idea that if I had the “equipment” and my baby had the reflex, it would be easy to put us together and we’d be “The World’s Greatest Momma and Baby Breastfeeding Pair!” Uh, no – that’s not exactly how it went.

At first, we were pretty good at it. I had plenty of colostrum, a.k.a. “liquid gold,” that the newborn lives on for the first hours and days. And getting her latched on to eat while still at the hospital seemed pretty easy. She liked to eat – a lot. My more “mature” milk, (the white stuff) came in early – or so the nurses told me.

They didn’t really need to tell me this. I watched with a combination of fascination and horror, as my size 34 As ballooned to size 38 DDs almost overnight. In the shower at the hospital before heading home, I couldn’t help thinking to myself, “Whoa – these are getting pretty big!” My husband was in the room on the phone with his father. I stepped out and mouthed the words “The Breast Fairy has arrived!” and flashed him. He dropped the phone in complete shock! But by the next morning, it was clear that my centerfold-worthy breasts were more of a curse than a blessing. My body had produced enough milk for an entire litter of babies! I was experiencing engorgement – with a little bonus of oversupply. (You can read more about this and how to work with it if it happens to you here.)

Each individual breast was larger than my head and they were painful to the touch. Getting my baby to latch on to a nipple that was stretched so tight it was completely flat was an issue. That, coupled with her ridiculous ability to shove an entire fist into her mouth just as I was getting ready to slip the nipple in, made the whole process more challenging than it needed to be. I couldn’t believe that it took four hands to get her on at first.

She would cry so hard when she was hungry that I would just shove her on as best I could, knowing that it was a horrible latch. How did I know? It hurt like hell – but at least she wasn’t crying anymore. I tried to comfort myself with that thought, but it was hard to do when my nipples were getting destroyed in the process.

The low point for me was probably “Day 5,” when she started to cry and needed to eat – and I started crying, too. I’d gotten to the point where I didn’t want to feed her because it hurt so badly. My husband frustrated by not being able to make things better announced, “I’m going to the store to buy formula!” We’d already called Lactation Services for phone triage three times, but it was clear that an in-person visit was now necessary.

Tracy, my IBCLC, was so good to me. She let me cry, listened to me, and helped me understand what was happening in my body and how we could make it better. I went home with an interesting “prescription:” cabbage leaves, hand expression, and even more frequent feedings than we’d already been doing. Only this time, with proper latch technique perfected and the permission to pop her off and start again if it didn’t feel good. Tracy assured me that my newborn would not die of starvation if she had to cry for a few more minutes before the right latch was achieved.

It took a little while for us to get into the right rhythm with each other. My breasts had to become less engorged before good latches were happening consistently. My oversupply issue was worked through by becoming a “one-breaster” – only feeding on one side at a time instead of switching halfway through at each feeding. For a little while, this meant I was pretty lop-sided. But eventually, we got it. We figured it out. With a lot of extra help, maybe, but still.

Breastfeeding is something that both Momma and baby need to learn how to do – together. It’s usually more challenging than you think it should be. And it might take awhile before you actually feel comfortable doing it. My initial struggle with breastfeeding was much harder than I had imagined and I would be lying if I said I never thought about giving up. 

We did become “(One Of) The World’s Greatest Momma and Baby Breastfeeding Pair(s)!” My baby and I even mastered the skill of going from breast to pumped bottle and back again – which was an incredible achievement for all of us. This allowed me to get more sleep and my husband to share in one of the most important jobs as a new parent – feeding his baby.

We dropped into a daily schedule: I would breastfeed her around 9 pm and then my husband would stay up to watch “Conan” and give her a bottle around 11:30. This meant I would get to sleep until about 2 am.

And then I’d wake to feed her once again. The whole world lay sleeping as the silence settled in around us – her contented humming, and my relaxed sighing the only noises to break the stillness.

Did you have issues with breastfeeding at first? Did you have to make a different choice about feeding your baby? How did you feel about this in the first days and weeks of that 4th Trimester?

For a fantastic read about how real women experience breastfeeding, check out this book “Unbuttoned: Women Open Up About the Pleasures, Pains, and Politics of Breastfeeding.” It’s an anthology about the ups and downs of breastfeeding and a really good read.

Can You Put a Price Tag on Parenting?

Value

If you could put a value on parenting your newborn baby, a dollar amount, for all your hard work, what would that value be? The reason parents are not paid for all of the work that they do for their children is because there isn’t a government agency or corporation large enough to cover the bills!

It’s not fair to put an “$/hour” number to it, because really you parent 24/7 initially and then a only little less than that for the next 18 years. But what if we tried to attach a dollar amount for the most basic things you do for your baby in that 4th trimester, what would that look like?

Let’s just look at diapering, as an example. You can expect to change a newborn’s bum ten-twelve times a day for the first month and then eight-ten times a day for the next two months. That’s approximately 755 diapers during that newborn period. At twenty cents per diaper (disposable), you’re looking at $151 – just for the materials! That doesn’t take into consideration the amount of labor that you’re putting into this endeavor. So what does that bring the costs of diapering up to? Let’s be conservative and only add 20% labor costs to this number which then brings the total to $271.80 for the first three months of your babies life. Note: This number does not reflect the evening differential costs for those late night changes that will inevitably occur. So the real costs associated with diapering your baby in the 4th trimester are even higher.

Imagine if we did that same exercise for all of the other basics that must happen in the newborn period: feeding the baby, clothing the baby, sheltering the baby. And we’re not even going to touch the most important need – love.

I’m obviously not being that serious. Placing a monetary value on parenting doesn’t even begin to touch what it is that we do, or why we even do it.

I’m currently at a writer’s workshop, trying to figure out what the heart of the book that I’m knee-deep into writing is all about. It’s been hard, and I’ve been challenged in a lot of ways. stretched far beyond what I thought I was capable of. (It feels a little bit like I’m in that 4th trimester, only with a book instead of a baby, seeking my attention.) In the middle of a presentation yesterday led by the fantastic Laraine Herring, there was a slide with the following quote. I share it with you here, because I think it has applications for both writing and parenting:

“Value – when you think something’s worth something… Well, you think it’s worth something. So you show up.”

It doesn’t much matter what others think of the value of parenting or if they think it’s worth a little or a lot. It only matters if we think what we’re doing is worth something. And if we think parenting is worthwhile, then we should show up for it – whether or not we’re getting paid to do any of it!

Personally, I feel like parenting shouldn’t have a price tag on it.

Because it’s priceless.

Would it make you feel differently about parenting if there was a running tab being kept on how much your hard work was worth? Do you get caught up in whether or not others think your parenting has value, or not?

It Isn’t Easy Being Green

GreenWe can all feel super “green” when it comes to parenting – and I’m not talking about being environmentally conscious.

Parenting seems so new and foreign. It doesn’t really matter how many books you’ve read or how many classes you’ve taken in preparation for becoming parents (or even how many classes you’ve taught about the subject!) When it finally happens, most new parents are as green as they come.

People are always in a hurry to feel like they know it all – they want to be the parenting expert. But no one should feel like they’re bored with the experience of parenting either, because let’s face it – there are still a lot of years to go after the baby arrives. So how do you move through those green feelings without becoming jaded? (According to Crayola, the color of jade is in the hue family of green. Hmm…)

The answer might be a mix between trying to be as prepared as possible and allowing yourself to fly by the seat of your pants every once in a while. This way you don’t feel completely out of control, but you’re still able to enjoy the wonder and awe that can come from looking at the world through the eyes of your brand new baby.

By the time most of you become parents, you’ve been around the block a few times. Life can start to seem a little predictable, maybe even a little bit stale. But throw a newborn into the mix and yowza! “Predictable” and “stale” are not words that readily come to mind.

While babies can make us feel a little bit off-kilter, it’s also great for our brains to be challenged by something we don’t already know how to do. Every time we have to learn a new parenting skill (which happens about every 10-15 seconds – or so it seems!) we also get the opportunity to grow as individuals and as a couple.

Finding your “tribe” of like-minded parents has a certain appeal. But don’t insulate yourself too much against those parents who do it differently from you. They can be helpful, too.

Surround yourself with parents who are real, and not just parenting for show. These are the parents who are willing to reveal their exasperation, impatience, exhaustion, and willingness to admit that at times they have no idea what they’re doing. But hopefully, these are the same people who really like parenting. They embrace the chaos, the not-knowing-it-all and are willing to seek out support from others when necessary.

This tribe, this parenting village, might be a mishmash of friends and family you’ve known for years, mixed in with new acquaintances that you’ve only just met because you have babies that are roughly the same age. It doesn’t really matter how you construct your parenting village, but it’s something to consider doing. You’ll realize in no time that you’re no longer the newbie, and that you feel better equipped to support someone else who is.

And realizing that there might actually be others out there who are greener than you are? That’s a really nice feeling.

Did you feel especially green as a new parent? How did you cope with this? Have you found that you are now helping others who are greener than you?

Make ‘Em Laugh

Laugh

One of the things that can be really frustrating for new parents is the lack of positive feedback from their newborns. They are needy little creatures at first and many new parents are hoping for babies who might not be laughing straight out of the womb, but will at least smile every once in a while. And oftentimes, they do. I was caught on video when my 4th was less than twenty-four hours old remarking, “Look he’s smiling already!” 

But during those early weeks and months, baby smiles don’t usually correspond to anything specific that you are doing. They have yet to master the “social smile.” I tell new parents to be on the lookout for smiles and to claim every single one of them as real no matter why it might be happening! We all need as much positive feedback as we can get from our newborns. Otherwise, the 4th trimester can be pretty bleak.

Most babies will start smiling socially, on purpose, in your actual direction, at about six weeks of age. That’s a long month and a half of a whole lot of nothing from your newborn. It’s a really, really good thing that we’re hard-wired to think babies are so cute. Especially our own babies. Their sweet little faces are designed to elicit a response in us so we will continue to take care of them even as they prefer the ceiling fan to us. Watch this great video that explains how and why this happens.

While it might take awhile before we ever get rewarded with that social smile, it’ll be even longer until we get to hear them laugh. But once they’re consistently in that zone, which takes about six months, it’s the greatest thing ever. You will spend a huge amount of your waking hours trying to get your baby to laugh over and over again. The stupid and ridiculous things that your baby will laugh about are unbelievable. But that’s nothing in comparison to the stupid and ridiculous things you’re willing to do to get your baby to laugh! There’s nothing in the world quite as addictive as your baby’s laugh. Knowing that you are the cause for their laughter makes it even better.

For any of you who are still in that pre-six weeks phase where your baby is smiling when they’re sleeping or passing gas only, or if you’re just in need of a little pick-me-up while you’re reading this, check out these videos. I dare you to not crack a smile, or start laughing out loud yourself.

It’s moments like these that we long for as new parents, and they’re coming to you. The day your baby laughs out loud at something you’re doing can make up for an awful lot of “lack of social interaction” in those first few weeks and months!

Did you find it challenging when your baby wasn’t very social as a newborn? What kind of crazy things were you willing to do to try and get them to at least crack a smile? When did you first hear them belly laugh? How’d that make you feel?

“The Period of Purple Crying” What is THAT?!

Purple

Have you heard about “The Period of Purple Crying?” Have you already experienced it? If not, consider yourself lucky. If you are reading this in the midst of such a period, you have my greatest empathy.

The Period of Purple Crying is something that most parents will experience at some point and I want you to know what it is. I also want you to understand that it’s a temporary situation that will get better. And that even if you’re baby does a little or a lot of purple crying, they won’t grow into insufferable children. Purple crying is just a normal developmental process that babies go through. Having realistic expectations about this might make it easier to get through it than if you have no idea what it is until your stuck in the middle of it!

Does this mean that your baby will be crying so hard that they turn the color purple? No. The word “purple” is used as an acronym to describe this period of normal development for newborns.

PPeak of Crying: It begins about week two and continues until about months three-four. It can increase with every week peaking at about month two, then lessen during months three-four.

UUnexpected: Your baby’s crying can come and go without any reason.

RResists Soothing: Your baby may not stop crying no matter what you do to help them.

PPain-Like Face: Your crying baby may look like they’re in pain, even when they aren’t.

LLong-Lasting: The crying can last as much as 5 hours a day or more.

EEvening: Your baby may cry more in the late afternoon and evening.

Sounds fun, right? I know – it sounds terrible. But read on, because there are some things that you can do that will make this slightly less challenging.

They call it a “period” so that you understand that there is a beginning and also (blessedly!) an end to this behavior. I think people are still wanting to label this as “colic” and that might make you feel better – for a little bit. But sometimes that same “diagnosis” might make you feel like there’s something wrong with your baby or that they need to be treated medically, when they’re perfectly healthy and just going through a normal stage of newborn development. (It’s always a good idea to talk with your provider if you feel that your baby might be in pain or not feeling well. They’ll be able to rule out any medical issues.)

But, what are you supposed to do with a newborn who is having periods of purple crying? First, recognize that any attempts to soothe your baby might work some of the time, but nothing works all of the time. Your baby is a brand new little human being and they can be unpredictable little buggers sometimes.

That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t attempt to soothe your baby, you should. But try not to take it personally if after all of your lovely attempts, your baby still does not soothe. It doesn’t mean you’re doing anything wrong or that you’re a bad parent. It just means that for this period of time, your baby will not be able to be soothed, no matter what you try. Frustrating? Absolutely! But at least you can stop thinking that you suck at parenting.

What soothing behaviors can you try so that you feel like you’re doing something?

Change the baby’s position: Sometimes this will be enough for them to settle down because of their different perspective or something distracts them. Maybe they’ll get a better look at your face or feel your body against theirs which can be very comforting.

Repeat something over and over again: Try soft little pats on the bum or back to the beat of your favorite song. Engage their senses and create a rhythm out of whatever it is you’re doing. My husband had a different “Daddy Dance” that he created for each of our babies – the same movement over and over – when our kids were newborns. It was soothing for them and gave him a little bit of a workout at the same time. Win-win!

White noise (even a vacuum, or fan can work in a pinch): Some babies will respond really well to white noise. You might have to start it quite loud depending on their crying and then gradually turn it down. This can be super helpful for some babies. Our friends had the cleanest house in town with their first newborn! We’d come over for dinner and take turns holding her and vacuuming various rooms in the house. It really worked!

Keep your baby close to you: Try wearing them around the house in a sling or some other type of baby carrier. You might have to find “the one” that this particular baby likes. (We had a different carrier for each of our babies. Try to get them second-hand, they are not cheap!) But if they’re having a particularly hard time soothing, maybe add some skin-to-skin contact. That will help to fire up the oxytocin for both of you!

Try to engage all of their senses for even more impact: But keep it human, not mechanical. Babies will always respond better to human voices, features, touches and smells than the most expensive toy or baby gadget ever created.

None of this probably sounds like rocket science to you. Cultures all over the world have employed these same soothing techniques for their babies since the beginning of time. But here’s something you might not know.

There is such a thing as using soothing activities or techniques in advance of crying episodes to lessen the amount and duration of crying jags overall. There are countries where babies are worn almost 24/7 and they don’t have the same levels of purple crying that our babies do in the West. Hmmmm….

You might try and track the actual crying episodes for a few days to see if there is any rhyme or reason to them. It can feel incredibly overwhelming if you feel like your baby cries “all the time.” But if you see in your notes that your baby is happy during the daytime and only inconsolable between the hours of 6-11 pm, you’ll see that he doesn’t cry all the time.

It doesn’t change that your baby cries non-stop for five hours straight, but at least it prepares you and allows you to create a strategy for how to effectively deal with this purple crying until it ends.

Because, it will end. I promise you that. At about 12 weeks (sometimes a little bit earlier, sometimes a little bit later) your baby “wakes up” for lack of a better way to describe it. They become more like the baby you had imagined, and those periods of purple crying will become something of a war story for you to share with other new parents.

But please –  remember in that sharing to always let those poor parents who are still in the middle of it know that it will get better. It always does.

Want to read more about The Period of Purple Crying? Check out this website. And if you are a crafty person who loves to knit, there’s a campaign called Click for Babies to help spread the word about purple crying to new parents and help lower the risk of Shaken Baby Syndrome.

Did your baby go through this? If you’ve experienced this first-hand, what was it like when it ended? Let’s try to provide some hope for those who are still in the middle of it.