Thursday, October 18, 2012

The Learning Curve

Photo by James Harvey
It's hard to believe it's only been a couple of months so far. In some ways it feels like a year. Yet in another way it's gone by in the blink of an eye. I feel like a different person than I was two months ago. A little more relaxed. A little more patient. (Though I still lose it occasionally!) Overall I feel more confident, more comfortable in my role as a Mom. It feels natural to me now. Of course there are still a lot of things I have to learn along the way, milestones for Michelle and I, but I feel more competent to deal with challenges. I'm starting to get the hang of this motherhood thing!

When I first came home with Michelle I was petrified and overwhelmed. I felt so unsure of myself as a mother. I didn't know what I was doing. It was all new to me. The baby seemed so fragile, like a precious glass vase worth a million dollars. You're afraid to even hold it, terrified of breaking it somehow. With her unstable neck and soft spot on her head I was so nervous about picking her up, holding her, carrying her. The first time I bathed her was the most frightening. I was a nervous wreck. Trembling as I lifted her into the tub. Would she scream the whole time? Would she be too slippery to hold? I had a little whale tub that has a special insert for newborns so she could sit in it and I didn't have to hold her the whole time but I was still scared. She did cry that first time. Maybe she sensed my nervousness. Now we both look forward to "bathies." She's always good for them, wide-eyed and fascinated by the whole thing. She seems to love the water. She kicks her feet and splashes. She even had her first bathtime smile this week (she smiles a lot but hadn't smiled in the bath before.) I try to entertain her during the bath with squeaky voices and songs like "Rubber Ducky" from Sesame Street and "Splish Splash" from the 1950s (which is especially appropriate when I give her a bath on Saturday night as I often do. "Splish splash I was taking a bath, all upon a Saturday night..." Yes, I'm a geek.) Michelle seems to get a kick out of it anyway. Months ago I dreaded her bathtime and kept putting it off. It was so stressful to me, even though she didn't cry I was a nervous wreck. It used to seem like such an ordeal and so difficult. Now it's become routine and I look forward to it. I clear off the counter, bring up the whale tub and fill it (often with one hand while Michelle is in my other arm.) She likes it and it usually settles her down for a good sleep. I know now to time her bath just before her bedtime feeding so once she's all cozy in her sleeper and ready for bed I feed her and then most of the time she'll go to sleep for a few hours (there are no guarantees however, sometimes it seems NOTHING will get her to sleep!)

In the first week I worried about breastfeeding (Would she get enough milk? Would I, and my nipples, survive it?) It was traumatic for me physically and emotionally. I felt so drained feeding her non-stop and feeling like she still wasn't getting enough. And I was bruised, bleeding and chewed to bits by her. I didn't want to give up (though some people were telling me I was crazy and why don't I just switch to formula.) The nipple shield was a godsend. I'd be lost without it. It saves me from bleeding and bruising. Michelle is a pretty voracious eater. She's stronger than the breast pump. And it still feels like she has teeth! I enjoy feeding her though and love the bond that I feel with her. The only time I don't enjoy feeding her is in public which I pretty much refuse to do but I always go prepared with a bottle of my breast milk (which I pump and store when I know I have an outing, like a doctor's appointment, coming up). I am grateful that I've been able to breastfeed and that Michelle is doing so well. At each of her check-ups the doctor has been impressed with how healthy she is and the weight that she gains. I am so relieved that it worked out and I'm glad that I didn't give up when the going was rough in the beginning. I used to lose track of which breast I'd fed her on last. Now I know. I can tell by which breast feels more full (almost hard, engorged.) The whole thing seems magical to me how we're able to produce milk to feed our babies. I feel the letdown when it happens. It's a prickly stinging sensation. When she feeds on one side the other side leaks a little so I've gotten used to having a cloth handy so it doesn't drip everywhere. In the beginning I worried I wouldn't be able to produce enough milk. Now I know that there's more than enough. It's supply and demand so as long as she demands it, it will be supplied.

Michelle doesn't seem so fragile anymore. She can hold her head up well. I can still see the soft spot pulsing on her head but it's getting smaller. I don't feel as fragile anymore. I don't worry so much. I feel more confident as a Mom. I used to be so tenuous and held her so carefully in the cradle position. I didn't like holding her upright against my shoulder (I worried too much about supporting her head.) Now I hold her in either arm in any position though I seem to favour the left arm. She seems to like being upright against my shoulder the best. My sister always used her right arm. It just feels more natural to me to have her on the left and then I have my right arm free to do things. I've become much more adept at doing things with one hand. Occasionally I've even had to lift things with my feet in a pinch!

Thankfully Michelle will be good for a while in her swing, her bumbo or her jumperoo (she's really too small for jumping but just barely fits into the seat and seems to enjoy it. She does bounce around a little. Her legs are so strong and she's constantly kicking. So this gives her a chance to almost stand up on her own.) which allows me to do things like go to the bathroom etc. For a long while there I was just holding it in when I had to go to the washroom because she'd cry and wouldn't let me put her down. I was actually causing myself internal damage!

Life has gotten easier in many ways. Partly because Michelle has settled down somewhat and partly because I don't worry as much. I feel more competent. So many things that seemed difficult if not impossible in the beginning are second nature to me now. I was awkward with the carseat initially and didn't know how to get it into a shopping cart. Now lifting the carseat in and out hundreds of times, it's easy. I struggled with the stroller at first and couldn't seem to unfold it properly then I had a hard time fitting it back into the trunk (it just barely fits). Now I can get the stroller out of the trunk and set up in seconds and put it away easily too. It doesn't seem as heavy and cumbersome anymore because I'm used to it. And Michelle, though she's getting heavier, seems easier to carry because my arms are getting stronger. It's like anything. You do it enough times and it's bound to get easier.

Becoming a new Mom is like starting any other job (but the most important and rewarding job you'll ever have!) There's a learning curve. You are scared and uncertain at the start because you don't have the knowledge or experience. You doubt and second guess yourself. You feel like a fish out of water. It seems like you just don't get it. But then you start, you learn as you go, it gets easier and soon you feel like a pro. Your skills improve. You progress. You go from being a novice to an expert. I had read books about babies and what to expect but it's not the same as actually living it. No book can prepare you for how difficult it's actually going to be. Motherhood is a hands-on job. No guide book, no advice from friends or family, nothing can adequately prepare you for what you are going to encounter. You have to live it. Anything can sound good in theory but until you put it in practice, you just don't know. Case in point -- I was against using a soother initially. I was worried it would interfere with breastfeeding or that she'd get "addicted" to it and it didn't seem right. I was morally opposed to them! But after enduring one too many inconsolable screaming bouts, I finally caved out of desperation. You get to a point where you'd try just about anything. Now I love it. The doctor said it couldn't do any harm and I stopped feeling guilty about it. I realized there are times when she just needs a little extra comfort. She tries chewing on her fist. The pacifier is just an easy fix when she's fussy and overtired. It's a HUGE help, especially when she starts to fuss in the grocery store. Giving her a soother for a few moments of silence is far preferable to a dramatic scene with her screaming at the check-out. Sometimes it soothes her so much she actually falls asleep. I read that a soother is actually good for them to have while sleeping because it helps them to breathe better and reduces the risk of SIDS.

You do whatever works (provided it won't hurt them!) White noise. Car rides. Through trial and error you learn what works. You adapt as necessary. Part of being a Mom is being flexible. You can have plans that sound great in theory but just don't hold up in real life. Life happens. Sometimes you just have to go with the flow. The road to Hell was paved with good intentions. Sometimes you need to admit when you're wrong and bend a little. The road to Heaven is paved with compromises.

It's funny because for most of my life I had never imagined myself as a Mom and didn't think I could do it but now it feels like the role was meant for me. I've never been happier. I love Michelle more than anything. She is my destiny. Now don't get me wrong, I still have my bad days! Sometimes I get frustrated. I cry. Exhausted and sleep-deprived much of the time it can tear you down. Everyone has bad days. After a series of good days I started to think that we'd turned a corner. I had reached a point where I felt like "I got this!" I was used to Michelle's idiosyncracies and rhythms. I thought I had her all figured out. When she wants to feed (every 2 hours during the day and every 3-4 hours through the night). When she needs to be changed. When she's sleepy. When she's overtired and cranky. It seemed to be getting easier. She was behaving better overall, actually let me go shopping without screaming. I thought I had become a master at predicting her moods, anticipating and meeting her needs. But Michelle is not a subject that you can learn, like mathematics. She is not an instrument you can master, like a violin. She is a very unique and very complicated little human. Just when you think you have it all figured out, all the rules change. Suddenly, she was feeding more erratically. She wouldn't sleep at all, day or night. I didn't know what to do. I can never get too cocky or she will remind me just how unpredictable, volatile and complex she really is!

Sometimes it seems like she's a little devil, being impossible just for the fun of it, just to show me who's boss. (There's no question that she is!) There were times I thought she must be hungry by now. She'd be crying and chewing her fist. All her other needs had been met. It had to be hunger. So I'd try to nurse her. And she'd scream and turn away and push me away. "OK. So you're not hungry?" so I'd give up and try to pacify her with something else to no avail. Then I would try to feed her again and she would latch on and feed voraciously as though she was starving. But if she was starving why wouldn't she eat the first time?! Or she'd be so tired her eyelids were droopy and she could barely keep her eyes open but instead of falling asleep she'd cry. I'd walk with her for hours, singing to her, dancing with her. Then I'd pass by the mirror to check if she was asleep and her eyes were still open. It was like she was straining to stay awake. Why wouldn't she sleep if she was tired?! I added some of my own lyrics to "If you're happy and you know it, stamp your feet." I started to sing "If you're hungry and you know it, then you eat" and "If you're tired and you know it, go to sleep!" Why would she fight the very things she wants and then complain about it? It doesn't make sense unless she's deliberately being contrary. In a book of nursery rhymes that I read to her they have the one "There was a little girl who had a little curl right in the middle of her forehead and when she was good, she was very very good but when she was bad she was horrid!" The girl in the illustration just happens to be a redhead. Coincidence? Fiery hair, fiery temper. (And yes, I am one too. And yes I was an impossible baby too!)

When she had those difficult days I wondered if it was something I was doing? Did she dislike something I'd eaten that came through my breast milk? I tried cutting out caffeine. It made no difference. Sometimes I think she just has a bad day, gets in a mood and needs to blow off some steam. The saving grace is that usually when she has a really bad day, she's good the next day, either because she's exhausted herself and doesn't have the energy for a tantrum or because she realizes I need a break to keep my sanity and goes easy on me!

I don't have it all figured out because you can't figure Michelle out! She won't let you. The only thing you can expect is the unexpected because the minute you think you see a pattern, she will change it just to throw you off. People will ask me "When does she usually..." (eat, go to sleep, etc.) There is no usually. Every day stands on its own. She has some good days where she doesn't cry too much, sleeps well and is a dream. Then she has some really really bad days where she screams, doesn't sleep and is an absolute nightmare hell-child. But just when you think you can't take anymore, you're at the end of your rope, so frustrated, so exhausted you could collapse, she'll suddenly disarm you with one of her killer smiles -- a big, wide, adorable grin that makes you forgive her for everything. When she is at peace, she is an absolute angel. She has so many adorable expressions -- curious and funny, sweet and innocent. Those are the moments I have to hold on to and remember when she's being a little devil!

The other day she looked up at me, gazing intently into my eyes. I'd never seen the look before. It was different. It was something more than curiosity, it was more like awe. It was a look of love. I felt as though she was realizing I'm her Mommy. I'm the voice she hears singing her lullabies on my shoulder, reading her stories in the rocking chair. I was the voice that she heard, even before she was born. I'm the arms that carry her around for countless hours, rocking her, dancing her, swaying with her. The one that feeds her, changes her, dresses her, bathes her, plays with her and talks with a silly squeaky voice. I'm the face that greets her every morning and smiles and laughs with her. And then she smiled and my heart welled up with so much love. Sometimes when she's crying I hold her face up to my face and look into her eyes and she stops crying. It's as though she understands. I give her everything. She is my world and I am hers. We're in this together. Sometimes she cuts me some slack and goes easier on me. Other times she cries but maybe she doesn't even know what she wants. It must seem a strange world to her sometimes. I can tell she wants to communicate and I think it frustrates her that she can't. Sometimes life is confusing and overwhelming, for all of us, especially when you're so new to the world and you have so much to learn. How can she understand it all? It's hard for me to understand life sometimes and I've been around more than four decades.

She is learning to hold her head up. She's getting better at tummy time. Her neck is quite strong now. She is learning to sit up. The Bumbo chair is great for that and she really seems to enjoy it. She's learning to grab and hold things. She even held my hand the other day which was possibly the sweetest moment of my life. She seems quite interested when I read her books. She really tries to communicate with little sounds. She is learning more each day and will continue to learn, more in her first year than in the rest of her lifetime they say.

I am learning and it's an ongoing process. I'll never be done. I'll never have it all figured out. Each day is different. And there are always new challenges to meet. Michelle is anything but predictable. I do understand some of her little quirks but I can never fully understand everything that she does. At least once she can talk she can tell me what she wants without me having to guess. There are so many milestones coming. Standing, crawling, walking, talking. It will be exciting but each stage will bring new challenges. The rules will constantly change.

While I do feel more confident as a Mom overall, I know there are still a million things left for me to discover along the way. I know that I will make mistakes. I will always have Michelle to keep me humble. If I ever feel too sure of myself, she will no doubt put me back in my place and remind me that I can never have her all figured out, never have all the answers. Each day is a new adventure and I'll always be learning. She will keep growing and keep my guessing. She is full of surprises.

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