The party was a blur. A lot like the first year of parenting that it was commemorating. But that moment stuck out to me, like a still taken from a video in fast forward. “But it gets better, right?” She asked the question as she got ready to leave my son’s birthday party with her husband and infant. I barely remember the party but I keep coming back to that moment. “Yea, well…umm..” I mumbled something unintelligible back about how at least I’ve figured some stuff out and that things should be better now that I found a new job. But my mind kept wandering back to this idea…”it gets better…right?”
The second my pregnancy was confirmed, life changed forever. I drove around listening to Dear Theodosia, holding my still flat stomach, smiling and crying about the secret growing inside of me. Once the secret was out, my body and my pregnancy became the world’s to comment on. I reacted more extremely to everything. I felt more sensitive and craved more alone time. At times having a conversation with a friend was enough to wear me out. My job as a family therapist exhausted me and I isolated. My feet ached and my hips throbbed. My hair looked incredible though. A friend encouraged me saying, “it all goes away the second the baby is born.” And she was right, about some of it.
The first thing I noticed was an absence of pain on the soles of my feet as I gingerly stepped out of bed to go pee the morning after my son’s birth. I lay on my stomach gleefully until my milk came in. Then I did everything in my power to keep those boulders I used to call boobs from touching anything unless they were called to duty. I looked pregnant for months. I regretted not using more sunscreen as the tan on my belly turned a weird yellow marred with red streaks. My stretched out skin slowly shrank as the breast feeding magically started to slowly melt the pounds off after three or four months of wondering if I was ever going to “get my body back.” My hair fell out in alarming clumps every time I showered.
The healing of his tongue tie procedure and consistent hand expressing in the shower ebbed my oversupply. He learned to latch on his own, and on my last day of maternity leave I breast fed him in the Art Museum. I’d made my fantasy of motherhood come true! I felt amazing about myself while he flirted with museum guards and I soaked up some Eakins. The fantasy of course was shattered by a sprint to the cafe to cram whatever calories down my throat that were left at the end of the day. I had obviously forgotten a snack for myself. But yes, it was getting better!
And then I went back to my day job. The one that I used to love. The one that gave me an identity. The one I wasn’t ready to go back to. Once I ripped the bandaid off, I was excited to be back. I’d never had a break from doing family therapy and I felt refreshed. Then my co-therapist quit, and I was left alone to deal with some of the toughest cases of my career. My boss was incredibly supportive, but I missed bedtime after bedtime and became more and more sleep deprived. I knew I had compassion fatigue and felt helpless to do anything about it. My car became spotted with breast milk as I pumped between sessions while driving through North Philly. I sat outside of schools, finishing off a pump session wondering if I could be arrested for exposing myself in a school zone.
I knew things were no longer “normal” stressful when I found myself having to leave my baby-sitters house in a rush. I knew if I stayed a second longer I would start hysterically crying. I was so jealous of the time she was spending with him that it physically hurt. She is the most amazing babysitter in the world, and my heart sank every time he jumped into her arms even though I knew I should just be grateful that I had an amazing person to mother my child while I was away. I bet she doesn’t try to change his diaper while trying to talk a screaming mom off a proverbial ledge on speaker phone, I thought. I worried I was traumatizing him.
From about 6-10 months old his sleep went from bad to worse. My baby, who I proudly bragged was sleeping through the night at 2 months, was torturing us. I tried to convince myself it wasn’t punishment for my return to work. I yelled at my husband a lot. I kept saying to people, if I could just spend more time with the baby I’d be fine. My boss worried that my separation anxiety was even worse than my son’s. Several family members worried I had postpartum depression. I came very close to getting a new job with summers off. I was so devastated when I didn’t that I could barely drag myself to work the next day. My amazing boss took one look at me and told me to go home and to stay there for a few weeks if I could afford to.
I started seeing my therapist again. I spoke to every social worker and mom that would talk to me, and applied to lots and lots of jobs. My son learned to walk and finally seemed like he was ready to get some sleep. My boobs turned squishy again, and I was able to leave the house without the baby or a pump. I realized that I in fact did have some control over my life and started to make changes. My friends pushed me to get a job that supported my needs as a mom and to start a private practice, and then helped me to make it a reality. I got bangs to cover up the weird bald spots. I stopped picking as many fights with my husband and my hair started to grow back in. I started to feel excited about dropping my child off with his babysitter and for time alone. My stretch marks have faded to a similar but paler color than the rest of my skin and I even took my t-shirt off in yoga last week. I didn’t feel great about what the weird skin around my belly button did when I bent over, but as I tucked my stomach back into my yoga pants I focused on the yoga instead.
My kid sleeps “through the night” or until 4 or 5 once or twice a week. We still wake up at least once before that most nights to help him back to sleep after giving up on “cry it out.” I just got mastitis again for the…actually I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve had mastitis. I still only can get to yoga once a week even though my body aches for it and I know I’d feel better if I went more frequently. But he makes me laugh now and I love being with him. The older he gets the more exhausting and the more fun he becomes.
I remember feeling like my heart was exploding as I held his tiny dimpled hands during those first few months. The other day, as I tried to grab his hand so we could walk down the street together I realized the dimples were gone. He is wiry and strong in body and will. Holding his tiny hand while he did nothing but eat sleep and poop on me was mind altering. At times all I could think was “how is it possible that he is real?” Now he takes that hand and pulls it out of mine; insistant that he do everything himself. I get to watch him explore the world. The excitement on his face when he discovers something is highly contagious.
When I think about getting better, I think of a linear timeline. These pounds will shed, these body parts will go back to the way they were…I’ll get the hang of being a full time employee and a mom… always implied some kind of linear timeline before I became a mom. Normally when we heal or get better, we hope to return to normal. I assumed there would be an eventual return to getting a normal night of sleep on a regular basis. I hoped to get back in those old jeans and to an old wardrobe that no longer met the needs of my postpartum body. A return to a job that no longer fit into my life as a parent as I assumed it would.
When I realized that being postpartum wasn’t something I could recover from, I started to actually do the work of mourning my former self. Even though I wanted a child very badly, this massive gain in my life is still in many ways a loss. There wasn’t much space to deal with that in the beginning. My body was stretched and then opened to release a child into this world. Then my mind was blown by the being that now existed and then focused only figuring out how to keep this incredible being alive. My body isn’t going back to the way it was. My life will never be the same. My marriage will never be the same. That doesn’t mean things are better or worse. They are just different, and more.
I now try to think about moving forward instead of going back. And I’m realizing that moving forward is cyclical, not linear. The transition to parenthood has been as painful as it has been joyful. Parenting gets harder as it gets easier. The anxiety is still intense when it occurs. As is the joy of watching him run around a playground on his own. One year out I can look back at those moments where I might have asked that same question: it get’s better, right? Those moments where I felt like I was drowning and would never resurface. So yea, in some ways it gets better. But in reality the transition never ends so a finite “better” doesn’t really apply. Every day they grow and change, and so should we. And on the days when I can surrender to that, it feels amazing.