Wednesday, December 8, 2004

Ready or Not

Ready or Not
Shiloh Barnat

Everyone told me when I said I wasn't ready to be a mother that you just sort of GET READY. All through the pregnancy I joked, "Ready or not, here we go!" I thought about my years helping raise four siblings and endless babysitting gigs of my teens. I thought about my summer teaching two-year-olds. I visited with friends who already had babies. I dreamed about how I would interact with my own baby. I processed all the things I wanted to keep and reject from my upbringing. And I read and read and read some more. I made lists. I gathered all the gadgets. I nested. I packed. I went to birthing classes and prenatal yoga. I did all the things you're supposed to do to "get ready."

Problem is, nobody really warned me exactly what to "get ready" for...(how could they?!)

I thought my midwife was joking when she said on the third day of labor—yes, you read that right, the THIRD DAY—that it might take me all week to fully dilate. My labor was 60+ hours total (depending on who you ask or where you start counting). And, yes, it was worth every excruciating minute. But I sure as heck wasn't READY for such an extended stay in Labor Land.

I thought, before I got there, that I would be in a stupor of blissed-out awe—awe in the amazing feat of my body producing life, awe in finally getting to see the tiny toes that nestled and kicked my ribs all those months. And everybody warned me that the birth experience would quickly seem like a dream. But, actually, my delivery and first post-partum moments remain strangely vivid and I felt more acute awareness than awe. I thought I was ready.

Luckily, Lydia's first couple of weeks on this planet outside my womb were generally peaceful. She ate like a champ, slept three-to-five hour blocks at night and hardly ever cried. We beamed to others about how blessed we were to have such an "easy baby." And I luxuriously devoured the stacks of parenting books I'd saved for after birth while nursing around the clock. I read about attachment parenting and developmental milestones in Dr. Sears' The Baby Book. I read about swaddling and colic holds in The Happiest Baby on the Block. I read about sharing daily life and communicating with her in The Continuum Method. I read about reading her cues and syncopating with her rhythm in Secrets of the Baby Whisperer. And I read about imperfectly Hip Mama freaks like me in The Mama Trip, Breeder, The Big Rumpus and “Fertile Ground.” I read and read and read some more, trying to be ready for whatever.

But around the fourth week the tide turned and I was definitely NOT ready! By then I’d read so much that my own internal voice was drowning in a sea of conflicting “expert advice” reinforced by echoes from the requisite mother and mother-in-law visits. A veritable caucus of parenting approaches debated in my head every time I approached my screaming newborn forcing me to try on a million different mama masks before my heart found its way through the noise to intuit a path of our own.

Lydia's "fussy hour" started at 8pm on the dot every night like some sort of internal alarm clock had gone off blaring bad screechy metal music between her ears. We nursed. We swaddled. We danced. We slung. We sung. We bathed and massaged and cuddled and nursed some more. We tried every colic hold in the book and then some of our own. We wore her while vacuuming and put her in her car seat on top of the dryer and took her for rides in the stroller or car. We even tried distracting her by putting Scotch tape on her fingers (hey, worth a try!). Some of that worked some of the time for a little while...until the CD ended...or a train passed...or the dog barked...or that damned alarm clock in her head went off again for no apparent reason at all.

I tried watching my diet, cutting down on dairy, wheat, nuts, soy, caffeine, grease, sugar, etc. but some of her least fussy days/nights were when my will was weak and I imbibed every no-no a nursing mama of a “colicky” baby's not supposed have. In fact, the first night she slept a full four hours was after I'd had several cups of fully caffeinated coffee for breakfast, greasy fried fish and Dr. Pepper for lunch and nachos with hot salsa and a Bloody Mary for supper. Go figure!

We stocked up on Gripe Water and Hylands homeopathic colic tablets which seemed to help a bit. Meanwhile her screeching alarm started going off at 6pm instead of 8pm and our evenings morphed into tag-team dining with intermittent baby slinging/dosing until neither the Gripe Water nor the colic tablets seemed to do much of anything anymore and nothing on our lengthy list of remedies sufficed. Things were getting desperate.

After multiple debates and against my better judgment denying all motherly instinct, we even tried letting her "cry it out." Futile “Ferberizing” didn't do a thing except make her overheated, overtired, hoarse and even gassier from those terrible gulpy bloody-murder screams that no mother can stand to hear.

No one warned me about that! No one told me how much it hurts deep in your gut to be drenched in the desperate drone of your baby’s high-pitched cry. Nobody warned me how that sound proliferates your every cell and forever etches itself on your soul. And I definitely wasn't ready for my uncontrollable instinctual hormonal instant panic reaction as my milk squirted across the room. To me it was a deafening plea for some missing survival element while to others it was simply the expected sound that all babies make.

Then there was that first discovery of a whole new level of desperate wailing when I heard her first real cry of pain after accidentally snipping her delicate little pinky finger skin with those clumsy baby fingernail clippers. She looked at me for a split second with this "Why did you hurt me, Mama?" look and let out a bone-chilling wail for which I was definitely NOT ready. I know, everybody does it (the accidental snipping before getting the hang of infant manicures), but that still doesn't make you ready for the feeling that you've violated the sacred trust of this tiny new being.

Here and there I got an hour or two of sleep and counted myself lucky. She even let me sleep a whole six hours on Mothers' Day! Of course, she then screamed non-stop all through the fancy dinner we'd reserved a week ahead of time.

When my mother came to visit she said, "You know, if I didn't know any better, I'd say she's teething." Since she was barely into her second month, I pushed the idea out of my head. There's no way; she's far too young. But when my mother-in-law visited and remarked the same explaining how all three of her kids cut teeth by three months and one was even BORN with two teeth, I started to consider the possibility. We tried homeopathic teething gel (same as colic tablets except with primrose for swelling), gum rubbing and iced teethers. No go.

Meanwhile, her damned internal alarm clock started going off at 4pm instead of 6pm and I was exhausted from trying everything in our bag of tricks over and over again already before my husband even got home from work.

Desperate for new ideas, I called other parents I respect. I called my mother and my sister. I called my best friend. I called my midwife. I called my OB and our pediatrician. And we decided to try dosing her with some stronger "medicine." The packages for baby Tylenol, Motrin and Orajel all tell you to "consult a doctor" before giving them to a baby under three months. So, our doctor's counsel said they were worth a try and gave us the appropriate dosage based on her weight. The Tylenol did calm her down but made me feel like I was drugging the baby. Would she grow up to be a junkie if I gave her Tylenol every night? The Orajel was another story. I avoided it since I still wasn't convinced she was really teething and I'd heard the stuff didn't really work anyway.

One day she went into colic mode at NOON and I thought I was going to lose my mind! Nothing worked. But I kept trying. Nursing. Swaddling. Dancing. Singing. Nursing. Walking. Holding. Dosing. Rocking. Rubbing. Put her down for a break and try it all over again. When it seemed she might have finally worn herself out, my husband—who had long since taken to ear plugs and heavy drinking—went out for a beer break with a buddy who happened to stop by. Of course she woke up almost immediately after he left. I tried the list again. No go. I decided I'd go ahead and try a dab of baby Orajel, just a tiny little dab. What the heck, I'd tried everything else.

YIKES! Boy did I regret that! She got this terrifying look of total panic and abandon, like "What have you done to me you terrible terrible mother?" Her face turned deep crimson. And she began to foam at the mouth and gurgle like she couldn't breathe. The gurgling turned to choking and she turned blue around the lips. I leapt, like lightening, to the phone and dialed 911. Dammit! Quit asking me stupid questions, can't you hear my baby choking! What do I do? Oh, DUH! Turn her on her side and wipe her mouth out with a dry cloth. Ah-hah! She can breathe! And now she's wailing like she's never wailed before. And a swat team of paramedics are already at the door. Dang! That was fast! Of course, the medic in charge seemed to have NO trouble calming her down with the one magic hold we'd not yet tried (this is still her favorite hold to date). They checked her pulse, heart, lungs, blood pressure and temperature assuring me she was NOT having an allergic reaction and joking, "Don't worry, we have a special code for these nervous first time mother calls."

I held her tightly whispering "I love you! I'm sorry!" until my husband arrived, then handed her off and collapsed in tears. It's hard to recognize how much you've grown to love them until you realize how easily you could lose them. I definitely wasn't ready for that.

Eventually we sort of got used to keeping her company through her crying jags. And my gut-wrenching knee-jerk reactions tamed a bit. We came to refer to her not as a "colicky baby" or a "fussy baby,” but as "dramatic" or "expressive." It's just her personality. There's nothing medically wrong with her and nothing to be done to "fix" her because she's not broken. She just is who she is—which is loud and willful and stubborn (can't imagine WHERE she got these qualities) and beautiful!

No sooner did we come to this new level of acceptance (somewhere around three months) when she suddenly stopped just as suddenly as she started. We realized one evening how tranquil our evenings had become. And she began to giggle and coo just as loudly and expressively as she wailed. I was not ready at all for the not-so-subtle ways she wriggled and squirmed and squealed and screeched her way right into our hearts and our lives so quickly and to such an extent that I can't even remember or imagine what life was like without her.

At times this new mama gig reminds me of my sister who felt supreme respect for all women when she mistook a burning burst appendix for her first menstruation. I hear we all forget in time the pain of birth and the torture of soothing an inconsolable “colicky” newborn when you yourself are still in pain and have had no sleep for days. That mama amnesia must be true or the planet wouldn't be so overpopulated, but I'm not sure I want to forget. I want to remember every gut-wrenching moment and store it away in a reservoir of strength to draw upon when the going really gets tough.

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