When I was pregnant, I really thought I knew what I was getting into. I have three younger siblings, I babysat in high school, and I’m a school teacher. I couldn’t imagine that a baby could be much trickier to figure out than a nine-year-old. But as I look back, I realize that even with all of my knowledge of the world of babies, I still had two mental images that summed up my expectations for parenthood: 1) Medieval images of the serene Madonna holding the Christ Child and 2) rosy-cheeked, diapered babies crawling happily across the cover of Parents magazine.
Well-meaning jerks always like to tell women in their third trimester, “Your life will never be the same.” That’s so unhelpful, because at the same time that statement is both painfully obvious and super-vague. Here’s what that looks like, more specifically (at least, what it’s looked like for me):
It’s a little misleading to refer to the birth event as “labor.” Not that it isn’t hard work, but it implies that the work is over after an hour (in the case of my friend Brooke), or thirty-five (as in my case). News flash: I left the hospital five months ago, and labor has still not ended. As I watch my friends with toddlers and teenagers, I’m starting to learn not to hold my breath. I may earn a smoke break, and maybe even a week’s vacation some day, but the work of growing a child from a little sesame seed of cells to an independent and fully functional eighteen-year-old is a job for the long haul.
I was also unprepared for the complexity of baby hygiene. My baby manual of choice has the nerve to tell me that baby baths are mostly beneficial for the sake of routine and bonding, because babies too young for the sandbox don’t really get that dirty. I beg to differ. I was unprepared for the vigilance that is required to keep Abby’s ears wax-free, her nails clipped, her nasal passages unobstructed, and her skin smelling baby-soap sweet. I realize now that those babies on the front of the magazine are as airbrushed as Jennifer Aniston on the front cover of Vogue. I’d like to volunteer Abby to do a Jamie Lee Curtis-style photo shoot for the next issue of Parents. She’ll wear only a diaper, and all of the expectant moms in the OB-GYN waiting room can see her in all her glory: flaky and rashy scalp, acne on her cheeks, boogers hanging out of her nose, spit-up crust ringing her neck, strange dust in the webbing of her hands and feet, and poo hiding out in the crevices of her leg rolls.
I have been surprised at how un-squeamish I am when it comes to keeping Abby clean. The other day, I actually got mad when Stephen emerged from the back room with Abby, enthusiastically reporting how he had helped her clear some space in her nostrils after she had had a good sneeze. “Oh, man!” I said. “I’ve been waiting to get that booger all day!” And then, of course, I heard what I had just said, and resolved to get out more.
I wasn’t prepared for the emotional extremes that I’d feel, either. I don’t really tend toward strong emotions anyway, but I expected to feel some stronger-than-average surges of affection for my little Turniphead, and I knew to expect some weepiness in the weeks following her birth. I wish someone had told me it would be even weirder than that, so that maybe I wouldn’t have worried so much that I was going insane. As I’d hold Abby, I would think almost simultaneously, Just the thought of putting her down in her crib makes me miss her, and I wonder if I took her back to the hospital if they’d keep her for a few days so I can sleep and get to the grocery store. I’ve since learned that every mother I know has secretly thought at least once, “I don’t like this baby. Can I take it back?” I’m always horrified when I catch myself having thoughts like this, but I know now that what I usually really mean is I’m so tired.
When Abby was just a few weeks old, I remember feeling like I had entered a parallel universe. I circled around Abby in a tiny little orbit of napping, nursing, doing laundry, and changing diapers. My world had shrunk to the size of my house, and I felt claustrophobic but incapable of moving beyond the front door. I thought, Goodbye, world. Will I ever see you again? and I figured that the next time I’d have the energy to go to Target by myself I’d probably drive there in my hovercraft.
But now I’m realizing the biggest cliche in the world is also the most true: Time Flies. The baby sleeping in her crib tonight doesn’t even seem like the same person as that little expressionless extraterrestrial that I fed and diapered and bathed for all those weeks. I’m still not sure how I feel about it. One moment I think I can’t wait until Abby is talking and walking, in the next I’ll see her almost sitting up by herself and I’ll want to cradle her in the rocker and cry and sing, “Slipping Through My Fingers All the Time.”
A person in our small group reminded us recently, “This too shall pass.” It goes for everything, and it’s a great encouragement to enjoy the sweetness and endure the hard parts of each stage. (It’s so easy to be philosophical about it when I’m alone in the quiet house and Abby is sleeping soundly. The trick will be to remember that wisdom when it’s three a.m. and I’m dragging myself out of bed to change a poopy diaper. But I’ll try.)
This post was originally published on January 29, 2010. I’m taking a break from new content over the holidays; enjoy some of my favorite past posts for the next two weeks!