I had never been afraid of newborns*. Until, I had one of my own.
I’m sitting in an armchair, the Christmas tree is twinkling in the middle of our living room. She breaths irregularly, faster quick breaths, two squeaky baby dinosaur grunts followed by a deep sigh. Her legs are drawn up to her tummy, head tucked in between my breasts. Bottom sticking out in a little frog position, her whole tiny body rising on my chest every time I take a breath. But I can hardly breath. I’m so anxious and happy and sore. We just brought her from hospital and this is her second day of life. I’m exhausted but I can’t summon the energy to get up and go to bed. It’s her second day of life. She’ll never be two days old again. Sleep seems like a waste of time. Time I’d rather spend looking at her in awe, wondering why I’ve ever worried whether I would feel that she was mine from the minute she was born.
I stroke her dark hair, noticing that the skin of her scalp is so soft and the skull bones are still mobile. I make a mental note to listen to her heart with my stethoscope at some point and then forget about it. Four weeks on I still haven’t done it.
Those first days are a blur of tiredness, fear and anxiety. I wake up every hour or so to feed her, try to teach her how to latch on to a breast. When she wakes she is not patient. Her rooting reflex is so strong she looks like a tiny worm who poked her head from the ground frantically looking for food. She stuffs her tiny fists into her mouth, I take them out, try to put her on the breast, shut my eyes tight and wriggle my toes in pain. The pain of a let down reflex is one of the things nobody told me about and I was too ignorant to read about. She feeds every 40 minutes during the first night. I barely manage to fall asleep before her grunting noises wake me up. I’m so thirsty I drink a bottle of water after each feed. My legs tremble as I sit down on the rocking chair by the window. J wraps a woolen blanket around my shoulders and says everything will be OK. I cry because I can’t do this anymore. I can’t look after her because I’m too tired. All I can think of is sleep and pain.
She is so small, so tiny and fragile. Her tearless cries break my soul in half and I cry with her. Days and nights blur into one stretch of 1h intervals: feeding, nappies and sleep. I cannot eat because I’m too anxious. J looks after me and repeats that everything will be fine. I believe him even though I’m sure sometimes even he doubts it. At night we lie in bed and reminisce about our life before baby. I ask him to tell me my birth story because I don’t remember the details. I drift into a shallow sleep, sinking into my pillow to postpone the next time I hear her cry.
Midwives come to visit us every day and tell us it’s all normal for newborns. They feed frequently, their sleep is light. I feel like a zombie, as though if I don’t get a longer stretch of sleep I’m going to go crazy. One night she cries and cries and we have no idea why. She suddenly forgets how to latch onto a breast and keeps screaming at my nipples in a voice of the highest pitch I’ve ever heard. We fall asleep exhausted at 6 am on a sofa bed in the living room, the day is still dark outside but it’s a new day and we can start over again.
While I feed her I read articles in the New England Journal of Medicine on my iPod to remind myself that I am still me. This is just a phase.
When she’s finished eating she jerks her head off the breast and sticks her chin out, eyes closed, her tiny face all red and tired from the effort of feeding. She looks like a tiny turtle. My little girl. I love her so much.
These newborn days are a lesson of accepting that good enough is sometimes all I can manage. That it’s OK to long for sleep and dread the next feed, to feel that sinking suction in my stomach when she stirs in her sleep only 25 minutes after I put her down at 4 am. I keep telling her that she’s loved and after an hour of lullabies and rocking and unsettled cries I dream about the time when I could cover my head with a duvet and drift off to sleep. When things were simpler, when I felt joy in much calmer and less soul-wrenching ways.
These newborn days are a phase which will pass and I will soon long for those hours in the middle of the night when I rock in a chair humming a lullaby, feeling the 3.5 kg weight of a newborn in my arms and a much heavier weight of new motherhood in my heart.
*I want to specialize in neonatology and I’ve spent many weeks in neonatal units in the UK and Poland gaining work experience, looking after newborn babies.