I’m glad to be writing again after taking some time to recover from birthing my son, Nova, and working out the kinks in newborn scheduling. Since he has entirely filled my days and nights for the past month, I can’t help but to discuss motherhood as I’ve rediscovered it. I have another son who is eleven, and the differences already in their infancies have been vast.
Both times, I have taken parenting very seriously. So then, how could the experiences be so different? I’m way more skeptical than I used to be.
I was a very young single mother when Johnny, my oldest, was born. I didn’t have a smartphone. All I had was a paperback copy of What to Expect When You’re Expecting and the advice of…well…everyone. Everyone has advice for a young single mother. It started before I even had Johnny and reached its zenith when he was only days old, tapering off slowly as I gained confidence and learned how to avoid and deter it.
I proudly sleep-trained Johnny by the time he had reached his first month. Training babies was the goal at that time. Turning out a rigidly scheduled tot was the mark of a good and disciplined mother, and being only twenty, I felt that I had a lot to prove. I made sure that my little guy wasn’t a “spoiled” baby. I didn’t let him get too used to me holding him all of the time, and I didn’t feed him unless it was “time” for him to be fed. Of course, there was crying. Lots of crying. He cried all the time. I cried all the time. The stress and lack of sleep wore on me, and I fully admit to not feeling bonded to him until he was about three weeks old. It was terrible.
I felt like I missed out on the joy I often hear about in early motherhood, and when my husband and I decided to expand our family, I did a lot of research on parenting as well as thinking about what I wanted from the experience. The more I read and the more I talked to other moms, the more I realized that parenting had changed. It was still advised that you put your baby on his back to sleep, but the “cry it out” methods were being challenged and altered by new studies on the benefits of holding and comforting your baby, instead. More relaxed or entirely baby-lead feeding schedules were being used. It seemed that the benefits of having a happy baby scientifically outweighed the benefits of having a convenient one, and I was pretty excited to try out this new method of parenting on my new progeny.
I give a lot of credit for my revelation to my skepticism. In thinking about my past parenting experience, I knew that there really had to be a better way. I knew there were plenty of mothers that enjoyed those early months despite sleep deprivation and the rigors of newborn care. It seemed unreasonable that it should just be a miserable experience, so I did what any good skeptic would do, and I searched for answers from reliable sources. I also maintained an open dialogue with my obstetrician who provided sound and reasonable advice through my pregnancy. I know it was sound and reasonable because I did my research while pregnant, too.
What I failed to take into account was what would occur during labor and delivery, exactly, as well as during recovery. My doctor was fantastic as were many of the nurses, but I was unprepared for the impressive pile of crap that would be sanctimoniously shoveled in my direction at the hospital.
When “D” day finally arrived, I interacted with several nurses both through the labor and delivery process and the recovery process. During labor and delivery, I asked questions and gave intelligent responses. I thought I had a pretty good handle on what I was doing, as I had done it twice before (my older son and a surrogate baby), but every pregnancy and delivery are different.
When it finally came time to push, the nurses suddenly morphed into drill sergeants, coaching me to hold my breath and bear down for three counts of ten seconds. After having been in labor, even with an epidural, for twelve hours, my skepticism had about checked out and I assumed they knew what they were doing. When I would feel like I was straining needlessly and let my breath out, they were rushing me to hold my breath and keep going. This kept up until crowning, at which point the doctor came in, suited up, and instructed me to take it at my own pace and push when I was ready, which was a welcome change. At the end of it all, I had a beautiful baby boy and what felt like a softball lodged immovably in my large colon.
I was in immense pain as soon as the epidural wore off and wasn’t able to sit down with any measure of comfort for two weeks. Getting in and out of bed, a thing you do a lot with a new baby, was excruciating. And for what? For some reason, the nurses rushed me through pushing. When I looked into medical information for guidelines on coached pushing, I found that this sort of technique to be antiquated and ineffective. So then why were they still using it?
Because of flu season, kids weren’t allowed in the maternity area at all, which meant my husband was home with Johnny at night and I was alone. Although I had many attentive, kind, and helpful nurses, there were some that seemed irritated that I needed their help or even that Nova was crying. I felt like there was some kind of expectation for me to be a tireless, yet stern martyr for my offspring, shrugging off pain and fatigue while miraculously quieting my newborn by sheer force of will. I was in baby bootcamp and the drill instructors were breaking me down before reshaping me into the iron mommy. The barrage of falsehoods and poor advice was, in hindsight, astonishing.
The first nurse came in, introduced herself, and wrote on my whiteboard under “GOALS”, “rest, pain management, breastfeed for 15-20 mins each side every 2-3 hours”. I recall, about twenty-four hours later, looking at the word, “rest”, with utter contempt.
It was later suggested to me, after a nurse walked in to hear the baby wailing, that my newborn was spoiled from me holding him too much. This has been proven time and again to be a rather bullshit piece of advice, I later discovered. You can’t spoil an infant that young because newborns aren’t manipulative. They cry when something is wrong. It really is no wonder that he was crying. After being violently thrust into a cold, bright world, babies are poked and prodded for at least thirty six straight hours.
Then came the nurse that thought I just must not be feeding him enough. She helped herself to my nipple with a gloved hand and mashed it into the baby’s mouth while he was dozing off. Babies tend to sleep a lot right after they are born because it is an exhausting process. After re-latching him properly and attempting to rouse him enough to eat to the nurse’s satisfaction, I was informed that my long nipples might be ill-suited for effective breastfeeding.
As my confidence crumbled and my son wailed and whimpered, my sense of time became distorted. The night lasted forever and just as soon as Nova fell asleep, in came another nurse to do something to him. They would take him away and I would doze uncomfortably for twenty to thirty minutes and then they would bring him back, newly swaddled, changed, and blissfully asleep. Into the hard, plastic bassinet they would set him and then depart. No more than a few minutes later, the poor little guy would be back to his clamor and a nurse would pop in to find him crying and provide me with more advice or critiques on my mothering. Had I been less exhausted, it would have occurred to me to give the nurses some advice of my own.
Again, this is not to say they were all terrible or even not well-meaning. A few of them gladly helped me get him in and out of the bassinet and some of them offered me suggestions without judgment on things I might try to get him settled. Even for someone that has done it before, those first few days can be pretty overwhelming. Some of the nurses seemed to understand that and some of them seemed to have misplaced their empathy.
The last piece of inaccuracy came as we were getting ready to leave. The nurse was going over various information about proper care of myself and the baby when she told me that I should avoid all caffeine. “All caffeine?” I asked her. “Yes, all caffeine. It stays in your system for three days.” I nodded and listened as she continued while earmarking that tidbit for further research. I found that caffeine stays in the human body for about twenty hours at most, but that it can stay in a newborn’s system for three to five days. I also found numerous articles saying that, unless the infant displays caffeine sensitivity, one or two cups of coffee a day are well within a safe range of consumption for a breastfeeding mother.
Summing up much of the experience, the given advice from trained and educated healthcare professionals would have had me ignoring my baby when he was crying except to be fed and changed as scheduled all without coffee. That sounds like a nightmare.
Once home, Nova and I were able to actually get some sleep and my confidence and skepticism returned. Coffee in hand, I nursed my baby for as long as he wanted and researched whether or not some of the advice I received from the nurses had any merit.
I wasn’t spoiling the baby, my nipples were just fine and not too long at all, coffee in moderation was acceptable, and one unalterable fact about newborns is that they cry. They cry no matter what, even if you are doing everything right. The only thing I could do was learn his cues and respond to him. I’m not the iron mommy, and I like it that way.
The word “skeptic” often has a stigma attached to it. You say that you are a skeptic and people think it means that you are cynical or unfeeling. However, skepticism has made me a more confident, relaxed, and happy parent. If I hadn’t doubted previous parenting advice or the suggestions given to me by my nurses, I’d still be stuck on forcing a schedule. I’d still be listening to my baby cry and feeling conflicted about picking him up and holding him. My willingness to change my ideas with new information has enabled me to enjoy motherhood and while many people still seem to lean on what they see as “traditional” methods, I think it is better to embrace new ways of doing things if it means being happier and healthier people.
It makes no sense to me why healthcare professionals wouldn’t be well versed in the most recent studies and methods in their fields, and normally I would advise people to trust their healthcare professionals, but if what you are hearing doesn’t make sense to you, finding some reliable peer-reviewed research isn’t going hurt. You are your strongest advocate, and if you have children, you are also theirs.