Ode to my Firstborn

Fifteen years ago, I was nearing the end of my first pregnancy. People at church were prone to tell me, ruefully, that my life was about to change forever. “I know!” I would stupidly chirp, even though I had no actual clue what lay ahead.

Motherhood, I figured, was utterly universal. Women through all generations of time were mothers. Babies were second nature, I assumed.

I assumed wrong.

I had yearned for motherhood throughout college and graduate school. My last semester of graduate school, I was happily, nauseously pregnant. When I successfully defended my master’s thesis, my committee suggested various venues for publication. I nodded politely, secretly not caring a whit about the comp and rhetoric journals who might or might not want to publish my work.

“I have checked this box,” I thought, “And the world of mommy-hood is soon to be my oyster. Suck it, academia.” Or something like that. I adored the professors on my thesis committee, and I loved school. But that phase of my life was finished. Booyah.

My new life would be as a mom to a baby boy in a tiny old house on a wide, tree-draped street in a neighborhood where I’d always wanted to live. This would be the culmination of my education. I would use my learning and innate motherliness to create a warm, nurturing, child-focused environment built on an implicit structure of learning, love, and success.

My mind projected an image of an ideal home life. I was determined to do a bang-up job of raising children. Jeff and I were proactive, accomplished people. Parenthood? No problem!

On a blustery night, late that November, I was initiated into the world of pain unlike anything I’d experienced previously, and Henry was born.

He was a perfect little human, who screamed most of the time.

“I never had a baby who screamed like this,” my mother told me once, earnestly, as she sat in the backseat of my car next to a purple, wailing Henry.

I was the first of my sisters, sisters-in-law, or friends to have a baby. When breastfeeding became daily torture, I thought this is how it was for everyone. Four months later, when I figured out that it wasn’t this way for everyone, I had a sad new realization: the fact that it was killing me revealed my ineptitude at feeding a baby, the most basic of human survival practices.

My baby never slept longer than forty-five minute stretches, day or night, which wore the veneer of capability right off me. I was left a dead-eyed zombie. Even the undead can be guilt-laced over their inability to have a baby who sleeps  sixteen hours a day, like the pamphlets they give you upon discharge from Labor & Delivery say babies should.

“My baby doesn’t sleep,” I said over the phone a few weeks later to the nurse at the pediatrician’s office. “It says here that newborns sleep sixteen to eighteen hours a day. Mine sleeps maybe half that, and only in short bursts.”

The nurse responded, “All babies have different sleep habits. Some babies just don’t need a lot of sleep.”

I wanted to snarl, “Yes he does need a lot of sleep, because when he’s awake he is a screaming banshee. Also, I NEED TO SLEEP.”

I hung up the phone and felt like a failure. Sleep deprivation doesn’t help with existential dilemmas such as, am I even capable of raising a human child?

The first year was like this, with breast infections, 24-7 breast pain, depression, and anxiety, all to the tune of screaming.

“Why does anyone ever choose to have a baby?” I wondered, my eye twitching.

When I stopped nursing after Henry’s first birthday, the constant breast pain went away. If you’re wondering why I didn’t stop sooner, I can only say that I had been indoctrinated by the militant cult of lactation zealots who assured me that giving my baby formula was essentially like feeding him liquid sewage. I only wish this were hyperbole.

One night, during my forty-five-minute “rest” while Henry napped between blood-curdling nursing sessions, I scoured the internet for some words of advice—something to help me know if giving up breast-feeding wouldn’t make me a child abuser. I followed a link to a famous pediatrician’s blog about parenting topics, and perked up at the title of a post, “Breastfeeding and Guilt.”

I clicked on it eagerly. Here was a respected doctor of tiny people, and he was going to talk about how guilt is driving the resurgence of breastfeeding, to the point that mothers who can’t or won’t, are shamed from all sides.

But the article was about how health professionals and everyone everywhere should be using guilt TO SHAME new mothers into breastfeeding. I was defeated. The bastards got me down.

In related news, I never swore before I started nursing. Now, every breastfeeding session featured me cursing my way through the pain. Literally.

I’d seen a number of experts and we had tried everything: gentian violet, various antibiotics, a different nursing latch, lanolin, a specially compounded prescription nipple paste— none solved my pain.

After months of prescribing everything she could think of, one doctor said, “Inexplicably, it could be your red hair.” I silently gave her side eye.

She continued, “No really, there are Victorian midwifery manuals that warn never to employ a redhead as a wet nurse.” She shrugged. I wanted to throw bricks through the windows of the nearest La Leche League.

For the record, my baby wasn’t starving. I was pumping and producing gallons of “liquid gold.”

When Henry was big enough to sit up in a carseat, rather than recline in his baby bucket, suddenly he stopped screaming in the car. When I learned that he like to be held upright, facing out, at all times, my baby started to be pleasant for periods of time. When I fed him solid foods at six months, we started to like each other. When I figured out that Henry would sleep through the night if I placed him on his tummy (baby murderer! Haven’t you ever heard of SIDS?), we both started getting a nightly eight solid hours of sleep.

Eight hours of sleep every night is the difference between positive thinking and psychosis.

By eighteen months of age, Henry was as happy and precocious a toddler, as he had been an unhappy and scream-y baby.

He was sociable, articulate, adorable, with strawberry blond curls and a serious case of joie de vivre. When we would approach my parents’ or Jeff’s parents’ houses, Henry would call from the backseat, “When I say ‘Grandma’s house,’ you say ‘Yay!'”

Jeff and I would wait for him to yell, “Grandma’s house!” We responded in unison, “Yay!”

I understood now that he was unhappy as a baby because he wanted to get on with living his life. He wanted to see and experience everything, not recline in the dark cave of his infant carseat. He wanted independence and opportunity. He wanted to go, be, and do.

He is the quintessential big brother. He teases his little brothers and they follow him like the Pied Piper. He loves babies. He inherited some sort of anomalous recessive gene for athleticism and lives for basketball. He is obsessed with cheesecake. He calms Jack down when he gets rowdy in the car. He helps Truman put on his shoes. He plays xbox with Charlie. He is kind to people who are different. In fact, he genuinely sees them as the people they are–not as a set of issues or disabilities.

I sat in the middle school library today with Henry, listening to a presentation on career and college readiness, and this thought crashed into my mind: Henry gave me the chance to practice difficult parenting. He prepared me for his special brothers, who followed him. And when they arrived and they challenged my whole self every day, Henry stood by me and helped me, willingly, through all of it.

So here’s to you, H, for being my guinea pig, my first born, my self-proclaimed Mr. Horse.

God sent you to me, and you taught me how to be a mom to a boy with a will and a vivid, magnetic personality.

You love your brothers and you show them what it means to be good.

Oh, Henry. Thank you.

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