Before I Forget: What Nobody Remembers About New Motherhood

No one should expect a woman with a newborn to be "on cloud nine."
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Early one morning when my daughter Rosie was a few weeks old, I packed her up in a baby carrier and took her to the drugstore, which felt at the time like an ambitious outing. It had been a rough night, and she was now happily sleeping off her bender. I got into line with my stain stick and baby wipes and let my eyes go out of focus.

"Can I see this little one?" said a smiling voice at my shoulder. I turned around so that the older woman behind me could peek at the tiny creature nestled against my poop-stained shirt. She sighed, looked deep into my bloodshot eyes, and asked, "Aren't you just on cloud nine?"

Actually, I was queasy with fatigue. I was sad about the way my husband and I had snapped at each other while Rosie was crying the night before, and fretful about when she would regain her birthweight, and slightly freaked out about how totally my life had been upended and whether it would ever be mine again. And I was more than a little worried about this cloud nine. What was this supposed to feel like?

For me, and for many other women, being a new mother is hard. It can be hard in a million different ways: painful physical recovery from a difficult birth, breast-feeding problems, colic, tensions with your partner, sleep problems. It's also just hard on its own, on top of and in between all these other challenges. As a friend of mine said, "I knew it would be hard, but I didn't know what 'hard' would feel like." We thought it would be sitcom-style hard—not necessarily with a feel-good resolution at the end of every episode, but at least punctuated by those frequent moments of uplift indicating that, in spite of everything, life really is beautiful, isn't it? I'm pretty sure it's like that for some people, but for many of us, it's not. For many of us, it's not good hard, as in a "good hard workout"; it's bad hard, as in, it sometimes feels like something bad is happening to you.

But does anyone really remember this? I don't. I only know it's true because I remember saying it out loud, and because I wrote the previous paragraph almost three years ago, with Rosie sleeping at my side, in a typo-filled document titled "Before I Forget." Since then, my body and mind have edited my memories of the newborn period into the parenting equivalent of a kung fu movie training montage. Fatigue, hormones, nostalgia, and hindsight have reshaped those long months into a series of wordless film clips, set to the inspiring music of the love I now feel for my daughter, spliced together to tell the story of how it all worked out in the end.

On the whole, I'm grateful for this mechanism. Like the hormonal magic that dulls our memories of the pain of childbirth, the montage-ification of the first months of motherhood is therapeutic and practical. It allows us to smile fondly at a photo of the baby taken on her one-week birthday, the very day that we woke to her cries just an hour after the last feeding, put lanolin on our bleeding nipples and, sick with exhaustion, made a mental note to ask the man for whom we once wore expensive lingerie to run out for some adult diapers (excellent for post-partum bleeding). And it readies us to produce a sibling for the little tyrant who made us so genuinely miserable on that surprisingly photogenic morning.

But this benign forgetting also has the unfortunate consequence of making us feel a little more alone in those challenging months, because no one we talk to—not our mothers, not our friends with toddlers, not our pediatricians or lactation consultants—is able to re-inhabit her own experience fully enough to really understand how we feel.

Sometimes this memory gap takes the form of remarks like the drugstore lady's question about "cloud nine"—the first installment of the phenomenon Glennon Melton describes in her much-forwarded "Don't Carpe Diem," about older women who see her wrangling her three children in the checkout line and tell her to "enjoy every moment" with them (at once demonstrating their own amnesia about such moments and managing to make her feel guilty). But often the disconnect is subtler, occurring in conversations with people who really know us, people whose perspectives we value. I had a supportive team of experienced moms to whom I could turn for advice, and I can't imagine what that time would have been like without them. But as they answered my many questions, I heard them struggle to create coherent, internally consistent narratives, to cross back into the unique universe of those months when their lives as mothers began.

Here's an example of a sentiment that I knowIexperienced but can no longer access at all. One night after a long, fussy evening with our generally unfussy newborn, I suddenly realized that some people's babies were always like that. A chill of horror went through me, something like what I normally feel when contemplating prisoners of war placed in stress positions. My voice hoarse, my guts in knots, I turned to my husband and said, "The thought of having a baby with colic terrifies me." Now I think back to that moment and can't relate. The thought of having a baby who cries a lot terrifies me? But at the time, it seemed like a nightmare that I simply could not have faced.

Why? For one thing, it's hard to remember how distressing sleep-deprivation is when we're not actually experiencing it. Second, as many people have remarked, it's hard to explain how upsetting it is when your baby cries. My perspective on the horrors of colic was probably more accurate that night, with Rosie's cries fresh in my ears, than it is now.

But something about new motherhood also darkened my worldview and made the thought of those cries more threatening. This is where you may be wondering if I'm just talking about post-partum depression, but the struggles I have in mind are unlikely to raise any significant red flags at the six-week check-up. And while, being raised in a family of psychologists, I certainly asked myself whether I might have PPD, I generally didn't find that line of questioning helpful.

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Jody Peltason has taught high-school and middle-school English in a variety of settings. She is currently an instructional coach in the District of Columbia public school system.

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