I have been trying to write this post in my head for a couple of months now, maybe for as long as a few days after Malcolm was born. It feels important that I say these things, but it is also a little scary because I am laying bare parts of me that I would usually try to keep hidden.
For me, one of the most difficult things about becoming a parent has been a deep feeling of loneliness. Not loneliness in the sense of actually being alone - I have wonderful friends and family that are always willing to talk or listen when I need them, and I couldn't ask for a better partner - but of feeling like I am the only parent having the problems I am having and that they are all my fault; if I was only a better person, a better parent, they would just go away. In the first weeks with Malcolm, breastfeeding was so hard - he ate all the time, 45 minutes at a stretch, with only an hour between feedings, and I was in pain all the time, so much so that any time he ate I would sit there with tears streaming down my face, toes clenched, teeth clenched, anything to make the pain bearable - and I was convinced that I was doing something wrong. That I was just being dense. I got books from the library on breastfeeding; I scoured breastfeeding websites for tips, suggestions and advice, hoping that if I read enough I would find the one missing puzzle piece that would make everything OK. I mean, all the pro-breastfeeding literature talks about how good breastfeeding is for mother and baby, about how most mothers feel a wonderful sense of calm and peace while breastfeeding, about how oxytocin is released and makes you feel all loving. So if I don't feel that way, it must be my fault, right? I must be a bad mother for not enjoying breastfeeding, for not being able to make it work that way. Even though I knew, intellectually, that breastfeeding is not as easy as it is portrayed to be, that there wouldn't be all those books and websites it every other woman could just figure it out, emotionally I felt alone with my troubles and pain.
Lately, I have been going through a similar spiral with Malcolm's sleeping habits and patterns. He's been backsliding in his ability to sleep long stretches, waking up a couple of times a night, sometimes refusing to go back to sleep and so on. Friends give us anecdotes of how their child would scream for two hours every night for months, or how they had to drive their baby around the city every night for months to get him to sleep. Books and websites tell me Malcolm is pretty darn normal, and that while it is unpleasant now, he will eventually sleep for longer stretches. But they all have advice, and the books and websites are all so confident in that advice (and they all disagree with each other) - they must be, or no-one would buy the book, right? - that when it doesn't work, I am the one who feels like a failure. Knowing that other parents have had similar problems - and again, they must, or there wouldn't be so many books - doesn't really help at 12:30 AM, when Malcolm has been crying for two hours, no matter what approach we take, and I can see my chances of getting more than 6 hours of sleep slipping away. I feel like I must be the only parent who can't get method x or method y to work on my child.
In reality, the reasons I was having so much trouble breastfeeding had very little to do with me or my ability. The pain was caused by a very nasty yeast infection that took several weeks of strong medication to clear up, and Malcolm was just very little and very hungry, and his mouth was small. Once the infection cleared up, I got a pillow that supported him in a better position, and he got bigger, most of the problems went away. Do I love breastfeeding now? Honestly? Not really. It isn't painful, most of the time, which is the way it should be, but he tends to be a restless eater, and most days at least one feeding is still a struggle. But I have mostly accepted that, and no longer feel like it is my fault that I don't have a feeling of bliss every time I put him to my breast.
As for sleep, most of my pain is indeed my fault - the tighter I cling to my desire for an unbroken night of sleep, the more upset I get when it doesn't happen. At some point, and I have definitely reached it, I have to put the books down, step away from the websites, and just accept that sleep is going to be a struggle for a while, no matter which method we use to help him learn to sleep.
All this is true - I tend to read too much, and blame myself too much, and not listen to common sense about problems - but at the same time, I think there is a culture of parents not telling the truth. Oh, our friends are all completely honest about the problems they had when their children were babies - after we tell them our tales of woe. They warned us that we had no idea what we were getting into before he was born, when we would optimistically talk about how life would be once he arrived. But when we wanted details beforehand about just how life would be different, about what we really were in for, we didn't get them. Looking back, it feels like we were explorers setting off into a new territory, asking for a map of dangers to avoid and troubles to watch out for, but all we got from the experienced veterans were vague warnings that everything was very scary, but that it would be a great trip and that we would survive.
Maybe this is because they don't want to scare you, or because they are past those dangers themselves and now see the journey through the haze of memory that dulls the sharpness of the pain, or because they want to look like they have it together, that they survived and so will you, or because of a sense of schadenfreude, I don't really know. All I do know is that when other parents-to-be ask me about raising a baby, I am going to try to be as honest as I can (which is pretty honest). Having a baby is hard enough even without feeling like you are alone, and if my stories help another mother get through the tough stuff and on to the fun moments (and they do come), then I don't mind looking bad.