I used to be an obsessive planner. I thought if I planned everything in meticulous detail, I could wrest control away from the talons of fate and put it squarely under my own power.
So it’s no surprise then that when I became pregnant my approach to the whole process was to get it under control. I read everything about it, I watched everything about it, I practically guaranteed myself there would be no surprises. If you haven’t started shaking your head and laughing yet, now would be a good time.
As part of my control crusade, I wrote an excruciatingly detailed birth plan. My doctor took one look at it and said, “This isn’t a birth plan, woman, it’s a manifesto! Take a step back.” She was a self-described control-freak who’d just had her own first child six months earlier, so I really should have listened to her advice. But I didn’t. I knew something about project management from my years in the corporate world. I had this wrapped up.
Despite her gentle persuasion, I wouldn’t give it up, so she began to poke holes in my manifesto. For instance, no contingency plan for an epidural in case my one class of the Bradley Method didn’t produce any viable results. Long story, but my husband and I did Bradley Method “home study” after one class because it was apparent the instructor’s home was not just doubling as a classroom, but also as a warehouse for a smuggling operation.
I reassured my doctor there were no omissions in my plan. Looking back I shudder with embarrassment, but in my defense, I simply had no clue. To make matters worse, I had this idea that my pregnancy, birthing, and caring for an infant would be a similar experience to the other women in my family. It’s not like parenting is some mysterious alchemy, where you have to find the secret recipe to change poop into gold. Seriously, haven’t we all seen parenting in action? (Haven’t we all sanctimoniously said under our breath, “I will never treat my kids that way!”) I wasn’t worried about parenting, I was worried about parenting RIGHT.
My mom used Lamaze during childbirth and had all her kids within minutes of starting labor. Yes, minutes. My aunt, my mom’s twin, had both her kids at home with a midwife. Everything went perfectly fine. My sister had her two kids naturally with a midwife. None of them needed an epidural (or even considered having one) and in my aunt’s case, there wasn’t even a doctor in attendance.
We were made of hearty pioneer stock, weren’t we? Didn’t our Irish and German ancestors simply take a short break to give birth in the open air, then get back to tilling the rich, Iowa soil?
But this story is not about how my birth plan went straight to hell over the course of fourteen hours, resulting in the birth of a beautiful baby boy. This story is about the days after, the part I thought would be a breeze, the part I hadn’t really considered or even <gasp> planned.
Like a Rom-Com, where the focus is on meeting the someone-of-your-dreams, with no thought to the state of things after a year of living together, bad habits, dirty dishes and all, I focused on the birth with no thought of actually raising a child.
Somehow I expected (and everyone did too, it seemed) to be an expert at something I’d never done — be a parent. I assumed nature would take control of my brain and transform me into some kind of maternal automaton. Maybe I thought hormones would miraculously become a force of good in my life, and instead of saying “Ugh, hormones” I would say “Yay hormones!”. So I waited for nature to do her thing.
Nature had tricked me. Instead of being in control or having parenting skills suddenly endowed upon me, I felt tired and terrified. I got very little sleep, my body felt wrecked, breastfeeding was not going according to plan, is that a rash? is 102 temp reason to call doctor? what’s that sound? what’s that smell?
But it was more than that — I was also terrified every time my husband left to go to work. I was convinced he would never come back home. Looking back I can’t even remember how it felt to be that scared, but I was. He seemed to be taking the whole daddy role in stride. He was always smiling with our son, and I was working on a permanent brow furrow. I was sure if he left, I’d be totally unequal to the task of parenting.
A few days into being home and living with this fear, I called the lactation consultant, let’s call her BORG. I asked BORG over the phone to please help me figure out what I was doing wrong. She said I needed to come in, she obviously had to show me again. I will never forget the tone of BORG’s voice, so condescending, so put out, I could practically hear her eyes rolling.
I was in such a grip of fear that I couldn’t even leave the house. I first asked, then begged her to make a house call. I desperately needed her help, but she refused. I asked if she would come after work hours and I would pay her for her time. Again, she said no.
I was stunned. This was the same woman who refused to let me have a pacifier in the hospital and insinuated that I would damage my child if I used them at home. The same woman who directed me to breastfeed for at least six months to a year, because formula would ruin a child. And now, in my attempts to do what this expert was telling me was essential for a healthy baby, she abandoned me.
After I hung up with BORG, my son woke up and cried because he was hungry. I had to try to feed him again, but instead I cried. I just broke down and I cried and cried and then I screamed. I cursed BORG and anyone in general who was going to try to give me more useless parenting advice.
The crying and trying and giving up went on for days. Why wasn’t anything working out? Why couldn’t I do this? Day after day I spiraled — and like a seasoned drill sergeant, my infant son had broken me down to my lowest point, destroyed the belief system I had just spent 35 years creating.
He shattered the illusion that I was in control of anything.
He made me responsible for another human being’s life. Me, the one who had treated my own so flippantly, so uncaringly. How was I qualified to even do this? He taught me what real fear is, when he got sick, during ER visits at midnight, with the realization of just how fragile life is.
How precious it is. How beautiful it is.
He taught me the pursuit of perfection is not only foolish, it’s harmful. The goal is not how perfectly I can parent, it’s how I handle each failure, each misstep, each word I wish I’d never said.
He taught me to pay attention to the small moments in life, like his smile, sunshine pouring through the windows, or an extra hour of sleep.
He taught me to be kinder to myself, to stop comparing myself to other moms, to believe that just getting the laundry done is an accomplishment.
He taught me to stop judging others, to realize I have absolutely no idea what they’re going through, that all I see is their actions, not the reason why.
My son has built me back up, day by day, year by year, into the person I am now. That’s a spiritual transformation if there ever was one.
When I think about “working” on myself, improving myself, I’m reminded that the most important work is happening right in front of me. I have access to a personal life guru in my own home, and after he’s done playing Pokemon Sun on 3DS, I’m sure my daily lesson will unfold.
Life doesn’t go according to my plan, but if I’m honest, I don’t want it to. The life I had planned was steady, even, predictable, easy, steady, even, predictable…you get the picture. Boring and safe.
The beauty of life, and I would argue the whole purpose of life, is to experience it from all angles, from fear, from joy, from anger, from love. Thank you to my son, and yes even BORG, for allowing me to hit bottom- the best place to start over.