In the dark, early January morning, just a few hours after I’d given birth, my husband asked the nurse if she could turn up the heat in our room.
He slept under the window on a cot that pulled out of a chair, barely squeezed between the wall and my hospital bed We could hear the wind howling, whipping snow from the previous weekend’s blizzard around the building. Even though he was already bundled under every available blanket, it made sense that he might be a bit chilly so close to the wilderness.
The baby seemed to be comfy in his swaddles, but really, what did we know? I was still sweating, but I felt partially responsible for my husband’s discomfort. We’d packed all the things for me and the baby, and hardly anything for him. Cranking up the heat would probably increase my restlessness, but I was prepared to make the sacrifice to comfort my other half.
“I’m sorry, sir,” the nurse whispered. “It’s just not about you right now.”
When I came home from the hospital, I lost my usual spot in our house. I always sat on the right-hand side of our couch, but this seat had no access to an outlet. So I migrated four feet down the sofa in order to pump every three hours to build and maintain my milk supply. The baby couldn’t latch, so just like that, I became an exclusive pumper.
My husband and I found ourselves looking out at our home from an entirely new perspective, but we were ready, united. As we started learning about our new family, the nurse’s words hung in the air. It wasn’t about either of us right now, we thought.
A few weeks later, I mustered up the courage to venture to the store after my son had fallen into a deep sleep in his car seat. I needed exactly four things: fruit of some sort, diapers, a greeting card, and storage bags for my expressed milk. I wasn’t sure they sold the bags at the grocery store, but the baby would likely wake up before I made it to Target. I decided to try.
He didn’t stir as I started shopping, so I did the first reckless thing I’d done since he was born: I decided to get everything on our list. I would be the hero of the day: my husband wouldn’t have to stop on his way home from work. For so many days, it still had not been about him. That night, I wanted him to be able to unwind, to relax.
I grabbed as many things as I could fit into the cart around the sleeping baby. The grocery store didn’t sell the storage bags, so I got a few extra bottles. I was giddy and triumphant. I’d certainly be able to hop out later in the day for the bags I’d need before the next morning.
My heroic feat ended in the baby aisle when my son woke up—hungry and angry—his painful screams echoing off the cold tiled floor. I hurried to unbuckle the straps on his carrier, to bring him to my shoulder and start bouncing, to make us invisible. Empathetic mothers of toddlers smiled at me, but my brain screamed to get out, and get out now. I had wanted to surprise my husband with this small act of thoughtfulness, to prove that his real, capable wife was still in here somewhere, but I had failed. I still needed to ask him to find breastmilk bags somewhere before he came home.
I found myself in the parking lot, pulling the loaded cart behind me with one hand as I held my son in the other. Halfway to my car, a box of soda flopped off the bottom rung and the cans started rolling. I just stood there, watching each can of Dr. Pepper scatter around the parking spaces as if I’d intended to share them with the owners of the parked cars. The baby started to cry again, but I couldn’t move.
A man on his way into the store rushed over to collect the errant cans and return them to my cart. Then he and a woman—where did she come from?—steered the cart to my car and he carefully loaded my groceries while she clicked the baby’s car seat back into its base and asked me if I was okay. I mumbled my thanks over and over again.
As we tried our best to adjust to life as a family of three, someone remarked, “You’re letting the baby run the house.”
The words stung because they were true. We didn’t know any other way. We knew life couldn’t only be about the baby, but if we don’t respond to his cries immediately and in this exact way, they escalate to the point of no return! We’ve tried everything!
But of course we hadn’t. We’d tried all the things we thought we were supposed to do for the baby, but we had been afraid to try the things we suspected might truly help our whole family.
On a dreary day in March, I confessed to my doctor the disorienting way panic and numbness ruled my days. She sent me home with a prescription, and my husband patiently listened to me debate filling it. At a time when I felt entirely alien to myself, he made me his priority. He brought me home with his embrace.
One night in April, we moved the baby into the nursery—sooner than we’d planned and sooner than was recommended—because right now it was about my husband. We were both out of our minds with sleep deprivation, but his commutes were becoming dangerous and we simply couldn’t ignore his needs any longer.
In the middle of Easter dinner, we gave our inconsolable son to my mom and escaped into the fresh air, together and on our own, finally trusting that one of the many veteran mothers in the family could find a way to comfort him.
I stopped pumping. My husband re-joined the gym. We sometimes broke the baby’s sleep routine.
We bent some rules and broke others, but our fears never materialized. We were still good parents. Maybe better, for in caring for one another, we found ourselves again.
I don’t know if the nurse was referring to me or our son when she gently reminded my husband that his comfort wasn’t paramount at that moment, but I like to think it was me. I like to think that, sensing the upheaval coming our way, she spared me one small discomfort that would have come as the price for meeting a loved one’s need.
Two years and one week after the night we truly learned to think beyond ourselves, we’ll be adding a second new person to the family. All three of us will have some adjusting to do, but at least this time around we know to pack a sweatshirt for Dad.
Guest post written by Stephanie Heilman. Stephanie is a wife and mama editing professionally and writing for fun in southeastern Pennsylvania. She believes passionately that there is nothing more powerful than the stories we tell about our selves and others. You can find her on Instagram and sometimes Twitter, and when she's really feeling gutsy, she shares some mostly fictitious writing on her website.