The ding-dings of cheerful chimes filled my ears, infiltrating my foggy head. I struggled to make sense of why my alarm was pulling me out of sleep at 2:00 in the morning and why my body felt as though it had been hit by a truck.
I forced my eyes open, letting them adjust to the darkness, and I noticed my daughter’s bassinet just a few feet away from my bed. My swirling thoughts converged: it was our first night home from the hospital, and it was time for another feeding. I wondered how long ago my husband had been able to lay the baby down without her eyes popping open and her newborn wails starting all over again.
Placing a hand on Dan’s shoulder, I shook him awake and asked him to change Selah’s diaper, my voice unrecognizable to me, as if gravel were caught in my throat. I gingerly rolled myself out of bed, taking care not to drag my lady parts across the mattress; the doctor had warned me this could pop my stitches. My limbs felt shaky and my mind was disoriented—for the last three nights, I’d slept for no longer than two hours at a time, and that sleep was light, at best. I woke up constantly, frantic that I’d missed a feeding or that my daughter wasn’t breathing or that I was still in labor.
I stumbled into the bathroom, flipped on the light, and grabbed hold of the cold, granite countertop as the nausea overtook me. The tears began to fall hot and fast down my cheeks as I gasped for air and lowered my hurting body onto the toilet. I dreaded the process of applying fresh Tucks pads and lifting my sore legs into a new set of Depends. I dreaded trying to get my daughter to latch and stay awake for her feeding. I dreaded rocking her back to sleep when every part of my body was screaming for sleep.
Dread became fear, and fear became panic that snaked its way through my body, curled its fingers around my heart, and pulled it into my stomach.
One thought echoed in my mind: I’ve made a horrible mistake.
My stomach lurched with shame, a toxic addition to the panic and anxiety that had settled there. Soon other thoughts invaded my mind, storming in so swiftly that I couldn’t stop them:
Is this motherhood? Will it always be this exhausting? This isn’t what I thought it would be! IcannotdothisIcannotdothisIcannotdothisIcannotdothis.
I got through that feeding, barely, because Dan brought me some cold applesauce to ease the nausea, stayed awake with me while I sobbed through the pain of breastfeeding, and rocked Selah to sleep (even though he’d already taken his turn on the previous shift) so I could get the longest possible stretch of rest. But I don’t remember specifically how I made it through the feeding after that, or the night after that, or the week after that. I often gazed at my daughter in wonder during the warm light of day, marveling over her cupid’s bow top lip, my heart bursting with joy over the fact that she was mine. But terror was always lurking in the lengthening shadows as the sun dipped each evening.
In the most painful moments of Selah’s first few months of life, I would think to myself, Would I do this all again to get my precious little girl? For a long time, I couldn’t answer that question honestly. I knew that a good mom—one who has what it takes to love sacrificially—would say, “Of course! She’s worth every bit of pain and every lost minute of sleep!” But I truly wasn’t sure, knowing what I knew now, that I’d willingly do it again. I tried to tell myself that obviously I wouldn’t give her back, that I’d never let anyone take her away from me, that I’d be shattered if anything happened to her. But deep down I knew that if I were given the chance to go back to my pre-kid life, without any memory of the love I felt for her, I would do it.
When Selah was a few weeks old, the doctor gave us the green light to let her start sleeping longer stretches, and then a few months later, she started sleeping through the night. She nursed less frequently, giving me a bit more freedom. She began to smile and then laugh, which made up just slightly for those thankless, sleepless nights. These things all helped me feel a renewed sense of normalcy in my new role as mom—it’s amazing what unbroken sleep can do for both the body and mind.
But what made the biggest difference in my perception of motherhood was that I started taking care of myself.
It was impossible in those early weeks to do anything more than survive, but as I surfaced, I found a few small steps to take toward my own well-being: I made time to finally see a doctor about my postpartum pain, and her words gave me hope that one day I would feel normal again. I snuck upstairs at 8:00 every night to take a therapeutic bath and read a few pages of a heartwarming novel. I stopped doing the dishes during nap time and instead began writing from the minute Selah was asleep until the minute she woke up. I returned calls from my concerned friends, the heartache and the holiness of the last few months spilling out, my thoughts slowly coming untangled as I spoke them aloud.
The more I took care of myself, the more I found myself falling deeply in love with my daughter. Where in those early days my love was wild and fierce and primal, it was now becoming softer, more tender, radiating out my heart and my fingers as I stroked her chubby cheeks before bedtime.
I’ve heard that babies don’t realize they are separate from their mothers until they reach six or seven months old; I wonder if the same might be true for mothers, too. In some ways, it felt like loss when we added Selah to the family—loss of the way things used to be, loss of my old body, loss of my independence. Suddenly I was responsible for the health and well-being of another human, and when I wasn’t nursing her, I was holding her or wearing her in the wrap or bouncing her on my legs. We were one. She had never known life separate from me, but I had known life before from her—and though I ached with love for my daughter, I also ached for that former life.
As Selah and I slowly came apart, realizing that we were indeed separate creatures, a healthy distance opened up between us—a distance that felt like an unexpectedly warm breeze on a February morning. It’s this separateness that allowed me to fall hopelessly in love with my daughter and enabled me to finally see myself as a good mom. And it’s in the delicate balance between my all-consuming love for Selah and my commitment to caring for myself that I have become a healthy mom. And I think a healthy mom is, by definition, a good one.
As I remember that frightened, shell-shocked new mom I was in those early days, my heart aches with tenderness as she asks herself that question: Would I do it all again to get my precious little girl? It was a little illogical, because obviously no one was going to transport me back in time to give me a do-over on my decision. But I think the real question I was asking myself was this: Am I strong enough, loving enough, good enough to be a mom?
To that question, I have a simple but hard-won answer: Yes.
Guest post written by Brittany Bergman. Brittany is a writer and editor living in the suburbs of Chicago with her husband and her daughter. She is passionate about living a simple life marked by authenticity and gratitude. She is unashamedly incapable of pacing herself when it comes to reading mysteries or eating French toast. Brittany writes about living thoughtfully and savoring motherhood at BrittanyLBergman.com. You can also find her on Instagram and Facebook.
Photo by Lottie Caiella.