I blinked and June turned seven weeks old, and already she is a different baby completely from the one I brought home from the hospital. The past seven weeks have been glorious and amazing and hard and everything I guess you’d expect from bringing home a brand new baby.
I did not realize, before having June, how much I would appreciate the community of other moms. The first days and weeks of motherhood are like entering into a secret sorority. No one tells you, before the baby comes, just how hard it is at the very beginning—the soreness, the constant nursing, the sleep deprivation that puts your college years to shame—-and why would they? Who wants to tell a glowing pregnant woman marveling over an Ergo baby carrier that soon she will be the primary caregiver of this helpless little human, who has never been to the world before and does not understand any of your rhythms, your literature, your culture, hobbies, schedule—that one day you will be writing to editors and hosting a dinner party and doing adult things and the next day your life will suddenly run in three hour cycles around a tiny little infant who needs your unending attention, whom you must acclimate to being alive while frantically scrolling on your phone because you are sure you are doing something wrong and everyone has an opinion. And then it is three in the morning and your arms are burning while you bounce a ten day old up and down, up and down as she cries louder and louder until her face turns beet red, and it would be funny if your insides weren’t sore enough to feel like they are falling out of you and if you had more than a few hours of sleep and if this little screaming burrito wasn’t yours and if you could convince yourself that the reason she is crying is not you.
*Photos by Matt Genders Photography**
That’s when the sorority of other moms is a raft in the middle of the ocean, and the women who knew to bring diaper rash cream and nursing tanks to your shower are the ones who show up with coffee and just to take a crying baby off your hands for a half hour. Their words are like ropes and you find yourself clinging to the saving grace that everyone who has been a mother has completely been there—that for every time you’ve turned on the hairdryer while bouncing your baby on the exercise ball to calm them down, they’ve spent hours doing stairs, or squats, or turning up the static on their radio to 15 to overpower the sound of their baby’s crying. That for every time you’ve wanted to hand off your baby to someone else, they’ve passed theirs off to their husbands, have gone for a drive, and thought about not coming back.
In those first days, I asked sometimes, why anyone would ever do this again. And the answer was always the same: you’ll forget how hard it was. Just wait until she smiles.
Two weeks ago, June started smiling.
And my heart exploded.
It wasn’t just that she smiled. It was also that I finally recovered enough physically to hold her up to burp her; it was that my hormones finally settled enough that I could process my baby as mine, that with the smiling came the ability to be more content–to coo, to track objects with her eyes, to be held without fussing.
I knew I loved June before she smiled. And I knew, somewhere in the recesses of my mind that this stage is temporary, that it’s all learning, that the days are long but the years are short. But when she started smiling, something clicked for me. She is her own, full person, and first comes smiling, then cooing, then rolling, crawling, walking, talking, thinking for herself, finger painting, writing, math, sleepovers, dates, college, career. This work, which is so mundane in the details, a continuous cycle of nursing, burping, rocking, swaddling, is the most extraordinary task I will ever undertake.
Babies don’t come into the world smiling. They enter it with cries and clenched fists, physically incapable of thinking past their own immediate needs. Maybe, before they can smile, or laugh, or express any sign of contentment, they have to know someone will be there for them. When I was pregnant, I dreamt of reading with June, cooking with her, discussing ideas.Those days will come, I know, but I am realizing that before I can give June any of my mind, I must give her, at its most basic level, myself. Before she’ll care about anything I have to say, she has to know that I’ll be here for her–that even the recovery of thirty hours of labor and the sleep deprivation of that first week can’t keep me from meeting her needs.
I don’t know enough about baby psychology to know where June’s memory begins, but I know that she is not going to remember these early days like I will. Maybe these days are a gift to me, a gift to Andrew—a time for us to make mistakes, learn to read June’s body language, meet her needs, and realize, with every smile and facial expression, just how much we love her. It is repetitive, yes, and mundane at times, but then we learn at her doctor’s appointment she has grown two inches and gained two pounds, and it is the nursing, the burping, the sleepless nights that aided it, and suddenly I realize that out of these routines, this sameness of each day, the most incredible mystery is unfolding.
June is growing. June is smiling. My body, in order to nourish hers, must be involved at the smallest detail, but because my body is so invested, so is my heart. And when she smiles, I am overwhelmed with a deeper love and gratitude than I’ve ever known as I recognize that more than writing to editors, more than hosting dinner parties, I was made for this.
We’re at a stage of life right now when many of our friends are having babies, considering foster care, planning to adopt. I know enough now to bring meals and diaper rash cream, lattes and muffins for those early days. And I will join that sorority of women that assure other mothers what I’ve learned to be true:
You’ll forget how hard it was. Just wait until she smiles.