It’s been a while since I’ve tried to write an article—about two months, to be exact.
My baby girl, born at the beginning of December, is in her rocker beside me. When she starts fussing, I bend over and stick her pacifier back in her mouth, earning myself a couple more minutes of typing time.
Having a baby has been as difficult as I was told it would be—and more. The sleepless nights weren’t really what got to me. I expected those. There was also the unpredictable cluster-feeding, spontaneous crying fits that couldn’t be assuaged, feelings of anxiety and yearning when I was away from my baby for more than an hour, the realization that I couldn’t wear half my clothes because they made it incredibly difficult to breastfeed, wondering whether I’d ever have time to eat breakfast again. Those things were tough.
But they weren’t really what made me realize how hard parenting was. That realization came two weeks ago, when my six-week-old came down with a bad cold. Or so I thought.
Then It Got Scary
I read all the baby blogs and websites, made sure I was giving her lots of rest and food, held her in elevated positions to alleviate her cough, etc. But she kept getting worse. I talked to my parents, read more blogs and articles, then emailed our pediatrician (who was out of town).
Last Sunday, she was diagnosed with RSV—a respiratory virus not dangerous in older children, but dangerous for infants under eight weeks, whose lungs are not as developed. We spent two and a half days in the hospital, getting oxygen support.
So I slept in a chair beside her little crib in the hospital, listening to her rasp and rattle, listening to the cry of little babies all around me. RSV is incredibly common, the nurses told me. There were probably 50 other babies at the hospital getting treatment for it.
But those words don’t make it any easier when the child you’ve carried inside you for nine months, the little one you’ve poured all of your energy and soul into, is hooked up to monitors, heaving slightly with each breath, barely eating. You lie beside her, feeling helpless, with an enormous weight pulling at your insides, weighing down your stomach, pounding in your head. There’s a weight of responsibility you cannot bear, a burden of love accompanied by utter helplessness and lack of control.
That’s when I realized how difficult parenting is.
Struggles Are a Given When You’re a Parent
In January, a government-appointed health panel called for depression screening in women both before and after pregnancy. The New York Times reports:
The recommendation, expected to galvanize many more health providers to provide screening, comes in the wake of new evidence that maternal mental illness is more common than previously thought; that many cases of what has been called postpartum depression actually start during pregnancy; and that left untreated, these mood disorders can be detrimental to the well-being of children.
It also follows growing efforts by states, medical organizations and health advocates to help women having these symptoms — an estimated one in seven postpartum mothers, some experts say.
Some of these pre- and post-pregnancy mood disorders are more hormonally triggered than others. It’s quite common for postpartum women to experience feelings of depression, at least to some degree; yet usually with time, the feelings begin to dissipate.
However, parenting itself brings a swath of changes and upheavals that can themselves trigger emotional imbalance and depression. This Atlantic cartoon hilariously (yet also not-hilariously) points out how extensive and emotionally straining these parental shifts can be. We can’t sleep, eat, dress, or work as we used to. Our entire lives have changed.
It doesn’t matter whether you have a partner, whether you choose to use formula instead of breastfeed, whether you return to work immediately or no: a new, young, vulnerable life is dependent on you for existence and flourishing. Regardless of your parenting methodologies or plans, that’s going to change everything.
‘It Gets So Much Easier. Hang in There’
One father told me he spent the first few weeks of his daughter’s life getting up constantly to check her crib to make sure she was still breathing. She was so fragile and tiny, so quiet. He couldn’t help feeling afraid. My friend Emily has written that “New parenthood is a rollercoaster on a track of fresh hormones, foreign fears, and crippling self-doubt.” She remembers a time when, meaning to text her husband, she accidentally texted a stranger—
I pull out my new phone to perform another familiar task: text my husband, who’s outside barbecuing with a fresh round of visitors. ‘She won’t sleep,’ I tap out with one thumb. ‘I don’t know what to do. She’s too fussy to stay awake and she won’t eat. I’m so tired and I don’t know how to socialize with her screaming.’ The reply: ‘Who is this?’
New parenthood has left me no time to update my contacts, which means I’ve just texted a wrong number. I can’t even remember my husband’s phone number.
‘Sorry. I meant to text my husband… On my new phone. Whoops!’
As I draft a message to the correct number, my phone dings again. ‘Wow, you must be really tired. New baby?’
‘Yeah. She’s 8 weeks old tomorrow’
Three dots signify a longer response, and then: ‘I just want you to know, it gets easier. I have three kids and right now I’m sitting on the porch while they read and talk, sipping wine, enjoying a Colorado sunset. It gets so much easier. Hang in there.’
When I was in the hospital with our little one, my husband was on a military trip. Even though I had his support from afar, myriads of people stood up to help and support us: my mother-in-law spent a large portion of that time in the hospital with me, as did my sister. My parents, who live 2,500 miles away, were constantly calling and texting. My siblings-in-law brought us food and flowers and took care of our dog. Our neighbors checked on our house and took care of our trash.
Parenting is difficult and scary. But that is what community is for.
The past couple months of motherhood have taught me much about how we come through the dark woods of early parenting: it’s a period of life in which we feel ignorant, overwhelmed, and often frightened. But with people surrounding us, we can have comfort and help. The older woman you can text with all your parenting questions, the siblings or friends who bring you food—even the stranger who texts you to say “it gets easier”—these are the people who make parenting possible.
It seems that depression before and after pregnancy would be more likely in a society in which community has fallen apart: in which people (especially young people) no longer attend church, get together with neighbors, or attend community events. In a society that turns to the television and computer—by nature solitary mediums—for entertainment and connection. In this world, we lack real presences to bring our problems and pains to. We lack someone to hug us and say “It’s okay—it gets easier.”
To Be a Mother Means to Focus on Someone Else
When my baby girl was sick in the hospital, I realized how much I needed this community—as well as the yellow tulips, fresh coffee, bags of snacks, hugs, and prayers. All of these things ease the difficulties of parenting. But these things won’t necessarily make you happy, either. They won’t make the fears and frustrations go away.
I battled depression for a while in high school. I’d been going through my own little existential crisis, delving into Cartesian thought and a whole swath of fears about the unknown. I could barely function; I was so enveloped in panic and fear.
My mom helped me through it: I remember her many loving words, hugs, all the fun activities she scheduled for us to do together. But one day, she spoke the only words that truly helped. She told me, “Gracy, at the end of the day, if you want to conquer this, you’re going to have to stop thinking about yourself, and focus on others.”
That was it. No, it didn’t automatically make me happy, or make the panic go away. But a joyful life is in the living—the doing, the acting, the outworking of your faith. It’s not in thinking about yourself and your fears, but rather in serving those around you.
That is ultimately what parenting is about, I’m learning. It’s the only thing that will conquer the depression and worry that can threaten to overwhelm us. Instead of wondering why things are so hard, we have to focus our hearts and energies on the little ones we’ve been given—and have faith that, with God’s help, they (and we) will be okay. Because parenting isn’t really about making us happy: it’s about giving up our lives, our wants, our comfort, our happiness, to give someone else life, sustenance, comfort, and happiness.
It’s taken a while to write this. Baby girl has had a diaper change, some rocking, some smiles and conversation—and quite a few tears. Finally—I think—it’s naptime. My sweet little girl, now breathing smoothly, closes her eyes, smiles softly.
It would be easy to think about all the struggles the future will hold. People are only all too quick to tell us young moms all the hardships that loom in the future, to warn us of the “terrible twos” and the “rebellious teen years.” But I’m going to choose to just focus on the now, on her, and the fact that—even when parenting doesn’t make me happy—it’s filled me with more love and joy than I ever knew possible.