When we brought our little, orange baby home from the hospital, we set him down next to the piano, asleep in his car seat, and looked at each other. What now?
Did the professionals seriously just send us home with a baby…by ourselves?
His entire life so far, I felt like we were being graded. Everyone who stepped into our room on the maternity ward kindly explained I knew nothing, and urged me to keep a detailed log of his schedule. I assumed something terrible would happen if I neglected this, and I couldn’t answer their inquiries clearly. Nurses came at all hours to discuss my son’s weight, his pooping habits, and how his circumcision was healing.
When we arrived home with our baby, I wasn’t sure what came next. I felt unqualified to handle a newborn independently. My son wasn’t latching well, and there were no nurses hovering nearby to grab my boob and show me a different hold that might work. Help was gone.
We were alone.
My husband and I looked uncertainly around our living room and then down at the sleeping, jaundiced baby who was about to turn our lives completely upside down. We felt like imposters. What were we supposed to do with this little person? Were we allowed to leave him in the car seat as he slept? Would someone jump out of the curtains and scold us if we tucked him into a Boppy on the couch?
After a short discussion, we dragged the car seat next to the window, so the sun could shine down and change his face into a less startling color. All our blurred snapshots would later show that he looked alarmingly like someone had dipped him into a bucket of apricot dye.
Our first visit to the pediatrician was scheduled for the following day, and I already had a pit in my stomach—like I’d neglected to study for the most important exam of the year. I worried they would readmit him to the hospital for phototherapy. I didn’t know yet that the doctor would need me to strip my child naked to assess him properly. The next afternoon, we would show up at the pediatrician’s office with a bulging diaper bag, a baby comfortably dressed in short sleeves, and no blanket. We would miss our appointment window (because we had no idea how to leave the house with a newborn) and subsequently find ourselves shivering in a freezing supply closet (the only place our pediatrician could work us in) trying to wrap our son in a burp cloth and shield his naked body with our arms. If shame literally burned, I could have kept that room toasty with the heat of all the things I wished I had known earlier. In that moment, jaundice would barely register on my emotional radar.
But I couldn’t see any of this yet. The first day in our living room, I was too busy fretting about being in charge of someone else’s life, realizing that all those years of babysitting had not prepared me after all.
When he awoke, I sat down on the couch to nurse him, half-buried in a mountain of pillows. I couldn’t tell if I was feeding him correctly, but it sure hurt like the dickens and made a slippery mess. My husband sat next to me, leaning into the mountain, holding our son’s tiny fists away from his face. We whispered little jokes to him to mask our growing frustration. “Fingers are friends, not food.”
I cried as he struggled to latch. His problem was not a dreaded tongue tie, but that after spending six hours being squeezed in my birth canal, all he wanted to do was bite. And boy, did he. He suffered from a clamp-down reflex so ferocious that we later nicknamed him “Tiger Baby.” Never have I been so grateful God made newborns toothless.
When mealtime was as finished as it was going to get, we looked out the window at the sunny skies and decided to go for a walk. We tucked the baby into his bright red stroller and set out for a slow neighborhood circuit. Three doors down, a pregnant neighbor ran out to meet us. She cooed over our tiny son and handed us a congratulatory bottle of wine. We stuck it in the basket beneath the baby seat and kept walking.
Precisely halfway around the block, when turning back would take just as long as pressing forward, I discovered that I could not walk any farther. This had never happened to me before. I was mistress of my body, always. If I said go, it went. I might move slowly, but I never quit. How could I hit my limit after less than half a mile?
My husband graciously offered to get the car, but I couldn’t admit that level of defeat. Instead, I took a small step forward every five seconds. The throbbing, wounded space between my legs felt like it was about to fall out of my body onto the sidewalk. Sitting down would be a dream. Preferably with ice.
When we finally made it back home, I stood gingerly on our lawn with the baby while my husband folded our stroller. The forgotten bottle of wine crashed onto the concrete driveway and shattered.
A little something shattered inside my heart, too. Somehow, that bottle of wine represented my independence. It meant that I could still relax and enjoy something that had nothing to do with a hungry, pumpkin-faced baby. Its demise felt like an existential loss I could never recoup. My hope for relief was running down the driveway in dark, red rivulets.
It would be weeks before I got over the feeling that my life as a mother was one big test. It would be weeks before I discovered the joy of having my baby curl his body toward mine, reaching for me because to him, I was the world.
It would be months before I began to trust my intuition more than the advice of strangers.
It would be years before I accepted the truth: sometimes I will get it wrong, but this doesn’t make me a “bad” mother. I’m not a failure when I don’t predict a need for blankets or two changes of clothes. Much of motherhood makes me uncomfortable because I don’t like learning as I go. I still wish for the certainty of knowing what will come next.
But now I realize I could see just enough that first day. His little tongue sticking out. His little orange fists and dark hair. His trust. His love. And mine.
( Yes! Please send me the weekly Kindred Mom newsletter with the latest podcast episodes, essays, and helpful links! )
Melissa Hogarty lives in Northern Virginia with her husband and three very loud and silly children. She believes deeply in the power of reading and the love of Christ. She loves to bake, sing loudly, and make her own home décor. She blogs about food, faith, and family over at Savored Grace, and you can also find her on Instagram.