/karen/

Astrid (initial weeks)

Friday, 10 September, 2010

The Second Nine Months

I've been trying to write this post for a number of days now. It's a little tricky because it's not a straight story—not like my last post—although parts of it will probably read like that. (Also, I don't mean to continue chronicling Astrid's life forever; this is more stuff that's occurred to me as I've gone along.) It's also tricky because I want to present a bit of a picture of what life is like for us now, and I am worried that once I start talking about that, a million readers will immediately pounce on me, yelling, “YOU'RE DOING IT WRONG!” (All right, the likelihood of that is small, but nevertheless, I can't shake the notion mentally.) In writing this post, I am reminded of Vicki Glembocki's The Second nine Months, which, if you remember, I read close to the beginning of my pregnancy. Unlike Glembocki, I felt more prepared: I knew it would be hard, I knew why it would be hard (because I had some inkling of what it would be like and what makes it hard), and I like to think that I had removed myself from society's expectations and pressures regarding motherhood. But now I find that I was completely unprepared for the mental shift that I've had to undergo in becoming a mother. None of the books I've read have dealt with that—not Up the Duff, Kidwrangling, Baby Love and so on. To return to the comparison I made with marriage in my last post, the hard yards start after the birth, much like the hard yards of marriage begin after the wedding. But you spend much psychological energy gearing up for the wedding and the birth because you cannot fathom life beyond that one event. Now that I'm getting a taste of it, I want to try and capture something of that—not only for my own sake (as always!), but for the sake of others, as there were some things that I wish someone had told me—things I never thought to ask. I want to provide some of the detail to would-be parents that I needed to know about what to expect (rather than saying just generally, “Oh, it's hard … hard, but oh so rewarding”, or some other pithy thing). Obviously our experiences are not a template for everyone, but hopefully it will be helpful reading. That's my aim anyway.

So here goes: here's how we learned (and are still learning) to become a family of three from a family of two. If you remember from my last post, I got up to the end of day 1 of Astrid's life. Here's my attempt to chronicle the first week.

Day 2: Wednesday

The reason why they encourage you to breastfeed your baby as soon as possible is, firstly, because it helps stimulate the hormone that helps the placenta come away from the lining of the uterus and be expelled, and secondly, because it's the beginning of the whole breastfeeding production line (if I can put it that way). Your baby initially consumes this stuff called colostrum, which isn't the same stuff as the breastmilk you'll be producing later. That, in combination with the amniotic fluid already present in your baby's stomach, means that if you feed successfully during those initial hours following the birth, your baby will sleep for up to 12 hours without needing another feed.

So I was glad that the bulk of our visitors came on the first day when I had more energy and wasn't feeling so sore, because the second day was really hard. Astrid took her second feed around 8 pm on the first day, but then from around 11 pm or 12 am onwards, she started cluster feeding, or what is called “the feeding frenzy”. This is normal in babies, and they say it starts on the second or third day. (I just didn't think it would start bang on the beginning of the second day!) Cluster feeding is when the baby's feeds are really close together and you don't get much of a break in between. You alternate breasts, and the baby's time on each one can go anywhere from 10 to 45 minutes. The “feeding frenzy” is more to bring in your breastmilk; it's one of those weird things about the human body: the constant sucking on the nipples stimulates milk production. It's like the baby already has a relationship with your breasts beyond your control, and she is calling the shots regarding what happens with them.

The thing is, they don't tell you breastfeeding hurts. (Well, George knew; I did not.) Oh, they tell you it hurts when things go wrong—like when you get mastitis or cracked nipples or other such horrors. But they don't tell you that it's quite painful at the very beginning because, let's face it, you've never really had something sucking so vigorously on that part of your body before, and that takes some getting used to.

So imagine this: your entire body is sore because that's what childbirth does (you're not just sore down there); it's painful to move because of your stitches (plus the pelvic pain is still around); you're bleeding (because nine months without having periods means you kind of have them all at once as the uterus sheds its lining; that's called lochia, and it means you ought to stock up on up to six weeks' worth of pads because you can't use tampons [make sure they're pads with a soft natural covering, not that synthetic stuff], and because you may bleed on and off for about that long); your uterus is still contracting so you are in a bit of pain (like period pain); and you're tired because you probably haven't had a lot of time to rest and recover from the birth. And then the feeding frenzy starts. It's a shame that the sleep deprivation begins even before your body has a chance to repair itself.

As I said, I hadn't expected the feeding frenzy to start so soon, but I was okay throughout that first night when Astrid fed and fed and fed. (I think I only got two hours of sleep that night. Also, part-way through I got a midwife to help me change her nappy as I'd never done it before. That was interesting!) I was fortunate to be in a room by myself instead of a shared one, so Ben was able to stay over in the fold-out single couch. (He was asleep for most of the feeding frenzy though.) I was fine all the way up until breakfast, which they serve at 7 am at RPA. (Truly that's the one of the only good things about hospitals: they serve you meals that you don't have to prepare yourself. Sure, the meals aren't terrific, but hey, it's food!)

It was after breakfast that the fatigue really set in. Astrid was still cluster feeding (roughly every two hours). Ben went out to get himself breakfast and have a bit of a break (because the hospital does not cater to partners; they have to bring their own food. [That's the other good thing about having a single room: bar fridge for Ben's food.] I shared bits of my food with him, though—things like orange juice and mandarins, which I don't like). I tried to rest in between feedings (and was so grateful I'd brought an eye mask because I'm really light sensitive. The other thing I was grateful I'd brought was slippers because the floor was cold. I shouldn't have brought my knitting; that was too ambitious!) But I didn't really get much rest because people kept coming in and going out again—the guy who brought breakfast (and later came to collect it), a lady who came to mop the floor (she told me she was Macedonian; that's when I was more awake and feeling pretty good. When she came back later wanting to clean the bathroom, I was crankier and told her to go away because I wanted to sleep), the midwives (to check on me, check my stitches [ew], check that my uterus was still contracting [painful!], check Astrid's feeds and nappy changes, hand over to the next shift, etc.), and even some lady going around selling professional baby photos (I was so tired, it took me a moment or two to tell her to get lost). The nicest visitor I had during this period of not wanting visitors was a lady from the Mother's Union of the Sydney Anglican Church, who told me to pick a present for the baby out of her basket (I got Astrid a nice flannel wrap with elephants, giraffes and monkeys on it. Thankfully it was not pink!) It was too bad that, at that stage, I didn't know you could put a laminated sign saying, “Mother and child resting. Do not disturb” on the outside of your door so that all those people would go away and I could get some sleep! I mean, I knew that having a baby means sleep deprivation; I just didn't think it would come because of other people.

(Back to the midwives for a moment. I like them and they're great, but I felt that they could have been a bit more helpful in manner on occasion. For example, they have to track Astrid's feeds and nappies [i.e. whether she's excreted and/or urinated], and I was telling one of them that Astrid had fed four or five times between 8 am and 12 pm, and she said, “Oh, you don't want to do that; you'll just wear yourself out.” As if I had a choice! I wasn't doing it voluntarily; I was just going with what Astrid wanted. It wasn't my fault that the feeding frenzy started bang on the beginning of the second day!)

I have never been in hospital for anything before, and one thing I learned pretty quickly was that hospitals are really noisy places. You can hear the people in the corridors, the people outside, doors slamming (unintentionally; they're just heavy so they make a lot of noise when they close), other newborns crying, buzzers going off as patients page the midwives, other people's visitors, and so on. My dad and stepmother seemed to think that it was good for me to stay in hospital for as long as possible, but when one of the midwives mentioned the early discharge program, I jumped at it. I mean, I wasn't having any problems. (I didn't know everything, and I was reading Pregnancy, Childbirth, and the Newborn a lot.) It helped that I had gone to one of RPA's ante-natal classes on breastfeeding about a month before, so I knew roughly what to expect and how to go about doing it. (The midwives gave me odd looks as if they didn't believe me whenever I said things were “Fine” in response to their “So how's it going?”. Then they would give me advice that, to my sleep-deprived ears, sounded a bit contradictory.) I figured why stay in hospital, given it was noisy, my sleep was getting more and more interrupted, and I wasn't having any problems? Plus I knew RPA needed the beds. And the ID bracelets were annoying (I had two on my wrist, Astrid had one on each ankle, and the tails got in the way of everything).

They would have discharged me that day, but the early discharge program was full, so they put me on the shortlist for the following day. I told the day midwife that that would be happening, and she told me all the stuff we needed to do before we could leave (i.e. a couple of shots and tests). Sometime that day Astrid had the hearing test and passed with flying colours. Also some time that day (I think it was just after lunch), we gave Astrid her first bath. (She complained mightily; apparently babies don't like being naked—who knew?) That was the first time I left the hospital room in over 24 hours.

Also, Astrid had her Hepatitis B shot. After each test and shot, the midwives would write stuff in her blue book.

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Apparently every child born in Australia? NSW? gets one, and it's a health record for them up until the age of 18, detailing their growth, immunisations, etc. You're supposed to take it with you every time you take your child to the doctor. Also, the yellow card you have during pregnancy goes in the front so they have a record of that too.

Bec also came to visit around the time of the bath, bearing gifts (including Neil Gaiman's Blueberry Girl [which you can “read” on YouTube, with Neil narrating; it was written for Tori Amos's daughter], Fruit Tingles and other lollies [I was excited about the Fruit Tingles because until recently when Ben bought a packet, I hadn't had them since high school; Melinda and I used to buy them from the local Woolworths and eat them on the way to and from school]). Later in the afternoon (around the time I finally had another shower), Josh also visited, bearing chocolates (he picked chocolates over flowers—for which I was grateful, because my aunt and cousin had sent flowers [delivered when I was asleep] and they were a bit tricky to take home. Pretty to look at, though). I think my OBGYN also stopped by in the afternoon to check on me. (I told her about the early discharge program and she told me to make sure I was happy with how breastfeeding was going before we went.) And then in the evening my mum visited again on the way to a dinner.

Ben went home to shower and change in the evening, and to take some of the gifts so that we wouldn't have so much to carry later. He also had to do a bit of work because, despite emailing his current clients to say, “We've just had a baby. Please don't contact me unless it's urgent, and I'll deal with it when I can,” all his clients sent through urgent stuff that needed fixing. (Guh.) So he brought his laptop back with him to do some of that. I tried to get some sleep before the night shift of feedings and changings, so I was asleep before he was. But then I woke up later, of course, when Astrid wanted to feed.

Day 3: Thursday

I forget what happened that night; more feedings and changings, probably. I learned quickly to write this stuff down because the midwives would ask me about it: what time the feed started, how long it went for, which breast she fed from, whether I offered her the other breast, when we changed the nappy and what its contents were, etc.

(For Elsie's information, the reason why they and other newbie parents are so interested in things like poo is because when you're breastfeeding, you have little idea of what and how much the baby is actually ingesting, and whether the baby is healthy. Just after birth, the poo is dark and tar-like (meconium), which is the baby expelling the stuff she had while in the womb (amniotic fluid and the like). Then it changes to mustard/basil pesto when your milk comes in. Urination also indicates that your milk has come in. Other poo colours mean that something is wrong and the baby is sick. Right, enough said about that …)

I knew that if I didn't write this stuff down, I wouldn't remember when they asked me. I still do it now that we're home because otherwise I'd forget and lose track of things—particularly in the middle of the night (and I got to say that the Pilot's Pen I bought some time last year has been so helpful, allowing me to write stuff down without having to turn on the light). (Apparently there are books to help you with that sort of thing; I just used a Moleskine cahier because it was small and easily portable.)

It was baked beans for breakfast at 7 am (yuck!) so I asked Ben to get me a bacon and egg McMuffin since he was already going out for breakfast. (He wanted a sausage McMuffin but they were all out.) One of the midwives came around and cleared me for early discharge. (She also gave me a laxative because I told her I hadn't had a bowel movement since the birth and I was worried. Turns out it's common for your internal workings to take a little while to get back on track. Just saying that because I didn't know that either.)

One of the midwives did the oxygen test (whatever that is), then checked me one last time, and then we were free to go (woohoo!) So we packed up, dressed Astrid in clothes we had brought for her (that was really nice!) and wheeled Astrid's bassinet down to the desk near labour ward (with the flowers in the tray underneath because our hands were already full with bags and stuff). Ben went to get the car while the receptionist gave me the paperwork for registering Astrid's birth (done by post, and there's a fee for getting sent her birth certificate; you have to do this within 60 days of the birth), registering Astrid for Medicare/baby bonus/family assistance (that's all done on one Centrelink form, which you cannot download from their website; they're very strict with who they give the form to, so if you lose the one you're given, it's a right royal pain to get another one. You have 52 weeks from the date of birth to submit that one). Everything came in this parent pack:

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It contains a DVD on parenting, which is quite helpful, and has documentaries about parenting from birth up to school age. It's put out by the Raising Children Network, and it covers practical topics like breastfeeding, bathing, budgeting and changing nappies.

Once we were done with the receptionist, Astrid and I waited in the foyer for Ben. When he arrived (parking in one of the 20-minute zones), we put her into her carseat for the first time (which took a little while since we'd never done it before) and loaded everything in. I wheeled the bassinet back. Fortunately the receptionist told me I could leave it near labour ward instead of wheeling it all the way back to the post-natal ward. Then we drove home.

It was nice to be back at the flat instead of in hospital, but it was also a bit of a crash back into reality: there was snail mail to pick up, messages to answer, emails, Facebook, Twitter, SMS, etc. (I'd been dealing with some of the SMSs in hospital, but mostly I'd been off-grid, whereas Ben had been microblogging away with pictures of our little girl.) Having my finger in so many communication pies meant that I was immediately faced with the problem of notifying everyone of our little arrival. Ben had done that more or less with social networking (and social networking certainly makes it easy!), but there were people who weren't on social networking. A couple weren't even on email! (Most exasperatingly, they're phone people, which meant we had to go out of our way to contact them.) It was hard in those early days to make sure everyone knew, and I had to set aside some time to get my address book into shape so that I could.

(A note about communication technology: it's good to make your husband/partner the primary contact for all stuff to do with meals, visits, etc. You need to rest as much as possible—stealing sleep when you can—and you don't want to have to deal with your mobile/email/Facebook messages/Twitter account when you're supposed to be napping.)

On the first day, I think I made the mistake of staying up too much in between feeds when I really should have been sleeping. I did neglect the housework though; it may sound gross, but I didn't even change the sheets from where my waters had broken (they had dried out by then). Later, of course, I was able to do a bit more in between feeds. But it took a little while before I was even up for stuff like housework.

Fortunately I had a small stock of freezer meals that had been prepared earlier, so we didn't have to cook. (Most fortunate indeed; the church food roster didn't start 'til the Monday. [Also, if you ever need an electronic tool for food rosters, Food Tidings is pretty good. But it also means that everyone on it has to sign up to the service.])

The first night was hard, though: I would feed Astrid and put her down to sleep, then half an hour later, she would be up again wanting more (ah, cluster feeding!) She finally stopped at around 3 am. However, I couldn't sleep, so after lying there for about an hour, I got up and did things. Big mistake.

I should say something more here about breastfeeding. So much gets written about it, it fills whole books! It's the thing that causes the most anxiety, I reckon, among new mums, because it's totally foreign. (Yes, even though we're mammals, breastfeeding is weird.) Changing nappies and bathing babies is easy; breastfeeding is like being plunged into a different country where you don't speak the language. No wonder people get so emotional about it; when you start, it's hard to know if you're doing it right, and your anxiety, of course, is fuelled by your fatigue.

To breastfeed or not to breastfeed also seems quite political. There are really good reasons to do it, but not everyone can. For some reason, some mothers feel really guilty if they can't—as if they're bad mothers and cannot provide for and nurture their children. All the fuss just makes me want to tell people to get over themselves and not to worry. But then, I haven't had any problems and probably can't talk …

Anyway, what helped me was that I attended a two-hour seminar on it at RPA about a month before the birth, organised by the Parent Education Centre. It cost money (I forget how much; $40, perhaps?) but it was really useful. They showed us a video about latching (probably the hardest part about breastfeeding because if you get it wrong, the baby doesn't get much and you end up with really sore and even cracked nipples), and talked about breast health and stuff. They didn't really go into some of the details of what you're supposed to do and what to expect, though. This is what I've been able to glean (and I'm sure some of it's wrong, but anyway …):

Even now, I'm still coming to terms with my post-partum body. Yes, it's sore (but getting better). Yes, there are my stitches (which are going; they're the kind that dissolve after a while). Yes, I'm sleep-deprived (but somehow managing it; it reminds me of my HSC year when my sleep was really really horrendous). Yes, I leak in places where I did not leak before. My maternity clothes are hanging off me, but I'm not small enough for my old clothes, and it's a little too soon for serious workouts. My stomach looks like a deflated balloon (I'm sure there's a crater where my belly button used to be), and my stretch marks look like an earthquake has ripped through my abdomen. Everything's saggier and baggier.

I know that childbirth changes you and that you never really go back to the way you once were. I know that the female body changes so much from month to month, year to year. I guess I didn't even think about having to become comfortable in my own skin again. This might take a while. (The nice thing is Ben still thinks I'm pretty, even though I feel like a shipwreck!)

The good news is that the pelvic pain is getting better. I'm still not 100 per cent the way I was, but I expect that will come with time. Thankfully I am able to walk much more than I used to, and can even go up and down the stairs carrying things without too much trouble. I am totally loving the increased mobility.

Day 4: Friday

To make up for the early morning of not being able to sleep, I tried to sleep in the mid-morning in between feeds. I got two hours, and then, later, another hour, but then the midwife from the early discharge program turned up, so Ben had to wake me up. Oh my, I was so out of it! And, of course, being fatigued makes you emotional. The midwife told us that Astrid had jaundice and needed more sun (which made me feel like a bad mother, which is sort of stupid because most newborns have jaundice as they haven't seen the sun, having been inside their mothers for nine months!) Astrid had acceptable levels of jaundice. Then the midwife talked to me about all sorts of things I don't remember, and wanted to observe me breastfeeding. She was telling me all this stuff that I didn't have the capacity to take in (e.g. how to look after my stitches), as well as asking me all these questions I didn't have the brain function to answer. Plus I felt like she was telling me everything I was doing wrong instead of praising me and encouraging me for the stuff I was doing right (because I was pretty sure I was doing some stuff right!)

So when she left, I had a mini-meltdown and started to crying, and had to be comforted by Ben, who had to tell me that I was doing a good job and that it was all right. I knew me feeling crummy and emotional was because of sleep deprivation, but of course, knowing these things doesn't always help when you're in the middle of experiencing them.

Later in the day, my father and stepmother came to visit again because they were flying out at 7 am the following day. I managed to be coherent for that, thank goodness!

I should say something here about how the day goes. There is no typical day, but it amazes me how quickly the time passes. I knew intellectually that babies feed every 3-4 hours and that each feed can take up to an hour, but somehow it didn't sink in until I was dealing with it in practice. It's not always that regular either. Here's what one of the early days looked like:

Time Feeding time (min)
00:25-00:50 25
01:35-01:45 10
02:35-03:25 60
06:25-07:10 45
09:30-10:05 35
10:30-11:00 30
11:15-11:30 15
13:40-13:55 15
14:25-14:50 25
20:20-20:50 30
23:45-00:35 50

Sometimes Astrid sleeps in between feedings (and sometimes I do too). Sometimes she refuses to settle, and cries and cries. The thing is, you can never tell when she wants to feed. You can sort of estimate—and certainly recent days have been more regular (however, babies don't tend to develop a routine until six? eight? weeks)—but it's not always when you expect. Here's what a more recent day looked like:

Time Feeding time (min)
01:35-02:05 30
04:50-05:10 20
08:15-08:35 20
10:45-11:10 25
13:30-14:00 30
16:30-17:05 25
20:05-20:25 20
23:15-23:40 25

Obviously the times have been rounded up or down for simplicity's sake. And I haven't factored in the time it takes to do nappy changes and stuff, so the end times are somewhat artificial. But I hope that gives you some idea of the contrast between the early days and now, and how it's near impossible to do much else (e.g. housework, going anywhere) in these early weeks. This is why I am very grateful to the people who made and brought us meals, ran errands for us, cleaned and brought stuff we needed; if we had not had that support in the beginning, it would have been very hard indeed, and perhaps I would have felt a lot more like Vicki Glembocki.

The whole feeding-every-three-to-four-hours thing means that you have to become really efficient and ruthless about things like sleep and other non-baby things you might have to do. My mother said she learned to sleep anywhere and at any time; I don't feel like I've mastered that, but I've noticed I've become quicker at getting to sleep. Wearing an eye mask during the day helps. Strangely enough, pelvic floor exercises also help with relaxation (though I'm not sure if it's the exercises themselves or the counting). I've found that I need a minimum of about six hours of sleep per day (which I can only get in two-hour blocks). Any less than that and I am incredibly crabby and impatient; any more is something of a bonus!

Day 5: Saturday

This day was better. I slept for a good slab (because Astrid did) and felt a lot happier. My school friends came to visit as they had missed the period when we were in hospital. Some of them were a bit late because they had gone to vote and the lines were crazy (it made me glad that we had voted early). It was good to see them, and they got to hold Astrid in turn. (I kept taking photos of people holding Astrid. It made me feel like I was compiling a collection like those people who like showing off their photos of them with famous people.)

Later in the day, the early discharge program midwife was back, and I was in a much better frame of mind to talk to her. She said, “Your post-partum recovery is going like a dream”, and after weighing Astrid (who was almost back to her birth weight) and doing a final check, she told us that she didn't need to come back again.

In the evening, we had some of Ben's friends over: Leigh, Marto, Marto's wife Belinda and their little girl Holly (who is several months older than Astrid). We ordered Crust Pizza for dinner and watched the ABC news election coverage on silent (while making fun of the candidates' and electorates' names). Amazingly, Astrid slept through the whole thing. I enjoyed having them over but felt really drained afterwards. I think I ended up sleeping on the couch with the bassinet in the lounge room.

(In those early days, we would wheel the bassinet between the lounge room during the day and the bedroom at night. Then we tried to keep it in the bedroom so Astrid would learn to associate it with night-time sleep. That hasn't quite worked. These days, we keep the bassinet in the bedroom and the carrycot in the lounge, and for day sleeps, we put her in the carrycot. I don't know if that's a better compromise, but anyway, whatever works …)

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Let me say something about Astrid the person here. It's been lovely getting to know her. She's quite a complacent baby, and only cries when she wants to feed, when we undress her (she doesn't like baths but is getting more and more used to them), and when she's overtired (but won't sleep; the other night we got our first taste of what parents call the arsenic hour: that's the time during the early to mid-evening when the baby wails like the world's ending and nothing you do can settle her). I feel really fortunate: she doesn't have reflux, and though she's thrown up occasionally, it hasn't been that bad and she hasn't been terribly upset about it.

She's a really restless sleeper, though. (It's funny that we have the phrase “he/she slept like a baby” because babies are the worst sleepers in the world, and have to be trained to do it. Sometimes I think, “How can I train this little person to sleep when I'm so bad at it myself?”) I don't know if this is normal in babies, but if you watch her sleep, you see the full spectrum of emotions crossing her face (including smiles; you normally don't see smiles until about 6 weeks, according to the books. A friend told me that often they will express emotions in their sleep that you do not see on their faces when they're awake until much later). The saddest is when she is clearly having a nightmare and there is nothing you can do to protect her from it. It seems odd that someone so young should have nightmares (about feeding? about the birth?), but hopefully she will grow out of them. At least when she is older, perhaps we can teach her to deal with them.

We're still learning what her cries and cues mean (e.g. when she goes cross-eyed, we know she's doing a poo). Also, when the midwife from the early childhood centre came to visit (you have to ring a central hotline and register yourself with their programs, and then someone from your local centre comes to visit you at home to see how things are going with the baby, to tell you about their services and invite you to a mother's group), she pointed out that Astrid had wind and that you could tell because her cries were really gravelly (but this isn't always the case). Sometimes the cues mean more than one thing (e.g. sucking noises mean she's hungry but they can also mean she's tired). Sometimes when Astrid's crying, it's hard to work out what to do. She doesn't come with a manual, and the books can only help you so much with this (and I have a plethora of books around me: Robyn Barker's Baby Love [best read as a reference textbook; reading it straight through is boring as], Pregnancy, Childbirth, and the Newborn, Kaz Cooke's Kidwrangling [which Ros lent me], Margot Sunderland's What Ever Parent Needs to Know, etc.) Ditto the internet. And often the things you read seem contradictory. For example, “they” say it's good to establish good habits with sleep (i.e. do the same things every time you put the baby down to sleep so they start associating those things to sleep and then will settle better). But then people also say to do what you need to do in the initial weeks in order to survive (e.g. feeding them to sleep [that's when the baby falls asleep while breastfeeding; that's usually a no-no]). I guess what “they” really mean is to work out what's right in your own context according to your own baby (since they're all little individuals!) Well, that's what I'm taking it to mean …

I've started to realise recently I need to lighten up about these niggly aspects of parenting. They were only making me stressed and were preventing me from enjoying my time with Astrid. I'm sure my stress was affecting her as well (Margot Sunderland tells me it does!) Then I read this interview with playwright Joanna Murray-Smith in Rachel Power's The Divided Heart: Art and Motherhood (Red Dog, Fitzroy, 2008) and it made me think differently:

What shocks me now is how little I understood that Sam [Joanna's firstborn] was a human when I had him. I really think it took me a long time to understand that. When I see new mothers around me, I see something of myself in them, and you can see that they're so absorbed with strategising, because they're really overwhelmed by tiredness and anxiety about giving up work and whether their husband's helping or whatever that they look at their child as something that has to be organised and managed. You see in the contemporary woman a real disinclination to engage emotionally with children. It's something that comes upon you, that you learn to do. I feel as if there isn't enough space for women to look deeply into the eyes of those babies and recognise them as little humans; they're not just a new part of the mother's life that has to be managed. I feel we've lost touch with that, as a modern society. It's not as if new mothers don't love those children, but there is a lack of bonding. (p. 92)

I don't want Astrid to feel like she is just something to be “managed”. I do want to engage with her emotionally and enjoy the time I have with her, because I know that time will slip by quickly. So I feel like I have to make a conscious choice to let up on some of these things that aren't hugely important anyway—to focus instead on her and what she needs right now (even if I can't always work out what she needs!).

I understand now why new mums find it hard to begin with. There's the stuff I've already talked about—the physical difficulties, the sleep deprivation, the learning how to do stuff that's completely new—and there's also relating to the baby. In the initial weeks, babies don't have much expression. They can't see very well and don't respond to you very much. They don't smile until about six weeks! They don't show affection. They don't recognise you; they look right through you—at the light, at their surroundings. They don't give much back. As a mum, you can feel like you're nothing but a milk factory to her. It's also hard because most of the time when I see her, it's when she's crying and cranky, whereas Ben tends to see her more when she was complacent and happy—having just fed, etc. (That said, often I hand her off to him when she won't settle. In my defense, those are usually the times when I need to sleep some more, or eat!) But I know it gets better—that soon she'll start recognising us, smiling, laughing, playing, and so on.

She changes from day to day. Some of those changes we've been able to capture through photos and video. Then comes the tricky task of sharing these things with friends and family—all three branches of family. I wanted to make it easy for us (and hence I did not want to use email), but I wanted to protect Astrid's privacy online. (When she's older, I don't know how she'd feel about us sharing all these photos and things about her publicly, creating a digital trail long before she could have any control over it.) I thought long and hard about this beforehand. I didn't want to create Astrid a Facebook profile because not only is that against their Privacy Policy (i.e. you can't join if you're under 13), it wouldn't be her operating the account; it would be us (and I wouldn't want to be speaking as if I was her) (We did share some photos and videos of her on Facebook, but I am over cautious about doing that simply because Facebook seems philosophically more in favour of making things public instead of keeping them private.) Twitter, however, is a different story. As Twitter is one of our preferred communication tools, I thought it would work if we set up an account for her (because accounts can be for anything, not just individuals). I locked it, which means that it's a private feed viewable only by people we choose to authorise. Furthermore, I created a Flickr set for the relatives, but I locked most of the photos. (Flickr lets you send out customised guest passes, which means friends and family who are not registered as my Flickr contacts can still view the photos.) I think it's all working fairly well. Maybe a couple of months down the track I will check with our relatives to see whether or not they think so too. In any case, it's a better alternative to email.

Day 6: Sunday

We had no visitors (because I deliberately scheduled in some “no visitors” days as I would get tired out). This meant I could rest more. By this stage, I realised that it was far more sensible for me to sleep when Astrid slept than to attempt to do things.

Going to church was out of the question. Firstly, I had no idea when Astrid would feed, and I needed to be there when she did. Secondly, I didn't feel physically well enough to leave the house (tackling three flights of stairs was enough of an obstacle in itself!) Thirdly, in my sleep-deprived state, it probably wasn't a good idea to drive anywhere. (I haven't been back to church since; I'm still trying to build myself up to driving anywhere with a newborn, juggling a pram and stuff.)

But I know mobility will come. Recently Ben and I took Astrid out of the house for the first time in the pram. We only went down the street to our local café (we had cake to celebrate the first day of spring and Astrid's first pram ride; she slept through most of it). But it was enough. Since then, we've attempted a longer walk. I have even gone for a turn around the block by myself with her (I wanted to see if I could manage a baby and a carrycot up and down three flights of stairs. It turns I can—with difficulty.) I'm sure that I'll be up to tackling the car soon.

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It's so lovely watching Ben with Astrid. I did not expect that. I did expect that he would love her; I did not expect that he would be so delighted with her, and that he would be the sort of father who takes lots of photos and puts them on social networking to share with his friends. I love how he's taken to being a father (he told me that he was so happy just after Astrid was born). He's so good with her, and he notices things I am too fatigued to notice (e.g. nappy rash). As I look after the feeding, he looks after the bathing and really seems to enjoy it. (Babies don't need to be bathed every day; every other day is fine.)

Also, I am really REALLY glad that Ben works from home at the moment. He can take her when she's too much for me or when I need to have a snooze. He can do things like change nappies and go to the shops for supplies. At first, I was trying to spare him the sleep deprivation by doing stuff like sleeping on the lounge with the bassinet close by, but he said that it was fine and he preferred us in the bedroom. I try not to wake him up too much during the night so that he's averaging about 6-7 hours per night—enough to be able to do the work he needs to do. But of course it's still a lot less than he used to get.

Day 7: Monday

We had been told that Astrid needed to see a GP within 10 days of her birth for the newborn check-up (there's a page in the blue book for that). Ben made an appointment with his GP (whom he really likes) and we ventured out for the first time in the car with our baby. This made me rather nervous (I kind of didn't want to leave the house ever again, or at least until I was up for it). But it went fine; we didn't have a proper nappy bag, so brought wipes and a spare in one of those green bags from the supermarket. We weren't waiting for too long because this GP, for some reason, ran pretty much on schedule. And everything was fine with Astrid; she'd even gained 100g since the day before when the midwife weighed her. He told us to come back in about a month when she would have her next check-up.

Unfortunately Astrid was getting nappy rash (already!), so Ben went to get some barrier cream for her. He also went and posted the birth registration form (somehow I'd managed to complete that one in the days before. I didn't have the energy and motivation to complete the Centrelink one though!) She wanted to feed while Ben was away, and cried bitterly with me in the car until he came back (I didn't want to feed her in the car). But she settled just fine when we returned home and I could feed her.

All the while through this period, I kept thinking how good it was that I didn't have a job—that I didn't have anything else I really had to do—that I didn't have to be anywhere and that no one was expecting anything of me. This, I felt, was enough: taking care of her was all I had to do. Remember, I was still sore, bleeding and sleep-deprived. Really, looking after a newborn is enough!

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I suppose I ought to say something about nappies (even though I said I wouldn't talk about poo anymore). In hospital, they use disposables. We decided at home to use cloth, and bought the above from Bum Genius at Miriam's recommendation. (Yeah, I was lazy and didn't do any research.) They were expensive, but not as expensive as using disposables in the long-run. (I am somewhat ashamed to say that the financial incentive won out over environmental motives.) They say you should have about 36 cloth nappies but we've found that 24 has been enough. The Bumgenius nappies are adjustable, and so will last Astrid until she's about 16 kg (whenever that is …) They're also fairly easy to use: with a soiled nappy, you just wipe off the solids with some toilet paper and flush it down the loo, then rinse both the insert and the nappy before placing them in a nappy bucket. (My hands were starting to dry out and flake until I had the bright but somewhat obvious idea of using rubber gloves for this bit.) When you have a nearly full bucket (which is about 8-12 soiled nappies), you wash them in the washing machine—first on a cold cycle and then on a hot cycle. I end up doing a load of them every other day. Lately, however, I've been putting Astrid in disposables at night because it's less of a hassle changing her in the small hours of the morning when you really don't want to be scrubbing stuff.

I realised from our time in hospital that newborns don't need very much. In hospital, the midwives would do nappy changes with the baby in the bassinet and a wrap protecting the mattress. We currently have our change mat on the dining room table (because the chest of drawers we ordered hadn't arrived yet; we were going to put the change mat on top of that). But we could easily change Astrid in her bassinet if need be.

Changes happen roughly every 3-4 hours in the middle of feedings. The stump of Astrid's umbilical cord fell off fairly early, so since then, we've had to clean the area with a Q-tip at every change because sometimes she bleeds there. I've learned to wait a bit after putting Astrid on the change mat: even though babies go at any time, for some reason, changing the nappy seems to signal to Astrid to do her business. So to avoid her doing her business on me or in the fresh nappy, I give her a little time before starting the change. (It doesn't always work; sometimes she soils the fresh nappy soon after I put it on her, which raises the question of whether she ought to be changed again straight away … is there an answer? And sometimes she has done her business on me—usually [and most frustratingly] in the small hours of the morning.)

The transition to motherhood

Right. That was the first week, plus assorted bits and pieces. I want to finish up by talking about something I raised at the beginning of this mammoth post—the mental shift I've had to undergo since becoming a mother. As I said, all the books talk the practicalities of breastfeeding, settling, nappy changes and the like. But few talk about the mental shift. I guess it's because it's such a nebulous thing; how do you even begin to talk about such a thing? How do you describe it to someone else who has never been through such a thing before?

It's partly to do with expectations—not about what I would be doing (and not doing, e.g. going out and hanging with my friends the way I used to), but how I would be. It's partly to do with the whole issue of giving up paid employment (and therefore significance, status and earning power) in a society that does not value motherhood much. It's partly to do with physicality—the way my body has changed post-birth—as well as more restricted mobility (it's harder going places with a baby). It's partly to do with identity. It's partly to do with the expectations and guilt that come with parenting. It's partly to do with trying to figure out the shape of my life now. And yet it's not quite like any of these things.

In those early days, I was doing all I needed to do, yet I felt like I was at a bit of a loose end. There were days when I felt quite flat and couldn't quite work out why. There were days when I thought, “I should be doing something” and other days when I thought, “This is all I have to do.” In the middle of all this, The Divided Heart was really helpful to me.

I'd picked it up in October 2008 when I went to visit Kathleen in Brisbane on Loobylu's recommendation. I'd even started it, but had only read two chapters, which frustrated me because of Power's feminist agenda. At the time, to me she was saying, “Isn't it unfair that men don't have to deal with these things and therefore can have flourishing artistic careers, whereas it's so much harder for women who want to also have children”. I thought, “Just get over it and negotiate some time off with your partner so you can do some writing. But accept that motherhood is hard and that this is what this season of your life is going to be like. There will be more time for writing later.” Strangely enough, the second time I read those chapters, I could identify with her experiences and see where she was coming from—not the feminism stuff but grappling with becoming a mother as well as being an artist. Furthermore, her question—that is, “How do you continue to practice your art when you become a mother?”—has become my question, to a certain extent. (For me, it's less about career as the desire to do something I enjoy and get a lot out of.)

The book is comprised of interviews that Power conducted with other mothers who maintain artistic careers—photographers, actors, directors, opera singers, musicians, writers, and so on. Her interviewees include Clare Bowditch, Rachel Griffiths, Nikki Gemmell and Emma Matthews. I've found the material fascinating. At times, the interviewees articulate things that I haven't been able to express about motherhood (e.g. Nikki Gemmell said that when she became a mother, “I had to rethink my whole existence”—p. 72). At other times, I've been awed at what some of these women have been able to achieve—particularly in the early days of their motherhood (not that I'd want to attempt some of these things …I'm just saying …). For example, Clare Bowditch made the decision to become more serious about her music just before she learned she was pregnant, and she would breastfeed backstage just before gigs, then go onstage and do a show. Joanna Murray-Smith took classes at Columbia on a scholarship, then would race home from campus to feed her child. Power herself would feverently memorise passages word for word, waiting for a spare moment when she could commit her sentences to paper.

I think overall I'm finding it really helpful because in the middle of their discussions about how they practice their art and what it's been like for them as mothers, they mention things about the transition—the before and the after—and what helped them along the way. Again, it's hard to quantify, but for some reason, I'm finding it really helpful for dealing with that sort of nebulous feeling.

Of course, no doubt this is a process, and it will probably be something that I will continue to wrestle with for the rest of my life. At least I've made my first steps, moving down this road. I reckon that counts for something.

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That is indeed an epic post! Brings back a lot of memories of Puff’s first weeks.

As far as how long until Astrid hits 16kgs, you can read it off the graphs in her blue book. I would guess somewhere between 2 and 3 years old.

Hi Karen,
Congratulations on Astrid’s birth.
A quick tip that we learned when we became parents and my wife was breastfeeding (don’t you love tips from strangers wink):

Instead of writing down which side to feed on next, stick a hairclip, or peg on your bra strap on the side they will next feed from. Then swap it over when you feed.

Then you never have to remember, and you don’t need to worry about writing it down.

It can be a hard transition. I’ve found it really helpful reading a book by Anne Smollon, Missing In Action: how mothers lose, grieve and retrieve their sense of self. I’d highly recommend it. It’s really short and it costs about $15 on book depository. It’s written with empathy and honesty. I found it so good I keep wanting to recommend it to all my friends but I worry they’ll think I’m judging them or something!

Posted by Bronwyn on 11 September, 2010 1:57 AM

It sounds really tough, but absorbing at the same time! Also scary. Also worthwhile. (You are helping build a person!!!)

It’s kind of weird, but I feel really proud of you that the nurses and midwives were so pleased with your progress! It’s like, “Yeah, the Beilharzs are awesome, look at them go!” Though I do imagine that a lot of it is out of anyone’s control… who can make a baby do anything…? But hey, may as well be pleased when things go well!

Posted by Little on 11 September, 2010 6:00 AM

Thanks guys!

@RodeoClown: I had heard about the peg thing but had forgotten about it. I think my tendency would be to lose the peg!

@Bron: Thanks for the book recommendation! I will check it out.

@Karen - no worries. Actually I’d forgotten but you can read most of the first chapter online:

http://books.google.com.au/books?id=-Hadp7hoGgIC&dq;="missing+in+action"+smollon&printsec=frontcover&source=bn&hl=en&ei=xPaOTN6LOJGcvgPxis27Cw&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=4&ved=0CCIQ6AEwAw#v=onepage&q;&f;=false

Posted by Bronwyn on 14 September, 2010 9:17 PM

Yes. Nodding through your post. I think every mother struggles to put the whole experience into words…

There is much to be said for cultures that basically support a mother for the first MONTH. She does no cooking, cleaning etc but is just cared for & blessed by her community…

Posted by Elissa on 16 September, 2010 5:47 PM

Thanks for the link, Bron!

@Elissa: I’d heard that! The wife of one of my friends is Korean and she said that’s common in her culture—that the mother does nothing and everyone else waits on her! Sounds wonderful smile

I think I’ve had it pretty good: listening to some of the experiences in my mother’s group, I feel really blessed to have had people bring us meals, people checking up on us to see how we’re doing, Ben working at home, and my mum, who paid for a lady to come clean for us. So good! I don’t know how I’ll go back to “real life” … well, as real as real can be.



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