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I’m a little embarrassed to admit this (so when has that stopped me?) but the biggest shock I received when I became a new parent was how needy a newborn was.
Crazy, right? Like I totally should have known this going into it. On an intellectual level, I suppose I did know, but I also think it’s one of those things that until you’ve lived it, you can’t really know.
I think the longer you wait to have kids, the bigger this shock is to your system. I was 31 when I had my first. By this somewhat average maternal age, I was already quite accustomed to coming and going as I pleased. I regularly slept 8-9 hours a night. If I wanted, I could stay out until 1am on a “school night” and suffer no long-term repercussions. I went to the gym, read magazines, made phone calls and used the restroom all with relative ease, minimal planning, and zero guilt. That life was all I knew, and when it came to a screeching halt, there was a bit of sadness and fear involved.
Because I chose to breastfeed, this crushing reality came bearing down on me during the first week after giving birth. The major drawback of breastfeeding, as I see it, is that this singular choice makes everything just that much harder. It’s throws another thing on the pile to figure out, as if you didn’t already have enough unknowns in your life. When you breastfeed, every feeding is not just about the baby and their need to eat, it’s also about you and your need to get said eats out of said boobs.
Breastfeeding means that you are always on call and there is no other person on the planet that can take your place. If I wasn’t physically feeding my baby, I still had to address the situation one way or another. No matter how much I may have wanted my husband to take over “just this once,” it just wasn’t possible. Ever.
The moment I realized this, I was devastated. I know that’s a big word to use for this situation, but in my sleep-deprived, hormonal, emotional new parent state, it was like hearing my world had ended and my new reality was one of complete servitude. I was now on call 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, no breaks, no excuses.
Hindsight is always 20/20, and with clarity of vision, I soon realized this feeling was overblown just a tad. I felt that way because at the time I had no idea how fast newborns turned into babies, babies into toddlers, and toddlers into children. You just don’t know how fast until you are watching your own kids grow up. How can you know something like this until you experience it for yourself?
I recently had one of those memory-searing moments when you suddenly realize just how fast your child has grown up. During a walk in a local park, my three year-old daughter stopped to pet a dog. When the nice owner bent down to introduce the dog to her, they had a conversation. A real, completely comprehensible conversation that went something like this:
Owner: “Do you have a doggie?”
Brooke: “No, no, I just have kitties.”
Owner: “I always wanted a doggie so I got this one when I got a house.”
Brooke: “But where do you live?”
Owner: “I live over there, not far. Where do you live?”
Brooke: “I live down the street.”
And just like that my throat was full of sentimental lumps.
I have always been her communication conduit. In her broken ‘toddler speak,’ it was I who translated her wishes to the world. When she pointed to the moon and said unintelligible things like “wittez,” I was the only one who knew she was saying “witches.” When she saw something at the store that matched up with something we talked about at home, I knew what she was thinking and I answered her question before she asked it. I was her mind reader, primary translator, and language semi-conductor.
Watching her carry on this conversation with a total stranger made me realize that she didn’t need me for that anymore. From here on out, she was good with making her own conversations, and that left a bittersweet taste in my mouth.
Slowly over time, the bottomless well of needs abate, sometimes imperceptibly. Just when you complete and/or master one thing, a crop of different needs, issues, milestones come up and you are forced outside of your comfort zone in different ways. The cycle feels endless.
But at some point you get used to it. When you do, it folds back onto itself and all over you like a rogue wave or some alternate universe-like an Escher optical illusion.
That same sad and fearful feeling I had meeting the endless needs of my newborn came back around for the opposite reason-because I was no longer needed!
There is a biting sense of loss in moments like this. I have keep reminding myself that I’m not losing her, and the reason she doesn’t need me is because I gave her what I had when she needed me most.
If I can hold on to the sweetness of that, while beating back the bitter, what a wonderful, endless circle of giving and letting go I can leave her with. Something she can use wherever she goes, and with whomever she speaks to.
Round and round and round…
Shannon Lell is a fallen corporate ladder climber turned writer and stay-at-home mother living near Seattle. She writes introspective pieces on personal and social issues at Shannon Lell.