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What I Learned From Becoming a Mother Unexpectedly

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My son was born five weeks early. When I took him home from the hospital, he weighed 4 pounds 11 ounces. He was tiny, and I was terrified. For the first three months of his life, he had undiagnosed health issues and screamed whenever he was awake. It took me hours to feed him, and he was often constipated. One morning, after being up most of the night trying to calm him down, I put him into his car seat and drove to the grocery store, which was less than a mile down the road. I hadn’t showered or changed in days, and I didn’t bring a diaper bag since we were only going in to find something I hadn’t yet tried that might help with his constipation. Luckily, Vincent stayed calm long enough for us to get through the check-out line and back into the car. But after I strapped him into his seat, my car wouldn’t start.

Thirty seconds, I told myself. That’s how long I would allow myself to fall apart before collecting my thoughts and figuring out how to get home. My boyfriend, Josh, is in the Air Force and does aircraft maintenance in Fort Drum, which is three hours away. Most everyone else I knew was at work. I put my forehead on the steering wheel and sobbed as Vincent began to scream. Less than a minute later, I made some phone calls. Then, I took Vincent out of the car and began walking around the parking lot. It was a mild fall day, and being outside usually calmed him. At least half a dozen people came over to ask if I was okay, and while I was grateful for their concern, I felt utterly exhausted and alone. I don’t mean exhausted as in I hadn’t slept in months (though that was also true); I mean I felt like my resources—physically, mentally, and emotionally—had been exhausted.

Before becoming a mother, I could best be described as gregarious. I had many circles of friends. In any given week, I could have plans with multiple people on different days, or I could go to my favorite bar down the street by myself and chat with the waitresses and bartenders. I worked as an Academic Counselor at a local college where I also taught an Italian-American literature course. Every Monday, I met up with a group of people to play trivia, and every year I trained for and ran a half-marathon. I hadn’t been in a serious relationship in years, but I loved my freedom. The year before I had Vincent, I took trips to New York City, Chicago, Hawaii, and Puerto Rico. For all intents and purposes, I was physically, mentally, and emotionally healthy, happy, and stable.

After having my son, I became privy to all of the overwhelming joys and anxieties of a world I had known very little about, but gaining access to this world excluded me from the one I lived in previously. My carefree, spontaneous, single life was gone, and I didn’t know how to cope with my new one. Motherhood became simultaneously the most unifying and isolating experience I have ever gone through.

The year Vincent was born, I had six weddings to attend. Four of them happened to be four weekends in a row, starting September 10th. This wasn’t an atypical year for me. My refrigerator was often filled with invitations to multiple events, including showers and weddings. Just two days after the first of the four weddings, I went into labor. Vincent arrived on the 13th, and on the 17th, I was a bridesmaid. The most vivid memory I have from that day is standing by the altar, pressing my arms tightly against my sides as I clung to my bouquet, hoping my dress (still three sizes too big even after multiple alterations) wouldn’t slip down and looking at Josh, fearful that Vincent would wake up at any moment and need to eat. He slept through the ceremony but woke up just before the wedding party was announced. I could hear the muffled sounds of the DJ over the microphone as I breastfed Vincent in a basement room of the wedding venue. Later, while everyone else ate and danced, Josh and I got ready for bed. I quickly realized that I couldn’t fit Vincent into my old life; I would now have to fit my life around him.

It’s the toughest job you will ever have. Your whole life changes. Your capacity for love grows. All of the cliché, albeit accurate, phrases I heard about being a parent before becoming one were abstract. I understood them as concepts, but I didn’t know them concretely. What I saw of parenthood before having Vincent came mostly from Facebook and Instagram friends’ posts, which made it look like a skillful art project, where even the mess was adorable. I have been guilty of this too. What people often see is Vincent’s clever, curious, and adventurous side—finding ways around the baby gate to get up the stairs, splashing in the water at our camp in the 1000 islands, smiling in front of the airplanes his father works on. I didn’t post pictures of him vomiting in the back seat of my car the day after I had it detailed or a video of the full-scale meltdown he had in the greeting card aisle at Wal-Mart.

My friend, whose wedding I was in four days after giving birth, often questions me when I tell her Vincent is being particularly challenging or that we’re having a bad day. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” she’ll say, “every time I see him he’s a sweet angel.” She’s only half-joking, of course. What she usually sees is what Alfred Hitchcock calls a good story: “life, with the dull parts taken out.” Or in this case, the chaotic, grueling, stressful parts. Social media, especially, only gives an overview: the graceless but beautiful first steps, sparkling dance costumes and little league games, visits with the Easter Bunny and Paw Patrol birthday parties. We rarely see the overextended, frazzled parents or guardians who make these events possible. They’re the ones behind the camera.

Before having a child of my own, I never thought about the a story behind the lens—the fear, anxiety, and self-doubt that would come along with parenthood, the struggle to find a balance, the constant questioning of my abilities, losing a part of myself. When I look at pictures from Vincent’s baptism, I see a baby in a turquoise bow tie reaching into a bowl of holy water, and I smile. But I also remember the chaos leading up to that moment: scrambling to set up the reception area the night before; Josh and I arguing as we drove around all morning tending to last-minute details; slipping into my dress while ironing Vincent’s white shirt, pants, and vest. Walking into the church, I realized that I never put Vincent’s vest on him, and the brand new baby shoes I bought for the occasion never made it out of the box.

For me, parenting has been like building and flying a plane. I collected all of these parts—some I bought; others were given to me—and I had to put them together. There were no clear instructions, so I became responsible for finding resources: asking for help from family members and friends, looking up information on the Internet, reading books, and downloading apps. Once the plane was built, I had to learn to operate it, but it also needs constant maintenance, tune-ups, and replacement parts. Even when it’s running smoothly, the weather could change at any moment, making it difficult to pilot.

This doesn’t mean that I don’t love my son more than anything or anyone else in the world or that I want my former life back. It means that I’ve had to re-envision my life and learn to navigate unknown territory.

Even after Vincent was born, I knew that I wasn’t prepared for motherhood, and I felt even less equipped to care for an infant who needed treatment I couldn’t seem to find. I had no frame of reference, but I was certain that it should never be as difficult as it was to feed my baby, nor should he be screaming for three to four hours at a time. After numerous appointments with Vincent’s doctor and an emergency room visit, I reached out to a friend from high school who is a mother of three and a pediatrician. I explained all of Vincent’s symptoms, along with the remedies I had already tried. “I’m beginning to lose my mind,” I told her. Though she’s lived in Pennsylvania for years, she still has connections at a local hospital. She referred me to a friend of hers who specializes in pediatric gastroenterology. “Please get his opinion,” she urged, “even just to feel better. If you call and there’s a long wait, I might be able to talk to him about getting you in sooner.” I made the call, and that appointment changed our lives.

For first-time parents, having a child can be an isolating experience filled with uncertainty. Once I opened up about my own struggles, I received messages from other mothers who faced similar challenges, including my childhood best friend. Before then, I had no idea that her son screamed relentlessly for eight months or that she had just as much difficulty feeding him as I did Vincent. Her account of being on the brink of madness helped me to keep my sanity. It’s the first time I felt like I wasn’t alone.

Toddlerhood has brought its own set of challenges, but I’ve learned how to withstand the turbulence. The first step is to uncover the true narrative of parenthood. Simply stating that parenting is hard or that life changes after children only theorizes the experience, minimizing the struggle that parents, especially first-time parents, go through both internally and externally. We need to share our stories in more real and tangible ways, offer sympathy and encouragement, give and ask for advice, seek and accept help. At the end of the day, many of us are overwrought with complex emotions and new responsibilities, and we need to know that we’re not alone. It’s the only way to keep the plane from crashing.

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