by Melody Tan

It was love at first sight. But it was also tinged with doubt, fear, and as the weeks wore on, shadowed with a bit of regret. What have I gotten myself into? Can I really do this? Why is it so hard?

My husband and I welcomed a new addition to our family about three months ago. Little Elliott not only caught us by surprise by being a week and a half early, he was born after a rapid three-hour labour (the average for first-timers is eight). The little man was in so much of a hurry he was nearly born at the hospital’s car park!

Nothing can fully describe the myriad of emotions I felt the moment the midwife placed the warm, slimy, and rather sticky little human on my chest. There was an overwhelming feeling of relief knowing that the pain of childbirth was over, a profound sense of exhaustion from all the pushing, and an intense protective love for this tiny and bewildered-looking stranger lying on me.

Thanks to the rush of feel-good hormones that floods a woman’s body immediately after giving birth, the initial couple of mornings in hospital were a heady mix of bliss and joy. I could not stop gazing adoringly at the tiny little bundle wrapped up in the bassinet next to my bed. We were both exhausted from the birth so we spent a good amount of time sleeping. Learning how to breastfeed turned out to be pretty straightforward and my confidence soared.

Then on the second night,Elliott woke up enough to understand what it meant to be hungry. His mother, on the other hand, was still tired, with a body so sore it was as if she had just completed an intensive mountaineering expedition. I needed a good night’s rest, but that was as elusive as a newborn who could dress himself. 

On the second night, Elliott woke up enough to understand what it meant to be hungry. His mother, on the other hand, felt like she had just completed an intensive mountaineering expedition.

On that and subsequent nights breastfeeding took up to two hours at a time, and it felt like as soon as we were finished and I was falling back to sleep, that he wanted to be fed again. It also became increasingly difficult to get Elliott back to sleep, which sometimes meant by the time his next feeding came along, I was still trying to settle him from the last.

Luckily, because I was still in hospital, when it was too hard to handle I could ask a nurse to take him to the night nursery, bringing him back only when he needed to be fed. It was an emotional struggle handing Elliott over—I felt somehow I was shirking my responsibility—but when I was awakened after two hours of uninterrupted sleep by the nurse bringing Elliott back, I was certainly grateful for the rest.

All good things, unfortunately, have to come to an end. On the fifth day, we were discharged and while my husband and I were eager to begin the rest of our lives with Elliott, we were more than a little fearful of doing it on our own. Perhaps me even more so, as after enjoying full-time work for more than 10 years and not being particularly maternal, I was now going to stay home and be Elliott’s primary carer.

It didn’t take long for us to miss the hospital’s night nursery. That very night, with no nurse to magically whisk a crying baby away, my husband ended up bringing Elliott out into the living room at five in the morning so that I could finally get some semblance of sleep. Similar patterns emerged the next few nights. (While not perfect, Elliott was somewhat less of a crybaby during the day.) Yet, despite the lack of sleep, I was still flushed with joy and love, and the naïve certainty I could handle whatever was thrown my way.

“I don’t understand how postnatal depression can hit anyone,” I told my husband a few days later. “Yes, I wish I had more sleep, but I am just so happy!”

Nobody told me that babies wake up even more over the weeks, finding their lungs at the same time.

In a world where extended families are living across greater distances, the sad reality is that many mothers end up raising their children isolated and away from relatives—and for many, that means going without a reliable and trusted support network.

I was incredibly blessed to have my mum take time out of her work and travel from Singapore to come be with us and help us through the initial six weeks. However, even with her help in cleaning, cooking and babysitting, I soon felt like I had been hit by a freight train when it came to coping with life with a newborn.

It started with the discovery that I had a low milk supply. Elliott lost a considerable amount of weight the week after he was discharged from the hospital, enough to warrant introducing formula to top up his feeds. The extra food thankfully meant he was settling back to sleep easier, but it added a new dimension to baby-rearing and a gigantic dark cloud loomed over my head: do I have what it takes to ensure my baby grows up happy and healthy?

Then there was the time everything took. My entire day was consumed by sitting in the rocking chair for an hour, feeding Elliott and topping him up with a bottle of formula, sometimes taking what feels like as long trying to get him to go back to sleep (it was easier but not miraculous), followed by sitting on the chair in the study (an area I’ve since nicknamed “The Dairy”) for half an hour expressing milk to boost my supply, and if I was lucky, having a few minutes to myself—a drink, a quick visit to the restroom, a short lie down—and then repeating the process all over again. Never mind the fact that bottles needed sterilising, food needed to be cooked, and laundry needed to be washed (which Mum thankfully took on for the time she was staying with us).

When I was pregnant, people warned my husband and me life was never going to be the same again, but I don’t think it ever sunk in just how different it would be. I could no longer jump in the car at the spur of the moment to drive to wherever I wanted. Leisurely strolls down the supermarket aisles were a thing of the past. Everything we wanted to do had to be timed to when Elloitt would be fed. And nice, quiet dinners with my husband no longer existed—one of us has to hold or soothe the baby while the other one ate. My organised, structured life no longer made sense. The day Elliott was born was the day the old me died, and I didn’t even have the time to mourn. I loved the cute little munchkin, but I terribly missed the independent and carefree life I used to have.

Then there were the expectations. Having never been exposed to the ins and outs of childrearing, I tackled a number of parenting books with the fervour of an over-achieving student. I took copious notes and bookmarked significant pages. I committed to memory all the things I needed to do when it came to feeding Elliott and helping him settle to sleep—and I soon found myself falling deeper and deeper into despair when he didn’t follow the script.

He wasn’t going three hours between every feed like clockwork: Sometimes it was two hours, sometimes 30 minutes. Only occasionally did we meet the three-hour target.

He didn’t seem to understand the eat-play-sleep-repeat routine: There was no such thing as a routine.

He wasn’t sleeping in one to two hour stretches: We were lucky if he even went to sleep and considered it a miracle if he woke up 40 minutes later, and not five.

None of the resettling techniques worked: I tried swaddling him, shushing him, patting him, rocking him, changing his nappy . . . you name it, I’ve tried it and still Elliott would cry—loudly and inconsolably.

What was wrong with my baby? I’ve tried everything the books said to do, but I wasn’t getting any of the results they promised.

At a time when I felt I could no longer handle being a mum, God stepped in to give me the strength I needed, and Elliott the peace he needed.

Then we hit six weeks and my world came crashing down around me. By then, Elliott was crying, and crying hard. It felt like he spent all his awake moments crying and there was nothing we could do to soothe him. I was embarrassed to even go out in public with him because of the fear that he would wake up and have one of his uncontrollable crying sessions.

I was convinced he was ill in some way, but the medical professionals we approached told us the crying was completely normal and that he was a perfectly healthy baby. It was cold comfort for a sleep-deprived, worry-filled first-time mum who had to listen to her child cry for hours and was at wit’s end as to how to solve a problem she couldn’t determine.

Friends who had been there before promised things would get better, but life looks pretty dim when you’re running on a total of four hours of sleep a night and facing a baby who never seems to stop crying. My days were filled with a neverending cycle of feed, change and expressing of milk, complemented by a healthy dose of crying. It didn’t take long for me to join Elliott in his crying sessions. I was at a loss as to what to do. I wanted to comfort my baby, but I didn’t know how. I wanted to take away his pain, but I didn’t know where to start.

Eventually, I wished I never embarked on this journey called motherhood because it was just all too hard. It was too hard emotionally because his crying wrenched my heart. It was too hard physically because I was still recovering from being pregnant and the labour, and there was a lot of carrying, lifting, and bending over when it came to caring for a baby. It was too hard mentally because I still couldn’t let go of the life I once had. It was even too hard spiritually because no amount of praying could stop Elliott from crying—that is if I even prayed at all, since exhaustion and worry consumed most of thoughts. Just when it seemed like I was heading towards full-blown postnatal depression, Elliott’s crying eased and we had better success coaxing him to sleep and back again when he woke before he was meant to. And then he flashed us his first smile: A toothless grin that brought a dimple to his cheek, a sparkle in his dark grey eyes and an abundance of love from my heart.

I still can’t say for certain motherhood is completely worth it, but at a time when I felt I could no longer handle being a mum, Elliott did enough to melt my heart and bring sunshine back into my life again. And perhaps God stepped in to give me the strength I needed, and Elliott the peace he needed.

Today, with Elliott almost three months old, things have gotten better. He still cries, but he also spends many of his awake moments smiling, cooing and looking curiously at things or my face. I still worry about his wellbeing, but I have learned to trust the medical professionals when they say everything is fine, and to trust God to watch over him. We have settled into a vague semblance of a routine and I have grown accustomed to being a milk machine—in fact, I do much of my work, such as writing this article, during those times. Elliott has also dropped one of his night feeds, and together with my husband taking over caring for him immediately after his last feed of the day, I was actually getting an adequate amount of sleep (in two three-hour stretches).

There are moments when Elliott still cries inconsolably, but I feel better equipped to handle them now, and I am looking forward to watching this little man grow.


Melody Tan

 

 

Melody Tan is on leave from her job as an assistant editor at Signs of the Times magazine in Australia. She and her husband are the new parents of baby Elliott Bell as of 22 July 2016.