by Shannon Forchheimer
It’s 2am, and I am abruptly awoken from a deep sleep by the baby monitor next to my bed. He's grunting and whining, and I know what's to come. I can lie in bed for 5 more minutes and let him fuss – just five more minutes. But soon his fuss turns into a wail, and I pry myself out of bed. My husband is still sound asleep, and I feel a simultaneous twinge of resentment and pride. He gets to sleep, but he can’t do what I do. Our six-week old baby only wants me.
I come into Colin’s room bearing a glass of water – breastfeeding always brings on an insatiable thirst. I make the conscious decision to leave my iPhone behind, as looking at it only awakens me further and makes it harder to fall back to sleep, should I be given that luxury.
The lights remain off, and I rely on the glow from the hallway seeping under the door. I take him from his crib, change his diaper, and resist the urge to kiss him on the cheek. He needs to learn this is nighttime - no interaction, no lights, no stimuli. Colin is my third child, and I know the drill. Still, he is precious, with his gurgles and half smiles. But I am also annoyed, and exhausted. Please let him sleep until 7am after this.
And so our nursing dance begins. He latches immediately, and I turn on some baby lullabies on the iPad set up next to the rocking chair solely for this purpose - Baa Baa Blacksheep, Hush Little Baby, Twinkle Twinkle - all instrumental renditions that I have come to associate with the newborn period, especially this third time around. I relax in the chair and rock gently, feeling the tingling sensation of milk flowing through my breasts. His eyes start to close as he drinks, and so do mine, but I know I won't fall asleep in the chair. The fear of dropping him overwhelms my fatigue, and so I think.
About how many hours of sleep I have gotten thus far (about three), and how many more hours I need to feel somewhat normal the following day (about three more). About the day to come, and how I'll be flying solo with the three kids, my husband back at work after a brief paternity leave. About school pickups and how I will organize my breastfeeding schedule around them – at least one of the feedings will have to be in the car.
About my two older sons, Braden and Casey, and their karate classes and how I feel guilty that they have been missing so much. They will only miss more, because there is no practical way for me to take them in the near future. I halfheartedly assure myself that whatever has been taken away from them with the arrival of this new baby – time, attention, resources - will be outweighed by the gift of having an additional sibling. I take a moment to pray to a God I don’t necessarily believe in that the three of them always remain close.
About Braden's school search for next year and his graduation from preschool to kindergarten. How will we ever make a decision between public and private and how on earth we will afford private if that’s what we decide? I ponder Braden’s quirks and how he flaps his hands when he gets scared or excited, and all the few years of angst and doctor’s appointments we went through to realize that there’s really nothing more to it than that – no diagnosis, no treatment, just part of what makes him unique. It doesn’t bode well for grade school, though, and if a kid is ever mean to him I vow to track him down and kick his ass, simultaneously knowing I won’t and that cruelty in childhood is inevitable. Somehow he and I will both survive it.
About Casey's nut allergy, and how I need to follow up with Johns Hopkins to see if I can get him enrolled in a clinical trial. What if someday in college he’s drunk and eating at a diner at 2am and takes a bite of a banana nut muffin and doesn’t have the wherewithal to use his epi-pen, if he even has it with him? How is it he ended up with this allergy, anyway? Surely it’s something that I did wrong during pregnancy. Too many nuts? Not enough? The antibiotics I took for a sinus infection two months before his birth?
About my six-week postpartum OB appointment the following week, and what will happen if my bleeding still hasn't stopped. I may get the all clear for exercise and if so, I have to get working on those 13 pounds I have left to lose. I make a mental note to research gyms with childcare, and look into that half marathon I’ve been talking about running for the past decade. Will I ever really do it? I must. It will make my kids proud.
It's time to switch sides. I hold Colin up and attempt to burp him, but nothing comes out, so I sit him upright for a minute or two. Our faces are just inches apart, and his eyes are closed – he is milk drunk, passed out, and looking peaceful and satisfied. The sight of him leaves me awe struck. He is so small, so peaceful, his chest bobbing up and down with each breath, and his eyelids fluttering as he enters REM sleep. How is it that I made this human being? I realize that I can't remember what my other two children looked like when they were this exact age, though I know I stared at their faces in this very way. This realization scares me, as it dawns on me that someday I may not remember this picture, this moment. Closing my eyes, I try to imprint it in my mind.
My forehead touches his and I feel his sweet breath on my face. I wonder what happens when we die and if, like many have claimed, you see flashbacks of your life like a slideshow. I know for sure that this moment - this scene - would be in that reel.
I gently jostle Colin awake and he starts to nurse on the other side, as my thoughts go from introspective to practical. Will I ever get him to fall asleep on his own without rocking him? Will he ever sleep through the night - the entire night? Though I know it will eventually happen, I feel a sense of desperation because I don't know when. I begin fantasizing about a weekend trip my husband and I can take - just the two of us - once this milestone is reached.
I think about the medication I am taking and how I can't wait to get off of it eventually - to be normal again. I recall the desperate nights with Colin’s older brother, Casey, in the throes of postpartum depression and anxiety, when I had the very real, yet irrational, fear that I would never sleep again EVER, and how my mind would take that to the darkest of places – that I would end up in a mental institution and lose my children. The panic attacks, the loss of appetite, the insomnia, the shame at my inadequacies as a mother, the desire to just run away, the sheer terror of not understanding what was going on with my mind and my body – it all seems surreal in retrospect. The extent of my mental illness shocks me even though it was I who lived through it. I have a moment of gratitude for the medication that cures me, and I remind myself that it’s okay to take medication – that I’m not weak, I’m not inadequate, just sick. My therapist’s words enter my mind like a mantra: If you had pneumonia and needed medicine, you’d take it, right? How is this different? I try to ignore the vision of the chemicals leaching from my breasts into my baby’s precious, innocent body, and reassure myself that the benefits of the breast milk outweigh any side effects of the anti-depressants. It took me seven months to get off the medications with Casey, and I wonder if this stint will be shorter, as the symptoms are much less severe.
As I look down at my breasts, I consider how long my body has been devoted to another human being through pregnancy and breastfeeding - off and on for the past five and a half years. Breastfeeding is so incredibly time consuming, and much harder when I have two other children to tend to. It’s been weeks since I have been able to put my two other children to bed at night, my husband filling in on my behalf. I consider trying to breastfeed for a full 12 months regardless. This is my last baby, after all. As my baby eats, I caress his head and think: I will try.
Colin drifts off to sleep and stops sucking. I gently pull him off, and place him on my chest. He fits perfectly in the crevice of my shoulder, as if my body were designed just for this purpose. I rock him, feel his body against mine, and breathe a deep sigh, thinking –
I was meant to be this baby’s mother.
I get up to place him in his crib, walking carefully, as I have learned where exactly to step so the floor won't creak. Putting him down softly, I keep my hand on his stomach, saying shhhhhhhh. I pray to anyone who will listen for him to PLEASE stay asleep, resisting the urge to linger and stare at his tiny body, dwarfed by the vastness of the crib. Instead I tiptoe out with anxiety, awaiting a cry that will mean I have to go back in and soothe him for who knows how long.
I make it to my bed, and then I hear it. My muttering of several expletives wakes up my husband, who promptly rolls over and goes back to sleep. I return to Colin’s room, thinking about the fact that my two older boys will be waking up in three short hours.
This too shall pass, I tell myself, as both a reassurance and a plea. The thought brings immediate relief, followed quickly by a bittersweet sadness. Because even through my sleep deprivation, sore breasts, and heightened anxiety, I don't want this to end. As a seasoned mom, the term “fleeting” has taken on a very real and tangible meaning.
I return to Colin’s crib, pick him up, and he immediately spits up down the back of my pajamas. It’s warm, and in a weird way, I like the smell – sweet, sour, and fresh.
It’s the two of us once again, in the darkness, and I hold him close, spit up and all. That saying comes to mind, that once seemed so benign, but could now bring immediate tears to my eyes: One day you will pick your child up, and it will be the last time you do.
My baby, I whisper out loud. For now, he is just that – all baby, and all mine. I rock him some more, and he nods off to sleep. Eventually, so do I.