The first thing I did when I got home from the hospital after giving birth was get down on my hands and knees and scrub the kitchen floor. It wasn’t even dirty. My parents – visiting from out of state – had cleaned my entire apartment the day before. And having just spent 4 nights in the hospital – two of them in labor – and tearing 3 degrees, I was in no shape to be doing anything remotely physical. I was exhausted. But there was this beautiful eight-pound baby girl in the other room that I was now responsible for and who I loved so deeply that I couldn’t deal with my feelings. I had to clean so that I wouldn’t explode. And as I cleaned, I cried.
Leading up to her birth I cleaned my apartment every day, from top to bottom. While my nesting instinct was strong, my need for control was even stronger. Residing in a body that was clearly not my own, I channeled this need into a dust-free living room and empty laundry basket. I was striving for perfection. I told myself I wanted my daughter to be welcomed into a clean abode, but really it was an attempt to prevent my own unraveling.
As I moved from the kitchen floor and on to the bathroom tile, I observed myself. I knew that the person doing all this cleaning – this avoiding – was not me. I had to stop. It was time to release my need for control, my perfectionist tendencies and my reluctance to let others help.
It was time for me to be with my daughter.
Eleanor Roosevelt is famously quoted as saying “Do one thing a day that scares you.” Well, motherhood takes care of that. Because to love someone with all of your being is the scariest thing in the world. And being a mom means you feel this kind of love all 86,400 seconds of the day. I was terrified by the magnitude of which I loved my daughter. And terrified of fucking it all up.
That first night at home I set up the sofa bed in the living room with her bassinet beside me. I wanted her and I to be alone and not in the the confines of the bedroom – we lived in a 1 bedroom apartment at the time – which was crowded and stuffy. My husband understood.
This was the first night we would be together without a nurse interrupting every 30 minutes to take her temperature, my temperature, our blood pressures, etc. or wheel her off to get antibiotics for a possible infection she didn’t end up having. It was the first time my daughter really felt like mine.
I was incredibly apprehensive and suddenly scared of the dark. How was this going to work? Would she cluster feed like she did in the hospital? I winced at that thought – my poor sore nipples. Would she get enough to eat? Would I know how to soothe her when she started to cry? What if she stopped breathing? What if she’s too cold? What if she’s too hot? What if I don’t swaddle her right? Should I swaddle her at all? While I was getting to know the person I’d been carrying around for 9 months, I was also getting to know myself as a mother (and getting to know my new boobs and how much they would leak all over our brand new sofa).
I did my best to ignore the questions mulling around in my head which were tossing me between the past and the hypothetical. I took the pressure off of myself to try and get any sleep and do anything “right”. Instead, I looked at my daughter, took her in, and listened to what she was trying to tell me (which was mostly, to no surprise, “milk, please”). I held and rocked her when she needed soothing and set her down when she seemed to need her space. She cried and we danced and we breathed together. And we both slept a little too. This first night with her was when I learned how there can be as many parenting styles as there are scary seconds in day. And I realized my daughter was my teacher. Being with her that night was the beginning of my education.
It’s not that the next few days, nights, and weeks were easy – they were often extremely challenging. But this first night alone with her showed me that I could sink into all the feeling – the love, the fear and everything in between – and, rather than drown, emerge stronger. I knew I could be a good mom.
The next morning I created a list of daily chores that needed to be done, and a shopping list for groceries and household items. I let my husband and parents divide these tasks while I did nothing for the next two weeks but sit on our breast milk stained sofa nursing, soothing, healing and watching my baby nap while thinking about the fact that I should also be napping (though I never did).
It was really hard to sit back and let others help. I’d grown accustomed to controlling the situation by doing everything myself.
But in those early days and weeks when friends would insist on bringing us food, I held back my inclination to protest. It was a strange and humbling sensation to receive a thoughtfully prepared meal delivered to my doorstep without being able to offer something in return. It allowed me to feel supported. And this support afforded me peace. I sensed my daughter could feel this shift in me. Everything got easier.
And when a friend of mine gave birth a month later, it was a joy to be able to extend this kind of gift to someone else.
My daughter is now 3-months-old and I don’t have time to clean as often or as thoroughly as I did before she was born. My apartment is dirtier, but my world is much brighter. I am happier and more relaxed. And when I do get down on my hands and knees to do some scrubbing my daughter sits in her bouncer and watches me. She seems to really love it.
And I love her, more than ever.
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