The Shocking Truth About Motherhood

7 ways having a baby changes your body, your mind, and your life.

I've never liked surprises. I read the end of a novel before I start it, and I poke around in closets hunting for my Christmas presents in November. So when I was pregnant, I barraged my doctor with questions, took childbirth classes, and read every pregnancy book I could find. But after my daughter was born, I wanted to explain to someone in charge that yes, I had signed up for motherhood, but I'd signed up for one in which I had good hair and a baby who never cried. Though moms everywhere may agree that they wouldn't change their lot in life for anything, most admit that there are a few surprises they wish someone had clued them into. Here are seven truths about motherhood that no one else will tell you.

1. Bonding isn't automatic.
When, after 39 hours of labor, I finally held my healthy infant in my arms, the first thing I felt was awe at the most beautiful sight on earth. My second thought: I desperately wanted a sandwich. After all, my love affair with ham and cheese was lifelong, but my daughter was still a stranger. I soon found out that she also kept weird hours and had a howl that could be heard halfway down the block.

One long night a few weeks later, as she screamed her head off and my husband wore out the floorboards walking with her, I barricaded myself in the bathroom for a long, hot shower. As I leaned against the stall in defeat, I thought, "I've made an awful mistake. I'm not cut out for this." I would have run away then and there had I not been naked, wet, and too exhausted to contemplate any sort of physical activity.

It's uncomfortable to admit, but connecting with a baby doesn't always come easily or naturally. I simply had the blues, but for a mother with genuine postpartum depression, early parenthood can be even more cruelly frustrating. And the condition is surprisingly common. "Four hundred thousand women a year have postpartum depression," says Susan Kushner Resnick, author of Sleepless Days: One Woman's Journey Through Postpartum Depression. PPD doesn't mean you're a bad mother. Talk to your obstetrician, or contact Depression After Delivery (800-944-4773).

2. There's tired, and then there's mommy tired.
Before I had my baby, I cavalierly assumed that I could master sleep deprivation as I'd mastered jet lag and exam cramming. I also figured the fatigue would go away around the three-month mark, when my infant would begin sleeping through the night. In retrospect, ha ha ha. Yes, staggering around in the middle of the night is a big part of the story. But it's only the first part.

Having a child is like being in an all-day aerobics class. We're perpetually cuddling, bouncing, and pacing the floors with a motion-sensitive infant. Later, we're running after that same person as she giddily bungees off the furniture and terrorizes the pets. Sleeplessness is rough, but it's the rituals of changing, feeding, soothing, and entertaining a child day in and day out -- even when we're overworked, or have a migraine, or simply can't bear picking up one more toy one more time -- that really kick our backsides into the comatose zone.

3. Your body won't be the same. Ever.
I spent my last two trimesters eagerly anticipating the day I'd get my body back. Unfortunately, I got someone else's instead. It's an acceptable form; it's even the same weight and dress size as the old one. But I'm not fooled.

I keep hearing about women who walk out of the maternity ward and zip into their college jeans, but I've never met one -- except on TV. And Sarah Jessica Parker just isn't your average new mom. Bearing children puts a woman's body through the adventure of a lifetime. Mothers are shocked and horrified to discover that they've developed hemorrhoids or that their afterpains have the intensity of labor contractions. The fantasy of a blissful, freshly minted family rarely includes images of witch-hazel pads and sitz baths, but these are the reality.

Even after your body has recovered, things are different. My back is broader. My feet are half a size bigger. My belly is stubbornly squishier, a point brought home every time my toddler delightedly pokes her fingers into my abdomen to watch her digits disappear. She finds this hilarious. I am less amused.

4. Think your body changes? Wait until you see what happens to your brain.
I knew I was in trouble the day I stepped out of the shower, started to comb my hair, and realized I'd forgotten to rinse out the shampoo. I used to be proud of the knowledge I'd acquired in college; now I blink uncertainly when someone asks where I went to school. I get as far as a fuzzy sense of having spent time in Pennsylvania. Be very, very glad I'm not your heart surgeon or air-traffic controller.

Motherhood is murder on the gray matter. When my pediatrician (a mother of three) first casually suggested my head would never be the same, I figured she was kidding. 'Fraid not. Instead, the early-parenting sleep deficiency yielded to the later distractions of trying to keep Cheerios out of the VCR and knowing the exact location of a beloved Tinky Winky doll at all times. Motherhood means ending a business call with a singsong "Bye-bye!" and not for the life of me recalling what I just read in a book. While I can't think of anyone I'd rather have uppermost in my mind than my daughter, I can't help pining for my far more agile, focused pre-baby brain.

5. Breastfeeding is hard, and so is weaning.
Although I attended prenatal classes in which phrases like "engorgement" and "severe nipple trauma" were regularly and solemnly intoned, experiencing them firsthand was a whole different ball game. As one mother told me, "In breastfeeding books, they'll casually mention that some women experience nipple soreness. Soreness! I was screaming obscenities every time my son latched on for the first six weeks. Of course, once the pain passed, we had a really wonderful nursing experience."

Even when everything goes well, breastfeeding can be bewildering. As an energetic, type-A personality, I assumed my baby would share my eat-and-run mentality. Instead, she preferred to linger, latching on to me and staying put for ages as I sat helplessly on the couch, wondering why the word confinement was traditionally used to describe pregnancy rather than the months afterward.

I eventually learned to treasure the calm, quiet pleasures of breastfeeding. So when my daughter started to wean, I found myself blindsided again. My breasts ached and my hormones went on a wild ride, taking my mind (what was left of it) with them. Frantically chasing a toddler, I longed for the sweet, relaxed closeness that had been so abruptly disrupted.

6. Your personal style goes out the window.
When you're on mom duty, every day is casual Friday -- whether you want it to be or not. At any moment, you can expect to find yourself wearing poop, spit-up, and whatever happens to have been on your baby's plat du jour. Looking cool just isn't easy when you're streaked in applesauce.

It's more than the wardrobe, however; it's the general upkeep that relaxes with motherhood. There are moments when I catch myself in the mirror -- an inch of roots coming through on my head, a hastily applied smear of lipstick on my smile, and a seam splitting on my blouse -- and think, "I look great -- if it's 1985, and I'm Madonna."

I may pull it together enough to not resemble some wild woman out of the Weekly World News, but I don't kid myself that dragging a comb through my hair while my daughter wrestles it away from me constitutes pampering. I gaze dreamily at women with perfect nails, not because I'm a manicure addict, but because ten neat digits equals at least ten self-indulgent minutes. Impeccable grooming is the mark of someone with the time for it, and after a baby, it becomes a powerful symbol of the private time you've lost.

7. Everyday activities require military-style planning.
Preparing for my baby's arrival, I concentrated on the important issues because it never occurred to me that I'd need help with the little ones. I learned infant CPR but had never changed a diaper. I opened a college savings fund but was stumped over how to clip a baby's nails or clean her ears. Once my daughter was born, I felt embarrassed at just how overwhelmed I was by the everyday hurdles I had to clear.

Each activity, no matter how minor, takes strategic planning. A 15-minute car ride to the grocery store requires 20 minutes of packing. Finding the right opportunity to return a friend's phone call would take days. The sundry lipsticks, paper clips, and breath mints that once scattered themselves comfortably around our house are now hazards to be kept out of reach.

Parenting, like romance, is fraught with anxiety, frustration, and a whole lot of trial and error. Fortunately, it's also equally full of wonder and delight. Motherhood replaced the tranquil routine of my life with chaos, noise, and endless clutter. But chaos with my kid is sweeter, sillier, and more satisfying than anything I ever knew before her. It is a perpetual surprise -- one that I, who always avoided surprises, gladly embrace each day. And that's just one more thing I never expected.

03-01-2004

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