Published: Mother’s World, September-November 2012

When a woman leaves the hospital after a successful delivery, she returns home not just with her tiny tot, but with an overwhelming sense of responsibility. Sitanshi Talati-Parikh rewinds to the many doubts, the questions and the emotions that filled the early days of motherhood

“She’s just so little. What if she breaks?” It was ignorance, of course. Babies are far more resilient than we think, but for a new mother, who has never had younger siblings it is a revelation. Suddenly, from the moment you leave the hospital and come home there is an overwhelming sense of responsibility and control – you need to wield that control for things to not shatter around you. You run a million checks, feverishly click through all the lists, ignore the fact that your body doesn’t feel anything like what it used to and make the little tot the focus of everything that matters. The most exhilarating feeling is tucking her in – for the first time – in the little cot you spent ages pondering over and making just right. Watching those spiked lashes tuck themselves into the generous curve of her cheek as she breathes evenly and naps. She sleeps in the most dramatic positions – limbs thrown towards the world, limbs tucked in, hair askew, she kicks the bolsters right out of the cot…. You watch her sleep, squirm, pucker up her little face so, listen to the strange little sounds that emanate, and you are lucky if you fall into some kind of wonderous, exhausted slumber.

And then she wakes up. With a loud piercing constant wail. It rips through your sub-conscious and remains etched in your memory for months to come. You spring to attention, tending to her needs. She’s expressive – in the I-will-howl-when-I-need-anything-front. You’re reeling from the assault to your senses. Here is a little child you have brought home and you are unable to gauge what sets her off – why does she cry so much? And so loudly? And so incessantly? As you fumble and race through the newly-learnt motions – nursing, diaper changes, sleep, nursing, diaper changes, sleep, you don’t have a moment to ask yourself – ‘What were you thinking?’ You’ve lost track of how much and if you ate, but you force yourself through the motions of eating because you must. For her. You are assaulted by barrage of suggestions, recommendations and ministrations – of what to do and not do, of what to eat and not eat…until you wonder if you are the baby or is she? It’s for her. You wonder how far you need to go to ensure that she can become the person you think she can be. In the first few weeks, you don’t even know how you will get through the first year…much less see her off to college. Life just seems to have braked and stopped mid-way; you are suspended in a black hole that you can’t crawl out of.

You are shocked at how fiercely your emotions roll. Every breath you take seems to be for this other little helpless person, who is so incredibly dependent on you that it stuns you. And scares you. Was it merely a month ago that you were the girl who laughed without a care in the world? Was it only recently that you were a person with a sense of self-worth that stemmed from more than a sense of responsibility for another? You look at the mirror and you feel that you have aged – there is a tautness of the mouth that suggests restraint and rigid control of overwhelming emotions, there are shadows under your eyes that shine with love but belie a weariness that doesn’t abate. Your skin has shed its glorious pregnancy glow and pales listlessly. You are edgy and skittish – you set off in a whale of tears at the most inane things, and you begin to cling to the father of your child. It’s as if only he can truly understand that you are changing, you are out of control and you are not who you were just a few weeks ago. You need him to understand. You need him. You feel betrayed that he has a life with a semblance of normalcy and yours has become unrecognizable. You wonder if that’s fair.

And yet, you walk through each day, noting milestones, becoming more adept at the daily rituals, more in tune with your child, more able to slide in and out of the dark moments with a strange in-built coping mechanism. And then the colic hits. She cries uncontrollably every day, racked with stomach pain. You can’t get her to stop…you can’t help her. You hold her tightly, clutched to your chest and find that there is no solace. Every shred of control that you have wielded, every manner in which you have coped, suddenly spins away and you are left feeling ridiculously helpless. And you feel your insides clench with pain, because you think you should be able to help her, make her feel better, but you can’t. You medicate, you control your food, but all you can do is wait it out. As her face scrunches with pain, turns red with wailing and tears pour out rapidly, you die many small deaths with every cry.

Until she passes the glorious three-month milestone and the colic magically disappears, the daily crying stops, she understands, she begins to coo affectionately, smile regularly, reach out for you, is ready to sit up and turn over, flexes her muscles to begin crawling…. She sits on the safari-themed bouncer chair and gurgles at her new buddies: Mr. Lion, Ms. Hippo and Mr. Monkey. She smacks them around, catches them, and kicks her legs rapidly in circular motions in glee. She jumps up and down in her cot – letting out a peal of excited laughter when she spies you. She plays peek-a-boo with you behind her cot bumper. She starts flipping over and crawling up to her favourite ducky. She splashes the bath water, she smacks her lips with food she likes, she tries to stand up and become tall, like you.

As you watch her grow at every stage – mentally, emotionally, physically, you marvel at nature’s perfection. As she holds your finger in a pincer-like grasp, knowing you will lead her to her future, she turns those wee lips upwards into a little toothless smile, her eyes turn to you with faith and unconditional love; the anxieties, misgivings and fears of the first few weeks disappear and the darkness that’s shrouded your soul lifts, allowing the brightness of youth and the magic of life to flood into your emotional space. You learn to let go, to stop trying to control and analyse what parenting is all about, and instead experience more the truth and patience of motherhood. Because there is more honesty in that relationship than there is in the world. Because however your life may have changed, the beautiful, quirky, affectionate little person is now your life.

How To Not Lose Yourself When You Gain Someone

1. Make sure you have help. If not full-time, then part-time at the very least. Rope in the grandmothers to babysit at regular intervals so that you can get a chance to grab some much-needed shut-eye or a chance to do something with yourself.

2. Pamper yourself. You’d be surprised how much it helps. Take some time out every week to do something special – a massage, a pedicure or manicure.

3. Time out: It’s important to bring back snatches of a previous life or a semblance of a social life. Whether alone or with someone, create a change of scene. Grab coffee with a friend, visit the bookshop, sit in the park or catch a movie.

4. Talk to people. Friends who have been through this are particularly helpful and sympathetic to your state and concerns. Chatting helps relieve the tension and having to cope with it all alone.

5. Don’t sweat the small stuff. Laundry, specks of dust, serving visitors fancy snacks (yes, Indian hospitality), matching cot bumpers…don&rsq
uo;t worry if you can’t get to everything. Just concentrate on the bigger picture. Delegate to friends or family members. You’d be surprised how willing they would be to help out.

6. Be prepared. Preparations managed before your delivery are always useful. You don’t want to have to run out to buy supplies with a colicky baby at home. And if you do, then delegate!

7. Talk to doctors. Post-partum depression, mood swings and lows are surprisingly common. Talk to your ob-gyn about what you’re going through and stay in touch with your child’s pediatrician about your child’s progress so that you feel in control.

8. Eat well, Sleep well. It’s astonishing how much difference being well fed and a good night’s sleep makes. Eat what makes you happy. Don’t starve yourself off food, love or sleep.

9. Engage your partner. Your husband will want to be involved in any way he can. You’ve done a lot of the work having the baby; now let him help out raising the baby. You will feel happier and it is great for the baby to feel her father’s presence.

10. Trust your instinct. People may give you a lot of suggestions, but unless they are medically important, trust your own instincts when raising your child. Often, mom does know best.