The first week following Oscar’s birth, I moved through a hormone- and love-induced haze during which I slept little, sometimes only one or two hours a day. I didn’t need sleep: I was in love.
Week two, the tables turned. The sleeplessness caught up with a vengeance, prompting sweeping emotional swings – crying one moment, laughing the next, and repeat—and even frightening hallucinations. This was where Damon, good man, drew the line; he enforced naps between feedings, and though I protested that Oscar needed me, that I wanted to visit with him and our parents, as soon as one feeding was over, Oscar was whisked away to cuddle or nap elsewhere, and I was forced to rest. One more thing for which I am eternally grateful to my husband.
A few days later, I started acting like a [somewhat] sane person again. A couple weeks after that, as our family adapted to its new rhythm, we were amazed at how well we functioned with oft-interrupted and scant sleep. Five or six hours of sleep a night seemed extravagant after the deprivation of the first couple weeks but was still much less than we had been accustomed to getting before Oscar was born. We were so impressed with ourselves; we had all these crazy new complications, and we still functioned!
Within a couple months, Oscar was going six to eight hours at a stretch at night, which allowed me at least four hours of sleep before I had to get up to feed him. Then he’d go back to sleep—and I’d go back to sleep—for another four hours or so. Suddenly, I was sleeping eight hours a night total, and my body was pretty well healed, as well.
Around five months I started to get the itch. I was healed, but I wanted to get back in shape. Every spare moment was crammed full with running errands, doing laundry, folding laundry, nursing Oscar—the list goes on. On the rare occasion that I had a half hour or so, I was either so exhausted that all I could do was watch part of a movie (never a whole film) or I would feel guilty about the epic to-do list and try to shoe-horn in one more thing. In my mind, I didn’t have time to exercise, and I certainly didn’t have time for myself. Other stuff and other people had to come first. Just like sleep in that first week or so, it always got backburnered.
As happy as I was as a mother, I started to feel pretty down on myself as a wife and as an individual. Although toting Oscar around had given me arms of steel, i otherwise felt frumpy. My clothes didn’t fit. Heck, even my skin didn’t seem to fit. It was hard to find time to do simple things that I normally took for granted, like washing my hair or dressing well. I felt ugly. I suspected that Damon only continued to profess his love for me out of kindness, obligation, and possibly pity.
Moreover, I felt intensely lonely. Oscar is fabulous company, and I was so happy with him, but I had all of these thoughts and feelings and revelations that I didn’t really have an outlet for sharing. I talked to my mom a lot, but I also got kind of self-conscious about talking about all this stuff lest anyone think I was either unbalanced or fixated (or both). I didn’t want anyone to think I was struggling or weak, nor did I want to disappoint anyone when they asked how things were going by saying anything other than a bright smile and a brave declaration: “Great!”
I lacked the courage and the ability to say instead, “I love being a mother; it’s the best thing that’s ever happened to me, and this shit is hard. I’m unhappy with myself, I’m constantly questioning myself, and where I used to think I was a superhero for even functioning on a human level while taking care of a baby, now I feel insecure and self-conscious about my inability to even take care of myself. I feel ugly and selfish, and I feel guilty about feeling anything other than bliss when I have this amazing boy in my life.” Truth.
And once again, as in those first weeks, my husband came to the rescue. He continued to be supportive, to listen, and to empathize as much as he could. He encouraged me to spend an afternoon with a friend. He cheered me on when I started using my lunch breaks to exercise at work. I was so proud of myself, texting him that I’d run x-number of miles or done however many pushups or whatever, and he would always respond effusively—such a simple thing, but on some level I guess he knew how important it was to me, how much it helped me stay motivated.
Damon, Anna, and Oscar – August 2012
As my energy-level and body image improved, I continued to wish for “me time,” and I continued to sabotage my own attempts at getting it: chores had to be done, errands had to be run, Oscar needed me to nurse him, insert pity party here. Damon heard the need and ignored the noise. One Saturday, he told me that he would watch Oscar for a few hours so I could go to a café and write. I had to run a couple errands, so off I went. I ran my errands, got stuck in traffic, and finally gave up, returning home without having written a damn thing.
The next day—Sunday—he once more packed me out the door again. He told me to stay out as long as I needed, to not make excuses and not feel guilty about taking time for myself. This time, I made it to the café. I bought a cup of chai and a banana. I sat down and stared at the computer for a minute or two.
And I started to write. That afternoon, I wrote a birthday letter to Oscar. I cried as I wrote it, trying (probably unsuccessfully) to hide it from the other people in the café. It was such a huge release and relief to be able to tell someone about my feelings and thoughts and memories, even if Oscar couldn’t read it yet, even if the only person listening was me. I felt like I could breathe a little better.
The following week, I wrote every single day. I couldn’t shut up. I felt like I was meeting myself again, rekindling an old flame. That enthusiasm spread and spread—I was more excited about Oscar, about work, about cooking, and it probably goes without saying that I was pretty durn happy with Damon, too! My hero. I was so worried that taking time for myself would mean neglecting or denying our family, but another week passed and I wrote every day, I cooked great meals, and I exercised regularly. And I somehow had even more energy and time for Oscar and much more joy to share with Damon.
Oscar is now one year old. Damon and I have been married for two years. And I feel like I’m better at living than I’ve ever been. I’m energized, I’m vulnerable in the best possible way, and I’m backing slowly away from those dirty words: “should be,” “ought to,” “supposed to.” Instead, I’m trying to give myself the freedom to celebrate all of it—the ups and the downs—and the space to be honest. I’m trying to remove my filter and get my priorities in order, and that means bumping myself up to the top of the list. I’m doing twice as much as I ever did, and I have energy left over because I’ve invested in myself. Because Damon patiently held up the mirror so I could see what he saw: powerful and beautiful. I am grateful.