“It’s a new year, and with it comes a fresh opportunity to shape our world. So this is my wish, a wish for me as much as it is a wish for you: in the world to come, let us be brave – let us walk into the dark without fear, and step into the unknown with smiles on our faces, even if we’re faking them. And whatever happens to us, whatever we make, whatever we learn, let us take joy in it. We can find joy in the world if it’s joy we’re looking for; we can take joy in the act of creation. So that is my wish for you, and for me. Bravery and joy.”
“I hope the world is gentler to us in 2018. And that we do not forget how to be kind.”
Neil Gaiman, one of my favourite authors (and humans in general), has a habit of releasing beautiful thoughts into the world around the time one year expires and makes way for a fresh one. I was reminded of something I’d written a year ago on Facebook recently – I say recently; this post has been growing for months between feedings, calmings, pumpings… – something about the first day of a new year holding such wide open promise, unknown adventures, and with nothing bad in it yet, and it seems an eternity ago. From the first day of 2017 to now, I went on the biggest physical and emotional journey of my life, and now I sit in the small hours of the morning in the warm lights of a Christmas tree with a whole other person in the room. A person I grew and gave to the world and who needs me as much as I need her. I need her. My eyes are sore, dry and tired, my back aches, my breasts are shooting and leaking, and I feel like my body’s been broken for a year, but I can’t possibly describe how worth everything this girl is.
I don’t want to sound like a Parent – you know, the types of people who change their personality after having children and begin to look down on those who don’t, claiming they couldn’t possibly know or understand the type of love that comes along with a baby. I know that every form of love is unique and different and can be felt as deeply as you allow it, but the moment Zaiah was born, I know I surprised myself. That first night, I looked over at her in a cold hospital room, my husband curled up on a small pull-out bed, and remember tears streaming down my face as I felt an overwhelming need to protect this tiny thing and to love her more than anything I’d ever known. Over the years, I thought I’d ventured to the very furthest corners of my heart, but this girl has arrived with a lantern, leading me to chambers and great halls I never knew existed, and emotion poured in like a tsunami.
It’s been three months, and although Zaiah Astrid (pr. “ZAY-ah” – like “Isaiah”) has been the biggest part of our lives for less than a hundred days, it feels as though she’s been here forever. I haven’t had much time to reflect on my birth experience, but today I was gifted a couple of hours to simply sit and write; something I’ve been longing for since her arrival.
She came exactly one week early, the day the very first snowflakes kissed the ground this winter. I remember I’d had a rough night’s sleep, believing she was probably kicking at my cervix or making her way gradually down (not realising this had actually been the start of labour), and had got out of bed close to 7:00 a.m. after reading various Facebook posts about the arrival of the white stuff. I got up to look out of the window and took a photograph of the rooftops starting to be covered in snow, fully believing that would be the most exciting thing to happen that day. Two hours later I was back in bed, when I heard a loud crack in my back and happily announced that for the first time in nine months, my tailbone had finally cracked again. Seconds later, I felt the water. ALL of the water, gushing all over the maternity pillow my poor friend had lent me. “I don’t think this is pee,” I told my husband, half laughing and half panicked. It didn’t stop. I got up to go to the bathroom, where it kept gushing all over the floor, and remember being told to stand in the bath, where it kept pouring. We’d hired a doula for the birth, who’d been wonderful and had told us not to hesitate to phone if we had a question or needed her help. We called, and were told it definitely sounded like my waters had broken, but that labour wasn’t necessarily imminent – until a minute or two later I began feeling what I assumed were contractions. I had no idea what contractions were supposed to feel like; all I knew was that you didn’t go to the hospital until they were four or five minutes apart. Which they were, immediately. The only way I can describe the feeling is ever so eloquently: it felt like having the absolute worst constipation in the world, except your body is forcing you to take the world’s biggest shit at the same time, and it just won’t come out. That’s what contractions feel like.
We decided to go to the hospital – I had a shower and had wanted to eat, but by the time I got a biscuit (Digestives), the contractions were too intense to really even talk through, let alone eat (something I regretted the entire day, as they do not let you have food after this point until after that baby’s out!). James’s cousin Chris drove us, and we met our doula shortly after arriving. I remember going in a wheelchair to a tiny cubicle and putting on a gown, and being told I was already at 6 centimetres. I remember asking for an epidural and hearing my husband and the doula whispering that I might be too far along to have one, and panicking. I remember them saying something about having to do a spinal something or other before I could get an epidural, but that I could still have one. I remember being taken to the room in which I eventually gave birth, and having a series of different nurses come in and tell me how my baby would be here “within the hour,” and learning how to push (like you’re going to take a crap) every time your body went into another contraction. I remember feeling them weirdly in the side of my thigh after I had the drugs. I watched an episode of The X Factor and listened to Chris Moyles while I was given an hour to stop pushing. I learned that there is no longer such thing as modesty.
Eleven hours after my water broke, Zaiah was born. The doctor had been called in after the nurses discovered I was bleeding a fair bit and that they could no longer find her heartbeat, and had attached a monitor to her head while she was still inside. They soon found her signs again, but also that something had happened with the placenta, causing the bleeding, and that they were going to have to get her out now. She’d been in the right position (head down), but had always favoured my right side (so much kicking in the ribs), and apparently she’d remained facing that way through labour, causing her to get stuck in the birth canal for such a long time. I was told that if she didn’t come out on the next contraction, they were going to have to do a Caesarian, at which point (after this many hours) I pushed harder than ever. I saw the scissors as they told me they were going to have to do an episiotomy (the part I’d dreaded most) and felt a pressure, but no pain as they made the cut. I’m not sure if they pulled her out with tools (she had some scabs and still has a scar on her head) or if she just came out, but as she did, I felt such a strange mixture of thoughts and emotions. She was blue, and she wasn’t crying. I knew she was in safe hands. I knew I couldn’t allow myself to panic. I trusted the medical team as they whisked her off to try and get her breathing properly. I cried because my husband cried, and that’s something he doesn’t do. I was so excited about eating. I was terrified of peeing. “Of course that’s what she looks like.” Meeting her face for the first time. Her little patch of hair, only on the back of her head, like Friar Tuck. Staying calm alone with the doula as my husband went with Zaiah to NICU. Guessing her to be over 8 pounds and her coming out at 6 lb 4 oz. Hearing the nurses’ confusion as to what to do when a baby lies exactly on the tenth percentile and not on either side of it. Her little pink hat being far too big for her head. Seeing myself be stitched up. Giving up on peeing and getting a catheter. The cold of the room we spent the night in, and the overwhelming, borderline euphoric love that came streaming down my face for my daughter and my husband. Thinking it hilarious the first time I saw my nipple in a pump. Zaiah’s blue steel face. Chicken nuggets and a chocolate milkshake. Remembering I felt I’d rather give birth five times rather than go through nine months of pregnancy ever again. Even if we did get some pretty awesome photos.
The first week after coming home, I was confined to my bedroom as a result of being far too sore down south to even attempt stairs. It wasn’t a bad place to be, as the tree outside the window was positively bursting with the oranges and reds of autumn. Zaiah was tiny and we were afraid of everything. Passing her to each other, falling asleep and rolling on her, changing nappies… my stitches etc. were too painful to really walk, so James took on absolutely everything. Looking after our newborn and looking after me. Pregnancy had been hard on both of us, and I was scared of how we’d be with each other at the beginning of this new chapter, but I cried every day in gratitude and disbelief of how incredibly this man was rising to the challenge. I’d felt isolated, scared, and alone in pregnancy. I suddenly felt adored, cared for, and safe. Major points to anyone who’ll hold my hand as I sit on the toilet scared to shit, bleeding, crying, and leaking breast milk on their head. Within ten days I was able to go downstairs, had dropped most of the weight due to some severe engorgement and pumping enough milk to feed an army of babies, and ventured outside for the first time. There’s nothing quite like crisp air and autumn sun after being cooped up. The view may have been beautiful and the company amazing, but breathing in the fresh air of the outside world filled me with an energy and a renewed sense of gratitude for living where I do.
At three months, Zaiah is finally over ten pounds, still struggles with sleeping flat on her back, makes all the faces in the world, loves cuddles and hates sleeves. James took six weeks off up until Christmas but is now back at work, but rather than taking night and day shifts and passing each other like ships in the night, we now both attempt to sleep at the same time. For a while, Zaiah was only up once or twice; lately as she’s grown, that’s at least doubled. I think she gets hungry in the night like I do. He changes and feeds, I pump and wash bottles. We collapse and get up again two hours later and do it all over again. It’s immensely hard but I look at her face every time and feel nothing but love.
My breasts and oversupply issues have been the most challenging part of all of this. After two weeks, I developed mastitis. High fever, unable to stop shivering, and with lumps throbbing like the ends of hot pokers, I went to the doctor dressed in five layers and still unable to keep warm. I got some antibiotics but was in no state to do anything, so Zaiah had her first sleepover at fourteen days old and went to my dad’s. The next few weeks were filled with conflicting advice from all sources. Clinics, nurses, doctors, and the internet all told me different things. I’ve been asked several times why I chose to pump exclusively when it’s so time consuming and difficult. Honestly, I was always planning to incorporate pumping into Zaiah’s feeding – I wanted her dad and grandparents to be able to hold her close and feed her as well as me, and I’d heard from others that it was sometimes an absolute nightmare to transition babies to bottles later on, so why not start from the beginning? I tried breastfeeding, but the engorgement meant my breasts had basically doubled in size and were pouring and squirting milk at such velocity that poor Zaiah could not only not get a latch, but couldn’t regulate the flow to manage swallowing without almost choking. She started gnawing at the nipples to the point where they became cracked, cut, scabbed, and I had to discard bottles upon bottles of milk that were red with blood. Breastfeeding at the actual boob wasn’t going to be an option, but pumping still meant she’d get the same product with far less difficulty. I didn’t realise there was such a battle between your wishes, needs, and your body. Pump too much to relieve the extreme excess supply, and your body will make more to replenish the vast amounts being drained. Don’t pump enough, and the milk will back up into the ducts, form lumps, clog them, and make it so painful you can’t even hold your baby close. After fourteen weeks, ultrasounds, antibiotics, various timed pumping strategies, growing somewhat of an extra boob, donating a mass supply to a baby in need and being put onto birth control not for contraception, but for hormonal reduction of milk, I think I am finally starting to normalize. I can go four or five hours without pumping now (which means no longer having to lug a machine around with me everywhere I go, and also not waking up in a white puddle several times a night), and I have a deep freeze of extra which will sustain Zaiah as we get closer to her being able to start solids.
Pregnancy was also an enormous challenge. I had to stop one of my anxiety meds as soon as I found out I was pregnant, and at times I was on the phone in hysterics to my doctor begging for some other way to get through to the end because I couldn’t cope. My initial withdrawal resulted in a trip to the mental health crisis centre and about two weeks of intense sobbing, delusional and fully believing those closest to me were lying to me any time they’d say anything positive and that they all despised having me around. If I received a compliment or a kind word, it was almost as if my brain would say reflexively, no you’re not. They’re lying. None of this is true. I fully believed I was hated and alone, and it did not do good things for my marriage. I also ended up fracturing my foot, having my hips and tailbone subsequently out of place, limping through a summer of photography gigs (coming home crying from the pain at the end of each one), dislocating a couple of ribs, and going on maternity leave ten days early in a fit of tears from the relentless back pain toward the end which prevented me from being in pretty much any position except laying flat down. I did however manage to avoid morning sickness, and only went through a brief phase of being thoroughly nauseated by the smell of barbecued meat or burgers, so that was a bonus, but a year after conception and still not in control of my body, I’m pretty sure I couldn’t possibly do this ever again.
But as much as the inevitable questions of when the “next one” is coming have arisen, I don’t feel pressured to even think about anything of the sort. Right now my role has been handed to me, glowing with certainty. Someone is depending on me to exist. To feel loved. To learn about the world and to be comforted when she’s sad and celebrated at every milestone. To fall in love with the best music (she’s already started music classes for babies), to be sang to, to laugh with, to hear stories and to socialize with. People told me during and after pregnancy that they were surprised I wanted to have a kid, because I was “so creative and ambitious.” My own husband even feels I’ll be longing to find a new job to start before my maternity leave is over because “that’s the sort of person I am.” And I feel, by the rest of the world, entirely misunderstood. When I fall in love with something, whether a new venture I’ve committed myself to, a creative endeavour, a project, a skill… I throw myself at it with everything I have. It becomes a part of me, fuelled by thoughts and desire, ideas and dedication, and I want to make it the very best thing it can possibly be. At the end of it all, I want to look back on what I’ve committed myself to and know I gave it everything I could. I work tirelessly on making my business the best it can be, on improving my skills, and though I have a long way to go, I’m going into year four and each year has been bigger, better, more joyful and more profitable than the last. I did complete an EP, which was a musical journey through battling my anxiety and proving to myself that something my heart longed for was something my brain wasn’t going to stop it from achieving, and though my time right now isn’t exactly prime for recording sessions, it doesn’t mean that in time, I won’t finish laying down another five or six songs and finalizing an entire album. I’m determined. I’m also determined to finish the book I started a few years ago, and have recently been struck once again with immense inspiration. Lengthy hours at a writing desk aren’t in the cards right now, but it doesn’t mean that in time, they won’t be, and that this labour of love will never see the light of day. And now there is my daughter. I’m one hundred percent committed to being the best mother I can be – not just in terms of nurturing and teaching, but in terms of raising an amazing human being that will live on in this world long after I do, whose actions, dreams, thoughts and personality will touch more lives than I could ever imagine. My job is to make sure she’s equipped with love, enthusiasm, a thirst for knowledge, a dedication to kindness, a soft heart and a strong spirit, a passion for creating and a desire to make others’ lives better so that she can be a shining light on an often dark planet. All my creative dreams, socializing, and sleep-filled nights are worth putting on hold temporarily. Without a shadow of a doubt. Because of everything I’ve done or ever will do, she will be my greatest legacy. I love you, Zaiah Astrid.