The darkest hour
When I first had Calvin, I wanted to write but couldn’t find the time. So I wrote short notes for myself like “I hate breastfeeding” and “Today I noticed his toes for the first time” so I could remember what had happened. Now that I’m rising out of the fog of having a newborn, I’m turning those notes into short essays.
My husband and I called the feeding that occurred sometime around 3-4am “the darkest hour.” It was often the most emotional and challenging time of day. But, as the saying goes, it’s always darkest before the dawn. We eagerly anticipated each day’s sunrise and felt the hope that it brought.
At 3:45am, it is both dreadfully early and painfully late. Each still, empty moment easily fills with concerns, worry, and regret. I have slept for two hours, which is the longest I’ve slept since he was born. When he cries, my skin prickles involuntarily. Every noise he makes sends a stress signal to my brain and puts me on high alert. As I wake with a start, my stomach and heart converge. I peel the covers off of me - they’re drenched with sweat. When did the night sweats start and when will they end?
After 41 weeks of pregnancy, I still can’t sit up in bed. Without thinking much of it, I turn to the side and groan as I hoist myself up.
As I pause and gather the courage to breastfeed again, I wonder, do I wake the man sleeping soundly to my right? At the previous feeding, he told me I must wake him. He knows I can’t do this alone. But between each line, I heard an exhausted man pleading to sleep. Considering this silent request, I tiptoed into the nursery.
I am wearing the same clothes I’ve worn for three days: my husband’s softest shirt, long enough to wear without pants, and no bra. Anything else touching my chest results in excruciating pain. They say that it gets better, that breastfeeding is magical, and that you’ll love how you bond with the baby. With great skepticism, I continue to try.
Usually I’m not alone at this hour, and for good reason. Sadness grips the strongest now. There is too much silence to fill the mind - or to empty it. It’s cold and I cover my legs with a blanket crusted with milk. When the baby latches, every part of me seizes up in rapid succession. My fists clench, back tightens, shoulders shrug, eyes press closed, and I bite my tongue in an attempt to stifle my cries and not wake my husband. One time he came into the nursery while I was crying and admonished me that I was attempting to manage this hour alone. This time, I couldn’t bear a similar scene. I wanted company but at the same time desperately wanted to be alone. At 3:45am, everything feels like a dream and, without other people, memories are less concrete, less legitimate, and easier to dismiss as figments of your imagination.
After the first minute or two of feeding, the pain becomes bearable and I open my eyes. Through tears, I see my perfect contented child. I have heard that motherhood is a thankless career but his noises of satisfaction are the only gratitude I need. He also starts our meetings furious, with his fists clenched, and after a few minutes, he relaxes into something malleable and helpless. When he’s finished, I lay him on my legs and dwell on him. With his arms stretched overhead, his legs splayed, he’s completely and blissfully unaware of the darkness around him. He is surreal. He is a stranger - my child - that I love with great intensity. I can’t come to terms with who he is, how he got here, or the permanence of the situation.
These thoughts are interrupted by a sudden wetness on my thigh. I have dropped the bottle that was hanging precariously, catching my last drops of milk. This time, I will not cry over spilt milk. I will not. Once again clenching my teeth, I tell myself not to cry this time. Think of something else.
Everything spirals. “When will this end? How do people ever have more than one baby? Will I ever feel normal again? Will I ever sleep again? Why does this hurt so much? Am I going to be any good at motherhood? Will our marriage be ok? Get a hold of yourself. You’re ok. This is fine. It will pass. It’s almost sunrise.”
Usually my husband is here, reading to me. The stories keep my mind occupied and at rest. If we are going to fight, we fight at this hour. Neither of us are well enough to handle the stillness.
Laying the swaddle blanket on the ground, I attempt to wrap this squirming, screaming infant. He’s cold, uncomfortable, and not yet ready for this world. Even in the still of the night, it’s too bright and spacious. If I could only wrap him tightly, he’d calm. But every attempt falls short. He doesn’t know who I am yet and is too upset to lay down anymore. Holding him tightly, I try to make him feel safe. He escalates and I weep. I am useless. My husband is better at this than I am. Remembering the sleeping man in the adjacent room, I quickly and firmly roll the baby into his swaddle. With a sigh of relief, he and I return to quiet. In the quiet, I hear the birds singing.
As I gently open the door to my bedroom, it squeaks and my husband stirs. I see that the sun is now rising. We made it to dawn.
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