The baby falls asleep just as my mother’s taxi pulls up to the house.
“You’ll be fine,” she says, hugging me goodbye.
I stand on the porch cradling my week-old daughter and watch the car drive away. The early summer sun filters through the leafy trees lining the sidewalk. Traffic starts and stops a few streets over. Gingerly, I perch myself on the porch swing and let the old, peeling slats support my weight, my still-bloated belly a soft shelf for the sleeping baby. I stare down at my new daughter’s rosy face, her tufts of strawberry-blond hair, the gentle flutter of her eyelids.
I don’t feel fine.
For the first few days of her life, Ella sleeps almost constantly, her switch not yet flipped. I’m happy just to hold her, new mama bliss cloaking me like a royal mantle. Her little mouth opens in wide, sweet-smelling yawns. Her unfocused, navy blue eyes begin to stay open longer. I stroke her fuzzy ears, willing her tiny fingers to curl around my pinkie.
“Hello, baby girl,” I say, my voice barely a whisper.
Holding Ella close, I’ve never felt a love like this, warm and glowing, like being flooded with liquid gold from the inside out. But within a few minutes, the spell breaks and she begins to cry. I try to nurse her. She latches on and pulls off over and over again. As her cries fill the room, my jaw locks tight and a sour taste floods my mouth. What kind of mother can’t soothe her own baby?
Meals arrive at our door. Visitors come and go. I smile and make small talk as they take turns holding the baby. I act as though nothing has changed. I want to be exactly who I’ve always been: prepared and capable with a flawless plan. The truth is, nothing is going according to plan, but I keep the growing panic to myself. No one wants to see that. They’ve come to see my baby joy, not self-doubt dragging me by the elbow into a dark, little corner.
My husband thrills to fatherhood, but is as bewildered as I am. He walks the hall in the middle of the night, rocking our crying baby after I’ve tried to nurse to her. We are both exhausted and unsure, but I am the one who carries the weight of not knowing. A good mother knows how to care for her baby. Hot, silent tears wet the pillow. I turn on my side, knowing I won’t sleep until Ella does, knowing we are inextricably linked in this struggle.
A week later, my husband goes back to work. Alone, I cocoon myself upstairs, shirtless and sweaty, trying to nurse my daughter. I can’t get her to stay awake more than a few minutes at a time. I strip her naked and tickle her feet. She stays sleeping sweetly in my arms while a nagging anxiety creeps into my bones. It keeps me awake as my daughter sleeps. While I’m in the kitchen chopping vegetables, I imagine the knife flying out of my hand and stabbing my sleeping baby in her bouncy chair a few feet away. Walking down the stairs with her in my arms, I freeze, my heart pounding, petrified of dropping her. I tell no one.
I’m fidgeting with Ella’s knit cap when the doctor comes into the room, looking at her chart. Born a healthy 8 pounds 10 ounces, Ella lost weight in the first few days of her life and is still struggling to gain it back. “You might have to supplement with formula,” she says, watching us nurse. Ella keeps pulling away and crying before desperately rooting around again. “This one has an insufficient suck.”
In the parking lot, I click the baby car seat into place and slide into the driver’s seat. What does that even mean, insufficient suck? I try to hold myself together, but before the key is in the ignition, heaving sobs wrack my exhausted body. Once home, I anchor myself to the couch, the glider, the bed, trying to nurse. Ella cries inconsolably. Finally, I buy a can of formula and a syringe. She sucks down the first five milliliters like a ravenous prisoner, and then cries for more. I feed her two ounces of formula this way, tears streaming down my face.
Over the next week, we fall into a routine of nursing attempts and formula feedings. She slowly gains weight and cries a little less. The doctor tells me I’m doing a good job and that there is nothing wrong with her. “Babies cry,” she says.
I want to ask, “Is it normal for moms to cry, too?” Instead, I just say thank you, snap Ella’s tiny footed pajamas closed, and gently place her back into the carrier.
It’s a beautiful, bright northern California day and we’re out of eggs. Ella is almost four weeks old and leaving the house with her alone still makes me nervous. I gently pull her floppy, little arms through the sleeves of a pale, pink onesie. Her still-wrinkled feet fit into the palm of my hand. She is a wonder. A moment of uncontained joy settles over me—then immediately evaporates.
I nervously push the stroller along the uneven sidewalk. Ella squirms, screwing her eyes shut, and I pull the shade down to shield her from the sun. It doesn’t seem to help. By the time we reach the corner store three blocks over, she starts to fuss. Panic crowds my chest. I take a deep breath and go into the market as Ella begins crying in earnest. I grab the eggs and a few more items, and then head for the checkout line. The woman in front of me glances over her shoulder and offers an encouraging smile. “Poor thing,” she says.
Shame flushes my face. I mutter something indecipherable as my throat constricts and I fight the urge to throw up. I place my hand gently on Ella’s chest, but she is hysterical. I quickly unload everything—the eggs, the toilet paper, the fruit and nut bar—and push past the register out onto the sidewalk and hustle back up towards our house.
By the time we’re home, Ella has cried herself to sleep. I leave her in the hall, still in her stroller, and slowly walk into the tiny downstairs bathroom to weep on the cool, tile floor. Just weeks ago, I stood in a conference room and presented an intranet strategy to one of the world’s largest pharmaceutical companies. Now I can’t even leave the house.
I thought motherhood would come naturally, organically. I thought all of my plans—nursing exclusively, sleeping close through the night, going back to work—would fall into place. I did not know how isolated and lonely I would feel. Overwhelmed by my baby’s fierce cries, I lost my confidence. I couldn’t even feed her, I scolded myself. I was starving my own daughter. I needed help, but couldn’t ask for it or even voice my feelings of desperation and failure. Motherhood rendered me silent. I did not have a plan for that.
A wordless lullaby plays softly on the CD player as I rock in the glider, Ella wriggling in my arms. Even though nursing is finally going well, these first few weeks have wounded us both. She lets out a small whimper and I tense up, afraid she’ll start crying. Afraid I won’t be able to soothe her.
Then I remember what the doctor said: my daughter is not starving. She is gaining weight. I am not failing. I am feeding my daughter. I even made it to my mom’s group, bravely nursing for the first time in public. Ella fussed and bobbed, but she didn’t melt down—and neither did I, thanks to the women who reminded me that I’m not alone on this journey.
I try to comfort Ella by making a shushing sound, like a heartbeat in utero, like the books say to do. She furrows her baby brow. Without thinking, I add words to my breath. At first, it’s just her name, barely a whisper, hardly a tune. Ella stops squirming. My heart thumping, I gaze down at her and keep going, weaving together a made up song about the moon and the stars and angels flying her off to dream. When I run out of words, I start again, my warbling voice cautiously smoothing out, gaining depth. Soon Ella quiets, and her eyes close.
My shoulders relax; my stomach unknots. I breathe in deeply, and then exhale my unrehearsed song and its melody into the space between us. Tonight, my voice fills the room, and for the first time in weeks, I no longer feel like I am falling.