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January 06, 2006

What makes the first month hard

I remember in the last couple of months of pregnancy all the new parents that we met (even on the street) warning us about the first month with a newborn; I believe the adjectives used to describe it were "rough", "incredibly hard", "just like triage", "struggling to survive", "a long dark tunnel", you get the idea. I remember thinking "ouch", but also wanting to know more: sure I understood that it was going to be hard, but what is it that makes it so hard? What causes it to be like a dark tunnel? I'm a problem-solver people! How am I going to face these challenges if I don't know what they are?

So I remember promising to myself that I would take mental notes of what makes the first month with a newborn so hard and that I would share it with people on this blog. Well, 12 weeks have gone by, and I think I am ready to share my findings.

Now, a disclaimer: the paragraphs below are pretty hard for me to write, as it might give you the WRONG impression that I don't like being a parent or that I am overwhelmed by it all. Far from it. My little family is the best thing that has ever happened to me. I adore my wife and son and can't get enough of them. All I want to do is be home and share every minute of this baby's life. And even when it's really hard, I have clear in my mind how priviledged and lucky I am to live such a wonderful life. I can safely say that I have never been happier, and that is probably why this post has been sitting, half-finished, in my "drafts" pile for so long. But a promise is a promise, so let's get to it.

#1 - Sleep Deprivation
First and foremost, the lack of sleep is what makes everything hard. If I were to put all the things that make it hard on a pie-chart, this one would take half of it or more. You don't know how much you value sleep until someone takes it away from you. The first day back from the hospital is usually the hardest: the milk hasn't come in yet, and the baby is starving, running on empty and screaming all night. That's a shocker, considering that for the most part babies sleep all day for the first couple of days in the hospital (plus they feed them formula behind your back anyways...which I can understand, otherwise too many people would just leave their babies at the hospital) ;)
The first couple of weeks are also terrible sleep-wise: be prepared to be awake for one hour (feeding, changing, feeding on the second boob, putting down...), then sleep for one hour (if you can get back to sleep right away that is), then do it all over again, 10-12 times a day. For the first few days home you don't need the sleep because you're in total adrenaline overload (I now realize I was), but then the sleep deprivation catches up to you, and you never get a chance to catch up, not until the first month is over at least.

Now let's talk a bit about what sleep-deprivation does to you: a quick Google search led me to The Effects of Sleep Deprivation on Brain and Behavior, which I just scanned quickly and my eye fell on this quote: One of the possible side effects of a continued lack of sleep is death. which made me smile but I totally believe it. Anyways, mostly it makes you irritable, which is not good at all around a baby or another irritable sleep-deprived person, and stupid (more on that later). It lowers your defenses and tolerance, and if you have a history of depression it brings it out (more on that later).

So in other words, it sucks. This alone would make a month of your life pretty hard...but keep reading, let's look at the other half of the pie-chart...

The Stupidity
A side-effect of sleep-deprivation is your brain turning to mush. One great tip my friend Aideen told me is to read ahead: read at least the first few chapters of all the "baby's first year" books you own. It's true, you will be home from work when the baby comes and you think you have all this time to read, but trust me, you will NOT be able to retain any sort of information due to your lack-of-sleep-induced stupidity. Mariah and I would read the same sentence over and over a few times, and still wander if maybe we had bought our books in romanian or greek by accident.

This is another thing that surprises me about evolution: as a mammal, when your newborn is at most risk, shouldn't you be the most alert to fend off predators? Talk about intelligent design! Oh well, at least mankind discovered coffee some time ago, which helps dads a little (DO NOT feed caffeine to a breastfeeding mom unless you're ready to deal with a CRAZY hyper baby. Mariah can't even each a little chocolate these days...).

Anyways, prepare to be dumb. You'll make dumb mistakes, you'll say dumb things, you won't remember things. I can barely remember last November at all.

So our tip is this: write things down, don't try to remember anything. Mariah and I kept a breastfeeding journal for...oh wait, we still do (though in a very condensed form). It really helped us keep our sanity: "how many times did he eat today?" Why try to remember when you can check the notepad! We tried to stop the journal after 3 weeks and that was one of the hardest days so far, we were totally lost.

The Constant guessing
Babies don't come with instructions manuals. At least today you can buy lots of books and go to lots of great classes. And you should. I read a lot and learned a lot before Guido Jack came, and I'm glad I did. Still...this is a person you're taking care of. Your instinct is to want to protect and nurture your baby, but also to try and make sure that your baby will be secure, well-balanced, smart...or at least NOT screwed up. Every little action you do will have an impact of how your baby turns out...talk about pressure.

So even if you have a pretty good idea of how to make sure your baby will eat enough and stay healthy (the books/pediatrician are pretty good at helping with that, but more on those later), there's a whole other world of guessing going on: am I stimulating him enough? too much? how far can he see? can I start with the books now? how many people is too many people in one day? how much should I speak to him? Baby-talk or regular-talk? I could go on for pages...basically EVERYTHING you do with the baby will come with some second-guessing baggage. In other words, prepare for being very insecure. Yuk.

The Conflicting information
More on books and doctors and nurses and friends and people on the street who give you advice. Because of your insecurity, you are starved for information and advice. New parents love to compare everything about each other's babies: how much does your baby sleep? how much does your baby weight? the list goes on. I used to find this most irritating, but I now realize that it's a consequence of people's insecurity and fears. As long as your baby is similar to his peers, you know that things are ok.

So, back to the sources of information. You would think that after thousands of years of civilization, the proper way to care for a newborn would be fully understood, a science not even worth studying any more. Far from it! For reasons I truly cannot understand, everyone still has an opinion, and even the "experts" change their mind every few years. When I was born people called my mother a hippie for breastfeeding me, and I slept on my tummy every night ("it is safest!", they used to say). Today, depending on where you live, the "dogmas" are different.

DUDE!!! Is anyone else totally baffled by this? Make up your mind people! Get some grants! Do some long-term studies! Publish some findings! Helloooo???!!??

Everyone has a different opinion on every little thing. Even in the hospital two different nurses gave us completely different views on "nipple confusion: does it exist?".

So...brace yourself for a lot of conflicting information...I know, great, just what you need right? :(

Our tip is believe in what makes you worry the least and stick with it. Oh, and try not to compare, every kid is different.

The Constant worrying
I remember this from the first week home. Sometimes GJ would make a lot of noises in his sleep. We would worry: "is that normal? is his nose stuffy? is he getting enough deep sleep?". Then at other times he would sleep without a peep: "Oh my God is he alive? Let's check, put your hand on his chest, but don't wake him!".

Other days he would sleep a lot, which would scare us: he must be sick! Then the next day he wouldn't nap, and we would worry about that too: this kid never sleeps, something must be wrong!

I guess that makes us regular parents: you worry ALL THE TIME, wether you like it or not. (12-weeks update: this goes away pretty fast)

The crying in the ear
Imagine someone screaming a really high-pitched scream IN your ear (I mean 1cm from it). For 30 minutes. Or more. Imagine how that would feel. Unless you've had that happen, I doubt you would be able to really imagine how that makes you feel. It's horrible. It's torture. It makes you crumble into little pieces. It makes you SO angry. Oh, and if it's your baby screaming inconsolably in your ear, it makes you feel like a terrible parent for not knowing how to make it stop. Man it sucks.

It's going to happen. Babies cry, and while most of the time you can understand what it is and respond to it (this poster helps if you don't at first), sometimes babies cry for no reason. When this happens (I think it happened <5 times in 12 weeks with the Guids), my tip is: wear ear-plugs, or listen to an iPod. At the very least, turn your face the opposite way, that way the sound waves will have to travel around the back of your head to get to your ear, and be a little more bearable. I swear this little trick works.

A side effect of a lot of screaming in your ear coupled with sleep deprivation are

The dark thoughts
There are times when the screaming gets to you, it gets you bad. The rage comes from deep in your bowels, makes you want to do ANYTHING to make the screaming stop. You start having these dark thoughts, which immediately scare you to death: how could I be so horrible to even contemplate shaking my baby? I really MUST be a horrible parent/person! Whatever is left of your self-confidence gets thrown out the window.

These are tough thoughts, not something you want to admit to yourself, let alone your spouse or friends. You don't read about these in all the blogs, but I believe that everyone gets them and if we talked about them in the open we could even laugh about them.

Very important: when this happens, PUT THE BABY DOWN IN A SAFE PLACE AND WALK AWAY! Or give the baby to someone else, tag-team. Go to the opposite side of the house, close the door, and don't go back until you're ready again. Oh, and put earplugs on. The baby will be fine.

[ok, I'll finish this post another time, I think there's enough to be published for now. Here's what's to come:
Missing your previous life
The guilt
The loneliness
The social pressure
Readjusting to work
Breastfeeding issues
Post-Partum Depression

And a surpise last entry: the pressure to post on this blog

Posted by patata at January 6, 2006 03:19 PM


Had my baby - now exactly 2 weeks man ---- I didnt realize how hard it is. For both mom me and the little guy --- any tips for me -- my little dude cries every time I change him -- feed him -- man feeding has become so hard.... :( I hope I see the rainbow on the other side.... :D Take Care you 3 from the 3 of us.

[Chhimi, the rainbow on the other side is huge and cute and rewarding and WORTH ALL THE PAIN. Hang in there, it gets easier. Ask for help from friends and family if you can! Peldi]

Posted by: chhimi at April 23, 2006 02:26 PM