There’s an idea out there that most women don’t remember the first weeks of motherhood because, if we did, no one would ever have another baby and the population of our species would slowly dwindle. I don’t remember a lot of the details of my first time with a newborn, but I remember sitting on the steps of the pediatrician’s parking garage and crying. The next minute I thought, “Okay, if I’ve done this for six weeks, I can do it for six weeks more,” standing up and continuing on down the stairs with Lily in my arms. I did it for six weeks, and then six weeks more, and again, and again. Enough weeks passed that I forgot the struggles altogether; twelve years later I started all over, and now I have an infant son.
I have always been curious about what my second pregnancy would be like because the first rodeo was unplanned and pretty stressful. Turns out, it wasn’t worrying that made me nauseous; that’s just how I grow babies. Also, my hair feels heavy when I’m pregnant; it wasn’t the dreadlocks after all! In utero kicks were as thrilling as ever. But there were differences too: every ache in my back and knees reminded me that it was twelve years between births. That’s twelve years of growing older, slower, maybe wiser, and definitely more tired. The similarities and differences were interesting and (sometimes) fun to observe, remedied with a Tylenol and warm bath if need be.
The intangible component that wove its way through both my experiences as the most important, though? The role community played in these huge life transitions.
Autonomy is king (and queen)
As a middle-class white lady, I live in a culture that celebrates autonomy and independence, survival and success. Technology has connected us and isolated us; we can help others by donating online instead of attending a fundraiser, and we can order groceries to be delivered instead of asking a neighbor for that one missing ingredient. There are more marathons on my Facebook feed than block-parties. Our economy is such that renting is more common than buying, so we don’t always see our neighbors as permanent parts of our lives, and there often isn’t time to gossip over the hedge. Our understanding of community is different than it used to be.
The modern community I know likes to focus on the positive side of life; rarely do people discuss life’s hardships on social media. In fact, there is so little space for struggle on our public profiles that we tend to stay quiet when things are hard. Childbirth is considered a private event—as it should be—but personal isn’t the same as isolated. The beauty and struggle of birth and postpartum survival has faded from societal conversation; new parents barely know how to ask for help, and the community around them barely knows how to provide it. This was especially true for me the first time around. Despite total exhaustion, it never occurred to me to reach out. I didn’t want to be a burden, and I was trying to prove that I could be a capable young mother. I think about how tired I was during those days, and I wonder if my determination wasn’t at least a little bit dangerous. (I should not, for example, have been driving a car after weeks of minimal sleep.) And while I’d like to think that friends would have helped if I had asked them to, they were enjoying a carefree early-twenties existence with which my new life and needs didn’t really mesh. I don’t blame them because we live in a society that mostly keeps people separated by life phases or experiences—like, how can you possibly fathom parenthood if no one talks about what it’s like, and it is always treated as something Out There in the Maybe Someday?
Then there came a point in my life when the need for help outweighed the need to prove my independence. When Lily was three, I moved us away from our entire support system. I learned quickly that it takes a village, and I learned how to create one. Asking for help is another way to survive, and babysitters don’t just appear out of thin air, FYI.
Come together, right now, over me
Turns out, there are two pieces to asking for help—trust and honesty. For me it works like this: I have to trust that people are honest with me about lending a hand. About wanting to help and having the resources to do so. I have to trust that the same people are honest with me when they cannot help. And I have to trust that we are not judging one another based on our needs. I offer the same to others; I am honest about when I am available and when I am not. I enjoy being of service, and I have to trust that it’s a reciprocal relationship between myself and those around me.
So this time, when I became pregnant and gave birth, my eyes were opened to the real power of community. I was never alone if I didn’t want to be. No one had to prove their strength or independence. We were comfortable asking for help, and we were grateful to receive it.
Facebook didn’t exist when my daughter was born. This time, I’m able to find solidarity with others in a parenting group that assures me I am not alone at three in the morning, it is not the end of the world if my son sees an iPhone screen, and it does get easier with time. When I was prescribed a brutal antibiotic for a breast infection, women I had never met delivered frozen breast milk to my house so my little guy could keep formula intake to a minimum. (Note: It is also not the end of the world to give a baby formula.) So yes, in some ways, technology has created distance between us, but it can be a part of connection, too.
At the same time, IRL, my community came together to bring my family meals in the first weeks of my son’s life. Community picked up my daughter from school and made sure she got to her Irish dance practice. Community held the baby while I showered, did laundry while my husband and I napped, brought me nipple cream and hemorrhoid spray when it felt like a drive to the drug store was impossible. This group was made up of friends, family, colleagues, and classmates. Some of them knew what to do because they’d experienced it themselves. Some of them did not but were able to ask, “How can I help?” There were still moments of exhausted desperation; that is impossible to escape, no matter how many casseroles are brought to the door. But assistance was never far away, and I had twelve years of learning how to ask for it. My mom came with me to the pediatrician when my husband had to work; it is so much easier to navigate a parking garage when you’re not alone.
The new normal
I feel like the luckiest person in the world to have experienced such love and support, but I also feel like it shouldn’t be an anomaly. Life works better when we’re all helping each other. I shouldn’t feel “lucky” have experienced it; it should be our normal.
One day, I may not remember how exactly how hard it was to have a newborn baby, but I’ll remember the community that helped us get through it. It’s an element of life that I think should be a larger part of the world, and I’m willing to try to figure out ways to be of service to others whether I understand their struggles or not. I’m not trying to save the world or create a mass movement, but I am trying to practice what I preach. I’ll start by saying thank you to everyone who was there for me, and ask “How can I help” in return. (And can anyone give my kiddo a ride home from school today?!)