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Nothing could have prepared me for parenthood. Not the parenting classes my husband and I diligently attended at the local hospital. Not the hours I spent listening to advice from trusted friends and family members. Not even adopting the motto, “expect the unexpected,” could fully prepare me for how unexpectedly hard it has been.

I anticipated sleepless nights, and I braced myself for smelly diapers and vomit stained shirts. I expected a certain amount of crying and stocked my arsenal with endless tools to soothe a fussy baby. I was ready for all the trials and joys that go along with caring for a newborn, or so I thought.

When my 8lb 6oz son entered the world on July 20th at 11:20pm, and the doctor lifted him onto my chest I stared into his big blue eyes waiting for the influx of maternal warm and fuzzies that I’d heard so much about.

NOTHING

So I looked harder. I glared down at my son, squinting my eyes into focused laser beams of love. But still nothing. After a long labor, preceded by four sleepless nights, I was physically and emotionally exhausted. My birth plan had gone out the window about 20 hours into labor when, after having my water broke and experiencing continuous stabbing pain, I was still only 1cm dilated. When I first saw my son I was feeling defeated, overwhelmed, slightly traumatized, and upset that I didn’t have the “natural,” drug-free delivery I planned.

When we loaded our son into his car seat to go home, I was happy to be putting distance between the delivery experience and myself. Now I can move on, I thought. Now I can begin the bonding process. But the first few days home from the hospital were filled with conflicted emotions and uncontrollable crying spells more than tender moments and googly eyes.

As I stood hunched over in the shower with tears welling in my eyes and my chest tightening I couldn’t fathom what was wrong with me. This is what you always wanted, I told myself. This was a planned pregnancy, a decision my husband and I consciously made. Why was I suddenly feeling an intense regret? I couldn’t stop the deluge of unwanted thoughts.

Having a baby was the biggest mistake. My life is over. I wish I could take him back, give him away to someone more deserving. I don’t love this baby; I don’t feel connected to this baby; heck he doesn’t even feel like my son. I am a terrible person and I am going to be a terrible mother. This baby would be better off without me.

My husband, who was privy to a few of these crying episodes, raised a red flag and called my doctor. An appointment was scheduled for later that afternoon. As I walked into her office I tried desperately to compose myself, rubbing the desperation out of my puffy, blood-shot eyes and pulling a jacket over my shirt that was sporting a mix of baby vomit and my own snot. I was fine. I needed people to think I was fine. But the façade crumbled the moment the doctor entered the room.

I broke down and cried, muttering incoherently between gasps and sobs. My doctor diagnosed me with post partum depression, and along with a prescription for Zoloft, should I want it, she sent me on my way with a few words of wisdom.

First, bonding is not instantaneous for all women. Many times, the raging hormones from the baby blues or PPD make is difficult to establish a connection with the baby in those first few months. Additionally, the stress of being a new parent can be so overwhelming that it blunts a lot of the tender moments that lead to establishing a bond. Give yourself time to get to know your baby and build a relationship instead of expecting there to be one right away.

Most people carry certain expectations for parenthood throughout their pregnancy and are often upset when reality does not line up with those expectations. The disappointment can often leave the new parents questioning everything from their decision to have a baby to whether or not they will be able to cut it as parents. The best course of action is to mourn the loss of your unmet expectations, take stock of reality, and then set a new course based on your updated expectations.

Next, don’t compare your journey into parenthood with others because you’ll probably always find yourself feeling slighted on some level. At times, our son can be an incredibly fussy baby. It was a running joke the first month of his life that if he wasn’t sleeping or eating he was probably crying, screaming, screeching, whimpering, whining, or my favorite, making his high-pitched, ear-drum-breaking wail. It was one part car alarm and one part blaring smoke detector playing on repeat. I would look at other babies quietly sleeping in their car seats and think, why can’t my baby be like that? The simple answer is because I have a unique child, with his own temperament and personality and the sooner I accept him as he is the happier I will be. Babies don’t come in a one-size fits all mold. If you’re constantly comparing your baby to others, instead of working on appreciating your child as is, chances are you will overlook all the great attributes he does possess.

Lastly, acknowledge that being a parent, especially in those first few months, is one of the hardest things you will ever do. Expectant mothers are often inundated with stories about the joys of parenthood and are told repeatedly how having a child is the greatest gift there is. At the end of these feel-good tales, someone might casually throw in a “better enjoy your sleep now” as they look at you with sympathetic eyes, but the inherent struggles are merely an afterthought. From my perspective, it would be a lot more helpful, not to mention accurate, if people led with the sleepless nights and then proceeded to talk about the joys.

I liken parenthood to running a marathon. You eagerly sign up, spurred on by a friend’s story of glory and a glimpse at her shiny finisher’s medal. Training is hard but you persist. You think you’re ready, you’ve read all the books, put in the miles, and are rested and fueled. You show up at the starting line blissfully unaware of what is in store. It’s not until the race starts and you’re a couple miles in that you realize exactly what you’ve gotten yourself into and just how far you still have to go.  At this moment it’s easy to lose sight of the finish line and to forget why you set out on this adventure to begin with. Your feet are tired, your muscles start to ache, and you begin to question your resolve along with your sanity. You push on because you have no other choice and eventually fall into a rhythm. You cross the finish line exhausted but euphoric. You did it!

As the days and weeks and months pass, you begin to forget about all the pain, the fatigue, the blisters, and the bruises. The struggle becomes nothing more than a foggy memory.

And when the fog clears, all that is left is a story of triumph and your shiny finishers medal, gently encouraging you to sign up again.

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