11/27/2015 03:46 EST | Updated 11/27/2016 05:12 EST

A Second Glance At First-Time Motherhood

Tara Mandarano

It's amazing what a second glance at first-time motherhood reveals. Those early days are steeped so strongly in my memory. Before my daughter was born, my brain drew up a blueprint of what I thought life would be like, post-baby. It included nursing in the rocking chair in the middle of the night, endless cute outfits, and an overall sense of cozy, snowed-in bliss.

I didn't count on having a panic attack about which onesie to pack in my hospital bag, like it was the most crucial decision I'd ever make. I couldn't know that I would struggle with breastfeeding no matter where I sat, that the cheerful Hooter Hider cover-ups would go unworn.


But the part that caught me off guard the most was the sheer time of year -- winter, the most beastly season to have a baby. It was not cozy; it was confining. It was not blissful; it was bleak. I remember staring zombie-like at daytime TV while my daughter took short naps. She was learning the difference between day and night, and I was just trying not to fall apart.


I remember the profound relief of escaping to the bathroom, alone, closing the door on my new reality and greedily grabbing a few minutes for myself. How a five-minute shower felt like a vacation. On the days when it was possible, it was my salvation.


My original sketch of our family life was woefully incomplete, but there was no way to know what lay ahead without living it. Going through it. All I heard from new parents was how "in love" with their baby they were. This constant stream of rose-coloured language left me feeling lacking when it was my turn.


Sure, I was amazed at this tiny being before me, and I loved her with a fierceness I never would have fathomed, but I was also totally terrified, sleep deprived, and nearly manic with all the mayhem a new child brings.

I remember the anticlimactic feeling once the baby was born and everyone went home. Looking at that tiny, unfamiliar face and not recognizing the reality of the child in my arms. The possibilities of the dream child gone, the actual baby a monumental mystery. I recollect how a friend put it: that it was strange to have a stranger in the house.

I remember the sum of all the things I didn't know about parenthood crushing down on me, the pressure to get everything perfect. I recall putting my relationship on the back burner and forgetting to check how it was doing. How my hubby and I went from lovebirds to squabblers in the span of weeks.

It's astonishing how much your brain blocks out over time. It's only when you're around another newborn that the unsavoury stuff you've shoved in a mental drawer comes crashing open. The advent of the poonamis. Heavy-duty painkillers. Stool softeners. The endless patting, swaddling, walking, rocking. The sheer terror involved in giving a newborn a bath.

I remember obsessively watching the clock for the next scheduled feeding. Trying to figure out formula doses, the albatross of breast pumps. Not realizing the true purpose and brilliance of a onesie's design until well after the fact.

My only solace was a postnatal support group held every week. As mothers of newborns and toddlers, we could share our struggles with postpartum anxiety and depression and not feel shamed. We could take turns and talk, and not have our thoughts and feelings carelessly shoved under the "baby blues" label. For me it was a safe place to tell my story and see myself reflected in other mothers' realities. What a difference validation makes.


As time went on, things got better and I discovered that rocking chairs were the perfect place to read my daughter board books. I realized that she could sleep in the same thing she wore during the day and nobody would notice. I learned that there is a certain kind of wonder to be found in winter. Through her fresh eyes, I saw how a blizzard could be considered beautiful again, when it's the first one you've ever seen.

Now I'm able to look back and relive all the wondrous moments, too. The day she discovered her arm was actually attached to her body. The way she liked to sleep all snuggled up on our chests. The sound of her first giggle in the bathtub.

I can admit now that I was only half in love with her then. I was still getting to know her, bit by bit. Today I am head over heels, and there is a deluge of happiness in my heart. My life is not always easier with her in it, but it is infinitely better for it.

Today I am two years past this experience and I'm still writing my way out of it. There were a lot of dark moments those first few months of figuring out what to do and how to feel, but I'd do them all again to have the beautiful blessing that is my daughter.