05/09/2013 08:14 EDT | Updated 07/09/2013 05:12 EDT

The Mother I Am Is Different Than the Mother I Thought I'd Be

Sunday May 12 will be my first Mother's Day; my son was born on September 13 of last year. Though I've always given my own mother presents on the second Sunday of May, this year I keep forgetting that Mother's Day is nearly here. I've played many roles in my life, but none of them have been as all-consuming as this one. There is not a second of the day where I am not keenly aware that I am a mother, and so it slips my mind that a special once-a-year day marking just that is nearly here. (The sleep deprivation may also have something to do with it.)

My keen awareness that I am a mother does not, however, always mean that I am exactly the mother I want to be, or thought I would be. I got my first lesson in that reality very quickly.

When you're waiting for the arrival of your first child, it can be hard to picture the day-to-day of parenting. But I am a person who likes to know what I have coming for me, so I did the only thing I could do when faced with all this uncertainty: I researched. I read books, followed parenting blogs, and leafed through a lot of magazines. I learned about the science behind infant sleep, the history of birth, and the research on the best ways to praise children. And I thought a lot about the kind of parent I wanted to be -- the things I would do, and the ones I definitely would not.

One of the things I knew I wanted to do as a mother was breastfeed; I am very aware of the science behind its benefits, for mother and baby both. I though it would be a way for us to bond from the start. And, of course, formula is pretty expensive. Why buy it when I could make my own milk for free? I am ashamed to admit now that I secretly judged mothers who didn't breastfeed, figuring they just hadn't tried hard enough to make it work. I wouldn't fall into that trap, I said, and so I had no formula in the house when I went to the hospital to have my baby, and just a couple of bottles that had been given to me as gifts. I felt sure I wouldn't need them for weeks at least, maybe months, maybe never.

Nothing will tear down your ego like having a child. It's a whole new way to feel like you don't know anything at all; most of the knowledge I had stuffed into my head while pregnant disappeared when I was faced with a tiny little person who would not breastfeed. On his first day, the nurses assured me that he was probably too sleepy to want to eat, so I didn't worry. By day two, however, he was clearly hungry, and not very happy about it. None of us got much sleep during his second night as various nurses came in and out of my hospital room, trying to cajole my son into latching on. "Well, I don't know what's wrong with your baby," one nurse said. I didn't think that anything was wrong with him, but I was certain something was wrong with me.

The three of us left the hospital the next day, after I'd been given some formula and asked to sign a form saying that I was aware that breastfeeding was best for my baby -- making my failure sting just a little more. We spent a couple of days trying to feed our son with a feeding tube attached to my husband's finger, while I lifted a container of milk up and down so gravity would help him get it from the bottle to his mouth. When you've pictured yourself providing for your child with the milk produced by your own body, that experience is pretty demoralizing.

I eventually gave up and switched to bottles -- which he fortunately took to right away -- because on top of everything else I wasn't going to make my baby struggle to eat. I took tinctures and teas and supplements to try to increase my breast milk production. I pumped as often as I could manage while trying to care for a newborn. I saw experts, and eventually learned that an especially short frenulum under his tongue was probably what kept my son from being able to latch on from the start. I cried a lot. And finally, I gave up, realizing that I wasn't serving either of us by making the simple, essential act of eating so stressful for me and him both.

So I give my son milk from a can, in a bottle -- and he is fine. He is better than fine; he is healthy and happy and handsome, and he gets very excited when he's hungry and sees me or my husband holding a bottle of formula. He knows we are going to care for him, and get rid of his hunger by giving him the milk in that bottle. In the end, that is what matters.

In the eight months since he was first placed on my chest -- where he promptly pooped all over me -- I have already learned a lot from my son, and none of it could be taught by any of what I read while I was pregnant. I'm starting to accept that all the research in the world can't prepare you for the day-to-day realities of parenting, and that the parent you hope to be isn't necessarily the parent you will be when you are faced with the child you end up with -- who is, after all, an individual in his or her own right. The TV is on sometimes in our house, and not even close to everything I feed my baby is fresh and organic, and I am never quite satisfied with how I'm balancing work and caring for my son. But in the end, it doesn't really matter that I am not the mother I pictured myself as, waiting for my son to arrive. What matters is that I am the right mother for him, the one who cares for him and comforts him and loves him, and he is the perfect child for me.

Happy Mother's Day.

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