My new mom struggles and experience in the first six months of parenthood: the story of how I dealt with unexpected change of plans after my daughter’s birth; how I approached sleep deprivation and a shift in my identity; and the biggest thing I did to take control of my postpartum depression and anxiety.
As I’m writing this in April 2018, earlier this month my daughter baby J turned 6 months old. While on one hand I’m amazed that she’s been a part of our lives for half a year already (time flies!), on the other hand, I can’t believe it’s been ONLY six months because it surely has felt like eternity at times.
I am going to be totally honest here. When I first got pregnant, I was very excited that my life would be taking a new turn.
As a person who’s struggled with depression on and off for years, I was happy to notice that most of my depression symptoms went away. I was full of hope and love for this little human I was growing inside.
I finally made peace with my body image – something that’s been really hard to do for me for the longest time (I was able to finally address that issue, but not get on top of it, after my attempt to train for a bikini competition a few years ago).
I thought of all the Instagram pictures and exciting blog posts about my vegan parenting experience I’d be sharing soon. Overall, I was looking forward to becoming a mom.
Unfortunately, what happened in real life after my baby’s birth was quite different.
Baby J’s Birth
After baby J finally entered this world on a dark October night, for the next few months I felt like that night never turned into dawn.
Her birth became an unexpected traumatic experience that I’m still struggling to talk about (the reason why I haven’t posted an obligatory birth story like any self-respecting new mom blogger).
From the start, I was set to experience feelings that fell pretty far from the boundless joy that everybody was telling me I’d feel once my daughter was born. Add to this the shock over temporarily losing command of my body after a c-section, having to breastfeed baby J every 2 hours, and total exhaustion with no opportunity to catch up on sleep, and you’ll see why I was totally distraught.
Seeing how much my husband Rob and I struggled, my doctor offered us to stay in the hospital for a full week after baby J’s birth, or until Rob’s parents flew in from New York to help us out (we don’t have any family living nearby).
She also suggested that I start taking an antidepressant to protect me from hitting the lowest of the lows of postpartum depression (PPD). Looking back, I admit it was one of the most important steps of self-care I could have taken at the time.
For the first week after we brought baby J home (2nd week of her life), Rob’s parents stayed with us and helped a lot while both of us adjusted to our new reality and I recovered from my c-section.
After they left, we waited for my mom to fly in from Russia and stay with us for a few weeks. Unfortunately, my mom developed some health complications that led to a surgery, so she had to postpone her visit for 3 months until she recovered.
The First Weeks
Rob and I had every intention to give the best to our baby girl. I breastfed her on demand around the clock. She was born small – only 6 lbs 7 oz – so I was hoping to beef her up with as much food as she wanted. That started paying off pretty soon. By the time she was 2 months old, I heard people saying that she looked like she could have been a month older.
Once we were able to get a feel of her personality, we saw that baby J was a happy, curious, physically very strong kid who loved being in our company.
For a while, she didn’t sleep well, which was tough on both Rob and I. As the sole source of J’s food, I took on all night wake-ups. I was also trying to spare Rob a bit since he was going to work in the morning.
A typical night for me was starting breastfeeding at around 9 pm, continuing until J fell asleep and didn’t wake up as I transferred her to her bassinet (which often failed, so I had to start over many times 🙁 The feedings often lasted until midnight or later.
During those first weeks, baby J would wake up 3-4 times as the night went on to breastfeed again. A few times Rob took her out for a car drive very, very late at night when all my efforts to calm her down failed. When that happened, it wasn’t just baby J that needed lots of consolation from him 🙁
New Parenthood Surprises
One of the shocks I experienced during that time was how little time I had for myself. I’m not even talking about taking a long bath or getting together with my girlfriends for a fun brunch – forget that! I struggled to find time for even the most basic things like eating lunch or going to the bathroom, not to say write blog posts or take lots of Instagram-worthy pictures.
Looking back, I wish I photographed baby J more during her early days because she was changing so rapidly, yet I only have a handful of pictures form those days (even fewer of those made it to Instagram).
Another shock of my new mom life was the loss of my pre-baby identity. Describing myself as “just” a vegan, a runner, a blogger, a writer, an immigrant, etc. was not as accurate anymore. I was trying to fit “mother” among these other descriptors and realizing that it was a much bigger thing, something that squeezed all other parts of my identity and pushed them against the walls of my sense of self.
I talked about this identity shift in this post (along with a few other things I wish I’d known about before becoming a mom), and honestly, I’m still trying to figure it out.
I quickly realized that my plans to blog about my vegan parenting experience all the time were not going to materialize because baby J required so much attention. It took a lot of time and effort to write the last three blog posts of 2017.
I hesitated to decide how much of my personal life I wanted to share on the internet. I knew I needed to talk about my experience, especially the not so pretty parts of it, so that other new parents out there could relate and maybe avoid making some of my mistakes. But I also wanted to find the right balance between the personal and the public.
One of the decisions I made as a result was to call my daughter ‘baby J’ online instead of her full name so that to protect her privacy at least to some extent.
It’s Always Darkest Before The Dawn
Rob and I intended to have baby J sleep in our room for the first six months following the advice of the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP). However, all three of us were getting terrible sleep in this situation.
One night right around the time baby J turned 8 weeks, we had the toughest time getting baby J to sleep. We tried everything, including putting her in her glider, which just became her favorite spot for daytime naps.
Since Rob had to get up early the following morning, I decided to take J in her room to soothe so that Rob could get some sleep. It took me another hour and a half of nursing and bouncing her on the exercise ball (a huge helper in the first few months!) before she finally fell asleep.
I put her in her crib, turned off the light, left the doors to her and our rooms open, and went to bed.
I was terrified of leaving baby J by herself for the first time ever, but I told myself that she was safe (on her back in a clean diaper, with no toys, bumpers or blankets in her crib, on a hard mattress with only a fitted sheet on it, etc. – the recommendations of the AAP), and that I would hear her as soon as she makes a peep.
Let me just say – that night all three of us got THE. BEST. SLEEP we’ve had in two months! Baby J woke up only once for a feeding, and in the morning we got up rested and ready to take on the world.
From that moment on, J has been sleeping in her room every night. By 2 months, we finally entered a time when she started sleeping in long stretches during the night, waking up only once or twice, and even sleeping through the night every now and then.
It still took me 2-3 hours to put her to sleep in the evening, but at least I wasn’t as desperate and frazzled from the lack of sleep as before. After I caught up on some sleep myself, I started enjoying my parenting experience so much more.
I also found a local parenting support group that hosted weekly meetings for parents and caregivers of children of up to 15 months. Diana, the facilitator of these meetings, provided comfort and support in a friendly, non-judgmental environment.
Going to these meetings turned out to be hugely helpful both for meeting other people who were going through the same with their kids (or went through just recently) and for my mental state.
It Takes a Village
When J was 3.5 months old, my mom finally flew in from Russia and stayed with us for 2 months. My mom’s presence was incredibly helpful, especially as I started working at my previously full-time (now part-time) job again.
My employer agreed to let me work part-time from home a few hours a week. Usually during those days, my mom would take J for a walk in her stroller for an hour or two, during which she usually fell asleep for her daytime nap.
Just before my mom’s arrival I finally got back into working out. Baby J was fascinated to watch me play with my dumbbells and swing around my kettlebell in the morning.
It Hits You Like a Brick: The 4-Month Sleep Regression
As J neared her 4-month age mark, her nighttime sleep took a turn for the worse.
According to multiple books and articles, the 4-month sleep regression is a normal thing when the nature of babies’ sleep changes. Only somewhere in my blissful state of unpreparedness, I missed the memo that nursing a baby to sleep was going to become less and less effective.
I dug myself into a hole without realizing it.
Everybody tells you that every hardship is just a phase in a baby’s life, and that eventually it would be over.
Every night as I continued nursing J to sleep, I hoped that THIS would be the night when we finally get to the end of that phase, but every night proved me wrong. I was quickly becoming a grumpy, sleep-deprived mess, and my previously at-bay PPD started flaring up.
On top of all this, my mom’s visit was quickly coming to an end. I was filled with anxiety just thinking about how much everything would change once she went back to Russia. I had no idea how I would continue to work or exercise when I’m the only caretaker for baby J during the day again.
After months of spreading myself thin, I was feeling like something was going to break. In February, I switched to a different antidepressant and got strange side effects that made me decide to stop taking the medication completely.
Very quickly I got proof that it was a bad idea. My stubbornness made think that I could do it all on my own, that I was strong enough, but the reality proved otherwise.
Eventually I had to admit to myself that I still needed help, and that it was OK. I started on a non-SSRI antidepressant soon after, and slowly I started feeling more like myself again.
You And Me, And The Baby Makes Three
Soon after baby J turned 5 months, my mom flew back to Russia. Thankfully, the very next day baby J, Rob and I went on a little getaway to Orcas Island. It was a much needed break for all three of us.
This was our first time traveling with baby J (except for a week-long trip to San Francisco Bay Area during Christmas when we stayed with family), and she took to it quite well.
Her nighttime sleep was still far from perfect, and I got up at least 3-4 times every night, but at least she took good daytime naps when we were driving around the island.
Rob and I came to an important realization: we needed to establish a good routine that worked both for us and for baby J.
For the entire month of March, I doubled down on the efforts to get her in a pattern of sleep/naps/daytime activities. I looked for her natural cues that could tell me when she was the happiest to be up or to take a nap.
I searched the internet, read books, ordered fancy sleep plans, bought a tricked-out sleep sack that promised to make J’s nighttime sleep a breeze (it didn’t).
One thing was staring us straight into the eye: if we wanted baby J to sleep well at night, we needed to teach her how to fall asleep on her own. Yes, I’m talking about sleep training.
Sleep training is such a polarizing subject on the internet, especially among the “crunchy”, all-natural folks in some of my vegan Facebook groups, that it took us a while to make a decision.
During the last week in March I hit “a new level of insanity” (a phrase I heard from one of the moms in our playgroup) due to the lack of sleep as J started waking up every 45-60 minutes for a few nights in a row.
Eventually, after a suggestion by our pediatrician, we gave sleep training a try. And it wasn’t half bad!
We devoted a whole week in April our sleep training efforts. I took notes on every activity we did with baby J, the duration of her time awake, bedtime and naptime preparations, the length of crying before she fell asleep, etc.
Thankfully, baby J never cried for more than 20 minutes when we put her in her bed (both Rob and I came in to console her a few times while she cried), and very quickly started waking up only once or twice for a good feeding during the night. Within a week she was sleeping for a good 11-12 hours per night.
I’m currently training her for her daytime naps, which has been another point of struggle.
She’s a happier, more content baby now that she gets better sleep herself, and the benefits of her sleeping well have been huge for me too. Not only am I enjoying her company more during the day – I also get to have time and energy to write 2000+ word blog posts like this one 🙂
So this is my experience of being a parent for the last six months. Without a doubt, this has been the wildest ride of my life, complete with the ups and downs of feeling like a total failure at times.
But once I was able to keep my sleep deprivation and anxiety at bay, I saw that my baby girl was happy, healthy, and always excited to see me. She gained 10 pounds and grew 7 inches in her first six months of life, so I must have been doing something right 🙂
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