June 4, 2014

That time when I was clueless

The story in my family goes that I did not sleep through the night until I was three years old. Whenever that story would come up, I would chuckle and comment on how I must have been a difficult baby. That was before I became a mother. Now that I have a baby of my own, I wonder how my mother survived those three years (answer: she had lots of help from her parents as three generations lived under one roof).

The point is, before I had my baby, I was completely clueless about what it's like to be a mother. This was true even despite all the stories I'd heard about my own childhood, despite the stories my own friends shared with me. In the world of science, we talk about the known unknowns and the unknown unknowns. I thought I had prepared myself somewhat for the known unknowns by reading a ton about pregnancy and childbirth, by taking childbirth and breastfeeding classes, and by mostly avoiding extreme parenting books.

But then, there were the unknown unknowns. Which really could have been known to me if only I had paused to consider them. Why hadn't I educated myself about infant sleep, knowing that as a baby, I didn't sleep for longer than 40 minutes at a time? Why didn't I bother to read even a single book about breastfeeding when I knew that my mom had so much trouble with it, she couldn't do it for longer than three months?

I was so stupidly confident that breastfeeding would just work out that I was caught completely off-guard by those first few months. I have to preface this by saying that breastfeeding DID work out for us in the end, and I am so grateful for it, especially knowing what I know now about how difficult of an experience it could be and often is for many moms. But when my preemie daughter couldn't latch on in those first several crucial days, I didn't know that she would lose too much weight and then take a month to get back to her birth weight. When she finally did latch on, she showed strong preference for one breast over the other, and I had no idea that this would permanently make my milk supply lopsided, something that could have been prevented if I had known to pump the unfavorable side until the baby figured out how to nurse equilaterally. And when she suddenly started nursing for one hour at a time, eight times a day, at the age of one month, I almost lost my mind as I was unprepared for nursing being a full time job. If only I had educated myself about how common acid reflux is in premies, maybe we could have gotten treatment for my baby sooner, and both of us could have been less miserable.

When it comes to sleep, I was always playing catchup. It wasn't until I became a mother that I understood what continuous sleep deprivation is really like. When my daughter was six weeks old, I had a breakdown. In the haze of complete exhaustion, I mustered up enough determination to strap her into the carrier (the only way she would fall asleep) and leave the house. I walked to our neighborhood bookstore and headed for the parenting section. There I discovered a number of books about babies and sleep, all of them telling me that babies reach their peak fussiness at six weeks of age. A glimmer of hope appeared on the horizon... until I read that this only applies to full-term infants, and the peak fussiness for preemies occurs at six weeks after due date. I had four more weeks to go. Then I found a book that promised a fool-proof method of getting your fussy baby to sleep. (You can all laugh at with me now.) Apparently, I was supposed to be putting my baby on a strict nursing/napping schedule from day one, and then by six weeks, my baby would be sleeping through the night. The dictatorial tone of the book annoyed me, but in my desperation I decided that I had nothing to lose by trying to put my baby on a schedule as soon as possible. I marched home and didn't waste a second writing out a detailed schedule on the whiteboard on our refrigerator. I announced to anyone who would listen that from now on, we will be instituting a strict schedule for the baby, and no deviations were allowed under any circumstances.

There was a flaw in the plan, though. Turned out my daughter didn't think she needed to be on my made-up schedule, and she was going to be not sleeping on her own schedule, thankyouverymuch. I've learned since then to watch for my baby's cues and respect her internal clock that wires her to sleep at certain hours of the day, which have nothing to do with my desires. I've also learned a ton about infants and sleep and what I can expect in the coming months (the main thing being that once you think you have it figured out, it changes). So you could say that my two original big unknowns, sleep and breastfeeding, have since become "known" variables. But I can't help but wonder what unknown unknowns are not even on my radar as we approach toddlerhood and beyond.