Parenting is no cake walk, nor should it be. Raising a child to be a successful adult, regardless of how you define success, is hard work. I’m not one to shy away from labour (pun mostly accidental) but the first year after my daughters’ birth was difficult to a degree that belies words.
I’ve been through a lot in the intervening years, including the dissolution of my marriage and the loss of a son I had hoped would be mine, but it is surviving that first year of twins that I wear as my badge of honour. It’s making it to J and M’s first birthday that proved to me that I could survive anything. It was knowing that I made it through that year that gave me the strength to pick myself up and brush myself off after I watched my husband abandon me, my beloved mother-in-law turn her back on me, and my sweet nephew removed from our family.
Some of what made Year One so hard was unique to our family, but many aspects of the challenge are common to new parents. Each of the reasons below could easily deserve its own post.
I Didn’t Know My Kids Yet
The biggest influence in my parenting is my children’s personalities. Knowing their strengths, weaknesses and triggers helps me parent them.
M doesn’t deal well with change or the unexpected. She tends to lash out when she’s overwhelmed. She gets grumpy when she’s hungry. She experiences the world through words and numbers, and is energized by social interaction. She thinks out loud and needs to feel heard. She knows she’s brilliant and sometimes needs help finding humility.
J’s understanding of others’ feelings is near genius. She needs to talk through her emotions and those of others, and doesn’t take it well when people try to baby her to protect her feelings. She gets lost in imaginary worlds, both on screen and in books and needs a moment to snap back into reality. She’s usually very confident, but will confess to insecurities far beyond her age. She’s a more private person than M or I are.
During that first year, I didn’t know these things about my children. I was getting to know them at the same time that I was learning incorporate parenting into the other responsibilities of my life. It took me days to learn that M would cry because she wanted to be held, while J would cry because she wanted to be put down. I didn’t realize that J wanted my eye contact while M wanted to hear my voice. It took a while to figure out that J preferred Daddy to burp her while M was a burpless wonder.
The shortcuts I have at my disposal now, just from knowing who my kids are, weren’t there the first year. The first year, however, was when I learned who M and J are at their core. That M was a chatterbox, I figured out by the age of 4 months. That J was aware of and mirrored my emotions, I knew by the time she was 6 months old.
Infants Can’t Speak
Babies are incredible sponges of knowledge, and they start learning the cadences of their native language(s) in utero. They don’t, however, come out talking. They can’t tell you what they want or where it hurts. They can’t tell you that they’re crying because you held them too long (J) or not long enough (M). They can’t tell you that they like to be swaddled with one arm free (J) or that their favourite song is Row, Row, Row Your Boat (M). The slow process of elimination to figure out what would make each of my children comfortable each moment of the day was exhausting, and I had it relatively easy, since my kids were remarkably unfussy.
More than once, I remember saying to one child or the other, “I don’t know what you want!” after I’d checked her diaper, fed her, held her, walked with her, bounced her, sang to her, added more layers of clothes, removed layers of clothes and tried everything else I could think of. It took me months before I realized that wanting to be within reach of Sissy was a basic need both babies shared. I don’t believe that babies “just cry.” I firmly believe that crying is a means of communicating discomfort.
I was fortunate to be surrounded by parents whose approach to their babies was like mine. They didn’t assume their infants were drinking-and-pooping blank slates lacking in personality. Like me, they learned the meanings of their children’s different cries. (Tangent: my kids used the same cries for the same things, speaking the same language of cries. Their hunger cries were similarly urgent and shrill; they had the same whiny cry for, “I want to change positions;” they had the same hiccup-y cry to indicate that they were tired. Other babies used the same repertoire of cries to mean different things. My kids’ tired cry was another baby’s hungry.)
Baby Sign was our saving grace. It doesn’t work for everyone, but at the tender age of 7 months, my itty bitty babies could tell me if wanted milk, food, more or Mama. By 9 months, they could sign please and thank you.
It Was Wartime
The US was at war in both Iraq and Afghanistan in 2006, when my babies were born. They were conceived and born between my (now ex) husband’s tours in Iraq. He needed to be in a constant state of readiness. We had a general idea of when he would be expected to go overseas, but he could be called on at any time.
As a practical matter, this meant that I needed to be on call for the babies all the time. If one of them was sent home from daycare with a fever, I could try calling Daddy to see if he could pick them up, but the answer could very well be, “No.” He might be scheduled to take them to a doctor’s appointment, only to have some sort of last-minute work obligation. Our choice would be between rescheduling the appointment or my taking time off work instead. We always chose the latter. If I was with one child in the ER in the middle of the night, I needed to be ready to take the other because Daddy might get called into base in the wee hours of the morning.
Here’s a concrete example: J and M were born at 33 weeks old. A few days after they were born, my husband’s unit left Texas for California for desert training. He got to stay behind with us. When the girls were 10 days old, his army paternity leave was over and the doctors told us that they were out of the woods. Thankfully, they were no longer at risk of dying when my husband was required to join his unit. He didn’t return home until several weeks after our girls came home from the NICU. I figured out how to care from them solo before he made it home. His dad had been staying with me but needed to go back to Washington State well before my ex returned.
Once Daddy left for Iraq, of course, there was no question about who would take care of the babies. Sleep when the babies sleep? I’m sure that advice works for moms who are home with their singletons, but it wasn’t for this working mama of twins when the twins’ sleep schedules got out of sync! I slept while I breastfed.
Kids are Enormously Expensive
Our daycare payments for two infants came out to be more than our mortgage. Thanks to the 10% discount on the second child, we “only” paid $1650 a month for childcare. That was 7 years ago. Inflation has taken its toll, so I can only imagine what the cost is now.
Daycare took up my salary, so we had to live on my husband’s. Trust me when I tell you that soldiers don’t earn a whole lot. We couldn’t afford to contribute to our retirement that first year, and that was okay.
I cut corners where I could. I made my own baby food to avoid baby food costs. I breastfed for as long as I could, which helped cut down on formula costs. I would have loved to cloth diaper, but our daycare required disposables. It was a while before I discovered Amazon Subscribe and Save, and I kicked myself for all the money I could have saved.
We bought things second-hand. Our girls’ high chairs were hand-me-downs from a twin mom at work. I returned the high chair we received as a baby shower gift and spent the money on formula. I watched my Freecycle list and pounced on clothes and toys others were getting rid of.
I didn’t eat out. If people at work wanted to lunch with me, they could buy something and I would bring food from home. My splurge was an occasional $2.14 meal from Wendy’s.
Feeling like I couldn’t afford the occasional babysitter was scary. Budgeting without any wiggle room was awful. After a promotion at work, things became less tight. Daycare costs fell as the girls got older. Although summer camp pricing is comparable to infant care, it’s only for 3 months of the year.
I spent the extra pay that my ex got for being in combat on a lawncare service and a biweekly cleaning lady.
We were incredibly fortunate to have military health insurance. No premiums. No deductible. No co-pays, except (at the time) $3 for generic prescriptions and $10 for name brand. The girls’ birth, complete with ambulance ride, C-section and NICU time cost us $6. I had two prescriptions for painkillers.
If we’d have normal medical coverage, I honestly don’t know how we would have made ends meet. I feel like we had a decent middle class income. When you crunch the numbers, it’s a little insane.
I Had to Learn to Let Go
The perfectionist in me got slapped around, and hard, by that first year. I had to let go of all my highfalutin goals of motherhood and dig down deep to decide what really mattered. Did I want to read to perfectly clean babies with lullabies gently playing in the background in a neat and tidy home where all the laundry was folded and get a shower every day? Sure I did. Was that going to happen? No way. Not the first year.
I had the TV on. I dressed myself and the kids straight out of the clean laundry hamper. I ate pre-prepared meals. I slept on my lunch break at work, right on the floor of my office. My social calendar consisted of phone calls cut off mid-sentence and life in the blogosphere.
Being someone who processes through the written word, I devised a parenting credo to carry me through. I set achievable goals and didn’t look more than 2 weeks out. I learned humility and prioritization. I learned that being a super mom has nothing to do with being SuperMom.
Breastfeeding is Hard. Breastfeeding Two is Harder
I’ve told you my breastfeeding story recently, but both breastfeeding and formula-feeding are hard.
My Reproductive Years are My Career-Building Years
I came to conclusion that there wasn’t enough of me to meet my parenting ambitions and my career ambitions. That understanding didn’t come quickly, but it did come easily and organically. I spend my time at home managing children; I don’t have any desire to manage adults at work. Fortunately, since my girls were infants, my workplace has begun to allow for career paths that don’t lead to management. At the time, though, I made peace with motherhood and my military marriage costing me career progression. I liked my job and still do, but I would never again be a superstar.
I Need Sleep
We all need sleep, and there isn’t much to be found when you’re raising kids. My babies didn’t sleep through the night until they were well over a year old. I somehow managed to survive on 3-5 hours of interrupted sleep per night. I’m sure I could have been a much better parent if I weren’t constantly exhausted. It’s a miracle that I didn’t have an accident. I fell asleep while driving to work more than once.
Did I ever tell you about the time I showed up to work with my pants on inside out? Or the time I forgot to button my shirt after nursing and needed my daughters’ teacher to tell me to put my boob away before I got back on the road? Sleep deprivation does that.
It’s hard to have perspective when you’re sleep-deprived. It’s hard to have hope. I would say that the lack of the sleep is the biggest challenge of the first year with a new child or children.
“Wife” and “Mother” are Distinct Roles
This is a huge topic, but suffice it to say that being a wife can take as much energy, time and effort as being mother. The two are not the same thing. My co-parenting relationship with my husband had little overlap with our marital relationship. It’s easy to get so focused on meeting your new babies’ needs together to forget that there are other parts to your marriage.
A C-Section is Major Abdominal Surgery
For those of us who have had caesarean births, the recovery required seriously complicates the first days. Perhaps we can’t lift our kids and it’s painful to nurse them because they kick the incision. Perhaps you cannot physically walk to the NICU to see your baby. I may have pulled out my stitches a few times in my efforts to get to my babies. A C-section may be common, but that doesn’t mean it’s not major.
If ever someone tries to tell you to suck up the pain, remind them that the doctor pulled your uterus (which she’d just sliced open to remove a human being) out of your body to examine it before putting it back and sewing you up.
I’ve never had a vaginal birth, so I honestly can’t speak to how that recovery process might impact the first few days with your baby.
There’s a reason that post-partum depression and psychosis exist as medical conditions. The changes that your body is going through as it goes from your pregnant to your non-pregnant state can wreak havoc on your brain chemistry. This is no flippant, “it’s just hormones” issue. Post-partum psychosis can be fatal.
It’s Completely Worth It
I would do it all over again, in a heartbeat. If I had the financial capacity, I would love another child. I’d love another set of twins. You know what? Hand me a set of newborn triplets. I’m in my element with babies. I love how they sound and how they smell and how they act. I love the way a baby will grasp my finger, babble to himself or seek out her own feet. Crying doesn’t faze me, although it has been known to make me lactate. I love that I can love on a baby without any fear of over-coddling him. I love the feeling of complete trust that a baby has when he’s sleeping in my arms.
(Seriously, I’m a baby whisperer. Ask Wiley.)
That first year gave me everything I needed to be able to figure this parenting thing out.
Is/was the first year hard? What made it (or kept it from being) hard? What did you learn about yourself and you babies?
Sadia (rhymes with Nadia) has been coordinating How Do You Do It? since late 2012. She is the divorced mother of 7-year-old monozygotic twins, M and J. She lives with them and their 3 cats in the Austin, TX suburbs and works full time as a business analyst. She retired her personal blog, Double the Fun, when the girls entered elementary school in order to better protect their privacy and was delighted to have the opportunity to keep a foot in the blogosphere through HDYDI. She also blogs at Adoption.com and Multicultural Mothering.