The first few weeks after welcoming a new baby are a time of magic and beauty. Also, they are a time of chaos.
Meconium. Spit-up. Lochia. Cracked nipples. Dirty bottles. Crying (both the infant and parental kind). And, of course, the cruel, cruel torture of sleep deprivation.
Magic and beauty notwithstanding, the newborn stage is a tough parenting stage to love. For me, it took until my third baby before I even tried loving those first six agonizing weeks. What I realize now is that all I needed to do was learn what to love about the newborn weeks and how, exactly, to love them.
1. Embrace all-day pajamas
Eventually, I embraced everything even implied by "all-day pajamas." Other new-baby parents might want to try this, too.
What I mean is just giving in to things that make you comfortable. Binge-watch all the shows you've ever (or never) wanted to watch. (My third baby's newborn weeks helped introduce my husband and me to "Game of Thrones" and "Keeping up with the Kardashians"—an odd pairing of highbrow and unnaturally-sculpted lowbrow.) Also, eat breakfast, lunch and dinner on the couch.
After you shower (if you shower), change out of last night's pajamas into fresh, clean pajamas. Live like a college student during finals week, except instead of studying for five exams, stay up all night studying how to feed, clean and soothe a brand new human being.
I have to admit: at times, pajama-life was kind of fun. Even when those pajamas got soaked by a leaky diaper.
2. Seek out and accept help that makes the most sense for you and your family
By the time my third baby was born, I'd finally learned exactly what kind of postpartum help I needed—and what kind of help I didn't need. As I discovered, it can take a bit of creativity (or firmness) to ensure that the postpartum help you receive truly helps you, and truly helps you enjoy your time with your baby.
So, if your far-flung friends and family want to do something to help you, but they can't visit you? Ask them to send restaurant gift cards or purchase a week of cleaning services for you. Or ask your night owl friend to text you encouraging messages when it's 2 a.m. and you're wide awake with a screaming baby.
If a lactation consultant makes you feel more guilty than empowered? Stop. Find a new one. Or don't find another one at all. Remember that you are doing a great job no matter how you feed your baby.
"Sleep while the baby sleeps" is one of the most useless mantras people share with new parents.
If someone really wants to bring you a meal, but you're already stocked up on food? Ask them to bring you dinner when your baby is 2 or 3 months old. Life will still be chaotic then, but fewer people will be offering you free food.
And if that chatty neighbor with no sense of boundaries wants to "stop by and hold the baby for a while"? See above: answer the door in your pajamas. Help yourself and send the message loud and clear: You are recovering from childbirth. If you've had a cesarean section, you are recovering from major abdominal surgery. You are not there to entertain anyone, let alone make mildly amusing conversation.
3. Do the thing that makes you feel most like you when the baby sleeps
Though a nice idea in theory, "Sleep while the baby sleeps" is one of the most useless mantras people share with new parents. In my experience, the mantra itself often made me feel guilty. Sleeping while the baby slept was just one more thing that I should have been doing but wasn't.
But once I gave up the idea that I had to sleep while the baby slept, I embraced my infant's sleeping hours with a new sense of calm. Sometimes I slept. But most times, I didn't. Because I needed to eat. And shower. And use the bathroom. And perform all the other basic life tasks that become nearly impossible to complete when there's a brand new human being in the house.
Sometimes I even fixed my hair, brushed on some mascara and put on some nice clothes. It made me feel human and whole. And though sleep was important, feeling like myself again—at least as much as I could—seemed just as important.
Just because I loved my third baby's newborn stage doesn't mean that everyone can, or should, love that stage.
Then, of course, there were times when I simply wanted to cuddle my sleeping baby while I sat, wide awake, staring at those chubby cheeks and marveling at the new life that I had ushered into the world. Sleep while the baby sleeps? Not a chance.
4. Understand that not every baby-banshee moment lasts forever
There always seems to have been a moment during the newborn weeks when I thought to myself, "Oh no. This is going to be my life. Forever. Colic. No sleep. Nursing every two hours. Zero mental capacity. For the rest of my life."
But once the third baby was born, I could more easily tell myself, "This too shall pass." And I could believe it, too. I had two older, non-newborn children to prove it.
The life-altering challenges of the newborn weeks do pass. And better yet, parents are under no obligation to find those moments magical or beautiful. Learning to love the newborn stage does not entail that one love every second of that stage.
5. Reach out when darkness threatens to overwhelm the light
Just because I loved my third baby's newborn stage doesn't mean that everyone can, or should, love that stage. In fact, I'm not sure that I could have loved my first child's newborn weeks so easily, even if I had learned all that I know now about enjoying those first few weeks of parenting.
Before I could do much loving at all, I needed to say out loud, to my husband and to my doctor, "I'm hurting. I don't feel normal. I think I need help."
Seeking support for a postpartum mood disorder is a radical act of self-care and love. And it is far more important than learning to love the newborn stage.
6. Pay it all forward
If you've learned to love the newborn stage, help someone else love it, too. Make a meal train for a new family. Tell a new mom that she's doing an amazing job. Lend your support to legislation that promotes paid maternity and paternity leave.
When we support each other, we make it easier for all of us to love the newborn stage.