[I underestimated the 4th trimester.]
I have a big, dumb confession to make.
I (foolishly) thought I would write a screenplay on my maternity leave.
I (foolishly) assumed not working would free up more time for writing. I figured I would spend my days in a glowy haze writing as Henry slept. I pictured myself perched contently at the computer knocking off scenes during uninterrupted stretches of newborn sleep.
I pictured Henry waking from his afternoon slumber, myself sailing from computer to baby like a modern-day Donna Reed. I pictured myself tending to my motherly duties — nursing, diapering, rocking, singing and cooing to my little lamb — as if these things are as predictably routine as brushing your teeth.
I underestimated the fourth trimester; this period I’m in now: the early weeks and months of motherhood, of baby development.
The first time I heard someone mention the fourth trimester I was newly pregnant and blissfully naive.
“Fourth trimester?” I choked. “There’s a FOURTH trimester?”
I was filled in by a woman in my neighborhood who had just given birth to her first baby, a hairy boy who at the time was nestled in a purple wrap tied elaborately across her chest; a baby barnacle clinging to his mother’s bosom.
“Yeah,” she said wearily. “The baby adjusting to life outside the womb. You adjusting to the baby.”
Oh yes. The fourth trimester. Cute.
Her eyes were rimmed with dark circles. Her hair was tugged into a lopsided pony tail. Her smile, albeit warm, did little to mask her exhaustion.
I asked her how her labor went. She paused a little too long before answering.
“Well,” she said slowly, obviously searching for the appropriate words. “It was a little rough at first. I was late, so they had to induce … and then I ended up with a C-section …”
She took one look at my growing belly and clammed up. If there were gory details, pain and suffering, she would share none of it.
I’d seen this kind of reaction before from women who’ve had children. They hold back key details. Whether they do so deliberately or subconsciously, I’m not sure. I can tell you this, though: before I had a baby it seemed no mother would share her birth story as it actually happened: painfully.
I get it. I tell stories for a living. It’s easy to slant a narrative by picking and choosing which parts to highlight.
Following the mention of a C-section, my neighbor started to tell me about the pushing; something about it lasting for a long time, but she downplayed it and immediately minced her words with, “It all worked out in the end. He’s here and he’s beautiful.”
She kissed her baby on his dark, downy head. He was beautiful.
There’s a labor vow of silence and while I would love to shatter it with a play-by-play of every grueling contraction leading up to Henry’s birth, that’s just not how I roll. I know you might find it surprising considering the source, but as my mother told me when I confronted her about the labor vow, if I told you how much it hurt you’d never have a baby.
So dear readers, if you really must know, I’d be happy to chat in private. Just know this: like most wounds, the banged up bod you’re left with after labor eventually heals.
The pain of childbirth has a clear start and finish. What happens next is far trickier as it concerns matters of the mind.
Your family goes home and the visits from friends and neighbors taper off. Your husband goes back to work and the fourth trimester begins.
Adjusting to life as a new mother is taxing. No amount of book-reading or Baby Story-watching can prepare you for it. It’s an emotional roller coaster, fueled by hormones, tiny triumphs and tiny upsets. It rocks your freedom and zaps your energy.
You start the day with a to-do list and if you strike one task from it in 24 hours, you’re lucky.
Breastfeeding, as nourishing as it is for your baby, as efficient as it is at burning calories, is draining.
I’ve never see so many sunrises in my life. Through slitted eyes, curled up on a green couch in Henry’s baby cave, I’ve watched the sun come up and listened to the early bird get its worm. On tippy toes, I’ve crept from my bedroom to Henry’s crib more times than I care to admit to pop a fallen pacifier back into his searching, guppy mouth.
At 3 a.m., with Henry latched to my chest, I’ve fallen asleep in a rocking chair to the tick-tock of a monkey clock that taunts me as only a monkey clock can. Unbeknownst to my husband, I’ve slipped out of bed between feedings to eat bowls of fruit at the kitchen table, wearing nothing but my underwear because breastfeeding makes you hungry and unusually sweaty.
I’ve cried when Henry’s cried. I’ve laughed when Henry’s laughed. On irritable afternoons, I’ve loaded him into his stroller and pounded the pavement from my house to McDonald’s for enough iced coffee to give my entire neighborhood a buzz. On these walks I carry my wallet in the bags under my eyes.
The fourth trimester is as amazing as it is scary.
The thing that surprised me most about motherhood is that it came naturally to me. (Let’s not forget I got fired from a nanny job three years ago because I mistakenly put drinking glasses in a low kitchen cabinet.)
The fourth trimester is, as I imagine the rest of child-rearing to be, an adventure in trial and error.
Next month my maternity leave will come to an end and while I never wrote my screenplay, I did manage to clean out my bedroom closet during one of Henry’s longer afternoon naps.*
In the annals of accomplishments this one was pretty pathetic. That is until I came across a sheer green scarf I hadn’t worn in years.
I remember when I bought it I pictured wearing it as a belt. Since that never happened and since I was in a purging kind of mood, I tossed it into a Goodwill pile at the foot of my bed.
And then Henry woke up.
He stretched. He wiggled. He cried. He opened his eyes, saw me and smiled.
I held up the scarf.
“Whatcha think?” I asked. “Keep it or give it to Goodwill?”
He looked at me inquisitively, his eyes rounding out like a baby owl’s. The scarf had caught his attention.
“Keep it?” I asked again.
His eyes got wider. His mouth broke into a gummy grin. He reached for the fabric.
“Alright, alright. I’ll keep it.”
I curled up on the bed next to him. I threw the scarf over our heads and inside this transparent scarf bubble, I kissed his pink baby feet. He smiled again. His eyes as wide and wondrous as I’d ever seen them.
Looking through the gauzy green fabric with its paisley print, I saw a fraction of what he saw: an otherworldly bedroom aglow in green, coming in and out of focus through an ephemeral lens of thin silk.
I blew the fabric off our faces. It lifted like a cloud and settled back down on our heads. We stayed like this for a long time, lying in bed, letting the scarf float up and down over our heads, turning our vision of an ordinary bedroom into something else, something worth writing about.
I kept the scarf.
It changed Henry’s world for a moment and reminded me that mine had changed forever.
*I also managed to completely paint and redecorate our bedroom. Joe insisted I include this detail, but I thought it disrupted my story’s flow so I included it as a footnote.
PS. This post marks the final installment in my 10-part cathartic pregnancy series. 🙂