Bringing home a newborn was very scary for me. I don’t think I’d actually ever held a newborn before I held my own. Some people may have much younger siblings, or cousins, or close friends to share babies with, but I had never had that experience. So when we headed home with our first baby, I felt completely unqualified, and my husband felt at least as much so.
[This is picture from Huffington Post. I tried an image search of “newborn baby” and all the pictures looked super fakey-fakey, the babies were all scrubbed and at least one month old. None of them looked like a baby that had actually just been squeezed through a birth canal and had a conehead. I searched “red newborn baby” to find this one. Even this one is not totally fresh from the womb.]
Maybe some mothers feel more prepared; maybe they’ve read more books than I had 🙂 or had experience with babies, but generally I know this fear is a common experience. The inability to sleep, the listening every five minutes to see if they’ve stopped breathing. I think, for most women, it’s the biggest responsibility by far that we’ve ever had. It was terrifying to think: this little human is dependent on me to eat, to be clean, to hold its head up for god’s sake. My husband felt the weight of this also, of course, but he soon returned to work. Those were long days, just me and the baby, whose needs were both so simple and so demanding.
I have three children now, and while taking home babies #2 and #3 was a little less unnerving, those first nights were still worry-prone and spooky. And I still would never call myself an “expert” on newborns. I got through it, my children survived, but there was always a great deal of mystery in it. My brothers gave birth this year year, and when I saw their wives, looking exhausted and holding a tiny red baby, I give a little shudder and thought, glad that’s not me. Because while having a newborn is incredibly special, and there is nothing at all like it, it is so, so hard. With each baby there were always moments when I looked into their expressive yet mysterious dark eyes and wonder, what are you thinking? What do you want? And I felt like I should have known more, should have been more of an expert.
Certain biological things just happened, with respect to motherhood. The whole process of labor, especially the first time, seemed like a possession, something happening to me, not from within me. The contractions, both before and after delivery, happened whether I was ready or not. The milk came in, making me swell up and spurting out at unpredictable times, without any action on my part. So I felt it was only fair to assume that, like these physiological signs of motherhood that had to be part of my genetic programming as a woman, I had to have some mothering instincts programmed in too, right?
Maybe. The other possibility, which didn’t really occur to me later, is that motherhood practices are culturally transmitted. That I learned them, from my own mother, from other mothers in my life, and it was those that I could use as a guide. That was a hard one for me, because if this was the case, why did I feel so clueless? My sister and mother were my greatest sources of advice, but we were separated by plane flights and time zones. Maybe society has changed in a way that our learning of these mothering practices has been interrupted, or there isn’t as much modeling around us as there once was.
As with any question of nature and nurture, the answer is always that some of both of these are at play, and the real question is how, and how much of each, are at play.