My first moment as a mother, no more than five weeks pregnant, I sat on my bathroom floor, crying over a positive test, unsure if I could handle the responsibilities that life had thrown me. I would spend the next eight months vomiting up my insides, as unprepared for the relentless sickness as I was for parenthood: entirely.
I was the first of my friends to have a baby by many years, maybe even the first person I knew who wasn't a teacher or a friend of my parents to have one. And while learning to be a mother is an unending experience that evolves over time, those first few months and years taught me so much. I just had to learn every ounce of it for myself. Here's what I wish I'd known.
1) Pregnancy can be physically demanding — and morning sickness is just the beginning
Debilitating nausea was the first thing to blow my mind, but it certainly wasn't the last. I soon realized how much pregnancy encompassed that nobody really talked about. On most days, I could barely dress myself without getting sick. I declined every invitation to go anywhere and spent my days and nights going from the couch to bathroom floor, sometimes throwing up or dry heaving over the toilet for hours at a time, barely able to keep down even a few sips of water.
After months like this, I lost a substantial amount of weight. I hadn't been so thin since my freshman year of high school, which led to people constantly telling me how great I looked, that pregnancy suited me. "What's your secret?" they asked. Every time someone said this, I felt the overwhelming urge to throw up on their shoes. Pregnancy did not suit me. And I felt selfish for all the unpleasant things I thought about being pregnant.
Apparently pregnancy hadn't been this hard for anyone else. "Just have a cracker in the morning before you get out of bed," people told me. "Sip some ginger ale." I felt like a disappointment. I was not the glowing mother-to-be, no matter how much I wanted to be.
Pregnancy did not suit me. And I felt selfish for all the unpleasant things I thought about being pregnant.
Finally, after 20 weeks and a 20-pound weight loss, my doctor prescribed medication to help me keep down most of my meals. I could eat again, and the most demanding physical part of my pregnancy was over. Still, every part of my body looked and felt different. I broke out in rash after horrible rash, and my stretching skin itched. My sinuses were so congested I once held my face over a pot of boiling water for more than an hour to get relief. My head pounded so hard sometimes I couldn't see straight. I was constantly exhausted and waiting for the day when I would be pregnant no more.
My experience was extreme — most pregnant women don't have nausea as bad as mine. But nearly everyone has at least one bad physical symptom, whether it's exhaustion or back pain or headaches. And feeling bad physically can make it very difficult to be happy about being pregnant, no matter how excited you are to meet your baby.
2) Preparing for birth starts long before you get to the hospital
I didn't do much to prepare for the birth of my first child. I figured that as a woman, I was innately designed to grow and birth a baby. So I read a book or two about breathing and visualization during labor. I practiced Kegels like the savvy pregnant woman I thought I was, and I chose a doctor I'd long known, yet only so far from my yearly Pap smears. But overall, I took the approach I see many pregnant women take — I was generally laid-back. I shrugged my shoulders and said, "Whatever happens, happens." I was fairly confident I could give birth without much drama. And in my mind, my care providers really would have my back. I had no reason not to trust them, so I did.
The hospital delivery I endured as a result turned out to be far different from how I'd hoped my birth would go. Not because I was against medication during delivery — I wasn't. But I'd expected to be involved in making choices as my labor progressed — instead, I felt my choices being made instantly for me. Blatant disregard for the natural process of birth led to a delivery filled with mostly unnecessary interventions.
Soon after I arrived at the hospital, I was forced to labor on my back, tethered to a bed, something I knew from the little amount of reading I did was counterproductive to the process of birth. When a woman lies flat on her back in labor, the baby has to work harder to get out. Contractions don't work as efficiently, and the pelvis becomes narrow. Ultimately, my baby couldn't move down the way nature intended. My body couldn't relax and open.
After hours of laboring on my back, I was in extreme pain. With so many wires on me, I was restrained. I could barely move at all. Everything about being in a bed as my labor pains mounted felt wrong. When I tried to argue with the nurse, I got nowhere. "Hospital policy" was apparently the be-all and end-all, even if it led to a riskier birth. I knew the freedom to move would lead to better and safer birth, but my thoughts and feelings were not a priority in the delivery room.
I begged for an epidural. As soon as the needle went into my spine, my body went numb. My baby's heart rate immediately dropped, then stabilized, a frightening occurrence and a possibility I was never made aware of when I asked what the risks were. When it came time to push, I couldn't do it effectively because of the drugs. I pushed and pushed, so hard that every muscle in my body would be sore for weeks. When her head emerged, I was given a deep and cruel episiotomy, a procedure that is no longer routinely recommended. I would feel its aftereffects for months during a long, hard recovery.
When I think about my daughter's birth story, it doesn't feel like it belongs to me. I didn't own it or make informed decisions about it. I became a bystander, just along for the ride. Maybe if I'd known more, I would've gotten over my fear of not being the good patient and instead been the smart one.
Ultimately, my experiences helped shaped a wonderful second delivery a few years later. The birth of my son would be attended by midwives who practiced evidence-based care. Before the delivery, I spent months reading about safe birth practices, helping me regain confidence in my body's intuitive ability to birth a baby. I never lay down or even sat while in labor. I walked, swayed, and squatted in a pool where my son floated out after two gentle pushes, ones I could actually feel. Compared with what I went through the first time, my efforts seemed minimal.
I wish, like many women, I hadn't learned the hard way that when it comes to birth, you can't take a back seat and expect everything to turn out fine. You have to prepare on all fronts, before delivery day.
3) Postpartum recovery takes a long time
During early postpartum, life was hazy and slow, like honey. Knowing next to nothing about nursing, diapering, or otherwise caring for an infant, I learned to go with the flow, kind of like you do when you're caught in a riptide. Everything became so beautifully and exhaustingly basic. Perhaps I would take a shower today, if I could manage to put the baby down for a moment without her screaming that helpless newborn scream. Perhaps I would eat some toast or sweep the kitchen, maybe take a walk. But no matter what, there would be a lot of soothing, nursing, and falling deeper in love.
My body felt battered for longer than I'd expected. The stitches were terribly painful, and not being able to comfortably sit for so long dictated my days with the newborn I was getting to know. It made nursing difficult. It would be months before I could sit down without wincing, and the Boppy pillow that was meant to support my nursing baby took up residence under my ass instead. It was so painful that I went back to the doctor twice over the next several months, each time asking for an explanation as to why this was still so torturous, or why the on-call doctor had performed the procedure on me in the first place. I never got an answer.
Even when my baby was sleeping, I had a hard time falling asleep myself. I'd never known this kind of pressure before. Anxiety consumed my days and nights, and my heart raced with the fear of not being good enough for my child. I was always thinking about what tomorrow would bring, likely another nonstop day of changing diapers, feedings, and being mostly alone.
4) Having a baby shows your partner's true colors
I did things a little out of order. For me it was first comes love, then comes baby, then comes marriage. My husband and I didn't get married until our daughter was 9 months old. But it ended up being perfect timing. We'd been committed since the moment we decided we were going to be parents, even though that hadn't been in our plan. It wasn't an easy adjustment, altering the ideas about our then-baby-free lives and how they would go, but in the end, it was a good test of our relationship.
Sure, it might've been nice to get married and have time to ourselves before getting pregnant and having a newborn. From time to time I'd find myself mildly jealous when couples jetted off on their honeymoons. But there is nothing that shows you someone's true colors like the way they deal with no sleep and the stress of raising an infant. I'm thankful that it happened first for me — I'm not sure I would've bitten the bullet and gotten married otherwise. I was never trusting enough to like the idea of marriage or be sure I wanted that for myself. Through having a baby first, I got to see the hardest part upfront. I got a sneak preview.
Marriage is never easy. But I stopped believing it was supposed to be before it started. That might've saved my marriage before it began.
We had to learn to communicate, to care more about each other's wants and needs than we did before. We had to give more of ourselves than we were used to, more than we felt we should have to, at times. We yelled, we cried, we were more exhausted and stressed than we even knew was possible. We fought more than we ever had — and still do to this day. Sometimes we were lesser versions of ourselves, and it made us both more forgiving. Marriage is never easy. But I stopped believing it was supposed to be before it started. That might've saved my marriage before it began.
We had learned to appreciate one another in a new way. We saw each other through our daughter's eyes — we saw each other as parents. And we haven't looked back.
5) Your friends won't necessarily be there for you
After I had my baby, a few friends came to visit, but not that many. Some friends never called, never texted, never sent a card with a rattle on the cover or acknowledged I'd had a baby at all. I chalked it up to immaturity, but still, I felt estranged. Not only had motherhood redefined me in my daily life and in how I saw myself, but it quickly became clear that it would redefine my friendships, too. Some I tried to hold on to, though our conversations felt superficial, or challenging at best. Most were just gone from the start. I got used to being alone most of the time, pushing a stroller and trying to keep my head up.
I might've been a tragic tale in some of their eyes — a party girl turned mom. And as someone who had defined herself so deeply by her relationships with her peers, who wasn't quite ready to be without them, I felt betrayed. It wasn't my friends' fault that I had changed, but the truth was, no one in my inner circle seemed to understand anything about my life now. We spoke less and less frequently, and when we did, their words felt uncaring, dismissive. They couldn't grasp the complexities of my life, or that I needed to let go of certain things to be the mother I wanted to be — the mother I had to be.
Years later, when I had my second baby, it would happen again. My old group of friends was quickly filed down once more. Fewer of them showed up or spoke up, and it was just as unexpected as the first go-round. It was painful all over again. But I realized I was only making space in my life. I didn't have room for people who didn't care about me or my family. It was just part of the sloughing-off process that helps you grow new skin.
6) Finding other mothers is essential
Little did I know that one day I'd be surrounded by mothers who shared my experiences. Those mothers were always around me —standing next to me in the checkout line and the waiting room, pushing babies in swings at the park. They were everywhere. Yet somehow I'd felt completely alone in the world at one point, so immersed in my own shifting identity. Now I know that while my experience was lonely, it certainly wasn't unique. New mothers finding their way are like wildflowers — ample, when you know where to look.
My husband and I made the conscious choice to find community, moving from our little farmhouse to a street on the edge of the city, one that was soon overflowing with children and babies. While my daughter was the only child on the block for a while, soon every time I turned around, another belly was growing rounder by the minute, another exhausted mother puking in her front yard with a toddler on her hip. It led to a running joke in our neighborhood: Don't drink the water!
Other friendships started organically, too, when my daughter started preschool. Mothers who shared my thoughts and experiences were suddenly by my side, saying tearful goodbyes and shifting nervously over cups of coffee. Some of them were a decade or two older than me, but it didn't matter. We had a shared experience, and it was easy to relate. Friends I'd kept started to have their own babies, and we exchanged baby clothes and commiserated over sleepless nights and clogged milk ducts. And all of it was welcomed beyond belief. By the time my daughter was 2 1/2, I had found community everywhere, and it made everything about my life feel easier.
Some friends never called, never texted, never sent a card with a rattle on the cover or acknowledged I'd had a baby at all
Mothers are vital to our motherhood experience. I know this now. Perhaps if I'd known it then, I wouldn't have struggled so much during my early weeks, months, and years of motherhood. But loneliness also helped me find myself, helped me grow into the mother I wanted to be and appreciate community when I found it. Now I can look back and be thankful for it all — the debilitating pregnancy that brought me my daughter; a chaotic birth that taught me to fight for my choices during the next one; a postpartum that drained me and showed me how hard, yet fleeting babyhood can be. All of it brought me to a place of gratitude, contentment, and sharing among mothers and friends years later.
There is so much I wish I'd known before I had a child. Being the first one to experience all these things forced me to experience them hard and loud. But I don't regret that, not for a second, because it wasn't a lie — motherhood is hard and loud. It's as relentless as that god-awful nausea. It takes you to the brink of your sanity and then some. But it also brings you back, over and over again. It always manages to fill you up again before it bleeds you dry.
And even when you feel like you're alone, you're always in good company.
Sarah Bregel is a mother, writer, and feminist in Baltimore. She has written for the Huffington Post, the Washington Post, Scary Mommy, Parents, FitPregnancy, SheKnows, and Babble. She lives with her husband, their 6-year-old daughter, and their toddler son. Find her on Facebook or follow her on Twitter @SarahBregel.