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It Really is as Bad as Everyone Says: The First 12 Weeks

What was wrong with me that I wasn't elated to be a mother? My child was "sleeping through the night" and a generally mellow baby, and I was unquestionably wild about him. So why wasn't I gushing with joy?
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I live about 20 steps from a Brooklyn outpost of a popular pediatrics practice, one with a handsome French doctor, examining rooms covered in vintage wallpaper and a waiting room filled with Waldorf-style toys. My proximity to this office means that every day I see new parents toting their tiny newborns in infant carriers to their first doctor's appointments. And when I look into these parents' eyes, a shiver courses through my body. These parents are shell-shocked, exhausted, and miserable. And it was not long ago that I was in their shoes.

Even though my son is now almost two, it seems like just yesterday that I was first walking through those doors, worried that Ryder was jaundice, that my milk was leaking through my nursing pads, and that my son would be the only nine pound child in his college dorm (he still hovers around the fifth percentile). Everyone says that "things get better after the first 12 weeks," but nobody tells you just how damn hard those first 12 weeks really are. How you'll finally understand just what hemorrhoids are. How your perfectly Zen newborn will suddenly wake up and start ruling your life like a Fascist dictator (my own son was born on Mussolini's birthday). How a mere brush of your husband's hand across your milk-filled breast will result in a shriek that could pierce dogs' ears.

The first 12 weeks aren't just hard; they're hellacious. Which is why, when I see these parents on my way to work, I want to grab them, hug them, let them know everything is going to be okay. And not necessarily in 12 weeks. While there's no question a cloud lifted for me once my son started sleeping more consistently, the next 40 weeks that followed were no walk in the park. I distinctly remember the moment, a few days before Ryder's first birthday, when I knew I was going to be okay. I was taking the subway over the Manhattan Bridge from Brooklyn into Manhattan, and as I looked out over the East River I breathed a sigh of relief. "Ah," I thought to myself. "This is the me I know."

Looking back, I think that mothers are doing each other a disservice by not admitting to each other just how hard it is to be a new parent. While I felt maternal love for my son instantly and never wanted to Brooke Shields my car into a brick wall, I did have many, many uncontrollable crying jags during my first year of motherhood. I distinctly remember running into a casual acquaintance -- I'll call her Mama H. -- on the street when Ryder was four months old and this woman's daughter had just been born. "Isn't motherhood just the most wonderful, awe-inspiring thing?" she asked without a drop of irony, and my heart sank with the realization that I did not have a comrade in this conversation, one I could blab to how I desperately wanted my pre-baby boobs, sleep and identity back. What was wrong with me that I wasn't elated to be a mother? My child was "sleeping through the night" and a generally mellow baby, and I was unquestionably wild about him. So why wasn't I gushing with joy?

I recently spoke to a good friend who left Brooklyn a few years ago for Northampton, Massachusetts. Her son has just turned one, and when I told her that I found Ryder's second year of life to be exponentially more fun than the first, she stopped me. "Wait... so you thought the first year was hard, too?" When I asked if she was kidding, she said that she has not found one single mother in her area to commiserate with about the challenges of new motherhood. And I wonder how many others are struggling silently with this issue. Which is why I think Mama H. was so happy to see me at a party a few months after our run-in at an outdoor concert. She was wearing her daughter in an Ergo while my son was at home with a sitter, and she looked absolutely exhausted. "This baby doesn't sleep," she said. "We're at our wits' end." I won't deny that I was relieved to hear about her struggles, which she unloaded on me for the next 15 minutes. But I was also glad to share my own, if only to help a fellow mother feel that much more sane.