Bringing Home Baby
One mother shares everything she wishes she’d known about those critical days after birth
I cried through my mom’s 58th birthday party. Through the candle blowing, the cake eating, the present opening, tears silently streamed down my face.
“I’m so happy, honestly,” I said to everyone who wasn’t awkwardly avoiding eye contact: my husband, my mom, my dad, my sister, my brother, and my brother’s brand-new girlfriend (sigh). “I don’t even know why I’m crying.”
Three days prior, on June 22, 2018, at 12:34 a.m., my son, Jacob Marshall Portillo, was born. He was 7 pounds, 11 ounces of milky-skinned, dark-haired beauty ... and NEED. Pure need.
At a time when my body was telling me I needed to sleep for three days, his body told him it was time to eat from my raw, bruised, and chapped boobs every three hours. And when he struggled to latch, I had to put those raw, bruised, and chapped boobs inside some electric suction cups and pump milk for him. Then I’d settle in for 90 minutes of sleep before it started all over again.
That was just the boobs. Everything below the waist was pretty damn achy, too. I was induced—a vaginal birth—with only second-degree tearing. By all standards, I walked out of Novant Health’s Presbyterian Medical Center in Elizabeth in good shape. But my body still bore the impact of pushing out a nearly 8-pound baby 72 hours before. It didn’t really hurt to stand, but who wants to stand when you’re exhausted? Sitting, however, was precarious—no plopping down like I’d done nearly every day of my 31 years. I had to ease myself down, taking care not to put too much pressure on the stitches or else a sharp pain would remind me to recalibrate my position.
And the hormones. Oh, the hormones! These were the real culprit behind my waterworks during the birthday party. After the baby’s exodus from my body, my estrogen and progesterone levels plummeted. This jolt to the system can cause mood swings, sadness, and irritability. Translation: let the roller coaster of emotions begin. Because amid the tiredness, the irritability, the bodily pain, I was also madly, overwhelmingly in love with every inch of that little needy baby who could barely open his big blue eyes.
The bottom line: No amount of preparing the nursery or hanging dozens of onesies up for an Instagram-worthy closet prepared me for the first few days of motherhood. I’ve often wondered why nobody warned me. Why was I so ill-prepared, even after three baby showers? Was my experience so different from that of other new mothers? As I started texting my friends about my newfound reality, the stories flooded in:
“I cried every single time I breastfed, it hurt so bad,” one said. “Gotta let those nipples get callused. Then it gets better.”
“I walked around with cabbage leaves on my cracked, bleeding boobs for weeks,” said another.
“Trying to meet the needs of that little baby is the hardest thing you’ve ever had to do, and you’re never sure you’re doing it right,” said a third.
I was stunned—and validated. I resolved to be more transparent with other moms-to-be. Here are the things I wish someone had told me before I brought home my baby boy:
You’re about to become obsessed with bodily fluids. Your own included.
Right after you give birth, it hurts to pee—and poop. The hospital gives you a squirt bottle you’re supposed to fill with warm water to minimize the amount of wiping you have to do, and you can expect to use maxi pads the size of bricks. Even more than your own bodily fluids, you’ll be consumed with how often your baby poops, pees, and spits up. For the first few weeks, you might as well keep track of each diaper change in a Google doc because your pediatrician will ask you how often it all happens.
In the span of a week, your child may go from pooping four times a day to nothing for four days. You’ll freak out and send the doctor a note. When the pediatrician tells you to relax, that it’s completely normal, you’ll scoff and think: “Relax? Really? Have you had a newborn?”
Before I gave birth, I dreaded a room full of people looking at all of me completely exposed. As soon as Jacob was born, my qualms were gone. I was too exhausted, too spent, too consumed with the task at hand to care. I breastfed and pumped in front of my dad. I let my mom inspect my sore nipples. My mother-in-law, who came to help after the birth, saw more of my bare boobs in 10 days than she’d seen of me in jeans in the previous 10 years combined. And when I visited a lactation consultant a few times after my hospital discharge (Novant’s Nursing Mothers Place was wonderful), I took off my top and let that sweet, older woman massage my swollen breasts to increase my milk output like it was no big thing.
Breastfeeding hurts like hell. Until it just doesn’t anymore.
Soon after Jacob was born, a lactation consultant told me that if breastfeeding hurt, I “wasn’t doing it right.” Another one—a mother herself—was more realistic: “The pain is pretty toe curling, isn’t it?”
I mean, how could it not be? You have a little one sucking at your breast like his life depends on it. And while it’s an instinctive motion, he’s no expert yet. And neither are you. If you worry you’ll spend every three hours of the foreseeable future weeping in excruciating pain, know this: it hurts like hell for a little while. Then, one day, it just stops. It’s like your boobs go numb. They get callused. They get used to it. And instead of that toe-curling pain, you feel sweet relief.
A little fresh air can do wonders.
When you’re awake at 3:30 a.m. to change your 15th diaper of the day, wishing you could change your shirt (thanks, leaking boobs), and dreaming of the days when you showered every morning, it’s hard to imagine a day when you’ll feel like yourself again. You ache for it. You’ve been confined to your bed, the rocker, and the changing table. At my son’s first doctor’s visit, a few days after he was born, I found myself in that room, yet again, with teary eyes. Before she left, the nurse practitioner rubbed my back and said, “It’ll be OK. Go on a walk. A little fresh air will do all of you a world of good.”
So that afternoon, my husband and I buckled our newborn into the stroller and turned a whirring mini-fan on his face to combat the July heat. People we passed grinned and congratulated us. A coworker driving by saw us and honked her horn. I smiled and took a deep breath, steering the stroller with one hand and holding my husband’s with the other. It is going to be OK, I told myself. And this is the beginning of a wonderful new adventure.
5 Tips for Moms-to-Be on Breastfeeding and Pumping
1. Learn how to use the breast pump before you give birth. I made the mistake of not taking mine out of the box pre-birth, and I paid for it in frustrated tears (again, hormones).
2. Buy extra pump parts. The standard set comes with two flanges and two cups for the milk. Trust me: You’ll want more than that. Otherwise, you’ll be washing those parts three or four times a night, eating into that precious sleep. Buy an extra set or two of flanges through the pump company, and then buy some off-brand extra cups (made for your pump model) from Amazon.
3. Embrace the hands-free pumping bra (and bring it to the hospital). Get a couple at Target, Amazon, or anywhere they’re sold. Like a strapless bra with cut-outs near the boobs, these allow you to tuck your pump parts in and let go. You can’t imagine the liberation when you don’t have to hold two flanges perfectly still on your breasts for 15 minutes. With the hands-free bra, you can read a book, text your mom, hell, even just scratch your nose, without losing suction and spilling milk.
4. Don’t be afraid to visit a lactation consultant. Hospitals have them at the ready right after you give birth, but if your child struggles to latch once you’re home, don’t be shy: make an appointment. Insurance often covers these visits, and it’s a relaxing environment. My sweet consultant was helpful, understanding, and often just let me cry. Which I needed.
5. Don’t idolize breastfeeding. When you’re in the hospital, breastfeeding is king. When you read mommy blogs, it seems like the only legitimate way to feed your child. It’s not. According to the CDC, only about half of babies are breastfed until 6 months old, and once I started talking to people about it, I could believe how many friends and acquaintances either weren’t able to breastfeed at all, only did it for a few weeks, or bowed out when they returned to work. (Pumping every few hours in the workplace is a commitment many women can’t make). The #FedisBest campaign is right: if you need to use formula, use formula. You’ll still get plenty of snuggles and sweet little coos with a bottle.