by Stacy Bolt
Ask any woman who’s approaching her due date and she’ll probably tell you that nine months of pregnancy is tantamount to cruel and unusual punishment. But as I’ve recently discovered, there’s a benefit to gestating for the better part of a year. You need that time to prepare for the seismic shift your life is about to undergo. Every day, a mother-to-be has her growing belly and zig-zagging hormones to remind her of what’s coming and to help her adjust to the idea that her life is never, ever, EVER going to be the same. And when you look at it in that context, nine months seems like the absolute minimum.
I didn’t have nine months. I had 90 minutes. From the phone call from the adoption agency to the nurse handing me a seven pound human being for whom I would be responsible for the remainder of my days on earth. 90 minutes. In less time than it takes to make a lasagna, I was a mother.
My son is what the adoption agency refers to as an “instant baby.” That means that the birthmother didn’t go through the usual planning involved in placing a baby for adoption, which includes choosing and meeting the adoptive parents. Instead, she showed up at the hospital in active labor and announced that she couldn’t keep the baby. So the hospital called our agency. And our agency called us. And just like that, this instant baby had instant parents who knew — instantly — that they were in way over their heads.
Dumbstruck as we were, my husband and I felt confident that between the hospital and the adoption agency, someone was going to tell us what to do with the baby when we got him home. I mean, you don’t just hand two rookies a baby and say “good luck,” right? Apparently, that’s exactly what you do. Because once all the papers were signed, they just handed us some coupons for diapers and sent us on our way. The only thing that even remotely resembled official instructions was a bright yellow flyer with the headline, “Never Shake a Baby!” in big, serious type. In the coming days, we’d often turn to the flyer for guidance. “What should I do?” my husband screamed from the nursery at 4 o’clock in the morning while the baby spewed fluids from at least three orifices simultaneously. “Don’t shake him,” I yelled back, confident that I was doing at least one thing right.
In the absence of anything resembling professional guidance, we decided to hunker down and concentrate on mastering the basic rhythms of the baby’s day: Feed the baby. Change the baby. Put the baby to sleep. Poke the baby to make sure he’s alive. Put the baby back to sleep. Convinced that we were doing everything horribly wrong, we solicited our friends’ advice and followed it like gospel. We slept when the baby slept. We drank when the baby drank. We cried when the baby cried. One friend told me I should keep a diary so I could look back and remember everything about this “precious, precious time.” This is how far I got:
Day One: Black poop.
Day Two: More black poop, followed by green poop.
Day Three: I liked the black poop better.
Among the many things I was unprepared for was the staggering amount of my own intellectual real estate that would be given over to poop. Besides the occasional plea to light a candle, my husband and I never used to talk about poop. But before you could say ‘explosive meconium,’ we became incapable of having a poop-free conversation. As we discovered, this is an excellent tactic to get rid of unwanted visitors. Because as fascinating as it may be to you, no one really wants to hear about your baby’s poop. Unless of course it’s another parent. If you’re talking to another parent about poop, there’s no telling how long it might go on. But I can guarantee that the words “grainy, mustardy consistency” will be used at least once. If men are involved, add “viscosity” and “Jesus H. Christ” to the list.
At some point during those first precious, poop-centric days, my quest for parenting knowledge brought me to a truly dark place: daytime cable television. From very early in the morning until very late at night, you can find a nonstop parade of baby-related programming. Being an Instant Mother, I felt like a high school freshman who’d missed the first week of classes and was scrambling to catch up. So I watched anything that had the word “baby” in the title, hoping that someone would tell me something about taking care of my own baby. As it turned out, most of the shows were about childbirth, which I’d watch while smugly bottle-feeding my son and enjoying my perky breasts and total lack of episiotomy stitches. But eventually I came across a show that was less about the birth and more about the child. It’s called “Bringing Home Baby,” and each episode documents the first 48 hours in a couple’s life after bringing their baby home from the hospital. Although I had initially tuned in looking for information on how to care for a newborn, the show quickly became my daily confidence boost. I may not be the best mother in the world, but even I know that you don’t let your dog lick the baby and call it a bath. I kept expecting someone from the camera crew to step in and call Children’s Services.
While all of this provided ample entertainment for my newly addled brain, it still didn’t help me. Despite a DVR full of mommy shows, the advice of my friends, and the Leaning Tower of Parenting Books I kept next to my bed, I had yet to find something that would tell me how to be a mother. And I needed that. After all, I hadn’t carried my son inside me. I hadn’t pushed him out of me. How could I have a maternal instinct when I’d never even worn maternity clothes? But a funny thing happened while I was trying to figure out how to be a mother: I realized that I already knew. This knowledge came to me the day my son barfed directly into my mouth and I laughed. That’s not the reaction I would have expected from myself. Scream? Yes. Cry? Absolutely. Run away and never come back? Hell yes. But I didn’t do any those things. I just laughed. And then he laughed. And right at that stinky, messy, funny moment, I knew that I was a mother. Really and truly. No qualifiers needed.
With the title of mother, I finally get to do what all mothers live for: dispense unsolicited advice. So for the benefit of any new moms, instant or otherwise, who might be reading and hoping for some guidance, I’d like to leave you with my top three parenting insights:
First, if you find yourself locked in the bathroom sobbing uncontrollably from a combination of sleep deprivation and the crushing weight of your perceived maternal incompetence, turn on the faucet. It masks the sound.
Second, let go of the idea that you need to take a shower every day. Instead, try to embrace a more European standard of grooming. Besides, no one’s looking at you anyway. It’s all about the baby now.
And finally, if your baby just won’t stop crying, try shaking a rattle. I recommend using the ice in a gin and tonic. Even if it doesn’t work for the baby, you’ll be feeling better in no time. I should know. I’m a mother.
A version of this essay has appeared on Live Wire radio and in NW Kids magazine.