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Illustrations by Ross May.
After months of pregnancy and hours of labor, what does the first 30 days of motherhood look like? Beyond diapers and sleep deprivation, the answer hinges on the individual parent (and newborn). We asked first-time mom Julie Fei-Fan Balzer, a Boston-area artist who paints, creates quilts and collages, and works with mixed media, to record her daily thoughts, feelings and actions during the first month of her son’s life (he was born in late 2019). Below, you’ll find Balzer’s motherhood diary.
What nobody talks about is the loneliness of early motherhood. This journal was a lifesaver. It allowed me to express and process my frustration, depression and rage. I jotted daily notes in my phone, often while breast-feeding or pumping.
After 40 hours of labor, my son was born in a mad rush. Today has been the hardest day of my life. I am tired in a way I have never been tired before. I have lost all sense of my body being my own. So many strangers with their hands inside and on my body. When I was transferred to my room post-birth, a complete stranger watched me pee and showed me how to clean myself with a perineal irrigation bottle (often just called a peri bottle). Then she pulled up my mesh underwear.
He’s lying on my chest, skin-to-skin, and I can feel his heartbeat. Pregnancy amnesia is already setting in. Yesterday was the worst day of my life but it already feels like a distant memory.
Terrifying night in the hospital. Due to sleep deprivation, I literally hallucinated the baby had the head of a jack-o-lantern. I actually thought about dropping the jack-o-lantern on the floor. Thank God I placed the baby safely in his bassinet. I walked into the bathroom and splashed water on my face. That woke me up, and I realized what had almost happened. I woke my husband, Steve, to tell him and I think I scared him. A lot. I cried hysterically for the next 45 minutes because I was sure I had almost endangered the baby. Steve tried to get me to sleep, but I was so hysterical and filled with guilt that I couldn’t rest.
Later that day ...
My first night at home is super glamorous. I’m standing in the bathroom in nothing but mesh panties, scarfing down a bowl of Kraft macaroni and cheese while looking at myself in the mirror with deep loathing.
It’s Thanksgiving. I’m exhausted and bleeding. We head to Mom’s house, where there are many hands. Have I mentioned that I’m exhausted?
Overnight, the baby will not tolerate being put down. One of us must hold him at all times. Steve and I decide on shifts. When my shift starts, Steve is watching the end of “Batman” with the sound off. I tell him he can leave the TV on. He goes to sleep. At some point the remote falls off the bed and goes somewhere. I don’t know where. Held captive by the baby, I am forced to watch a sex toy infomercial with the volume off. It’s a woman talking to the camera and stroking all the toys. I have no recourse but to analyze her hair, makeup and manicure.
Nov. 29 (my original due date)
Our first pediatrician visit. The baby has lost a little more than 2 pounds, which is 25 percent of his body weight. That’s too much. We start him on formula right there in the doctor’s office. I feel crazy guilty that I can’t make enough milk to feed him. The guilt of starving this poor trusting creature is overwhelming. Five days in and I’m already an unfit mother. I cry right there in the doctor’s office. I cry at Mom’s house. Crying is the theme for the day. By 7 p.m. I am sobbing uncontrollably.
I get some sleep, which helps.
Back at the pediatrician today. The doctor wanted the baby to gain 1-2 ounces overnight. He gained 6.5 ounces! We still have to stay on this crazy feeding schedule — feeding the baby breast milk and formula every two hours (measuring time from the start of one feeding to the start of the next) whether he wants to eat or not. And I have to pump afterward. The baby is just 12 percent below his birth weight today. According to the doctor, he needs to get to 10 percent tomorrow.
Also, I was alone with the baby for the first time and it was okay.
Another day, another doctor visit. Hooray: The baby is up 4 ounces in weight. We don’t have to go back to the doctor until the day after tomorrow. A brief reprieve.
I think my breast milk has come in, but it is not hearty. I’ve been pumping and worrying. Will I be able to exclusively breast-feed or will we have to formula-feed? I feel guilty.
I have work to do. Freelance life means no rest for the weary. I’m stressed, exhausted, physically in pain. On the other hand, I took a shower. I’m a human!
It snowed last night.
The visiting nurse came to the house today. I cried when she said the baby losing weight was not my fault. I am covered in guilt. She checked the stitches from my perineal tear and said they’re healing. The baby has gained more weight — he’s up to 7 pounds, 10 ounces. I’m so happy. Also, she gave me lots of breast-feeding and bottle-feeding tips.
Huge snowstorm today. Visited the pediatrician again. The baby has gained enough weight that we don’t have to go back until next week. What a relief.
Steve insisted on cutting the baby’s nails instead of filing them. He cut the baby’s finger. Of course. None of us were happy about it.
Major mom moment: I breast-fed on the toilet. Screaming bladder. Screaming newborn. I made it work.
Today, I definitely feel more human than I have felt in a long time. I think I got more sleep than I had been. Also, I am managing to catch up on some work. Sorting through the work stuff makes me feel more in control of an uncontrollable situation. The life of a freelancer is glorious in some ways, but I do feel jealous of women who get a maternity leave. This is the first time I have really resented being the breadwinner in our house. In fact, I’ve been feeling really frustrated with Steve in general. So I decided we need to reconnect. I suggested we watch a movie together in bed while feeding the baby. We watched a terrible movie called “Office Christmas Party” and cuddled under the covers. I felt closer to him than I have in a while.
Weighed myself for the first time since having the baby. I’m still 25 pounds heavier than I was before I got pregnant. Sigh.
Steve went to class (he’s a student). Mom came over so that I wouldn’t be alone with the baby for hours. We had a nice evening, but the baby was in quite a mood. Wouldn’t sleep. Fed constantly. Also, I can’t figure out how to put him in the sling thing. His head always seems wrong and he doesn’t like it.
Steve and I apparently had a 2 a.m. conversation that I don’t remember. He told me he’d bottle-feed the baby and to go back to sleep. Apparently, I acquiesced. All I know is I woke up after six hours and felt much better than I have in a long time. This is one of the many reasons why people give up on breast-feeding. I need more sleep.
Today we had our first real trip out! We went to the mall. I don’t feel comfortable breast-feeding in public yet, so we had to do it in the car and it was super awkward. I felt like Steve was mad at me about it. This resulted in my crying at dinner later in the evening. I asked Steve if he was mad at me. He said no. I started weeping. I couldn’t stop. I feel like I’m losing my mind.
Why does my stomach still look so fat and huge?
Tonight I cried because Steve joked that my poop stunk. It was my first time wiping myself post-perineal tear (as opposed to taking a shower) and I guess I was feeling proud of that and wanting to share and the joke made me feel terrible about myself. So I cried.
The baby was super fussy overnight. I ended up falling asleep holding him in bed. Dangerous. But everyone lived through the night.
I hate pumping. It hurts. There’s so little milk that it’s depressing. And looking at the color, I think it’s still transitional milk. Sigh. Breast-feeding sucks.
It’s 3:25 a.m. and I’m lying in bed and trying to stay awake until the baby falls asleep. I can hear that he has hiccups. But there are other weird noises. I’m trying to resist the urge to turn on the lights and hold him. We both need sleep.
Now it’s 3:44 a.m. Can I/should I go to sleep while he’s awake?
I end up feeding him. I’m on his schedule. He’s not on mine. I love him, but I do resent him sometimes.
He’s 8 pounds, 13.5 ounces! He surpassed his birth weight. We are now allowed to feed on demand (when he’s hungry) overnight instead of waking him for those feedings! Freedom.
The good: My contacts are in. I showered. I’m wearing real underwear. I feel like a person.
The bad: Told Steve that I felt distant from him. He was hurt. I cried.
I feel more like myself today. Mom came over to hold the baby so that I could get some work done. I carve stamps every day, which has been really important to my mental health. It reminds me that I’m a person. An artist. An intellectual. Not just a milk-cow-zombie.
I’ve managed to take care of the baby by myself for most of the day. It has been hard but doable. On the other hand, I got next to nothing on my to-do list done. Crazy. I had a wide-open day calendar-wise but the baby takes a lot of time and care.
How am I going to do this?
We left the baby with Mom this afternoon. It was my first time leaving the house without the baby. I cried. Mom gave me a hug and shoved me out the door. Steve and I went to a movie: “Knives Out.” The baby lived.
I feel my resentment toward Steve growing every day. At 4 a.m., I sat in bed breast-feeding my baby with tears rolling down my face. So tired, so angry. And of course, after hours of being up, the baby finally falls asleep and Steve magnanimously wakes up and rolls over and says, “Do you want me to take him?”
Everything is better after sleep. I’m glad I had the self-control not to yell at Steve last night. Instead, I just told him to leave me alone and I cried myself to sleep. He was bewildered at the time, but we discussed it this afternoon.
The baby continues to be nocturnal — really annoying and upsetting when you’re exhausted. But he was merciful. It took him a long time to go to sleep, but when he did, he slept from 1:30 a.m. to 5 a.m. Steve and I both felt it was a miracle. To get 3.5 hours of uninterrupted sleep was divine.
My stepmother came to visit, and it was good but too late at night. Steve and I were both dead on our feet by the time she left. We need to get wise to the new reality: Bedtime for us is 9 p.m.
Today was my first time taking the baby out without Steve. My first time driving since giving birth. My first time loading the baby into the car seat by myself. (That did not go well; I couldn’t get the straps to tighten properly.) My first time taking the stroller out by myself. (I forgot how to open it; took me a while to figure it out in the parking lot.)
Mom came along and accompanied me to a quilt committee meeting at the library. I felt a bit unprofessional, especially when he started crying and I had to feed him during the section of the meeting where I had to talk. But Mom said it was 100 percent fine and I hid my nervousness well. It felt crazy and vulnerable to be feeding the baby and trying to talk business, but everyone in that room was a grandma and very indulgent. It was a safe space.
I was falling asleep last night when we were trying to get the baby down. He was screaming and crying for seemingly no reason. Steve took him out of the room around midnight and told me to sleep. He didn’t come back until 6:45 a.m.! What a super trooper. He must be exhausted. It’s 8 a.m. and I just fed and changed the baby. He’s in his bassinet, but he sounds wheezy. That makes me worried.
Since my meltdown, Steve has been making a bigger effort to change dirty diapers and stay up with the baby and all that jazz. I feel bad about the meltdown, but glad he’s stepping up.
That said, I had another meltdown tonight. I’m super stressed about money and getting work done. I just don’t have any studio time. It’s hard. I’m a freelancer. If I don’t work, there’s no money.
Gave the baby his first bath today.
I don’t feel like a mom. I don’t know what being a mom feels like, but it can’t be this. I know that I conceived, carried, birthed and now care for this little thing. But he feels like a stranger or a visitor. Maybe things will change when he starts to recognize me? I don’t know.
This is the first day that Steve has given me a chunk of time in the studio. I can hear the baby crying. This whole working-mom thing is going to be a journey.
At first, the baby was kind and let us sleep from midnight to 3 a.m. But he hasn’t let us sleep since then. It’s 7 a.m.
I had a visit from a work friend today who has a 1-year-old and she brought me coffee and croissants. An old family friend with an 8-month-old texted me advice and love today. I’ve been getting supportive messages and emails from friends and strangers. I’m blown away by how many people were secretly a hot mess postpartum. Why don’t we talk about it more? I’ve been sharing my thoughts and feelings on social media and it has been liberating and healing to read all the responses.
The lactation cookies are working. I pumped and got 2 ounces. Happy dance!
I lay in bed this morning, crying. Steve wrapped his arms around me and kept asking, “What’s wrong?” I said, “Nothing,” when what I meant was everything.
Then Steve came downstairs and seemed so angry. But it turns out he was sad. He wept. Literally wept about the fact that I was mad at him and he didn’t know why. “I don’t want to lose you guys,” he said.
I got a haircut today. My hairdresser said that Steve was the first dad, left home with the new baby, who hadn’t called or texted during the cut.
Do I have postpartum depression? I don’t want to. If I did, that would make me feel weak or inadequate. But I might. Mom and Steve have both suggested that I do. I looked up the symptoms of PPD and the symptoms of sleep deprivation. Other than wanting to kill the baby or myself (which I don’t), they’re remarkably similar.
Steve stayed up with the baby until 5 a.m. The baby slept until 6:45 a.m. and then I took over.
I hate the way I look in photos. Baby weight is now just weight, and it has me so depressed. Yet I’m eating everything in sight to comfort myself. Self-hate. Hate. Hate. Hate.
I’m frustrated. If I were a man with an office job, it would be normal for me to be back at work. Why do I never get any time for work?
I feel myself coming out of the bottom of the misery curve. I’m not sure if it’s just today or a trend, but I feel less oppressed. Perhaps because I got some studio time? Perhaps because the baby is starting to feel more like a person and less like a potato? I think he even smiled at me and the joy I felt from that small action was immense.
I feel much less depressed.
As I write this, it’s just one week after the last journal entry, but I feel a million miles further along emotionally. Baby blues are real, and they are all-consuming. I’m extremely lucky to have a flexible job, a supportive and loving partner who spends a lot of time at home, a mother who lives five minutes away and a best friend who showed up time and time again to help out. Yet for weeks, I felt so angry, so put upon, so resentful, so sad, so desperately oppressed and alone. Intellectually, I understood that my feelings weren’t rational. But that didn’t stop the big, fat tears from rolling down my face. The epic mood swings, the physical pain and indignity, the stress and sleep deprivation have been beyond anything I anticipated. I thought I had done my homework — I read the books, I listened to the advice — but the reality is so much more intense. I hope that this journal will help someone else going through this trying time. You are not alone.
I am not out of the woods yet. The baby still doesn’t sleep. I still struggle with feelings of anger and resentment and self-loathing. I still haven’t found the daily balance of working, taking care of the baby, eating healthily and tending to my relationship. My new reality is a Gordian knot. There is no simple solution. I simply need to carve out my happiness in new ways, with a new little life to care for. It will take some time, but I have faith that we will get there. Together.