It’s a funny thing, having a fourth child. The idea that I should be an old pro by now has been disproved at every stage of Abigail’s pre- and post-natal life: Pregnancy always seems to have fresh discomforts up its sleeve, babies don’t arrive when and how you expect, and nursing a newborn every two hours is still exhausting. Whether you’ve just had your first child or your fourth, it turns out that the baby-birthing process is new each time, with its own particular blend of joys and struggles.
But there’s one thing, I’ve found, that stays relatively the same after each birth, and that’s what other people say to you. Having heard these pithy exclamations and encouragements four times, I have now realized two things:
1. People are so, so kind in those first post-partum weeks. Strangers will fall all over you and your baby whenever you leave the house until you feel like a celebrity.
2. They are lying to you.
Yes, they are. These are kind, well-intentioned lies, of course; the sort of lies we all tell each other in order to get through the days. But they are lies nonetheless. I didn’t realize this when I had my first, second, or even third child. But now I’m no longer under the illusion that I’m a celebrity for having recently given birth. No; by the fourth time around, I’m just another person contributing to global overpopulation, and I know enough to call out the following statements as lies:
1. “You look great!”
This is one of the first things that people exclaim when they see you post-partum. The implication is — sometimes this isn’t merely implied but stated — that you “look like you haven’t even given birth.” In other words, you do not look exhausted, unwashed, and awkwardly in-between hugely pregnant and not pregnant. This is intended as a compliment, and reflects our culture’s sad obsession with the body, in which celebrity magazines mock women for pregnancy weight gain and praise them for modeling lingerie two weeks after giving birth.
And it’s most likely a lie — at least when said to me. Maybe you look great. but I certainly look exhausted, unwashed, and puffy. I can no longer stand to wear maternity clothes, but I still can’t fit into most of my pre-pregnancy clothes, which leaves me with three baggy outfits stained with lanolin, spit-up, and sweat. I’m sleeping in one-hour increments. I’m permanently hunched from carrying the baby all day. When I do bathe, it’s a harried process of handing Abigail off to my husband and racing through a shower while trying to ignore her screams. I may look many ways, but “great” is not one of them.
NOTE: This comment, however inaccurate, is MUCH better than the question — which I have actually been asked — “So, have you lost the pregnancy weight yet?” I can’t fathom what would possess somebody to ask this of a new mom, but if you’ve ever considered it — DON’T.
2. “She’s so beautiful!” Now listen: I love my babies. I think they’re beautiful, but that’s because I’m their mom and I’ve just struggled to produce them at great expense to my body and my health insurance. But are they truly, objectively beautiful? Of course not. All of my newborns have looked like plucked chickens — and not the plump butterball chickens, but the scrawny ones headed straight for the chicken nuggets pile. They are coated with fuzzy hair and peeling skin. After a few weeks, the peeling stops and the baby acne starts.
In time, they will become truly, objectively beautiful, but they’re not there yet.
3. “Nursing shouldn’t hurt at all.” Okay, this may be an uncomfortable topic for some non-moms, but I promise no graphic details. I feel that this lie is important to unmask as a public service. While it may not be a universal experience, I’ve had numerous new moms question me — with shame and discouragement in their voices — about the pain they’re experiencing with nursing. So let me be honest:
I think nursing is a great thing (though certainly not the only thing). I have nursed all four of our children. And every single time it hurt like the dickens for the first month or so. At times I was concerned that I was scarring my children for life because their earliest memories would be of their mother yelping in pain whenever they ate.
That’s bad enough, but what made it worse was that every single time, some well-meaning labor and delivery nurse or lactation expert would tell me, “It shouldn’t hurt to nurse. If it hurts, you’re doing it wrong.” Now, I certainly advise new moms to consult a nurse or lactation expert about nursing, because they’re very helpful. But as far as I can tell, this bit about nursing being pain-free is a lie. (And I have professionals to back me up on this: For the first time, I have a female ob/gyn who nursed two children of her own, and according to her the notion of pain-free nursing is “a load of bull.”)
So I say: nurse away, give your body a month to toughen up, and don’t let them make you feel worse by selling you a lie.
4. “It gets easier.” I can’t yet claim with total authority that this is a lie, because I’m still on the front lines of parenting very young children. But every time a kind veteran parent encourages us by saying, “It gets easier,” I’m starting to suspect that they just might be lying in order to buck us up. And that’s okay: It’s okay if it doesn’t get easier. I didn’t sign up for parenting with the mistaken impression that it would be relaxing.
I think it’s true that the newborn days are a special kind of hard: There’s nothing quite like having to hold and feed a baby round the clock. But, as I’ve written before, my sense is that parenting doesn’t really get easier the longer you do it, it just gets different. For instance, next year our two oldest daughters will attend two separate schools, each with different start and end times. These two daughters are also cultivating their own groups of friends and starting to get involved in extracurricular activities. All of this presents a series of logistical challenges that were unknown back in the pre-school days when we had a newborn and a toddler or two at home. And something tells me it ain’t getting any simpler.
What to make of these post-partum lies? I’m really not trying to paint a depressing picture of people, or of post-partum life. As I’ve said, these lies reveal people at their kindest, most encouraging. For all I know, most of the people who say these things sincerely believe that they’re speaking the truth.
Maybe the best thing about fourth-time parenthood is having the assurance that, even if these statements aren’t true when they’re first spoken, that’s only temporary. Soon enough, you will look great — or at least, less like a misshapen blob of exhaustion. Soon enough, your baby will be beautiful — or at least, less of a scrawny, naked chicken. Soon enough, nursing will be painless — and before you know it, they’ll be demanding juice in their sippy cup. And whether or not parenting gets easier, soon enough you’ll be converting your children’s rooms to accommodate visiting grandchildren.
Then, when you see a new mother, you’ll smile and tell her that she looks great and her baby is beautiful.