About a year ago, I planned an ambitious slate of books and activities for first grade. I thought I was being reasonable, anticipating a slow start with a baby due in July, but I had no idea what was in store for us.
Second Son was born and we had a quiet first month at home, starting school when he was about four weeks old. At first, I was pleased with how we progressed. We were finishing our lessons and my house was in reasonable order. As time went on, though, I began to struggle.
Some babies are content no matter where they are or what's going on. Second Daughter was like that. She had her moments and seasons where she needed more attention, but overall she was happy to just be where she could see her big brother and sister and chatter with me as I worked.
Some babies, though, require just a bit more of their mamas. I call them "high maintenance." First Son was high maintenance. Back then, we had one baby, a 400 square foot apartment, and Kansas Dad handled much of the baby care while I worked. I naively thought it was tough those few times I tried to be productive and he was uncooperative. Then, Second Son came along. He was also a high maintenance baby. Only now I was home alone most days with three other kids and a whole lot more house to manage.
If I put Second Son down to clear the table, he cried. If I put him down to wash the dishes, he cried. If I put him down to make a meal for the other kids, he cried. If I put him down to change Second Daughter's diaper, he cried. If I put him down to wash my hands, he cried. If I put him down to go to the bathroom, he cried. (I could go on, but it's getting a little redundant, don't you think?)
If I put him in the carrier to clear the table, wash the dishes, prepare a meal or wash my hands, he cried. For months he was only content being carried in the football hold. That boy wanted undivided attention. In fact, Kansas Dad and I quickly learned he was happiest with one adult holding him and another adult entertaining him.
I hinted at Second Son's neediness a little on the blog, but I couldn't bring myself to write about it a lot. I didn't want to complain and I certainly didn't want people to think we didn't love every chubby bit of him. Because we did. Oh, but I struggled! I like my kitchen tidy and my laundry clean. If it isn't, I feel terrible. I find it difficult to concentrate on anything else. But I also can't bear to let my little one cry and cry and cry just so I can fold a few clothes. So usually, we both cried. Isn't that how it is? I also found myself speaking a little sharper than I liked to the other children because I was so stressed by Second Son's constant needs and tears.
Let me be clear: Second Son was healthy. He did not have colic. He just wanted to be held all day by someone who wasn't doing anything else. If he had that, he was content. Does that sound like too much to ask?
One night in November, I was sitting on the sofa with Kansas Dad while all the kids slept. I said, "I'm not feeling very well," leaned over and was out. The next thing I knew, Kansas Dad was kneeling before me calling my name repeatedly and looking very concerned. I talked to the doctor who assured me healthy people are not supposed to faint. He ran a series of tests, but in his opinion I was doing too much. I tried to explain that I was only doing the minimum, but he insisted, "You need to set priorities. Whatever you think you need to be doing is too much."
I pondered his advice for a few days. Of course, if we had been dealing with serious illness, I would have recognized the need to limit our lessons or alter my daily goals, but I was just trying to do the dishes and the laundry and the lessons. How could I do less? Eventually, though, I realized this time, these few months when Second Son was so little, he required more of me than dishes and laundry. When I am pregnant, I cut back on my responsibilities drastically because growing a little person is hard work for my body and mind. I give myself the freedom to focus my energy on the baby. Second Son just needed that energy a little bit longer. Though at times I felt like his needs extended unceasingly into the future, logically I knew he'd soon outgrow it. First Son outgrew it and so would Second Son. So I set my sights on six months or nine months or one year and prayed a lot about making some changes.
I pared back our lessons and outside activities. I gave myself permission to wash the table, stack the dirty dishes by the sink and then leave them until Kansas Dad was home. Most importantly, I gave up trying to make dinner. By the end of the day, Second Son and I were both tired. Trying to prepare a meal while he cried was probably my greatest source of stress. Instead, Kansas Dad made something simple when he got home. He usually still does.
Kansas Dad was a solid source of aid, comfort, understanding and support during all these months. In addition to making dinner most nights, he often finished washing dishes, cleaning the kitchen, folding the clothes, washing the bathroom or all sorts of other odd jobs just because he knew I hated to leave them half-done but had been unable to get back to them.
Second Son is now nine months old. I do not think it's an exaggeration to say we're just now getting to a place I like to be. I'm still not making dinner most nights, but the lessons, laundry and dishes are getting done with little crying from Second Son. Perhaps we would have gotten here sooner if I hadn't gotten horribly ill just after Christmas with an infection resistant to the first-choice antibiotics. Or perhaps the infection gave me the freedom I needed to cut back even more.
If I have any regrets, it's that I didn't ask for more help. There are lots of people who could have come and held Second Son for me once a week or so while I tackled a few tasks. I hated to ask because we couldn't afford to pay anything, but I think they would have happily come anyway. I'm sorry I did not allow them the opportunity to serve. One day I'll be in a position to run over to a friend's house for a few hours to give her a break and I hope and pray she'll ask. (I did ask for help when Kansas Dad had to return to work and I was still feeling so ill. I am very much indebted to my mother-in-law and friends who each took a day off from their busy lives to come comfort me and hold Second Son. I have no idea how we would have fared during those days without help.)
I've been debating whether I should tell this story. My blog tends to the upbeat, the successes, the joys. But it has been surfacing in my mind as the homeschool reviews remind me how much I'd hoped to do this year that never happened. Mostly, though, I wanted to share a little of our experiences because I know we're not the only ones. I wanted to put it up there on the blog that sometimes the first year is hard, even for healthy mothers with healthy babies.
Please take the advice of a mother who has been there: If you are feeling overwhelmed, ask for help. Cut seriously back on your goals. Relax your standards. If you think you may be suffering from postpartum depression, please do not delay in talking with a doctor, but even if you don't believe it's something quite that serious, you still deserve peace in your life and in your heart. Give yourself some time.
Your baby will grow. He will learn to sit, to play, to roll around the room to reach all sorts of choking hazards you are sure you hid away.
One day, you will realize the baby has been taking a nap for an hour, the house is clean, the other children are playing happily in the spring sunshine and maybe, just maybe, dinner is almost ready.