My newborn son lies curled up on my chest, all ten pounds of him swathed in a pastel green swaddle blanket. His tiny, knobby knees are tucked in tight under his chest, and he squirms and wiggles as he fights the onset of sleep. My sweet boy with the chubby cheeks bobs his head frantically like a baby woodpecker across my collarbone. I cup the back of his head in the palm of my hand and press his round cheek to my chest. I whisper a haiku of shhush’s and dance around the nursery. His body begins to still, and the fluttery smiles of early sleep trickle across his face. When his eyes finally close, he leans completely in to me, and sighs.
Pediatricians say that newborn babies are in desperate need of a fourth trimester. Baby whisperers know that three more months of being tucked in tight, away from the realities of the outside world, can help a brand new nervous system to adjust. Wise women everywhere say that swaddling and shushing and skin-to-skin and dim lights can create a womb-like environment that soothes the fussiness from still-developing bodies. The concept is brilliant, and I quickly realized…
Mommies need a fourth trimester too.
Ben is seven weeks old, and I can’t say that my nervous system has adjusted to the pace of the outside world any more than his has. The lights are still too bright. My body still feels fragile under the weight of our daily routine. I prefer sleep over awake time, and the best part of my day is when I’m tucked in tight under warm blankets in my own bed. It’s a scary new world out there, and I’m perfectly content with “baking” in the safe womb of our own house for a little while longer.
The fourth trimester feels fragile to me. Each member of our family is perfecting their dance of courtship. Who leads and who follows? When do we eat? How on earth will we sleep? What do we need so that we can wake up to live another day? What do we believe in, how do we see ourselves moving forward, and how can we curl up with our knees tucked in beneath us and find comfort in such a new and enormous space?
We shut out the world. We swaddle ourselves until we are sure that our own startle reflex won’t jolt us out of this new reality. Each one of us finds a warm body to curl up against. I lean into my husband at the end of the day, allowing the strength of his body to stabilize mine. Max wraps his arms around my legs, my waist, my neck….anything that he can cling to when the waves of change become too much for him to bear. He constantly assesses the confines of a home that looks familiar, though the insides have changed. His four year old energy collides full force with his curious temperament, and suddenly toys explode across the living room. My sensory-seeking preschooler is bouncing off the walls of this new, swaddled lifestyle. As we try to balance the needs of the tiny boy and the medium-sized one, we find ourselves leaning heavily on others. Friends bring food and prepare it, housekeepers scrub sinks and toilets, our village surrounds us so that everything suddenly becomes smaller and more manageable. Our Nanny walks in shadow steps with me, soothing the crying child that I am not holding or grabbing the groceries that I am not buying. Our doulas bring the lessons to us, one step at a time. Adventures in latching happen in our recliner, with Melissa leaning over me. I sit cross-legged on the sofa as Jessica does a mini-counseling session while I cry. She practically fed me my dinner last night as I was nursing Ben. Family comes over to jump in the pool with Max and they stay late to smooth the jagged edges of a now complicated bedtime routine. Our home becomes our womb, the place where we can shut everything else out while our nervous systems mature.
There is comfort in this routine. I have found space to breathe here. We have created a private space behind these four walls, and it allows me to mess up when no one’s watching. I can handle my baby’s diaper blow-out while fixing my four year old’s Lego tower at the same time. I can cry while I breastfeed with the world’s shittiest latch. I can stay in my pajamas, and no one will tell me that I smell like sour milk. (Except for my doula, who sometimes greets me with a cheerful “Maybe you can even get a shower in today!” smile.) No one is judging us here. The only standards that we are held to are self-imposed. I can fail, and fall down, and take too long to get it right, because I am swaddled up safe where no one can see. Safe feels peaceful, and predictable, and manageable. But safe quickly becomes lonely, and lonely turns in to angry, and angry suddenly looks like sadness, and sadness looks a lot like depression when it hasn’t been hit by sunlight in so many weeks. And so it becomes that this practice run, this last chance at preparing to be out in the world, is nearing an end.
I can see the thin ribbon of the fourth trimester finish line in the distance. It’s glimmering in the sunlight, stretched taught across a well-worn path, dancing in the cool wind. Our stroller is in the trunk now, ready to be used again. I’ve stopped wearing my faded black yoga pants, and changed into blue jeans and summer skirts. I’ve been practicing with our brand new Ergo carrier, jiggling my bundled baby deep into the front pouch and standing in front of the mirror to see if I look like I know what I’m doing. Or if I’m about to let him slide through the bottom. I place a mental checkmark next to everything that goes into my diaper bag, and feel confident that it’s full enough to prepare me for any child-related apocalypse. I start with one outing each day. A preschool drop-off. A trip to the coffee shop. A walk downtown. My legs feel unsteady and I’m out of breath. That’s what happens when one has been swaddled for too long. It’s easy to forget how strong your body really is.
My stomach churns as I walk out the door, anxiety creeping up in my throat as I turn my key in the lock. I ease my car out of the driveway, and the sound of country music fills the car. I sing along with Tim McGraw as I drive out into the sunshine, and I catch a glimpse of myself in the rearview mirror. The sunglasses. The red lip gloss. The blown-out hair. The smile. For a moment, there are no tears on my cheeks. I breathe in the air that surrounds the people who are actually living in this world, and I’m suddenly hit with the wave of peaceful quiet that is coming from the backseat. Ben is awake, but he isn’t screaming. For the first time in 7 weeks, my new son is not crying in his carseat. My gaze shifts from my peaceful reflection to his. There he is, in a clean white onesie, with his little arm outstretched. He’s noticed for the first time that there are little toys attached to the car-seat handle, and he is reaching for them. My baby boy is smiling. He is listening to the soft tinkling bells inside the little cotton ladybug, and he is breathing in the air of the outside space. I watch as Ben’s arms open up to the world, and he reaches beyond his body for the tiny toys that wiggle just out of his reach. His face erupts into a gummy grin, and my eyes light up with pride as I watch him, unswaddled, begin to explore the world. We smile with the realization that there is more to our lives than what exists in our home. We will take these first few steps together, our little family of four. We will stretch our arms out to the world, tilt our heads back to the sun, and let the summer breeze propel us toward the act of living that lies just past the fourth trimester. There is beauty in the outside, adventure in the fresh air, and a land of wonder that can only be chased after when your limbs become un-swaddled and your life beyond the womb begins.