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I was hanging out with a new friend yesterday who’s a first-time mom of a 2-month-old. She seemed to be coping as well as could be expected, but it reminded me of how overwhelmed I felt when I was a new mom. I thought of all the mama skills I’ve gained that have helped make my life easier.

Not easy mind you. But easier – today I was able to accomplish taking my four-month-old and three-year-old with me to the grocery store. And I also did laundry. And applied for a job. And tonight we took the little ones out for pizza and dancing. So it was a productive day.

My friend Catherine writes a blog called The Ten Thousand Hour Mama. There’s a theory that if you spend ten thousand hours practicing something you will become an expert at it. So, ten thousand hours of violin practice, and hopefully you’re ready for a career as a professional musician.

After 3 and 1/4 years as a full-time mom, I think I’ve easily surpassed the ten thousand hour mark. A conservative estimate of ten hours of mama time per day for 3 years puts the total at 10,950 hours as of my daughter’s April birthday. So even subtracting the hours my mom has watched my daughter or that she’s been at preschool, we can call it good.

Skills that I’ve gained? Breastfeeding has been much easier this time around. In part because of my baby, but in part because I knew what to do. I also used to be really uncomfortable breastfeeding in public because I was worried about offending people. But I don’t care anymore. My baby’s need to eat comes first.

I’ve also mastered the skill of getting out of the house. This is incredibly hard as a new mom. Packing the diaper bag with enough wipes, diapers and outfit changes. Getting the baby strapped into the carseat without too much screaming. Or just maintaining your calm throughout the screaming. Now also getting the three-year-old ready and in the car. This is actually one of the most important skills I’ve mastered – I try to have an outing every day in order to maintain my sanity.

I’ve managed to get my 3-year-old potty trained while taking care of my newborn. Or rather, she accepted the bribe of going to ballet camp if she would start pooping on the potty. Ballerinas use the potty.

The things is, you can’t ever be an expert mama because every child is different and every stage is different. I feel like taking care of the baby is easier this time because I’ve done it before and perhaps because of the baby’s personality. But age 3 is new territory and it’s hard.

Maybe once both of my children have graduated from college, then I can consider myself an expert mama. Until then, I’m still learning.

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The women are crowded into the dressing room, peeling wet swimsuits from their rounded bellies. An unusual cross-section of women – a technology specialist for the school district, a yoga teacher recently moved back home from life in the tropics, a couple of my high school classmates. One woman, 36 weeks pregnant with her second child, is in the middle of a divorce from her addict husband. “It’s better this way,” we assure her. She is stoic, accepting the way things are.

A set of pregnant sisters has come to swim class tonight. “Are you excited that your sister is pregnant too?” one woman quietly asks the older of the two.

“No,” she shakes her head. “But I’m coming to accept it. I’ve been planning my pregnancy for years – hers wasn’t planned. She always gets all the attention, being the younger sister.”

While pulling on clothes over still damp skin, a woman says her husband’s afraid she’ll turn in Regan from The Exorcist during labor. “Hmm,” I say, from the vantage of my second pregnancy. “Are you planning for a natural birth?”

She says she is, though she’s decided on birthing in the hospital rather than the associated birth center. “I need a big room for all my friends,” she says. “They’re weird so I don’t want them hanging out in the waiting room. Some of them have been to one too many Rainbow Gatherings.” She laughs. “Plus, where would they smoke in the birth center?”

“Hmmm,” I say again. I want to say that her friends certainly won’t be smoking in the hospital’s maternity ward, but I just smile and nod.

My first night in class there was just a small group, 5 of us, and one of us expectant mamas cried as she talked about the C-section that was scheduled a few days away for her breech baby.

“I just don’t want to be cut open,” she said.

But aren’t we all about to be cut open, our hearts exposed, in the process of bringing a new life into the world?

We think we are preparing for the marathon of labor, when really, it’s the parenting that we should be saving all our strength for. It’s parenting, more than giving birth, that’s the test of a lifetime.

Me at 36 weeks pregnant.

Me at 36 weeks pregnant with my second child.

Baby brother's coming soon!

Baby brother’s coming soon!

At 39 weeks pregnant, we’re expecting the arrival of Baby Brother any day now. My freezer is full of dinners I’ve thoughtfully prepared for our family in advance. We’ve spent the last several months cleaning and organizing our apartment. I filed our taxes, and made plans for celebrating my daughter’s April birthday in May.

I’ve been doing prenatal yoga, belly dancing, and water “aerobics” (okay it’s more of a relaxation class) for months. I have midwives and an experienced birth doula, and a free postpartum doula service lined up. I’ve reconfirmed my views on alternative vaccine schedules, decided it’s okay to skip the newborn eye antibiotics since I don’t have gonorrhea, and learned about the benefits of delaying baby’s first bath.

In other words – true to my personality – I’ve carefully controlled the parts of this baby equation that I can control. Ah, control, what an addictive and sweet illusion!

Hahaha.

So I mean, I guess we’re ready.

Ducks don't worry about the ideal time to start a family.

Ducks don’t worry about the ideal time to start a family. They just have lots of cute babies.

Having a child is, ahem, a major life change. Some times of life are obviously less-than-ideal for becoming a parent — like when you’re still in high school. But is there a best time to have a baby? And how do you know when that is?

My daughter was born when I was 28 and my husband was 29. We were among the first of our friends to become parents. Now that I’m approaching 31, parenting is becoming the new normal among our circle of acquaintances. That biological clock just becomes harder to resist, I guess.

We had several reasons for choosing to start our family when we did. We had already been married for 5 years when I became pregnant, so we felt like we’d had plenty of childless years together to develop our relationship. I also had finished my master’s degree and had several years of professional work experience, so I figured it would be possible to rebound from taking time off. I wanted to have my first child before age 30, because that reduces a woman’s risk of developing breast cancer. We thought we might want 3 children, and I wanted 3 years between each child, so that would allow me to finish having babies before age 35 (at 35 you become an “elderly” pregnant woman — ability to conceive and sustain a pregnancy drops significantly). In many ways, 28 seemed like the perfect age to become a mom.

On the other hand, we hadn’t reached the financial goals I had expected to reach by 28. We didn’t own a house or have disposable income. In fact, we lived in a small 2-bedroom apartment with no dishwasher and one bedroom functionally unusable due to severe mold problems. So, that was not ideal. But we told ourselves: Our financial situation could change on a dime! God will provide! We’ll find a way!

So how did things turn out? Our finances have not improved. It’s been challenging. Still, we’ve managed to get by, remain debt-free, and even move to a new apartment with a dishwasher and 2 functional bedrooms.

In some ways, it definitely would have been easier to wait to have a child until we were older and (theoretically!) had more money. Or it might have been easier to have a child when I was 23 and had more energy. Don’t underestimate the enormous amount of energy required to care for a young child.

Really, there is no perfect time to have a child, and the best time will vary from couple to couple. If you’re considering whether now is a good time to start a family, you may want to ask yourself the following questions to help you evaluate the situation:

— Am I in a stable monogamous relationship? Would my partner make a good parent?

— Do I need more time to get to know my significant other before adding a baby to the mix?

— Do my partner or I have any addictions or serious emotional problems we should work on before becoming parents?

— Am I willing to sacrifice my waistline, sleep, personal life, career goals? (Yes, you can continue to have a successful career and be a parent, but often one parent’s career does go on the backburner for awhile…)

I asked my husband what he thought about this, and he said, “Don’t ask questions. If you want to have a baby you should. Nothing’s ever going to be perfect.” So there’s a perspective from someone who’s not a Type A personality.

If you’re a parent, how old were you when you had your first child? Would you have rather been older or younger if you could have done things differently?

Depression is lonely and scary.

Depression is lonely and scary.

Mental health issues carry a stigma, but when we break the silence and talk about them openly they become less scary. I may be wrong, but I think if we’re honest, most people struggle with mental health issues to some degree at some point in their lives.

So, what’s the deal with postpartum depression? Why would a new mom, who has just welcomed a bundle of joy into the world, get depressed?

Perhaps because:

a) postpartum and nursing hormones have thrown her emotions out of whack

b) she hasn’t had more than a 90 minute stretch of sleep in several weeks/months

c) she is socially isolated

d) she has not yet formed an attachment to her newborn, and wonders “who is this helpless creature I’m now spending all my time with?”

e) she spends the vast majority of her day sitting on the couch breastfeeding

f) her body has been severely injured in the process of giving birth

e) she wonders what the f***k has happened to her life

In sum, postpartum depression is understandable. In fact, given all the above, it’s rather remarkable when a new mom doesn’t experience some degree of postpartum depression or anxiety.

For my part, I really struggled with depression and anxiety when my daughter was about 3-5 months old. I think I was coping rather well until then, despite the extreme challenges of caring for a newborn. I won’t go into the details in this post, but you can read my post about it here. Or just read the poem if you prefer.

Around three months I no longer felt like I was coping. In retrospect, several things collided to make things a giant awful mess:

1) I lost my job

2) I lost my health insurance

3) my husband started working longer hours

4) I started taking birth control

Although I had told my doctor that I was concerned about postpartum depression (because I have a history of depression) he told me I’d be fine and prescribed me birth control without warning me that it was associated with postpartum depression. Birth control never seemed to affect my moods in the past, so I thought it would be fine. I had also looked forward to going back to work part-time and reconnecting with the outside world, but I lost my job and with it lost my main link to the world beyond my apartment walls. Losing my health insurance made me feel like I wasn’t allowed to have mental health issues because I couldn’t afford access to treatment. So, it was a hard and scary time — I really began to feel like I was losing my grip.

I got through it by becoming involved in as many activities as possible. The first time I took my four- month-old to a library storytime, I almost broke down in tears because it felt so good to be outside of my apartment and around other moms and babies. That fall we also took baby sign language class, mom and baby yoga, and signed up for MOPS. Mom and baby yoga was a lifeline because it was basically a group therapy session for new moms, followed by some yoga. My husband and I also occasionally invited people over for dinners so I could still feel like I had some sort of social life.

Some facets of attachment parenting really helped me as well. One of the scariest aspects of the depression for me was not feeling much attachment to my child. Wearing her in the Ergo carrier during daily walks was incredibly comforting and helped ease my anxiety. Eventually we ended up co-sleeping too, which we still do (I wouldn’t necessarily endorse it but it definitely helps with attachment).

So that’s an abridged version of my story. Slowly I started feeling better, and at this point life feels pretty normal again. Postpartum depression and anxiety can easily happen to anyone, even if you don’t have a history of depression/anxiety. I strongly recommend all new moms join some sort of support group whether it’s MOPS, postpartum yoga, or a new moms group at the local hospital. Just being able to talk to other women who are going through a similar experience as you should be extremely helpful. Also it’s probably wise to avoid any hormonal forms of birth control.

Did you struggle with depression or anxiety after becoming a mom? How did you cope?

photo credit: Helga Weber via photopin cc

You’re still breastfeeding? How old is your daughter?

Yes, I still nurse my daughter, who is almost 21-months-old.

OK, that’s cool, but this topic makes me uncomfortable. Can we still be friends if I don’t read this article?

Sure, why don’t you check out these photos my husband and I took on our recent hike to the top of Spencer’s Butte. I’m not trying to make you uncomfortable,  but I do think it’s important to raise awareness about this topic.

Are you some kind of breastfeeding activist?

Not exactly. I’ve never been very comfortable nursing in public, and I never nurse her in public now that she eats solid foods regularly. But I would like to live in a society where any woman would feel comfortable nursing in public — since breastmilk is the healthiest possible food you can give a baby.

Is it normal to breastfeed a toddler? I thought you were only supposed to nurse until age 1.

Both the World Health Organization and UNICEF recommend breastfeeding until two years or more. Check out this Huffington Post article for more on the topic. True it is not the norm in the U.S., but Americans have very low rates of breastfeeding when compared to the rest of the world.

But doesn’t it hurt? Toddlers have lots of teeth.

Imagine sucking your thumb. Would that hurt? Sometimes babies go through biting phases, but if they want to continue nursing they will learn not to do so.

My pediatrician said there was no medical reason to breastfeed past age 1.

This is what my daughter’s former pediatrician implied, and although he was a very nice man, he was apparently misinformed about this topic. According to the Mayo Clinic “Breast milk is considered the gold standard for infant nutrition…There’s no known age at which breast milk is considered to become nutritionally insignificant for a child.” In addition to high nutritional value, breast milk also contains your antibodies to viruses, which can help your toddler stay healthy while her immune system is still developing. Extended breastfeeding also has many positive benefits to the mother’s health including reduced risk of breast and ovarian cancers.

I weaned my baby when I went back to work at 3 months. Are you trying to make me feel bad about myself?

No way girlfriend. Being a mom is oh so challenging — we’re all just trying to do the best we can, right? In fact, nursing a newborn was one of the most challenging things I’ve ever had to do, so kudos to you if you made it through these early weeks!

Twice now I have thought that Little Bear had chickenpox, and twice I have been wrong.

The first time was last summer. She was feeling under the weather, had a low fever and a day or two later broke out in a rash all over her body. I immediately assumed it was the chickenpox, because the pediatrician had recommended she get that vaccine and I had declined for the time being. I called her doctor’s office to let them know my diagnosis, and the nurse skeptically told me I should come into the office so they could figure out, “what was really going on.” After checking her out, the doctor said Little Bear didn’t appear to have chickenpox, because she didn’t have any raised blisters. She told me that there are a number of viruses that can cause a rash in children. She then showed me some photos of chickenpox so that I would know what to look for in the future.

After that I intended to get her the varicella vaccination, but due to our move Little Bear has gotten slightly behind in her well-child visits. Last week she came down with a fever of about 102. I knew she was having chills, because she was shivering and seemed to be feeling awful. She went to bed early and then seemed fine the next day (Thursday), although we noticed she was scratching her tongue in the evening. The following day she also seemed to be doing pretty well, although a little less energetic than usual. That evening at bath time I saw that she had some bumps on her elbows and feet. These bumps were raised and I thought they looked like the pictures of chickenpox the doctor had showed me. The next day she had a red rash all over her feet, and also on her hands. She had a few spots on her legs, but none on her torso or face.

I assumed she must have a mild case of the chickenpox. One that didn’t appear to be itchy, and was only attacking very specific body parts. Strange perhaps, but what else could it be? We kept her quarantined, which was fairly easy to do since we were in the midst of a once-a-decade snowstorm and couldn’t drive anywhere.

The following Wednesday my aunt was telling my cousin about it, and my cousin said, “Are you sure it’s chickenpox? That sounds like what my daughters had last year — hand, foot and mouth disease.”

I googled hand, foot and mouth disease and it seemed to match Little Bear’s symptoms. At that point, she still had a mild rash on her feet and a runny nose. She had a well-child visit scheduled for that afternoon, so Grandpa graciously drove us through the still snowy roads to her doctor’s office. When I told the receptionist that Little Bear was recovering from hand, foot and mouth disease she seemed skeptical. “Is she on medication for that?”

But after examining her, our wonderful pediatrician said, “I agree with your diagnosis Ursula. This looks like classic hand, foot and mouth disease. It’s been going around.”

Case closed.