How my new baby ruined my plan for a good New Year

Ten days after our little boy was born, Elul arrives. Normally a time of deeper introspection and heightened awareness, the days and nights blur into each other as the all-consuming demands of a new-born rule my existence. I feel far. Far from the dawning year, far from the potential connection that is possible.

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Year after year, I sit in shul on Rosh Hashana and pray. I ask G-d for health and healthy children and safety and livelihood and everything that we need to survive. But mostly, I ask him that I fulfill my unique purpose in the world. I am constantly reminded of the absurdity of human existence. Since the first man was created thousands of years ago,  billions of people have been born and people die. Billions and billions of people engrossed in the minutiae of life and mostly are forgotten. I take my own choices of what to make for dinner so seriously, but ultimately it is all irrelevant. So on the New Year, I tell this to G-d. I tell him that I don’t know why I am alive, but if it is so that I am that it must be His will and I trust that it is. And subsequently there must be a purpose for my existence. And so I ask him to please allow me to fulfill my unique purpose in the world as that is all that will make it worthwhile. There must be something which I alone can achieve and contribute.

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Three am ticks on. I am jiggling and rocking and walking my newborn up and down. I will do  anything to get him to sleep. And to stay asleep. I am resentful and angry. I want to be sleeping. I do not want to be up every two hours pacing my living room. Morning dawns and I am sick with fatigue. And so begins the next day, the same as the one before. I live for the moments of sleep which I know will not suffice. Each day, I look at my list of tasks and wishes. Articles to be written, blogs to be updated and projects to be completed. Yet the accomplishments are limited to being showered, dressed and giving my toddler some attention. I am silently angry. This child is taking me away from what I should be doing. I should be writing and thinking and creating. Not stumbling through the day. I take my daughter to school, excited to be returning to Yoga after all these months. Yet she wont let me leave. Every time I say goodbye, she asks me to stay a mittle-bit. It takes me 30 minutes, and I arrive at yoga bedraggled half way through the class.

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I used to dread these days surrounding the New Year. The judgement, the fear, the self-confrontation. Yet slowly without me even noticing my attitude changed. And this year I find that I look forward to them. I get so lost so caught up in the mundane aspects of life. I become lackadaisical in my prayers, my learning evaporates and my consciousness and mindfulness is lost. Lists and lists of doing occupy my days. Doing, doing and more doing. Food to buy, meals to cook, people to call, friends to see, errands to be run.  Even in the rare quiet moments I make more and more lists. And then comes the New Year. We acknowledge that it is G-d who is king. He is in control. For two whole days, we get to practice being. Being in His presence and to take a step back from the repetitious daily life. We can spend two days focusing on nothing except that there is a will which is not ours, and that we do not control our life. And this is both frightening but comforting. I take comfort in this fact of that it is all a result of his will. I cannot control everything. I can do my best, but G-d’s will is what prevails. And I try to internalize that everything which happens, my job the friends my health , is all because he wants it be exactly like so. And even though I may have a different plan for my life at this moment, the reality is that every single aspect of my life is nothing but His will.

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Approaching the New Year I am physically in survival mode. Yet this morning, I was nursing my son and I realized that my deepest wish was being realized – I was doing my unique purpose in this world. There was no one else who at that moment could give my baby what I was giving him. Someone else could give him a bottle, and hold him but no one could ever be his mother. And that his non-sleeping habits are what G-d intends. So as  much as every year I spend the entire day in shul on Rosh Hashana, deep in prayer, I realize that this year will not be like that.  Even if I do get to shul I doubt I will have the stamina and concentration of previous years. But it does not mean I miss out on what Rosh Hashana is. For instead of getting angry and being resentful and wishing I was able to daven properly while I am taking care of my children, on Rosh Hashana I give up my will. For now, He wants me to pace the halls and stay a mittle-bit and be a mother of two precious little children.  This year, I choose to relinquish my idea of what my life should be, and embrace His. For that will bring joy and connection to G-d which I desire.

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3 things never to ask a new mother

      1. Are you in love
When Ella was born, every second text message contained this question. But the thing is, just because you carried around this little person for nine months does not guarantee love at first sight. Hollywood portrays birth as tear-filled moments encapsulated by overwhelming love. But in the real world, many new mothers do not feel love at first sight.  They feel curiosity, terror, fear and exhaustion. For me, I was in such physical shock from labour that all I could do was lie down and shake for an hour while I recovered from the hours of excruciating pain. My husband did the skin to skin contact first.  Despite our shared gene pool, she was a stranger to me for a long time. And in those first weeks and months, we got to know each other, Ella and I. The love took a while to come. First there was like. And now, mostly there is love.  The love will come – after two days, two weeks or even two years.But asking a new mother that puts an unrealistic expectation and pressure onto them. As if there is something wrong with them if they aren’t swooning with love at their new-born.
2. Did you have a natural birth or a c-section
There is so much hype, idealism and fanaticism these days on both sides of the equation. In some circles natural births with no pain relief are lauded. Pregnant women often get very attached to one birthing method. They do hypno-birthing, yoga, meditation, birthing classes and visualization. And then things happen. Cords get stuck. Babies go into distress. Pelvises are misshaped. And often, these mothers are devastated. Perhaps they feel like failures, like they have let themselves down. There is regret and wasted hope. The emotions are deep and difficult. So don’t ask – don’t put them in a position where they have to explain their choice for an epidural, or anything else. And likewise there are mothers who elect for pain relief or a c-section from the word go. And that is their choice. They don’t need to defend it, justify it or explain it. They don’t need any judgement or superiority. So don’t ask.

3.Are you breastfeeding or formula feeding
Similar to the above, there is much dogma around breastfeeding. Attachment parenting dictates that we breast feed till our kids are six. For many of us, the picture of a perfect mother is one who nourishes their child from within. Many mothers have an innate desire to nurse their babies. And they will often do so at any cost. But as mothers know breast-feeding is not a pain-free, always possible occurrence.  I have friends who sobbed in pain as breastfeeding was so excruciating. And one who pumped for hours only to get an ounce of milk. And the ones who are desperate to and drink gallons of jungle juice and even take medication, but still do not have enough milk. There are ones whose babies have such bad reflux that formula is the only answer. And then there are ones who hate the concept and choose bottle-feeding from the word go. And no matter the choice they make, or they are forced to make, chances are it haunts them.  They probably are mired in guilt. So don’t make it worse. Don’t put them somewhere where they have to explain. If you do breastfeed, it does not mean you are a better mother. A mother makes sure their baby has exactly what it needs to flourish. In days of old, wet nurses where common. Today, many happy healthy adults were nourished by formula
Last week, someone asked me if I was still nursing Ella, my sixteen month old. And despite having worked through my own experience, there was still a twinge of guilt as I replied no.
PS. None of this applies to someone who offers you any of the above details, if they do then feel free to ask. If someone is your close friend, these rules also probably don’t apply. But if someone is a casual or even friendly acquaintance, think of some other way to make conversation. How are you feeling, congratulations and offering to help in anyway is always a safe bet

How I got over my fear of new-borns

‘Enjoy her’, they all said confidently, ‘they grow up so quickly’. Every sms, phone call and greeting after Ella’s birth invariably included a modicum of that advice.
And over those first few weeks, I would think back to those well-meaning comments with confusion.  Enjoy her? As much as I tried, I could not fathom what exactly there was to enjoy. Ella was cute enough, but enjoyment was not how I would describe my feelings.  What exactly was there to enjoy? Was it being woken up every three hours from the most delicious sleep to drag my lead-like limbs from my soft bed and nurse my baby which they wanted me to relish? Or the nauseating exhaustion which resulted? Or the inability to go anywhere without half my house in my car? Or read a book? I was puzzled and annoyed. Did these people believe that I was meant to treasure the suffocating neediness of this little being, the incomprehensible cries or her refusal to go to sleep unless she was patted, rocked and walked for hours on end? Was something wrong with me or Ella that I could not simply take delight in her being?
Slowly, I did learn to enjoy her. There was still hard moments, but more and more I found myself melting at her big eyes, irresistible grin and cherishing every milestone she reached.
Yet still, the scar tissue of those first few weeks remained.
Nine months after she was born, I was seated next to a friend and her two week old infant at a Friday night dinner. Her baby was scrawny and long and fragile. In the middle of the dinner, my friend asked me to hold her so she could eat. I nodded agreeably, but no one saw as my stomach tightened as she lay in my hands. I did not see her as cute, innocent or beautiful. Memories of my new-born came back to me. The dependency, the all-consuming demands and the cluelessness at what she wanted. I was still traumatized. Even as Ella grew up and I started to understand more about her needs and genuinely appreciate her; she too became more engaging and alive. Yet new-borns still terrified me.
When a colleague at work bought her baby a two week old new-born to show off, everyone gushed and cooed around her. Except for me. I was the only one who carried on hiding at my computer, utterly disinterested.

And then it happened. Somewhere along the way, the trauma healed. Last week, one of my closest friends gave birth to her second child, a precious little boy. As he lay wrapped in his muslin blanket, cocooned blissfully in his bassinet, my eyes glazed over with wonderment. Instead of neediness, I saw innocence and miracle and potential. I wanted to pick him up, cuddle him and breathe in his newness.
Like with every ordeal, the painful times faded into a hazy background. As my friend sat in my kitchen with her baby strapped to her chest, I started remembering those moments when the only people in the world were Ella and I. When she would sleep contently snuggled into my chest, as if there was nothing else in the world she needed. Those moments when was settled and peaceful, and I was enough for her. I was too shaken to enjoy them in the moment, but looking back, I now know why I was told to enjoy her.  Twelve months later, I am not all she needs. She needs to peer under the bathroom door and take my toothbrush out my mouth and pull my earrings out my ears and grab my half eaten nectarine from my hand so she can have a taste. She needs to try out new things, ride her bike and bounce on the trampoline. 
I now realize that in that time of utter dependency, there is a simplicity which is temporary. Never again will a mother be enough for her baby as in those first few weeks. Never again will a mother be able to give her child almost everything she needs.  Never again will a child be happy to lay his head on his mother’s chest for hours on end, listening to her heartbeat as she protects him from the world. As Ella crawls at my feet, spitting little pieces of apple all over the carpet and pulling out all the books she can reach, I adore her liveliness. But those rare moments before bed when she relaxes her limbs into me and sucks her thumb, I realize why they said enjoy her. When they told me to enjoy her, they were telling me that I must enjoy those moments where I am all that she needs. Because it doesn’t last forever.

One year old: Motherhood rocks your world – emerging from the earthquake

As Ella’s first birthday approaches, the overall reaction is identical: “I can’t believe it’s a year already”, people gush excitedly. I smile feebly and change the subject.

Because I can definitely believe it’s a year. It has been the longest year of my life. In fact, I can’t believe that it has only been a year. Your first child rocks your world, they say. And rock it did. With the force of a seismic earthquake.

Nothing prepared me for the sheer physical exhaustion. That bone-piercing, nauseating and all-consuming tiredness. The use of sleep deprivation as a torture method resonated deeply. One of my earliest memories of those first few days was when we took Ella to the clinic for her new-born vaccinations. On the way home, I turned to my husband and with desperation asked if we could just leave her there for a few days so I could sleep a little bit.
But even more than the shock to my body, was the shock to my identity. No amount of preparation or reading ‘What to Expect When You’re Expecting’ would tell me that from being an independent career woman, I would suddenly shackled to an indecipherable, and demanding new-born. A worshiper of the rational, I read Baby Sense and The Baby Whisperer over and over. But rational is something new-borns are not. I would swaddle and push and rock and pat and swaddle again. A non-conformist from birth, Ella refused to sleep the 18 out of 24 hours as the books promised.
My emotional world was out of my control. Nothing prepared me for the terror I would feel at four months when Ella refused a bottle, and I was not able to nurse her. Her dry nappies would send me into a state of panic. I would sob and sob as she woke up through the night, desperately hungry. My intellectual pursuits, and even my word-finding ability, dwindled to nothing. Weekly Parsha chaburas disintegrated. Sunday morning sleep-ins and yoga classes were a thing of a bygone era. I was lost. I did not know who I was anymore.
And above all, there was the crippling guilt. I desperately wanted and needed to be a good mother. I needed to be perfect. I didn’t understand why I wasn’t in love with Ella from the second I saw her. “Are you loving it?”, people would ask in those first few weeks. I would nod and crumble internally. I thought that I needed to be ecstatic, euphoric and blissful every second.
My demands to be the perfect mother took a toll. It’s no wonder that I was desperate to escape. A trip to the store would leave me ridden with guilt. What kind of mother doesn’t want to be with their own child, I chastised myself. I used to dread coming home from work. Her eyes would judge me, and say, you are not doing enough, you are a bad mother.
My world shrank. I didn’t read a book in six months. Work, baby, bath, bottle washing, bedtime, night-wakings, repeat.
Yes, my world was rocked. I wanted to love this sweet baby, but I didn’t know how to let myself just love her. Mostly I was scared. I lived in fear of neglecting her, of not being there for her, and not being enough. I interpreted her neutral regular infant activities as admonishment of my useless mothering ability.  My fear paralysed me, and the box I was trapped in was dark.
My relationship with G-d disintegrated. The woman’s lack of obligation for formal prayer in Jewish law pacified my guilt. I could have made the time. But I had nothing to say to G-d anymore. I had no lofty thoughts, no musings about His world and my place in it. My mental real estate was invaded by squatters who left no room for deep pondering. It was occupied by nappy-types and sleep schedules and vaccinations and bottle washing. I didn’t trust myself as a mother, so how could I trust G-d for giving me this child?
On the outside I looked perfect. But I doubted myself. I compared myself to friends who melded seamlessly into motherhood. I judged myself for not being like them. I demanded instantaneous perfection from myself.  
Yes, my world was rocked. The foundations of my existence crumbled to the ground. Independence, rationality, the need for predictability, mental acuity were among the debris.
And amidst the ruins, slowly we emerged. With any stability removed, I confronted the darkest parts of myself. I came face to face with demons buried deep within. I learned that motherhood is a journey, and that compassion to myself along the way was required. I learned to be fully present with Ella, silencing my demands of how a good mother should be. I learned to rejoice in the small victories, and to take joy in Ella’s excitement in the world around her. I learned to silence the accusations, and to take in the obvious love Ella offered me over and over. Despite all my misgivings, she trusted me implicitly. And bit by bit, I learned to trust myself in the process.

With Ella’s birth, my centre of gravity was uprooted. In the months which followed, a new balance was found. But this one was different than before. This new self is more gentle, more flexible and more playful.  Yes, my definition of self radically altered. I saw myself originally as a thinker. A meditator. A philosopher. Practical needs were secondary to my need to make sense of the world. I gave to others, but in a limited way. I spent a lot of time reading and researching and studying and just being. This past year, I have become a giver. Every moment of my day is shadowed by my daughter’s needs. I have become more selfless than I ever knew possible. 
And in this shaky center of gravity, I redefine myself. I have learned that I don’t need to be perfect. I learn to forgive myself for the times when I am not the mother I intend to be. And I learn that we are growing together. As Ella learns to crawl and walk and talk, I too learn how to go about this world of motherhood. I have learned that despite all my flaws and fears and ambivalence, my daughter loves me fullheartedly. I have learned that it’s okay to want time apart. I am figuring how to make time for myself again, and seeing how that time re-energizes me as a mother.As we negotiate distance and closeness, and the more I accept myself, the more I enjoy her.
I have learned that prayer can be in the form of singing Modeh Ani with my baby as I dress her, and thanking Hashem for her limbs and faculties as she giggles excitedly while I tickle her. I have learned that my informal prayers are deeper than before as I beg Hashem to watch over my beautiful daughter, so innocent and pure and small.
Nothing would prepare me for the earthquake which rocked my world. And nothing could prepare me for the love I feel when I rock Ella to sleep in my arms, and she settles contentedly into my chest. Or for the burst of joy I would feel as her face crinkles up into a gigantic smile when she sees me for the first time in the morning. Being her mother has revealed a tenderness, a softness and a vulnerability which was very hidden.

Yes, my world was rocked. There were many days and moments when I doubted I would ever stand on solid ground again. There were countless times when I questioned if I was cut out for motherhood. Yet in the ruins of the earthquake and the loss of what I was, a more mature structure has been born. This building is wiser, more compassionate and more giving. She smiles as giggles with her baby on the floor, and dances with her on the way to the bath. 

It’s been a very long year. There has been a lot of growing, changing and adapting on both my and Ella’s side. There has been birth and death and re-birth. There have been more laughter, more tears and more smiles than ever before. But mostly, within all the hardships, there has been more blessing than I ever thought possible, and more love than I ever dreamed of.