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Confessions of a New Mom: The Grief and Joy of Birth

change grief motherhood our words Jul 03, 2023
Becoming a mother

Content/Trigger Warning: Mentions of traumatic labor.

By: Ilana Shapiro Yahdav 

Becoming a mother is one of the best things I have ever experienced in my whole life. Maybe even the best. It is also, literally the hardest, most challenging thing I have experienced in my whole life. I know I’m not alone in this feeling. I’ve had many, many conversations with other moms - at all stages of motherhood - who echo the same thing.

Like grief, the array of emotions of motherhood is not talked about as much as it should. I can understand why. We don’t want to sound ungrateful or like “bad parents” for not loving every second, and the presence of conflicting emotions in parenthood is clearly the elephant in the room. My hope is to really change that and open more discourse about the many emotions of motherhood - the good, the bad, and the ugly. Admittedly, I feel anxious and nervous as I write this and pour my heart out about my experience. But, I truly hope that it encourages and gives others permission to do the same.

As a grief specialist, I recognize all the grief in motherhood. (Remember: grief is the normal and natural reaction to the loss of any kind and the conflicting emotions around the beginning/end/change in any normal pattern of behavior – hello motherhood!!) As a new mom, despite understanding the grieving experience, it has still been a struggle to process the many seemingly conflicting emotions. I hope that all of us moms can support one another with openness and love. I’m going to share my heart about my experience giving birth to my firstborn.

It was love at first listen. 

The very first time that I heard my daughter’s heartbeat, I was smitten. I didn’t know she was a ‘her’ yet, but I knew I was in love. I knew I couldn’t wait to meet her. I was finally going to get to be a mom, something I had always wanted to be. I didn’t even mind that I was starting my family at the ripe-old geriatric age of 37 (doctor’s words, not mine). My girl was healthy and that was all that mattered to me. 

It was not love at first sight.

I did love her immensely and my heart did explode when I met her. Like in any new relationship, it took time to blossom fully and hasn’t stopped since. But, when I first laid eyes on her in the NICU, I did not feel that “momma gravitational pull” I always imagined. I assumed when my baby was born, I would be madly in love and would just know she was mine, that my heart would recognize her, and I would see her - even in a room full of babies - and know she was mine. This was not the case. When they wheeled me there, I had NO idea which little shriveled prune was mine.  Under all the wires and medical equipment, they all kind of looked the same, like tiny little aliens. I remember feeling this awful pang in my heart that I was already failing as a mom. Total panic ensued.

How could I not recognize my own baby?

Is it because she came early and I only carried her for 8 months? If there was another month, would I have recognized her? Was I already failing my baby? (To be fair, they literally let me hold her for a second before they whisked her away and rushed her to the NICU. How was I supposed to recognize her when I barely got to meet her?) Enter all berating thoughts and negative self-judgment. Didn’t take long for those feelings to start. One of the group leaders in my mommy groups always said that “guilt is born with the placenta.” She couldn’t have been more correct. 

When I first got to hold my baby girl in the NICU, I was terrified. She was so tiny. So quiet. Covered with all kinds of wires and blinking things that made awful noises if you moved in a certain way. I did love that we had matching bracelets that sang each time we got near each other. So, even if I didn’t recognize her, at least my bracelet did.

Did my body fail her? 

Why did my water break? Why was she born a month early? Why did she go into fetal distress and have to be vacuumed out? What didn’t she cry? You could hear a pin drop. Why wasn’t anyone telling me that she was alive and healthy? That first hour, which I had imagined would be a joyful one of us snuggling and getting acquainted, was terrifying. I had no idea what was going on. I was holding onto my husband tightly while it took my doc the better part of the hour to sew me up from all the trauma. When the pediatric ER doc walked in, eyes looking somber and asking me how I was, my heart dropped. She was okay, just needed help breathing and a few other things that they couldn’t quite explain. I could see her once they were done putting me back together. Again, that awful pang in my heart that I was failing as a mom and I had not even left the hospital yet. 

My heart re-shattered (who knew that it was possible for your heart to break so many times, in so many ways, in such a short period of time?!) when I found out that the first breast milk my baby had, was not mine.

I don’t know why it stung so harshly and deeply. As I write this almost 3 years later, while the sting has lessened, it’s still there. I’m so grateful to the generous donor who was kind enough to donate her milk AND it was really hard knowing that my body, which had nourished her this long, was not going to continue to do so right away. Another momma fail. I had no milk to give my baby. 

Even as a grief specialist, I really struggled with sitting with those juxtaposing emotions.

The hormones, the exhaustion, and the shock of a preemie baby with a 5-day stay in the NICU were a lot to navigate. In retrospect, I don’t really know what I had imagined labor would be like, but it was definitely not that.  

I’m so grateful - and I’m so hurt- that my baby got donor breast milk while in the NICU.

I’ve had to sit with these very conflicting emotions. I’ve had to grieve what I thought birth and meeting my baby would be like. It hurts and I’m so happy that my baby was fed liquid gold and it doesn’t really matter, at the end of the day, where it came from. Setting the ego aside, she was fed. End of the story.  It hurts and that’s okay and normal, too. Hello being a parent. 

I know not everyone’s story looks like mine. We all have our own unique birthing experiences sprinkled with aspects that anyone giving birth can relate to. All feelings are valid. All experiences are valid. The non-linear journey of motherhood is full of a wide array of emotions. I know I’m just at the beginning. 

A powerful lesson that is constantly reinforced for me is how so many seemingly conflicting emotions can and do exist in the same space.

The feeling of utter joy and total sadness can exist in the same moment and there’s nothing abnormal about it. It’s totally okay to feel all that we feel and not judge ourselves. As a mom, I’m constantly working to remember this and extend the same loving compassion to myself as I would to my loved ones. It’s a constant work in progress, and that too, is okay.