My 8-week-old son is nestled in the crook of my arm, and I look at his face and swear that his cheeks have grown since yesterday. I grab my phone and open the camera. With the phone poised above his face, I take three pictures and move them to album I have reserved for close-ups of his face, created for the sole purpose of seeing his cheeks grow.
I deliberate between the photos, swearing I can find differences between them, and finally settle on one. A few swipes and taps of my thumb later, and I've sent it out in a text thread to some friends and my son's grandparents for their daily dose of cuteness. All of this happens with one hand and in the course of a few minutes.
It's all automatic and routine, like straightening my hair (which I swear I will get to one of these days). It's a motion that I have done so often these past few weeks that I feel like my body could do it in its sleep (or at least during those many middle-of-the-night feedings).
You might think I am a brand-new mom, the way I obsessively snap pictures of my baby. After all, it's common knowledge that the number of baby pictures dwindles as more children come along. Being a youngest child myself, I know this from experience.
Yet the experience with my own children has been the opposite. This second child of mine is filling up my phone memory with his gassy smiles and pouty lips. And while pictures speak a thousand words, the lack of baby pictures of my first child speak louder.
When my oldest son would fall asleep in my arms, I wouldn't grab my phone for a picture. Instead, I would start Googling. How long should newborns sleep? Should you wake a sleeping baby? Can you spoil an infant? From the moment he shut his eyes, I would worry about what I was doing wrong.
Convinced that this 6-week-old mastermind was manipulating me to hold him for longer periods of time, I would put him down in his bassinet, only to become frustrated once he began to cry.
I slept with his baby monitor cranked to its highest volume perched on the nightstand next to my bed. At every baby gurgle or mattress creak I would sit up and grab it, cupping the monitor in my hands and watch the black and white image of my son shifting in his sleep. When his restlessness lasted more than a few minutes, I would steal into his room and scoop him out of his crib, convinced that if I didn't rock him, he would wake up feeling fearful and alone.
During night feedings I would scroll through Facebook and take in the pictures my friends posted of their own newborns with tired, jealous eyes. I wanted to know their secret—how could they just snap a photo of their child and feel happy? Weren't they worried about when the baby would start crying next, or how the baby was sleeping, or if he was eating enough?
My son was great at breastfeeding, but I still went to weekly support groups so I could weigh how many ounces he ate.
I kept track of his food consumption with diligence, charting the number of minutes he nursed on each side and his weight on an Excel spreadsheet. This wasn't to reassure me that I was doing okay at this whole "mom" thing. No, I was so convinced I would do something wrong and ruin him that I figured if I had data I could at least pinpoint when my great failure occurred.
Sometimes, when the worry felt suffocating I would dare to type "Postpartum Depression" into the Google search bar. But I never felt completely sad with my first, and I never thought about harming myself or my family. And because those questions always came up, I was convinced that wasn't what I was going through.
What if I wasn't "going through" anything? What if this was just who I was as a mother, and I would feel this anxiety bubbling below my surface for the rest of my life?
That thought was terrifying.
Two and a half years later, I was nursing my second son and thumbing through my Newsfeed when I came across an article about "Postpartum Anxiety." I had never heard this term, and I devoured the article. It didn't offer a solution, but it offered solidarity. It gave a name to what I remembered going through, and let me know that I wasn't the only one who's first months of motherhood were stolen by overwhelming feelings of self-doubt.
It provided me with an invaluable gift: validation.
It took around seven months before I felt comfortable in my role as a mother. I know this because I remember giving my son a bath and watching as he dipped his fists into the water before holding them up in the air, mesmerized by the water dripping off his knuckles. It was a small moment, yet I remember it with clarity because I looked at him and felt calm.
I asked my husband to watch him and I ran to grab my phone. I didn't Google bath activities or make sure he was on track with his milestones. Instead, I took a succession of photos of him splashing and experimenting with the water. Those photos are hanging in the bathroom, a mural of bliss.
I wish I could pinpoint what brought on this new outlook.
I had seen a therapist and had gotten on medication, so it'd be easy to say that that's what did the trick. But parenting is not easy, and nothing happens at once. While I remember my son taking his first steps, I can't remember every pull-up onto furniture or army crawl or roll from back to tummy.
We might remember the big outcomes, but parenting is made up of tiny moments—the moment you skip your first breastfeeding support group because you feel confident your baby is eating enough, the moment you turn the volume down on the monitor because you trust yourself to hear your baby's cries, the moment you let your baby nap in your arms without checking the clock. These moments come and go so quickly, we don't realize their significance at the time.
Sometimes it isn't until we stop to scroll through our gallery of pictures that we realize the progress we've made and just how far we have come.