Why was new parenthood so hard on me and my husband? Because we just didn’t know what we were doing.
I missed my pre-baby life and I was racked with guilt because of it.
It's taken over a year, but I'm finally able to put some definition around why that season felt so. . .clunky. And it comes down to this: We didn't feel like a family yet.
Before Ella, we were a couple. A group of friends may or may not have given us the nickname “Niclicia" (Nick + Alicia). Running errands felt more like a fun outing with my husband. We loved brunch on the weekends and spontaneous weekend trips to nearby destinations. And we loved dreaming together about the future—where we would live, what we would do … and of course, how many kids we would have.
In the time immediately following Ella's birth, we no longer felt like a couple—it was more like two adults playing some sort of tag-team game of caring for our precious baby and helping the other one stay sane and/or get some sleep.
It felt like a 24/7 job with no real breaks.
In my rawest moments, I felt threatened that our marriage would dissolve into an endless list of things to do, chores to complete, bills to pay. Bye-bye, spontaneous life of adventure and fun. See you later, weekend brunch. Bye-bye, best friend and love of my life. See you when we retire.
My breaking point came on a Saturday morning when I said goodbye to my husband as he left for the grocery store. That was something we did together before a baby. Now it was one more thing among many things that completely changed. It became a chore. At the time, we felt like couldn't bring our newborn outside of our home because she was so very tiny.
But looking back, I think the reason we struggled was much bigger and simpler than that: We just didn't know what we were doing.
And we were scared to death we would mess it up.
Any veteran parent will recognize that we were in the throes of the 4th-trimester. Baby blues, mama's recovery, and zero sleep for everyone makes your heart raw and vulnerable at depths you didn't know were possible. Your emotions run wild and you find yourself ugly crying for things as strange as your mother-in-law showing your son the basement for the first time and you didn't get to (true story of a friend of mine).
My body had adapted and grown and shaped itself to forming my daughter while my husband cheered me on. Now, it was both of us adapting and growing and being shaped into parents. It's a shaping of the soul and one that stretches you to the brink of yourself, only for you to find more strength than you ever thought you had. It's a sweet and difficult transformation.
And make no mistake—it is a transformation. Before I became a mother, I thought it just happened like a light switch. Poof, hello mama! Poof, hello daddy! In retrospect, it seems laughable—how can the deep and holy calling of parenthood happen with the flick of a switch? How can a marriage of two souls shift to become the foundation for a new life in an instant? Like so many beautiful things in life, these things can only happen over time. With lots of mistakes and learning, tears and laughter.
And the component I was missing the most when this crazy journey began: grace and patience with my husband and myself.
Fast forward to this past fall: my newborn baby girl has evolved into a little toddler, with a handful of teeth and an ever-emerging personality. My husband and I are slowly bringing back date nights. We are watching the Mommy and Daddy emerge within the other, which brings a new depth of love and appreciation to our marriage.
And we've learned that there's no fight worth having when the baby wakes up at 1am screaming—each of us (baby and parents) are monsters in the wee hours in the morning.
My husband and I just power through with silent determination, knowing we'll all wake up human in the morning.
The other Saturday, we woke up early (because toddlers don't know how to sleep in) and made coffee. We let Ella stay in her pajamas and play on the floor while we piled onto the couch, chatting about the week that was. Then we stuck her in the stroller and walked 2 blocks to the grocery store. Ella coo'd and watched us as we picked out produce, bread, and eggs. We packed up our groceries in the stroller and headed back home. She insisted on helping carry the load, so she held onto one of her new food packets.
It was an autumn morning and there was a breeze that kicked up the golden leaves that blanketed the sidewalk. We were going in and out of chatting with each other while baby-talking to Ella when my husband paused, looked at me with a smile, and said, “Can you believe it? This is our family. This is our life."
This is the New Us.
Ella belongs to us, we belong to her. We are a family.
And I write this knowing that this family thing is an ever-evolving process. We will evolve again with each milestone, and we will remold ourselves when another little one comes along.
The greatest victory in it all was learning that there is no finish line, no way to check all the boxes that I've “made it" in motherhood. My mom always says “As soon as you figure something out about your baby, they change on you." That's still true—but we've gotten better at adapting. Or at least, not being as surprised when the changes come along.
It isn't a light switch, it's a potter's wheel.
One that will shape what we know as Us again and again and again.
Photo credit: Sri & Jana Photograpy in Chicago.