To Really Know Love

When I was sixteen, my older sister gave birth to her first child, and I couldn’t have been happier. I was so thrilled to have a baby in the family, I ran around school announcing her presence to anyone who would listen. My niece was born two months premature and stayed in the NICU for the first two months of her life, but she was the most beautiful child I’d ever seen. She weighed less than four pounds, but I never once doubted that she would grow strong and healthy, and she did.

When my sister went back to work, my niece stayed at our house during the day so my mother could watch her. Every day, I couldn’t wait to come home from school so I could hold my niece, take her for walks in the stroller, feed her with my sister’s bottled breastmilk, even burp her and watch the projectile vomit shoot over my shoulder and onto the floor behind me. It didn’t gross me out. It just made me laugh. I relished every moment. There were even a few times she spent the night at our house and slept in a playpen in my room. I woke up with her in the middle of the night when she cried. I gladly fed her and held her until she fell back asleep.

I told my mother I never knew I could love anyone so much. “Just wait until you have your own child,” she said. “Then you’ll really know love.”

Back then, I doubted I’d ever have a child of my own, since the idea of pregnancy totally freaked me out. But my mother’s words stuck with me for years. So when I became pregnant, I looked forward to experiencing an even more intense bliss than I’d had when my niece was born.

But this time, it was different. I did feel an overwhelming rush of joy and amazement when I first saw my son, but soon that feeling was replaced by fear and anxiety. 

In the first few weeks of taking care of my newborn, I consistently felt nervous, scared and guilty. Every cry concerned me. Every feeding made me worry that he wasn’t eating enough, or he was eating too much. Every moment not actively caring for him was spent reading books and online articles about feeding, pumping, infant sleep positions and newborn bathing. I questioned every action. I had no time for that deep joyful love. There were too many things to worry about.

I thought I must be a terrible mother. Why couldn’t I love my own son the way I loved my niece? There were days I didn’t look forward to seeing him. I looked forward to the moments he was asleep and dreaded the sound of him waking up. I knew my son was beautiful and perfect and I was so scared of ruining that.

So maybe that’s the difference between an aunt and a mom. Or maybe that’s just the difference between a teenager and an adult.

When my niece was in NICU, I wasn’t the one spending my nights in the hospital worrying if she was going to make it. I wasn’t the one struggling with guilt over returning to work while my preemie was still hooked up to a heart monitor. I wasn’t the one pumping and bottling or trying to figure out formula supplementation.

No, I was the teenager who carried my three-month-old niece around the house while I roller skated, with no fear of falling or dropping her. I was the over-confident kid who heated up bottles in the microwave even though there was the potential for scalding hot spots. Sometimes I let my niece sleep in bed with me even though that presented the danger of suffocation.

In other words, I made lots of mistakes with my niece, but feelings of fear or guilt never occurred to me. I simply enjoyed her.

Now that my son is almost two months old, and I’m about to return to work, I’ve had a talk with my present and former selves. I can’t be as carefree as I was at sixteen, but I am going to stop second guessing every moment.

As my baby becomes a little bit more of a person, and a little less a ball of need, I find myself falling more and more in love with him. I’m getting better at taking care of him and better at taking care of myself. Most of all, I’m getting better at taking a break from anxiety and allowing myself to just enjoy.

So I’m sure when I stick him in daycare with a bunch of strangers and return to my full time job, I won’t give it a second thought. …

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