Letting in the Light
A Reflection on New Motherhood
It’s two minutes to four in the morning, and I’m sitting up in bed listening to the gentle hum of the white noise machine. My partner doesn’t like the sound it makes, but I think it’s soothing. One of the only things that feels soothing these days. My son is slumped in my arms, snoring lightly. He’s three weeks old, and there is a global pandemic happening and not for the first time I start to cry while rocking him.
I haven’t turned on any lights. Choosing instead to stay in the darkness. Of course, in the city nothing is ever truly dark, and when I walk my son back and forth from kitchen to living room, the wood floors squeaking beneath my feet, I can see exactly where I am going. Even now, in the darkness of our bedroom, blinds closed, the light gets in. I can see enough of my son’s face to know that his eyes are closed, that he’s lost his latch on my breast. His lips are parted in a soft, satisfied triangle. As I ease out of bed to lay him back in his bassinet, I pray that he won’t wake up, that he’ll sleep for another hour, at least, before he wants to do this all over again. I never imagined so much of motherhood would be bartering with god after laying my child down. Asking for just an hour—forty-five minutes at the least. Anything that won’t make me feel bleary eyed and monstrous in the morning. But it seems there are a lot of things about new motherhood I never imagined.
I don’t know how to be a mother. I wasn’t ever expecting to be one, if I’m honest. It’s not that I don’t like children or babies. I just never imagined myself with one. Most days I have to remind myself that my son is mine, that I birthed him. In a haze of drugs and pain and uncertainty I brought him into the world. Most of the time it feels like that part—my water breaking, gushing all over the bathroom floor, the midnight drive to the hospital, the hours of laboring, the first few minutes of my baby laying on my chest—is just a dream, something that I almost remember. Even the days we spent in the hospital afterward have a certain haze around them. Nurses and doctors slipping into our room at all hours of the day and night, like ghosts. Nothing felt particularly real until my partner Ben and I brought our baby home. And by that time the world had completely changed.
My son was born on March 27th, 2020, just two days after the stay at home order was issued for our state of Wisconsin. I’d followed the Coronavirus outbreak the way I followed a lot of other outbreaks over the years. I half listened, felt bad for those in countries that had to isolate, and assumed it wouldn’t affect me any further. I never once imagined that the night I headed for the emergency room, a towel between my legs to keep me from leaking fluid all over the place, I’d be afraid to touch the stair rail in my apartment building or want to use hand sanitizer the moment I locked the front door. The big white tent outside the ER wasn’t part of my birth plan. Nor was being greeted by masked nurses behind protective shields. And I certainly never imagined that no one in my family would be allowed to visit me in the hospital. In fact, I never once thought that it would be over a month before any of our parents met our baby.
But that became the reality. We headed into parenthood without the support system we had counted on. We came home from the hospital to an empty apartment. No parents or siblings to greet us, no neighbors or friends bringing meals. No hands on help or advice from our moms on how to care for a newborn. We were completely on our own.
I am a natural introvert. I covet my alone time. I hate it when people show up at my house unannounced, and I don’t enjoy being a house guest. I crave my own space. But the loneliness of coming home to our apartment was something entirely different. Everything was as we had left it when we rushed out the door for the hospital. Dirty dishes still in the sink, the bed unmade. It all felt oddly normal, like we were coming home from a day at work instead of bringing out son home for the first time. And that normalcy is what made it sad. There was no one to celebrate with us. No one to show him off to. Just us. Alone. And so, we settled in to learn how to be parents during a quarantine.
The thing about having a newborn is that it sort of feels like you’re already under mandatory quarantine, pandemic or not. You can’t really go anywhere for fear of germs getting too close to such a fragile immune system. You aren’t working either, so you spend a lot of time on your couch watching Netflix in your pajamas. If you’re lucky you get to nap. We spent the entire month of April in the fog of new parenthood. We shut off the news and paid little attention to most of the outside world. Instead we soaked up our new baby and introduced him to family and friends via FaceTime and Zoom.
But at night, once those phone calls were over and in between precious moments of sleep I started to worry. I’d check the news, despite my better judgement. Sometimes just reading the title of an article would be enough to send me into a panic. Both of our parents live in a different state. Just over the border in Illinois, about a two hour drive from us. We often travel down to Illinois for family gatherings and holidays. In fact, there have been many times where I’ve told Ben how tired I am of always going to Illinois. “Why doesn’t anyone ever come to see us?” I complain. But alone in the darkness of our bedroom, my son snoring softly in my lap, those headlines glaring at me from my phone screen, I cry for Illinois. I cry for our tiny hometown. For our parents, who, at three weeks, still haven’t met this babe.
I was surprised by this pregnancy. I’ve had reproductive problems for years, and we weren’t trying. In fact, an hour before I took a pregnancy test, I was drinking canned wine at a summer festival. The night before we’d gone out for cocktails. Change sneaks up on you. It creeps (or explodes) into your life when you least expect it. And yet, it shouldn’t. Because so often change is the only constant thing in life.
That’s what I keep thinking about in this pandemic: the change. Life is never going back to how it was before. Everything I planned for with this baby has gone out the door. I have to figure out now how to shift. How to become a mother—a whole new person—in this new world.
But here is what I do know: the world is not ending. The very fact that babies are still being born feels like proof of that to me. It is hope personified. And hope is what we need now. Hope is the thing that tames fear. The thing that drives us forward and keeps us going, even when the night feels darkest. Hope is the thing that lets in the light, even the smallest sliver.
Despite being afraid, despite not knowing how to mother, despite being far from my family, I have hope these days. I have hope that my son will grow up in a world that—although different from the one we once knew—will be loving and kind and good. It is hope that gets me through those four AM panics. Hope that the sun will keep rising, that babies will be born and that this too will change.
Julia Nusbaum is the founder and editor of HerStry lit magazine and the Operations Director for the Wisconsin Writers Association. She has been published in Wind Rose Magazine, Our Bible App, Pussy Magic Magazine, Hello Giggles and the Feminine Collective, among others. She lives and works and is raising a family in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.