While my husband slept and the baby in my tummy began to knock, I stood in the small back room. It was painted the perfect shade of yellow, with pastel stars hanging from the ceiling. I was 40 years old, and in a day or so, my first baby would be born. I didn’t really know what I was getting into, or how I would be a mother.
But at least I knew I had the basics in place, thanks to my sister, Valerie. Deep into that night, with the BBC on the radio, I went through her checklist and got the nursery ready -- the snap-on crib sheet that would make changes fast, the goofy-looking animal mobile that would make a quick shower possible, the CD player with the lullaby disc that would help my newborn fall asleep.
I didn’t know how much I would need her. Because once my son Sam arrived, all the advice from the books and the childbirth class blurred. The voices around me, around any new mother, were many and contradictory. You need to work. You need to be home. You need to let the baby scream. You need to let him sleep in your bed. It’s not that hard. Why haven’t you lost weight? Why are you still nursing?
Maybe other women were used to it. Some had been preparing their whole lives for it. But I needed help. And to this day, I thank God that I had my sister. My guru.
She had what I didn’t: the confidence that comes from experience. As a teenager, she’d built a babysitting empire, and now, after setting aside a career as a Chanel executive, she had her own two sons. She’d analyzed every product on the market. She’d researched and lived so many of the issues I was now facing. Hers was the voice I could believe in.
Valerie shared strategies like keeping my fingernails short, so I wouldn’t scratch the baby, and rotating toys in and out of the closet, so the old toys would become “new” again. She counseled me to shift my mindset. I couldn’t feel badly that I wasn’t writing and working as much as I’d hoped. I couldn’t worry about what other people thought, or managed to do, because their children slept better. It was okay to let Sam watch the “Baby Galileo” DVD for a little bit if I was swamped.
But it was hard, and I wasn’t getting much sleep. One day, exhausted, I confided my worst fear to Valerie. Maybe, for me, having a baby had been a mistake. Maybe I just wasn’t right for it.
“Oh, D,” she said, hugging me. Her voice was like a clear bell on a cold night. “Don’t be so hard on yourself. You can do it.”
And over time, with her belief in me, and some experience, including a second son, I started to feel more comfortable in the world of kids. I began to rethink my long-held concept about motherhood: that it was a magical thing, and certain people were just wired for it. Maybe it was like learning to play the piano, or to write stories. Maybe I could get better.
On a walk one day, after easily manhandling 90 pounds of boys and a double stroller uphill, I stopped at a light. I found myself next to a pregnant woman, who was going to have her first child any day. I recognized the look on her face. She was a little lost.
My inner guru came out. In five minutes I gave her the lowdown: order diapers online, find a neighborhood or mothers’ email group to tap for advice, find some help, and take care of yourself. “And no matter how hard it gets, just remember, have faith in yourself,” I told her. Then, thinking about all I’d learned, I smiled at her. “Because you can do it.”
Diana K. Sugg is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who has covered medicine, crime and other issues for newspapers around the country. She is now a freelance writer in Baltimore raising two young sons.